The Longing

We’ve all felt it. Or at least those of us open to the movements of our hearts have felt it. That deep, heavy ache that sits like a 500-pound gorilla on your soul. I call it, “The Longing”.

I remember the first time I felt The Longing. I had recently finished college, which has a stimulating effect with its cycle of seasons and the adrenaline of anticipation as you count down toward Christmas, spring, and summer breaks. I graduated in May of 2009, and within a few days of convocation I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. With 40 pounds on my back and 2,178 miles of backpacking ahead of me, literally every step I took was a new adventure. A little over four months later and a lifetime achievement completed, the startling reality of needing a job settled in. I ended up getting a social justice (ish) job at a nonprofit the following January, and off I went to change the world. However, changing the world seems to lose its luster when you are choosing between dental plans, how much to contribute toward your IRA, and a seemingly endless length of red tape and bureaucracy that exists in even the best organizations. 

On my daily walk to work, I had to pass through the campus of a large high school. The seasons progressed from winter to spring, to the beginning of summer, and the school’s heartbeat shifted along with it. But my life remained exactly the same. I still got up at 7:00, was at work by 8:30, and stared at a computer until 5:00. One day in June, it struck me how empty the campus was, the students off presumably indulging the spoils of summer break. I stopped in my tracks and realized my soul felt about as full as the summertime campus of that high school. And I wondered, is this what life will be like for the next 30 years until I retire? A banal life plugging in 40 hours a week, working (in the prophetic words of Loverboy) for the weekend?  And then I felt The Longing.    

One month later I quit my job and went on a medical mission trip to the Dominican Republic. I slept in a house that had shoddy plumbing, mosquito nets over the beds, and a resident tarantula that lifted weights as a hobby. We drove for hours into the backcountry of this developing nation, giving food and medical supplies to families that likely had never seen someone from the U.S. before. At night we played soccer and baseball in the streets with the children, and I felt alive. I started a job at a Christian camp the following week, and met my beautiful wife while belaying chunky Texan children from high ropes courses. We pretended we weren’t madly in love with each other. A few gigs, years, and babies later, that same sobering feeling of “I need a real job” came rushing back in. Back to sitting in front of the computer. The Longing returns.    

Sure, The Longing isn’t omnipresent. You have those “good” days. Days where you’re especially productive and clear out the To-Do List. Or days where you get a little bump in pay, and fantasies of a new truck, dinners out, or some debt-clearing dreams pour in. And The Longing is especially absent on Fridays around 5 p.m., or the day before you leave on vacation. 

But we all know what that really is: anesthesia. It’s a numbing of what’s really happening two or three layers deeper in the soul. And like any anesthetic, in time it wears off. The numbness fades, and reality returns. The little bump in pay somehow has gotten wrapped into the monotony of your tedious budget, as if it were never there to begin with. The new truck is fun, but you never seem to have time to take it off road anywhere, and you don’t want to get any knicks or dings in it since it cost so much. (So why did you get it in the first place?) And those dinners out … well, you need a sitter to watch the kids to really engage in your wife’s heart, and that would require another bump in pay. And so it’s back to the hamster wheel.

And that’s the struggle with pursuing a life with God. Let’s just call it as it is. Seeking a life and a calling with God can hurt. Pursuing God, which is to say pursuing our calling, wakens us to the painful ache that is The Longing. It allows us to see that the work we are doing is so far from our true hearts, that a fish out of water is closer to home than our souls are at the 9 to 5. 

“How long, oh Lord? Will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me?”

(Ps. 13:2)

Listen, I am all for taking care of our families. It is a responsibility that I take incredibly seriously. But when you look up from your keyboard amidst the tedium and piles of paperwork and realize that you haven’t felt the sunshine on your face in two days, you have to wonder—is this the right way to take care of them? The last time you laughed, I mean really laughed, was last year on vacation when you had a few golden moments with your wife and children. But what about the other 51 weeks of the year?

When I think back on my hike of the Appalachian Trail, or my time in the Dominican Republic, there is a thread. I felt alive, and they were adventures. Contrast those experiences to staring at a computer monitor reading emails and sitting in day-long budget meetings. Is there really any comparison? 

Now, I am not suggesting we all quit our jobs and spend the next few months tramping across Europe wearing tie-dye, smoking hookah and “finding ourselves.” The cycle of gaining employment, burning out, adventure-binging, panicking and again finding “real” work is not sustainable. And I know that on this side of Eden, there will be toil in our work. But it is entirely possible to find a life worth living, a life of adventure and calling, and provide for our families. And here is how: we must incrementally work toward it.

For me, it’s been a 3 p.m. walk outside each day to take a deep breath, pray, and look around at what actually is true. The trees. The breeze. The smell in the air after a rain. What color is the sky today? I get outside and tune in my senses, even if it is for only one minute, every day. When I travel for work, I do everything I can to jam in a micro-adventure in even the tightest scenarios. Sometimes it’s blasting in a three-mile hike in 45 minutes at lunch break and showing up to the meeting sweaty, puffing, but totally recharged. It’s not the Pacific Crest Trail, but it’s available and lifegiving. I daydream of Thoreauvian living and writing stories all day in a rustic mountain cabin. And while I will likely never get anywhere near that life, writing this article is at least a step in the right direction. The key is intentionally leaning into those things that breathe life into your soul, and engaging them at realistic doses every day. 

I don’t have it all figured out. Not even close. There are many times that I come home from work feeling entirely comatose. Some days I crave a monkish existence more than is probably healthy (Trappist Abbey, please disregard my recent application). But when I’m intentional and embrace the call of The Longing, I’m amazed at how many opportunities God provides to rescue my heart. Even if it is just for one minute at 3 p.m. 

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