The past couple of weeks have felt like defining weeks for me – the kind where you have fleeting moments where you begin to understand a deeper layer of yourself or see a flash of what your life is supposed to look like, laid out in front of you. I’m calling this another essay, but really it is just me rambling about some realizations I’ve had about my search for self, the reality of the longing inside of me, moving beyond suffering, and the way that God is refining me. Despite the fact that this blog is often about me making things with my hands, it is important for me to realize that I am myself one of God’s expressed mediums, and he is forming me and shaping my life into something new.
Moody photographs taken by me in rural Northwest Iowa in late December, 2011.
Some days I think I have spent (and possibly wasted) my whole life so far just trying to answer two questions:
1. Who am I?
2. Why am I here?
I started to unveil these deep questions when I was an adolescent, when I started to discover the concept of Sehnsucht (though I didn’t have a word for it then). Sehnsucht is a German word that translates in English to longing, but in German, it is a very specific type of longing for which we have no single word in English. It is the longing, both sweet and painful, that we feel it as an intense desire for something that is just beyond our reach. It is like the veil between what is and what should be lifts for just a moment, offering us a painful glimpse into ecstasy that is so fleeting we almost miss it. This feeling can be brought about by a change in season; you know that unsettling and bittersweet longing that we feel in the fall? That is Sehnsucht. The way your hair raises on the back of your neck and prickles to your fingertips when you hear a certain piece of music? That is Sehnsucht. Have you ever had an incredible conversation with someone else that seemingly reveals to you the truths of the human experience and your own soul, but that exists in a state that cannot be prolonged or captured? Sehnsucht.
I acutely felt the angst of being caught in that middle place when I was an adolescent (who didn’t?). When I was about 12 or 13 I started to wake up to the deep longing within me, though I didn’t really have the vocabulary to express it. I remember being in the eighth grade when I first discovered I wasn’t doing what I was meant to do. I was spending my time trying to fit in with a group of girls with whom I had little in common, I was in the middle of an excruciatingly long basketball season, and every practice felt suffocating, like I was not supposed to be there. I’ve always loved sports and playing them, but something deep in me just wanted to quit so badly. In my family, quitting wasn’t taken lightly, so I persisted. I started to bring my discman (ah, the sweet 90s) with me to away games, and I longed to sit by myself on the bus and listen to a recording of the Nutcracker I had discovered earlier that year. I chose that particular CD because Tchaikovsky’s ballet, though hated by the composer himself, was one of those first pieces of music that caused goosebumps to prickle up along my arms, hurrying across the back of my neck and up to my scalp. That sensation felt like it came from another world, and it was a salve to the pain of not belonging that lay deep and unexpressed in my heart.
The experience of listening to classical music exposed something deep within me that I hadn’t been conscious of before. I was stirred at 12 years old to start to write my own stories, to paint, to sing, and to plug more deeply into the longing it brought me. I quit hanging out with those other girls, and started spending time with my friend Meredith, who understood this deeper part of me and of herself, too. We had been best friends when we were in first grade, and we came back together in eighth grade to start making paintings, imagining other worlds, and embracing that extra space beyond ourselves.
By the time I was in high school, I had become addicted to pursuing creative energy and ideas. I painted or wrote in all of my free time. Everything I did outside of that still stretched toward that creative space. I was arrested so completely by the music of Vaughan Williams, particularly his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, that I would lay on the floor stuck in that place of longing, idea after idea pouring through my brain. I felt like some part of that music peeled back layers of my soul and allowed me to see more deeply into myself.
This obsession with creating and discovering myself continued well into college, until I discovered the way it felt to fall in love with another human being. I was momentarily distracted by that obsessive emotion, but each time a relationship ended, or ultimately after I settled into that space after the immediate “falling in love” sensation wore off, I looked back toward understanding myself and why I was meant to be on this earth.
By the time I was married, had finished grad school, and I found myself having arrived in my adult life, seemingly without my consent, I felt more lost than ever. In addition, the need to understand and define myself felt more urgent than it ever had. The problem was, I felt like the stakes were higher. I had less time. I had already gone to college, to graduate school, and I felt like now I was supposed to understand who I was and what I was meant to do. I strove. I planned. I moved from one focus to the next within my photography business, to where we would move, to what our next step was. And despite my white-knuckled, I’m-going-to-do-this-on-my-own striving, God started to reach for me at the bottom of a deep cavern that I had carved out for myself in the name of self-discovery.
