This paper is not finished. I’m not sure it will ever be finished. I confess, it is something of a jumble but I have tried to understand the invisible yet powerful forces of creation and destruction in my own life. I am still working it out and hope to modify this paper to incorporate new insights. In some ways it is an apology for confusing matters like longing, ambition and desire. I have made some persons lives difficult as I tried to understand what I am pursuing or what is pursuing me. In other ways, it is an explanation for the things we do…the things I have done, and in still other ways, you will find it reflects the confusion I still feel.
It is long (I have been advised) but honestly, I didn’t plan a manageable size to please or entertain my reader. I do hope you find it useful. Sometimes, it will sound like an essay while at other times it may come across as simple musings one may have included in their journal. If you read it, please feel free to share your thoughts…or not. They are welcome.
I have spent much of my life running. Running away from this. Running toward that. And, “running” seems to be the right word here because it underscores what a hurry I have seemed to be in these past many years. Exactly where I’m trying to get, however, remains something of a mystery. For all the time spent considering just what all this hurrying might be about and where I am hoping to get, I have yet to achieve any sort of satisfying conclusion. Yet, ironically, I have made this running business a central theme of my life.
My personal journals, are chock-full of ruminating about all the running I have been up to… pages and pages of chicken scratch bear witness to the pressing and distressed nature of these reflections on running. And, since my journals, viewed retrospectively, have been focused on managing life’s stormier phases, as I re-read what I have written years ago, the handwriting alone visually captures both the urgency and anguish of this running even as my words may not. What remains a constant source of frustration is, regardless of the energy expended on these journal entries, they rarely seem to penetrate much beyond the surface desire to hurry toward some vague target as if it somehow possessed what I need to satisfy some poorly understood existential deficit. My journal reflections have plenty to say about both the deficit and desire for some promising object or subject but little to say about the object/subject itself.
To frame all this somewhat more broadly, I might better use the word longing instead of the more dispassionate and benign words hurrying or running toward an object or subject. Additionally, the words object and subject seem themselves sterile, a tad aloof and a step or two removed from the realities to which they attempt to point. Longing can be for almost anything- a new job, or a special project, something you dreamed of, a relationship with another person. We long for what captivates us and frankly, are easily enticed. That which we long for is as diverse as human desire. Moreover, our desires seem to have no limit, are challenging to articulate, and often profoundly disorienting. The upshot is they often remain ill-defined and un-named rendering our pursuit of them chaotic and unfocused. The more illusive they are, the more inclined we are to assign them a kind of mystical status. Often compared to the mythical Sirens, who reside on rocky shoals, irresistibly beckoning seafarers come closer with their beautiful songs. Those subject to the seductive draw of their songs relentlessly seek them out running their ships aground in their efforts to reach them. Longing is a fundamental human reality, perhaps different from easier to articulate wants and needs, but always a very dangerous business.
Undifferentiated longing, that is, longing whose object/subject remains ill-defined, is rooted in our feeling somehow incomplete and reflects our desire to for wholeness. The question, it raises, of course, is what is it that will make me whole? Who is it that will make me whole? So, longing always seeks to specify what will complete us; vague will not suffice. We need to assign an object or subject to give substance to our desire.
This desire…this longing resides at the heart of all great literature because it defines what what it means to be human. We see it in all great historical and cultural figures; artists, musicians, dreamers, mystics, poets, and the like. Remember the Ritz Cracker commercial from years ago that asked the question, “What are you hungry for when you don’t know what you’re hungry for?” Of course, the answer was, a Ritz Cracker. But, the advertising firm, playfully, touched upon the root of all human existential anxiety; that which has troubled us from the beginnings of time. What are we hungry for when we don’t know what you are hungry for? We are famished but don’t know what we want! And what makes the commercial all the more entertaining if not profound; it does what we all do with undifferentiated longing. It seeks out an object or a subject so that it can name and give substance to what we are chasing. When we are hungry but don’t know what we are hungry for, it’s rarely a Ritz Cracker that will offer me much satisfaction. I eat everything in sight believing I might well stumble into an answer. (There’s a pony in there somewhere!) We are predictably impatient and the idea of longing for that which we cannot name sets off a mad scramble to find it. Our imagined task is to identify it, name it, find it, capture it, then own it. Yet the terrible irony is as soon as we claim ownership, we discover we have grasped nothing more than a fistful of sand which runs through our fingers.
