Our Inconsolable Secret

In response to my last post about Balloon Boy and our human obsession with being recognized and affirmed, Christianne—a faithful and wise reader of my blog—offered a comment that was a helpful corrective to my admittedly harsh rhetoric about how things like Facebook and Twitter are “silly” attempts to “get the attention of other people who are just as weak and attention-seeking as we are.” Here is part of what Christianne wrote:

But where you look at the behaviors we exhibit en masse on Facebook and Twitter and land at exasperation, I look at those behaviors and land at compassion. Yes, I agree with you that we are broken and need something more than our broken selves to heal one another. But the answer isn’t pasting knowledge on ourselves about Christ’s sufficiency, even though Christ’s sufficiency is real and true. People need to experience real love to counter the false loves they’re finding elsewhere to fill a vacuum. And the love of Christ does not become real by being told it’s sufficient and to just believe. It becomes real, in some ways, through Christ-followers who demonstrate the kind of love and compassion Christ would if he were here, walking among us, today.

I think this is very true. It’s easy to say that Christ’s affirmation and love is sufficient, but in reality it’s a bit of an abstraction and it’s hard to experience in practice. Christianne is right. God’s love can and does manifest itself in humanity—through our mothers and brothers and friends and lovers. Certainly we experience the heavenly ideal of unconditional love in bits and pieces—however imperfect—in our human brethren. It’s right to seek it, to appreciate it when we find it, and to recognize God’s grace in it.

I suppose my vitriolic, exasperated tone with regard to Facebook and Twitter comes from the fact that I see this type of “love seeking” as such a pale substitute for the sorts of “heavenly” connections I know exist. It’s sort of a mudpies-when-we-could-be-at-the-sea sorta thing, to reference “The Weight of Glory.” Sure, social networking websites can provide transcendent, unconditional, life-affirming connection at times. But just as often it seems to be a disappointment and a distraction. Too often I realize that with all the time I spend seeking “friends” and “comments” online, I could be praying or reading God’s word. When I’m feeling the need for connection, it’s easier to pop onto iChat and get some instant conversational attention from a friend. It’s so convenient, in fact (and offers such immediate return), that it becomes harder to justify chatting with God who is silent and mysterious.

On a good day, it’s easy to see God speaking to me in the chats and emails and conversations with the people in my life. It’s wonderful to feel his love in things like the weather, coffee, and a text message. But on bad days—on glass half empty days—it becomes painfully clear that no one can ever live up to the standard of love we are wired to seek. We were made for something more than this earth can satisfy. Everyone, at one point or another, proves to be a disappointment. Everyone we love will, at one point or another, cause us pain. We are all so broken; so inexhaustibly frail.

This doesn’t mean we should hide away from it all, shun human contact and pray all day and night in solitude (though maybe it does… monks seem to think so). On the contrary, I think God wants us to love each other, to experience his love in and through community. And thanks be to God, this world and its inhabitants can frequently offer us glorious glimpses and blips of existential satisfaction that can amount to something very near sustained joy or stasis. Very near… but never all the way there.

As is typically the case, C.S. Lewis expresses it most eloquently, as in this passage from “The Weight of Glory”:

When I attempted a few minutes ago, to describe our spiritual longings, I was omitting one of their most curious characteristics. We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light… For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We may go when we please, we may stay if we can, no one cares. Now, a scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable Something of which they become for a moment the messengers. And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in the universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, the bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.

I did not intend my balloon boy post to be an invalidation of this very human “inconsolable secret.” Rather, I was simply trying to explore how this pining—this acute awareness of our “stranger” disposition—evinces itself in our contemporary experience: in the news, in technology, in everything.

The “glory” Lewis talks about has everything to do with the human desire for affirmation and recognition—the Platonic notion of thymos. Lewis describes glory as the fact of being “noticed” by God. We want to be known by Him (1 Corinthians 8:3, 1 Corinthians 13:12), and we dread being cast away from Him (“I never knew you. Depart from me…” Matt 7:23).

