The themes of rest and, more importantly, of restlessness, keep appearing in my experience of late. I’ve just finished a month’s vacation—a rare and precious luxury—at my parents’ log home in the Adirondack Park. Travelers have been seeking solace in this park for at least the last 150 years, so it’s hardly surprising that I would be thinking about rest. What is surprising, however, are my more frequent thoughts about restlessness.
The latter theme has arisen in my experiences:
- Of climbing New York’s tallest mountain on a clear, temperate day, only to wish that I were at home, off my sore feet
- Of finishing a beautiful kayak ride with my wife, with mist over the water and not a person in sight, only to want another
- Of eating much-anticipated soft-served ice cream in a dish, only to long for a cone
In my conversations:
- With my brother-in-law, who described a book he’s reading on the widely-noted gap in satisfaction between what we expect a purchase to give us—be it a TV, a car, a house—and what it actually provides
- With my grandmother, about how, despite seeking for years to get my present job, I find myself already dreaming of what comes next
In things I’ve read:
- Thoreau, in the opening chapter of Walden, describes the hoards of his contemporaries, who “are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” and who “lead lives of quiet desperation”
- Charles Taylor, who, near the end of his A Secular Age, writes of the “number of ways in which our modern culture is restless at the barriers of the human sphere,” stirred by “the sense that there is something more”
Taylor’s words, which I’ve taken from the close of a chapter called “The Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity,” are haunting and warrant further space. Speaking of this sense of “something more,” he says:
“Great numbers of people feel it: in moments of reflection about their life; in moments of relaxation in nature; in moments of bereavement and loss; and quite wildly and unpredictably. Our age is far from settling in to a comfortable unbelief. Although many individuals do so, and more still seem to on the outside, the unrest continues to surface. Could it ever be otherwise?”
All this talk about unrest or restlessness invites the question: What should we make of this experience? Is it an unhappy but inescapable aspect of human life, one that we try to bury as best we can or else embrace in Stoic resolution? As Taylor puts it, “Could it ever be otherwise?”
Some say yes. Their answer requires some context, however.
In his poem “The Pulley” (yet another piece that I’ve stumbled upon during my vacation), the 17th-Century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert makes a startling suggestion. He attributes our phenomenon of restlessness to God. God, says Herbert, deliberately withheld this blessing from us. Yet, far from being an arbitrary act of spite, the divine equivalent of a middle finger on the world, God withheld the gift of rest for our good.
Herbert puts the matter as follows, in God’s words:
“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.
This may sound strange to modern ears (or anyone’s, for that matter), but the idea is this: God, in his goodness, had already given us “a glass of blessings”—gifts like “strength,” “beauty,” “wisdom, honor, pleasure”—which, were these to join with “rest,” would prove so satisfying, so seemingly complete, that we would stop searching and simply rest content in ourselves. What’s the matter with that, you might ask? The problem is that our sense of satisfaction would be a lie: it would hide from us the fact that we are made for relationship with God, that in this relationship our true flourishing consists.
I was blessed to get braces as a teenager, to straighten my otherwise-crooked teeth. Yet before I could receive them, I had to have a horrendous number of teeth removed—upwards of nine. My mouth was simply too crowded. When it came time for the surgery, I received, in addition to Novocain, an ample amount of laughing gas. I remember lying in the dentist’s chair, “high as a kite,” as the saying goes. I thought the laughing gas was the greatest thing in the world. Never mind the fact that I had a pair of pliers in my mouth, along with a series of gaping holes and gushing blood. These I forgot or brushed aside in my happy delirium—sort of like we would do, had we been “drugged with ‘rest’” into believing we were complete, whole, without need of God. It’s a painful analogy, I know, but it captures the picture—if only in part.
Herbert concludes his poem in this way. Referring to the blessings he had given man, God says,
“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”
This, then, is how the story concludes. It’s not just that restlessness keeps us from seeking fulfillment apart from God; rather, it “toss[es]” us to him. We see in restlessness the paradox of “The Pulley”: that, in pulling us down, restlessness in fact lifts us up—or, at least, points us to the One who can lift us up, should we ask him.
As St. Augustine, the 5th-Century convert and Catholic Bishop, wrote (in a passage I did not read this vacation): “You [God] have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”
Thus, in answer to Taylor’s question, “Could [our unrest] ever be otherwise?” Herbert and Augustine reply, yes, it can, if we but seek our rest in the One for whom we are made. As it so happens, Jesus himself spoke similarly, when he instructed his listeners to “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28).
This, then, is the culmination of my recent wrestling with restlessness. It comes not as a new insight but as a reminder, from fresh and unexpected sources. For those who have been following my blog thus far, this entry may seem out of place. How, you might ask, does this reflection on rest and restlessness connect with civility? In one sense, it clearly doesn’t. Yet, if we recall that one of civility’s chief fruits is clarity—insight into what others believe and why—then this reflection provides an instance of such clarity. At least I hope it does. It offers a historic, Christian perspective on the answer to an enduring human problem: the problem of restlessness. May we allow the pulley to do its work.