All this hurrying, this disturbing sense of non-specific or undifferentiated longing has played a direct role in my life’s ups and downs; the mountain top and desolate valley experiences. For this reason alone, I am driven to better understand this longing. Wealthy but unsettled, one may buy a Van Gogh believing that will do the trick. Well, maybe that wasn’t it. Another seeks out an impossible relationship. In time, they too learn, Well that wasn’t it. And still others believe they will find comfort in the company of the elite, or perhaps an enlightened spiritual guide. And alas, the existential black hole at the center of our being remains insatiable, sucking everything we offer to assuage its hunger into nothingness.
LONGING AND AGING
As I write this, I must confess its kind of an odd time to take up this topic because I have been in a relatively quiet phase of my life having recently retired and now emerging from the restrictions of pandemic living. The Sirens are not nearly as menacing as they once seemed. Still, as is my pattern, I remain restless even as I feel a hint of dread and exhaustion associated with longing in general. I think to myself, I should know better that to go off on another chase. And, happily, there is a quality about my longing now that feels quite different from that which I had previously known. Curiously, it seems the abundance of objects/subjects I might long for- I might desire- are diminishing. So, my world is being turned on its head, a different but equally treacherous existential dilemma. I am not desperately running to or from anything…Indeed, it seems I’m running out of objects/subjects to long for. Why, why, why? I have been wondering. What has changed? Should I be celebrating or grieving? Am I content or have I simply given up?
As I have considered this, it occurs to me there are probably several reasons for such changes. The objects/subjects that offered the promise of satisfaction have themselves not changed, but I have. There is a kind of indifference that often accompanies aging- certainly this has been true of my own aging process. This indifference is not to be confused with not caring. Rather, it seems to be more concerned with adjusting the level of expectation I have about an object or subject’s capacity to provide the kind of existential satisfaction we all seek. As such, I have come to believe longing in the sense I have been speaking of is more of a spiritual than a psychological phenomenon. In fact, this indifference, which goes by many names has long been identified as a spiritual state that is pervasive in most contemplative spiritual literature. The earliest Christian monks called this state apatheia from which the word apathy is derived. Again, Apatheia, unlike the word apathydoes not suggest uncaring or connote anything negative. Rather, apatheia engenders a sense of detachment which lies at the root of equanimity or a sense of calm and composure. Apatheia is a kind of healthy indifference that protects us from embracing the transient as if it stands above the inevitable changes all things are subject to. It teaches us to hold all things loosely and to refrain from frivolous pursuits.
On a more mundane plane, I also believe my indifference has naturally occurred as a function of normal and unremarkable developmental growth. (I’ll say what I’m sure some are thinking- “Maybe, you’re finally just growing up!” Perhaps. I wonder if growing up has to do with the expectations we possess about what an object or a person can genuinely offer.) Indifference grows as we learn that longing is itself as fleeting as what or who we long for. Experience teaches us to carry on, to not worry, because it will go away. Or as is frequently quoted to the struggling twelve-step program neophyte, “This too shall pass.” Finally, I suspect much of my growing indifference has also been derived from hard-won insights gained by navigating both my failures and successes and simply learning the value of apatheia.
We evolve, we age, we mature. That helps. Yet, longing lingers, ambition swells with every success, and defeats or failures counterpunch our successes leaving them to fester like wounds refusing to heal. It is a complicated set of issues not easily understood nor easily addressed.
AMBITION AND LONGING
As I continue to reflect on the matter of all this personal hurrying I am increasingly aware that I frame it according to who I am at any given moment of time. So, I have understood this hurrying from a kind of psychoanalytic perspective; as approval-seeking behaviors… perhaps wanting my father, or some authority figure, to be proud of my accomplishments. Dad was sparing with his compliments and generous with opinions regarding how I might have achieved better results if I had considered factors he deemed oversights.
No one really enjoys understanding their behavior as approval seeking which always has the whiff of weakness. So, we might frame this hurrying…this urgency as ambition albeit (again) of the undifferentiated sort, and often, regrettably, but undeniably blind. For me, there is no question that I was often in a hurry to accomplish something, even as what I longed to accomplish had little to do with my own unformed heartfelt desires and more with what others decided was success. This Sisyphean approach to ambition which places the sought-after object forever beyond our reach, has thankfully evolved for me over the years. I recall lying in bed one night taking stock. I considered what then seemed the unlikely notions I had been successful in many endeavors although I had only rarely felt this to be true deep down. I had also discovered the dark side of success which I often felt hostage to and tasted similarly to failure. This dark side, I learned, is at once seductive and heady but also fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying. The imagined existential deficit that lies at my center gradually takes on the characteristics of the black hole mentioned earlier, devouring success with increasing speed and efficiency. Still, the allure of success easily overwhelms any intellectual insight about more nuanced impacts of even a blind or scattershot pursuit. This, unfortunately, leaves us chasing success of any stripe that promises to make us more whole, invincible, and ready to ride to the edge of space with Branson, Bezos, or Musk.
