“All grief is homesickness.”
The words landed in my heart with a painful thud.
I was driving up the twisted curves of our mountain road, only halfway listening to the podcast, when Lanier Ivester, said this. I don’t remember much else, but that phrase grabbed my attention.
I think we’re all feeling off-center these days. I wake up many mornings, irritable and feeling like I’m on the wrong foot all day. Even as I try to work my way back to feeling both my feet on the ground, I am thwarted by the continual assault of all the things going wrong in the world. The longing in my soul for things to be set right is sometimes unbearable.
I’ve had to limit my news consumption drastically – as an empath, the conflicts of so many people being at odds with each other is more than I can handle. I am easily bruised by a stranger’s comments on the Internet, and the thought that even people I love would say these awful things, hidden behind a keyboard, haunts me. Even conversations with friends have eroded my sense of safety as I mull over a too-hasty response or wonder if I’ve offended someone. Old, silly fears easily creep in when everything feels wrong and our relationships are suspended in the iCloud.
It’s easy to lose our sense of orientation when our lives have been stripped of the trappings that we thought made them meaningful. Where do we find our anchor in a time like this?
In my own searching for something to hold on to, I’ve returned to this passage from “The Specialization of Poetry”, by Wendell Berry many times over:
Contemporaneity, in the sense of “being up with the times,” is of no value. A competent wakefulness to experience – as well as instruction and example – is another matter. But what we call the modern world is not necessarily, and not often, the real world, and there is no virtue in being up to date in it. It is a false world, based upon economies and values and desires that are fantastical- a world in which millions of people have lost any idea of the resources, the disciplines, the restraints, and the labor necessary to support human life, and who have thus become dangerous to their own lives and to the possibility of life.
Is it not the lack of the “real world” that we are missing so much right now? I’ve found myself needing to be grounded by things that cannot be changed as quickly as statistics and news headlines. “Being up with the times” only serves to exhaust me and make me hopeless. Instead, I find Berry’s call to “competetent wakefulness”, though certainly not written about this scenario we find ourselves in, to be more useful. I cannot bury myself in oblivion, but find more and more that a stubborn refusal to lose touch with the realities of my daily life is more useful to those around me. The gifts of human interaction and touch can not be replaced, and our longing for the things that are real is not satisfied by launching further into the “modern world” of technology but by returning to the things that make us human: art, music, beauty, laughter and nature. These are the ways we’re finding a small piece of home in the chaos.
This small piece of home may last for a moment as we experience reprieve from our pain, heartache or loss, but can it really save us? These good gifts provide solace and do bring us back to certain truths. After all, good art requires attention to concrete detail to resonate, and is timeless in its suggestion of our common humanity; by Berry’s definition, nature is nothing if not the “real world”. But still we long for more. Can laughter and music, or even a fierce devotion to justice, prove panacea to the insatiable hunger for wholeness we push down all day, till it awakens us in the wee hours with its grief? In the ordinary busy-ness we’ve now been stripped of, it was easier to keep this longing quiet. We could dull its pain with the anaesthetic of our own self-importance, but now, in the helpless waiting, we are confronted with a terrible truth.
These beautiful things, all of them, will never be enough to save us, because as C.S. Lewis says in “Weight of Glory” there is an “inconsolable secret” about them, we can hardly bear to acknowledge. They refuse to satisfy us, because they are still, in all their glory, merely reflections of the home we most long for – Heaven. “They are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” Can we see them as the messengers of Hope they are, but not mistake them for the object of our true affection? Can we use them to orient ourselves in the direction we are traveling, but not despair when we find we are not home yet? If we are to keep hope alive in the midst of suffering, we must remember that our grief is only homesickness for a land where, “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more”(Rev 21:4) Let it be so.