I recently finished a book by Henri Nouwen called “The Wounded Healer”. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the gritty reality of leadership and how our brokenness is not a hinderance to leading effectively but an asset. In the final chapter (there are only four) Nouwen offers a glimpse into this reality from the angle of loneliness. I am compelled to offer a few excerpts as his treatment of the subject of how our longings not only point us to a greater reality, but also are to be embraced as beautiful because of the reality they point to.
But the more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is actually like the Grand Canyon – a deep incision in the surface of our existence that has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding. Therefore I would like to voice loudly and clearly what might seem unpopular and maybe even disturbing: The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift.
Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence…
…we keep hoping for that one day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potentials, the book that will explain everything, and the place where we can feel at home.
Such false hope leads us to make exhausting demands and prepares us for bitterness and dangerous hostility when we start discovering that nobody, and nothing, can live up to our absolutistic expectations. Many marriages are ruined because neither partner was able to fulfill the often hidden hope that the other would take his or her loneliness away. Many celibates live with the naive dream that in the intimacy of marriage their loneliness will be taken away.
– Henri Nouwen, “The Wounded Healer”, (pp 90-91)
I was almost shocked by what Nouwen said, and love it or hate it, it forces a second thought. I have generally worked from the platform that our inner dissatisfaction, whatever form they take on, were indeed designed to push us to look outside of ourselves and even outside of this present world in which we live to find the thing that fulfills those desires. Nouwen’s offering suggests that even after we’ve found the answer, that answer being Christ, we are left with those same longings, as glorious reminders that we will one day know exactly what it means to be fully known and completely fulfilled. I think there is a truth in this idea that both relieves me as well as depresses me. I know that sensing those deep desires is beneficial as it keeps me searching the skies for the One who is coming to make all things new, but at the same time it causes me to wish for that return all the sooner.
We all know those feelings of anticipation, as we are approaching some landmark event in our life…and, if we are honest, we all know that, though those wonderful happenings like marriage and childbirth and reunion with old friends are moments of rejoicing for us, we also know that it’s never quite enough to “fill the cup”. There is always another ounce that the pitcher doesn’t contain. Our joy is always just short of full contentment. (For any theological nitpickers out there: I am fully aware that Jesus links obedience to His commands with fullness of joy in John 15:11, however there is a difference in joy and fulfillment. Joy is found even in marked times of unfulfillment because joy is an undergirding baseline of peace and hope based on the reality of our place in Christ. Also, joy is a facet of the fruit of the Spirit, and not many would argue that the fruit of the Spirit is not momentarily perfected but persistently progressive.)
I encourage you, as I have before, not to draw your pistols of dogma too quickly. I am not saying that everything Nouwen is offering is 100% spot-on, but what I would say is that there is enough empirical evidence in it to make it worth a moment of our meditation and prayer. Perhaps we’ve been searching for that one thing that is going to “complete” us but to no avail. New cars, new jobs, raises, marriage, children, new phones and gadgets, sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, etc… all of these make grandiose promises to our hearts, and yet all of them – though not all equally – leave us with a cup that isn’t quite full. And my friends, one thing I can tell you for certain, we were made to be full. Living water isn’t poured, it is tapped, and a tapped source of water doesn’t flow from above but from within.
Friends, may we search together.