I believe that along with life comes some measure of suffering. It is a defining and inescapable part of our humanity. How else could it be in a place where all things eventually pass away? I think it is true that many of us think we deserve a life without suffering. We try and convince ourselves that suffering can be avoided if only we do the right set of behaviors or say the right thing when it sets in. It is unfortunate that many Christians buy into the idea that if we only do the right things or pray the right prayers that God will remove all obstacles from our path and provide us with everything we think we deserve as his people. I find this to be a really destructive (and further, not biblical) line of thinking. We put pressure on ourselves to modify our behavior and do the right thing to receive a reward, instead of letting a deep love and admiration for God change our hearts, our motives, and eventually, our behavior. And in the midst of that cycle of life, bad things happen to good people. We, after all, live in a world that, while it retains many of the beautiful aspects of God’s creation, is imperfect and fallen. As such, our human experience contains pain and suffering. Things happen to us that don’t seem fair. We will all struggle at times with pain that we can’t bear.
The past couple of years in Kansas City have been beautiful, but for me have been marred by a lot of fear, anxiety, and depression. Heaped on top of that was guilt for feeling those things. I felt like my life looked awesome from the outside: I had so much support from family and friends, I was not struggling with health problems, I was pursuing my dream business, and therefore I had no permission to feel those emotions.
This past week, one of my best friends in the whole world, Laura, came to Kansas City for her yearly visit. Laura is one of a small group of friends I’ve had in my life from whom I can trace a direct line to where I find myself today. The impact she has had on my life has been so profound, she could only have been placed here. I fully believe the Holy Spirit has used her as a lamp through which to flood my entire life with the truth of His gospel.
Laura and I started to talk about C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, which my husband, Ayron, just finished reading. It is a book I bought in High School, but within the first page I realized I was in way over my head and shelved it. I listened to the last chapter on Heaven per Laura’s recommendation (it is on my to-read list) and literally had tears streaming down my face when I heard the words.
In it, Lewis talks about abdicating the self to more fully inhabit the God who made us. Through that abdication, seeking forever His face, we don’t actually lose ourselves, we become ourselves on a deeper level than we ever could without God. This is a process by which we empty ourselves and ask in humility for God to step into that void. This process must happen again and again, and only when our souls are filled with his fullness do we begin to see in ourselves some shadow of the God who made us and His purpose for our life, like a single key made for a unique lock:
The mold in which a key is made would be a strange thing, if you had never seen a key: and the key itself a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions.
Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it — made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.”
-C.S. Lewis The Problem of Pain
I have been trying so hard for basically my whole life to fill myself up to the brim with my self-made identities. I’ve laid awake in bed at night worrying about living a life that is significant, expressing myself fully, making enough money, being successful. I’ve taken every personality test under the sun to try and understand myself more fully. I don’t think it is bad to be driven, to work hard, to want to live life to the fullest. But it is easy to get lost on the other side of moderation, where I put my head down, sprint forward, and am not interested in God’s advice on where I’m going.
In the midst of shame for not achieving as much as I’d like, holding myself up to some standard I have made for myself, and fear of failure, I dug myself in deep. I didn’t understand why it was so hard to get out of bed, or why I stopped getting excited when I’d get inquiries for my business. New business ideas would be all-consuming to me, and when they didn’t deliver or go quite as planned, my confidence crumbled. And amid all of this, I would sit down and ask myself, “When did I lose sight of that creative person inside of me? Where is that fearless girl?” And I’d go off in search of her some days, and other days I would work blindly, arrested by what I can only describe as despair.
Now I’ve started to realize it was never a fearless, infallible girl that I was searching for. It wasn’t my talent or my vision. It wasn’t a more organized to-do list, or better conviction and time-management, more money, more accolades. It was God I looked for and God I found in that space that I thought belonged to me, only. And it is funny – the more I realize I find Him there, the more myself I become, just like Lewis said. When I listened to Vaughan Williams, created work I was proud of, connected with a client, or had a particularly productive practice session, I realize now that I wasn’t seeing a deeper layer of myself, necessarily, but some facet of God. I’ve now started to realize that my longing for what was just beyond my reach was my inherent desire as a human being for the way things could have been had The Fall not happened. In other words, what I thought was my longing for knowing myself and my purpose more deeply was actually a desire to know God more deeply, which is my purpose.
Now I find myself standing before the rewarding, if difficult, road of seeking Him. Seeking Him, emptying myself, walking in the path He has cleared for me using his only Son. I still feel the pulling insistence of my two questions in my heart, but I’m starting to find the answers. And instead of the answers being inside of myself, like I thought they would be, they are actually outside of myself, in God.
As a human, it is inevitable that throughout my life, I will take this beautiful key which God has carved for me and try to force it into doors that it was not created to open. But faith, for me, is about trusting that even if I do that, God will lead me to the right door. And here, in God’s one house, through which doors lead to many mansions, I know there will be no shortage of discovery, inspiration, depths to plumb, dreams to realize, and most of all, satisfying work to be done.