But, the truth is, one never does realize the object of their longing. It is by its nature elusive, a moving target. High is never high enough. Deep is never deep enough. And so, a reckoning always lies in wait somewhere down the road. A rapprochement between our grandiose and mundane selves is in our future and promises to offer little pleasure since this encounter is about shattering illusions that propel tsunamis of discontent in all directions, leaving swaths of collateral damage among all things near and far from us. Our community feels duped and we are self-slimed by the double whammy of having duped ourselves and exposed as a fraud. We’ve been found out!
In most cases, it’s a bad or perhaps better described as a tough ending. Until we finally surrender to the futility of this cycle, the conflict created demands a seemingly impossible choice – abandon one and run toward another or, as is often the case abandon the whole thing and move to a new set of objects/subjects typically far away from the old ones. Kind of like, getting the hell out of town. Ultimately, all this running will yield to the experience of running out of.
Ambition is a Janus-faced taskmaster and complicated concept that is fundamentally about drive of all sorts. As noted above, for me, ambition was often bound up with approval and wanting to be liked, no loved. (Don’t we all?!) Like others, mine was a different sort of ambition unlike the cut-throat ambition that comes to some people’s minds imagining conventional hyper-ambitious people. Ambition driven by a desire to be loved is complicated because it’s always a bit unclear what the object of one’s ambition really is1! Ambition and a desire to be loved are strange bedfellows at best, and more often are likely to be in conflict with one another. I can clearly see now how these competing drives have too contributed to some of my best and worst experiences. I never had the temperament (nor the discipline or even the inclination) to pursue something in a cool, calculated, systematic fashion. It was always a passionate pursuit, once I had become enamored by the object/subject. Even as I use romantic images to describe it, it is foolish or naïve to speak of it as a matter of the heart as opposed to the intellect. I know very well how reckless this approach can be. Once I latched onto something, I pursued it relentlessly and often unconsciously with all the charm, personality, lofty visions, big ideas, and eloquent schemes I could muster. It was always very hard, if not impossible for me to approach these matters analytically, detailing the logical steps one might take to get from here to there. I am not an analytic thinker by nature. The ambition I embraced, understood negatively, could be manipulative, personality driven, and often rendering achievements that were fragile. Understood positively, it is generally perceived to be friendlier, more subtle, highlighting fairness and collaboration. It seems, however, that all ambition draws scrutiny. And so, in the course of time such scrutiny usually means our true motives are uncovered as a mix of conflicting intentions. We are ultimately exposed or, as I referenced above “found out”. In this context, “being found out” is to expose the incongruity between what we do and who we are. That incongruity is what supports the unseemly label we are often branded with-fraud. Regardless of the consequences many are perfectly content to bear the label if the behaviors serve their intended purposes.
The forward-facing side of my ambitions have to do with altruistic motives that sound unnervingly similar to what the Miss Universe candidates hope to accomplish e.g.: make the world a better place, bring peace, stop hunger, and so on.
But, my ambition, like everyone’s, is multi-faceted and causes me enough distress about the image I am projecting to want to shake those who have offered me accolades and make it clear, “I’m not nearly as nice as you think I am, not as patient, not as talented, not as funny, not as interesting or smart, or as clever as you think I am. Yes, I’m a goddamned fraud.
We enter into a sort of unarticulated pact with one another. We may think of it as intimacy between ourselves and the object/subject. But it’s far too shallow and one dimensional to be intimacy. Ultimately, if we don’t intentionally expose ourselves as the fraud we are, we will all be “found out” eventually. It is our own little judgement day when darkness and disappointment, anger and sorrow will rule the day of this inevitable reckoning.
So, we the imperfect, all of us, play out our roles the best we can until that day. It gets played out day after day until we are defined by it. Surely, this has been a central theme of my own life and contributed to the success I enjoyed in the business development, community relations, a therapist, and a parish minister.
Funny…I often find myself not liking people who possess the traits I just described as my own, seeing them as opportunistic, shallow and content with a superficial knowledge of whatever they are driving toward.
My plea: GUILTY!
