Thirty-four years ago when I launched this column, I would never have said this: restlessness is not something to be cultivated, no matter how romantic that might seem. Don’t get Jesus confused with Hamlet, peace with disquiet, depth with dissatisfaction or genuine happiness with the existential anxiety of the artist. Restlessness inside us does not need to be encouraged; it wreaks enough havoc all by itself.
But I’m a late convert to this view. From earliest childhood through mid-life, I courted a romance with restlessness, with stoicism, with being the lonely outsider, with being the one at the party who found it all too superficial to be real. Maybe that contributed to my choosing seminary and priesthood; certainly it helps explain why I originally entitled this column “In Exile”. For most of my life, I have equated restlessness with depth, as something to be cultivated.
This came naturally to me, and all along the way I’ve found powerful mentors to help me carry my solitude in that way. During my high-school years I was intrigued by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I virtually memorised it. Hamlet represented depth, intensity and romance; he wasn’t a beer drinker. For me, he was the lonely prophet, radiating depth beyond superficiality.
In my seminary years I graduated to Plato (“We are fired into life with a madness that comes from the gods and has us believe that we can achieve a great embrace, make ourselves immortal, and contemplate the divine”); to Augustine (“You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”); to John of the Cross (“We go through life fired by love’s urgent longings”); to Karl Rahner (“In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we learn that here in this life there is no finished symphony”). Reading these thinkers helped me put my youthful romanticism under a high symbolic hedge.
Alongside these spiritual writers, I was much influenced by a number of novelists who helped instil in me the notion that life is meant to be lived with such an inner intensity and high romanticism so as to preclude any simple satisfaction in life’s normal, everyday pleasures and domestic joys. For me, Nikos Kazantzakis’s characters radiated a passion that made them virtually godlike and irresistibly enviable, even as they struggled not to self-destruct; Iris Murdoch described loves that were so obsessive, and yet so attractive, as to make everything outside of them unreal; and Doris Lessing and Albert Camus seduced me with images of an inner disquiet that made ordinary life seem flat and not worthwhile. The idea grew in me that it was far nobler to die in unrequited longing than to live in anything else. Better dead in intensity than alive in domestic normalcy. Restlessness was to be encouraged.
And much in our culture, especially in the arts and the entertainment industry, fosters that temptation, namely, to self-define as restless and to identify this disquiet with depth and with the angst of the artist. Once we define ourselves in this way, as complex, incurable romantics, we have an excuse for being difficult, and we also have an excuse for betrayal and infidelity. For now, in the words of a song by the Eagles, we are restless spirits on an endless flight. Understandably, then, we fly above the ordinary rules for life and happiness and our complexity is justification enough for whatever ways we act out. As Amy Winehouse famously self-defined: “I told you I was troubled, and you know that I’m no good.” Why should anyone be mystified by our rejection of normal life and ordinary happiness?
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