Reflections on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

Sometimes I think life effectively ends the morning you wake up and you’re no longer able to look forward to something. It can be just about anything: your cup of coffee, the gaze to your garden in the first rays of the sun, a favorite show or sports event on television, the opening of a newspaper or log-on to email, the dive back into the book you fell asleep with the night before, the walk with the dog or meetup with a friend or family member at lunch.

Anticipation is everything, it seems—the pull forward to something that awaits, the zest and expectancy with which we tell ourselves in the quiet of our heart: “Oh, this will be good!” (To which we often append the colloquial expression we kindly share with those whose presence we anticipate: “Can’t wait!”)

Yet anticipation carries within it the seed of its own problem: Will the reality measure up? Will the actual conversation or lunch or ballgame or lovemaking (or the writing of the blog post!) match the zest with which we looked forward to it?

If not, what’s with the gap, the shortfall, between the expectation and the event? Are we doomed always to want more than life can actually deliver? (The Buddhists would say, “Darn tootin’, Bud—welcome to the Second Noble Truth!”)

The Irish rock band U2 gave expression to this troublesome human tendency to long for and always fall short of the ultimate in their song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

 

 

Like all great songs and poems, this spiritual anthem can be interpreted on multiple levels. Its great theme is the intense, ultimately inchoate longing for all-encompassing love and communion. The song is intensely romantic but not really on a human scale. (Though one can imagine the refrain, “…Only to be with you” being whispered into the ears of lovers around the world at any given moment.)

It instead gives itself away in the first stanza and carries on from there with rich metaphorical allusions to a quest for union with the divine.

I have climbed highest mountain
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you

I have run
I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Lead singer Bono is perhaps the hippest devout Christian going, though Pope Francis seems to be giving him a run for his money these days. He approaches the song calling on his upper register to accentuate the intensity of his desire:

I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in her fingertips
It burned like fire
This burning desire

O.K., so there is sex to burn in those lines, an ultimate coupling of the corporal kind, but the next stanza reveals that no matter how honeyed the beloved’s lips nor healing her fingertips, fulfillment yet awaits in an even grander object of desire:

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

What is that object of desire? Here we get Bono and his co-writers at their most devotional:

I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
Well yes I’m still running

You broke the bonds and you
Loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believed it

 

So there we have it. Abjuring all possibility of anything or anyone human serving his fulfillment, Bono lifts up Jesus’s sacrifice and his own incapability of ever loosening the “chains” of his fallenness and self-oppression. Only union with the divine Christ will do.

But wait. Knowing this, driven to his knees in both shame and adoration, humility and hope, finally understanding that no human can stand in for rapturous union with the Ultimate Beloved, the singer remains, curiously enough, frustrated still, his longing unrequited. The song ends with this plaintive refrain:

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…

Oh mercy me: Is this our plight?

Wandering in a desert for 40 times 40 times 40 and so on days, ad infinitum, our happiness forever transitory, our true fulfillment a chimera, even when we have embraced the promise and assurance offered up by a supposed savior?

These lyrics suggest that the quest for completeness in this life is doomed, that even in the bosom of Jesus, which is every Christian’s desired final resting place, the singer can’t quite find peace. Is this because he hasn’t yet given up his false self, hasn’t yet measured up in full self-emptying, or because that ultimate peace is simply never available in this fractured life, but awaits only the next?

 

 

Short of death and resurrection in some afterlife, will we always and forevermore be chasing another rainbow, frustrated as it recedes while we scramble to find our camera that can freeze and make it our own, internalized and glowing within us till the end of our days?

In my advancing age, I have come to question the compartments to which we typically assign various aspects of our existence. When I hear someone say, “I’m focusing on my spiritual life these days,” I want to ask, “What other kind of life is there?”

 

Yet where is “spirit?” We know it exists in the imagination; humans have been conjuring “spirits” of one sort or other since time immemorial. In the richness of such lore, we seek solace and comfort for the wounds we endure, our naked need for some sense of meaning at the altar we construct for eternity.

But failing, along with the songwriters of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” to conjoin with the divine, we have another option: the continued self-emptying that comes with intense love and devotion, the exploration of the divinity in beloved others, the commitment to pay acute attention to the everyday miracles unfolding in front of us, along with those taking an ever more secure grip on our hearts.

Is it true that we can never find what we’re looking for in this life?

Perhaps it depends more on where and how we look than what we’re looking for. “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour” wrote William Blake.

I think that man knew something we do well to remember.

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One of my favorite musical practices is to download multiple renditions of the same song so I can appreciate the power of singers and arrangers in interpreting similar material in refreshing ways that make something forever new of the song’s art. To that end, I offer up here three versions of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”: the original by U2, a collaboration with U2 and Bruce Springsteen, and yet another with U2 and the Harlem Gospel Choir. Personally, I am refusing to pick a favorite.

 

2 comments to Reflections on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

  • Jay Helman  says:

    OK Andrew, so you snared me into thinking about this one throughout the day and night and now I’m gonna take a shot at bringing those thoughts into written form. It seems to me that there is a developmental element to “what I am looking for.” If memory serves me well, Carl Jung noted that the spiritual journey moves through phases that include preoccupation with daily, earthly needs such as work, raising a family,etc. Aspirations, goals, and attention to “what I am looking for” are necessarily devoted to external drivers along with, hopefully, an abiding attention given to spiritual context and practice. As life goes on and the “business” of life goals have been lived and attained, attention can then be more intentionally focused on matters of the spirit, and thus the “still looking” takes a turn inward. To see the world in a grain of sand or Heaven in a wildflower requires that one stop long enough to see and to reflect. The demands of a profession, parenthood and the like often crowd out opportunities for those reflective moments and for seeing in a much larger context. “I still can’t find what I’m looking for” suggests that the punctuation following the latest discovery and insight is a comma rather than a period. (As the UCC proclaims, “God is still speaking,. . .”). Are we doomed to always want more than life can actually deliver? you ask early in the post. I tend to agree with your Buddhist “darn tootin” assessment; though I am not sure if it is “doomed” so much as “we must accept.”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jay, I think there’s certainly something to the life phases point you make, and that even the time, energy and perspective required to finally zero in on getting what you’re looking for can be partly a function of older age and the freedoms it can bring. That said, some of the most intense spiritual seeking occurs in youth, when a combination of idealism, wonder, confusion and the biological imperatives of mating and nesting make for a potent stew! (Remember?) 🙂

      It’s also notable, I think, that Bono and his co-writers were quite young when they wrote this, and that they expressed this incompleteness even as committed, devout Christians. Whether they intended that to suggest they never expect to find it “all” in this fallen world or whether they simply hadn’t arrived at that point yet, I don’t know. Maybe they’ll comment on it sometime, though many artists prefer not to, leaving the further meaning-making and extrapolation to their audience to do with as they will.

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