Part of this is attributable to being lazy and ambivalent about doing the inevitable work that feels irrelevant or uninteresting and therefore less rewarding. Bound up with this is matter of separating ourselves from the mix of motives and intentions we have. We do, in time, begin to believe our own press releases. Instead, why not embrace the whole of what we bring including what we do not know or yet understand? We do well to embrace and exploit those natural talents or gifts that seem to require little work- they are gifts and as such, we have had to do little to create them. Healthy ambition must bring the whole of one’s personhood to bear on what is sought after…longed for. This means deploying the gifts one seems to possess innately, as well as those skills we struggle to acquire. Feeling conflicted, as I often do, about lacking those skills in which I am deficient, and relying on what comes easier often leaves me feeling lazy, without substance and, honestly, slick. I relegate myself to the bad boy corner feeling ashamed and/or disappointed with myself and embarrassed for having been “found out”. But, I am learning also to feel proud of and less defensive about what I really CAN do well while demonstrating a willingness to do the work of acquiring new skills to complement my gifts.
CHASING VERSUS BECKONING
Finally, I have framed ambition… this urgent hurrying… as a kind of longing. In spite of my earlier claim that these notions were not romantic ideals, I must amend this and explain my understanding is at least partially romantic. Indeed, I have viewed this longing as akin to Dante’s Beatrice, or Francis Townsend’s hound of heaven, or the Fisher King’s perpetual wound. Many have written about this longing. What distinguishes longing from ambition, drive, desire, and all pursuits of this sort is the source from which these feeling spring. I believe the former are internal and the later, that is longing is external, Ambition, drive, and desire are self-directed and we, the engine that moves us toward them. Longing, on the other hand, calls us or beckons us to seek out that which promises to complete us and make us whole. It is a wholly existential matter that ultimately defines who we are while the other defines what we have done, what we have, our victories, our conquests. Ironically, while their pursuits define us very different from one another, in the end, we are left wondering.
As I noted, I find myself at a point where there seems no need to hurry largely, because I can’t find (or, perhaps don’t need) an object that drives the hurrying. Or, it might be more accurate to say that I have come to understand the longed-for object will always lay beyond my grasp. Moreover, those moments when I believe I have captured it, teach me possession always falls short of my expectations. It is, in some ways like the butterfly who, I was told as a child, had magic powder on its wings. Touch its wings and it may not fly again because you’ve tainted the magic by your need to examine it.
Predictably, abandoning the pursuit is distressing because I have been engaged in “the chase” for so long. But I have become convinced that the truth is, I have nothing to run toward. I have nothing to run from. I have only run out. As noted above, I do believe the end of our pursuit is to discover that what we sought was folly and such discovery is a mark of maturity. On the other hand, I also believe our longing, our running, our great sense of urgency is NOT without purpose. I am persuaded our satisfaction and contentment is bound up with the recognition that all our longing is simply the lure we chase that animates our lives and, as such, its pursuit, while essential, is the end itself. TS Elliott alluded to this in the Four Quartets’ Little Gidding when he wrote:
“And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Months ago, I went to a mindfulness meditation meeting. You learn to expect that the instructor will ask, “Can you just be present to what is happening? Refrain from any judgements. Just observe what is happening.” But there is such wisdom in the admonition to simply observe. Don’t run to it. Don’t run from it. Don’t dismiss it. The 20th Century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead spoke of what he called, “prehension” to describe the principle activity of God. What he meant by this, as I understand it, was to receive something or grasp it without assigning a value to it or categorizing it. It seems similar to the word “apprehend” as opposed to “comprehend” Can we do this? Whitehead argued that God prehends all things, which is the only way one can come to understand what is the most appropriate action. It is a radical departure from centuries of theology which argued God’s perfection was absolute and wholly autonomous from the innumerable ‘decisions’ or, better, ‘variables’ that must shape his persuasive influence. To summarize, Dr. Anthony Fauci’s scientific mantra is apt for our case here- one must collect all the data to make an informed decision. And the data is changing. And that is what the pursuit is about; observing…taking it all in without rendering judgement of what we might normally describe as good or bad, dark or light. Our pursuit is first and foremost to prehend, to observe, to be aware.
As all of us grow old, some will become quite good at this and will be known to others as especially wise. Still others will cling to the security of absolutes and allow their views to calcify as the changing world swirls about leaving them angry, bitter, and unmoored. We are, all of us hurrying. The beginning of wisdom is perhaps the recognition that what we hurry toward or away from cannot be captured without it ending poorly. Extending the metaphor of a lure, it may be attractive and tempting to pursue, but capturing it generally spells bad news for any fish. A more enlightened end worthy of our seeking may consist of allowing the lure to define the path we walk but resisting the desire to possess what we observe on our way home which we will know when we re-arrive as if for the first time.
David L. Heaney
 The phrase, “who I am” reflects more than a mere random change of mind. Thoughts and insights evolve as we grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually and change who we are. Hence, the expressions: “He’s not the person he used to be.” “She’s not herself.” If you’re not changing, I suggest you check your pulse!