At the end of the day, it is this deep, unrelenting desire to be fully known that drives everything we do—the loves and satisfactions we seek in both good and bad places. But we can only really be fully known by God. And this is the burden of glory. This is the weight: that we live in a world that teases us with glory, offers us a taste, but never completely satisfies.

It’s not something that should defeat or exasperate us. We should acknowledge the tension and let it enliven us, spurring us on toward hope and future glory.

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4 responses to “Our Inconsolable Secret

  1. Wow, Brett. Thank you for this thoughtful, caring, and beautifully written post. I appreciate that you host a forum here that welcomes dialogue. I appreciate that you take in the push-back comments and digest them and then respond when needed. I think that’s what made me feel welcome to write what I did.

    You write so much here that is worthy of response. I’m not sure I’ll be able to capture all that your post made me think about, but here are a few thoughts.

    You wrote, I suppose my vitriolic, exasperated tone with regard to Facebook and Twitter comes from the fact that I see this type of “love seeking” as such a pale substitute for the sorts of “heavenly” connections I know exist. When I read this, I knew exactly what you meant. It made the things you’ve written on this subject fall in line for me, kind of like an “aha” moment, a dawning, “aahhhh … okay, I get it now.” You’re right: so much of this behavior is mudpies, only we don’t even realize it is most of the time … and there is so much more awaiting us.

    You toyed with the idea of shunning it all to live in silence and prayer like the monks versus also thinking we ought to stay here and love one another. I think it’s both. When I said in my original comment that part of the way we learn real love is by experiencing it in real people who have the love of Christ flowing through them, I didn’t mention that another part of learning this real love is experiencing it directly from God in still moments of contemplative prayer. When I look back on my journey and how I have come in contact with the love of God that rooted deep and truly changed me, it was through the love of others and direct contact with God in contemplative prayer. We need both.

    I so appreciate the way you brought Lewis into this discussion. The glory and the pining helped frame your perspective so well. I agree: we carry a burden of longing that will never be fully satisfied on this earth. It reminds me of something I read in Ronald Rolheiser’s Holy Longing book this past year: he calls it an “unfinished symphony,” that our lives, no matter the glimpses of glory and truth and beauty we capture here on earth, will always carry an unfinished quality to them until we reach the new heaven and new earth.

    Thanks, Brett, for your response to mine.

  2. Thoughtful post, Brett. Good stuff here.

    A point that I feel compelled to make is that God’s love is accessible and observable at all times by calling to mind the Cross-work of Christ. Finding God’s love in the Body of Christ here on Earth is certainly edifying and a blessing, but I believe we shouldn’t be dependant on it or despondent without it. The Lord has left us an eternal reminder of His love on the Cross and His Spirit to be our comforter. In this way, we are equipped to experience and exude God’s love even surrounded by enemies who hate us or chained to a Praetorian guard in a Roman cell, as Paul was.

  3. Great follow-up Brett. Though I agree with much of what you said in the first post, it did seem a bit harsh. The balance found here completes the perspective quite well.

    I am aware of this “pining” on several fronts. Definitely within me, I’ve struggled with a desire for recognition, alternating to a desire to be invisible when the realization hits that recognition received in typical ways frustrates as it falls short. We are a fragile bunch.

    My children find great comfort in a few kind, focused words from me – like a bedtime prayer and blessing – so I want such words from me to be genuine and heartfelt. In a similar way, I’ve felt loads of frustration and doubt and fear melt away in a few moments of authentic worship in which Christ’s presence is thick – focused and affirming. Still today, as a middle-aged man, I’ve realized the recognition my heart desperately longs for can only be found in His genuine appreciation of me. Me? He loves me? He wants me?

    Thanks for prompting such thoughts today.

  4. Further confirmation that I need to read The Weight of Glory.

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