“The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.”
—From Simone Weil’s “Waiting for God” (1951)
As the Buddha let us know, the story of humanity is one long grappling with desire—mostly unfulfilled. This Great Longing projects itself in a million different forms, all of them stand-ins, in fundamental ways, for the eternal life human beings desire as conscious, self-aware creatures whose most painful and challenging awareness is of their own finitude.
Our animal friends seek only their next meal, their next night’s burrowing into a protected space for their sleep. We see beyond that and exclaim, “Hey, what’s the deal here?”
I can remember lying in bed one night as a young boy, maybe 10 years old, dumbstruck at the realization that my parents would one day die. And if my parents, then…my brother and sisters and…me, too?
Though I was already beginning to steer clear of the repressive and exclusivist Catholicism that represented my first exposure to religion, I prayed that night with utter, desperate fervor to a sky God whom I entreated to do me a great favor: Please, please make my family the exception, and allow us to live forever.
My pleadings seemed to work for quite a few years, but by then I had come to know what the deal really was: There would be no getting out of this predicament for anyone I knew—myself, most outrageously, included.
Yet still I long—if not anymore for eternal life, then for its many and varied substitutes: the ultimate great book that finally sets everything in order (the groaning shelves of my home library particularly reflect that longing), the perfect multi-hued sunrise or sunset in that perfect synapse between dark and light, the perfect poem or lyric or sequence of musical notes that can launch me (however temporarily) to the stars.
Even more acutely: the perfect understanding of and from another, which equates, of course, to perfect love.
Our intimates are, in this way, the adult elaboration of the care and nurturance we know from the first moments with our mother, who is the earthly (and time-bound) provider of the love and life we always seek, and which humans have historically ascribed to the notion of God.
To be human and alive is to long to connect with that idea of the eternal. This longing has its everyday twin in our looking forward to things: the morning’s first cup of coffee, the visit with a friend, the coming weekend, the vacation, the retirement.
These bits of soul-stirring sanctity (or at least the idea and hope of them) beckon us forward, giving us a reason to get up in the morning and greet the day. We need them in a kind of sustained abundance; we can’t live with any sense of purpose or meaning absent something to look forward to, something calling us from the just-beyond. Depression and even suicide are the tragic results of that lack.
So is the cycle of longing/temporary fulfillment/renewed longing our never-ending plight that expires only with our last breath? Or as the Buddha suggests, is it only the final conquering of our baseline desire for eternal life that gets us off this wheel of ultimately unquenchable need?
Simone Weil and her Christian mystic brethren see this longing for eternal life as the simple cry of the soul seeking union with the majesty of a loving God, who is the only sufficient source for our need. The brilliant anthropologist Ernest Becker notes, with a kind of rueful admiration, the different perspective offered by Asian religions:
“All historical religions addressed themselves to this same problem of how to bear the end of life. Religions like Hinduism and Buddhism performed the ingenious trick of pretending not to want to be reborn, which is a sort of negative magic: claiming not to want what you really want most.”
One of the salient aspects of religious community is that we seek perspective on these matters from our ministers and each other, as a kind of bulwark against the existential loneliness such questions can entail. We are not so different, in many ways, from the animal herd that huddles closely for protection, warmth, and the solace that they bring.
But the solace is in our case spiritual, framing against the gauntlet thrown down by contingent existence our answer: that it is in love for and service to each other, in the “God” seen and expressed through the eyes and hearts of our fellow humans, that this longing for ultimate relationship is finally fulfilled. Only in relationship is the fear and reality of existential isolation overcome.
Aside from occasional solo wanderings on retreat, even monks pledged to silent contemplation live in community. None of us are meant to live in one-person caves, or even with our most intimate life partners if we are not also part of a larger social fabric.
Community is what gives texture and completion to individual relationships. In fellowship with multiple Others, we come to know our deepest Selves, whose existence is precious and always has been, and whose full expression is the answer to whatever longings trouble our souls in the tossings of night.
Some vintage Neil Young here, even then searching and mining and “gettin’ old…”
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Deep appreciation to the photographers!
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Beachwalking photo near top of page by Thomas Hawk, San Francisco, California, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/
Boat and footsteps photo by Ian Sutton, Oberon, Australia, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/22616984@N07/
Dock photo by Andrew Hidas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/