Amarillo by mornin’, up from San Antone.
Everything that I’ve got is just what I’ve got on.
When that sun is high in that Texas sky
I’ll be bucking at the county fair.
Amarillo by morning, Amarillo I’ll be there.
For the record, reading borderline sappy, heartfelt blog posts such as this one used to gain the attention of my internal eye roll, an inward gesture that my experiences and my general approach to life have encouraged me to master over the years. Perhaps I was too harsh toward those wordpress writers who wrote open letters during the height of the blogging phenomenon however—I always seem to jump on trends a few years too late!—because there is something incredibly therapeutic about putting self-examination into writing. Living in Thomasville, NC this summer has given me way too much time to think, and, trust me, I am the last person that needs to be encouraged to think more.
The words above belong to one of George Strait’s most famous songs, Amarillo by Morning, and Strait’s iconic voice manages to capture the loneliness of those rugged individuals who dare to live the rodeo lifestyle. You will not find me “bucking at the county fair” due to my lack of, well, country-ness, but the song holds particular meaning for me regardless since Amarillo is only an hour drive north on the interstate from my hometown of Lubbock, a route surrounded by endless fields of dirt. I know it well. The two cities are close enough that, living 23 hours away among the endless tress of North Carolina, Amarillo might as well be home, and thus the longing that the cowboy feels for Amarillo becomes the longing I feel for what used to be my home.
Unlike many of my peers who will be returning to various United Methodist conferences in Texas, I may not be going back, and it has taken me until now to truly accept this. But it’s not really home I miss so much, it is the familiarity. Knowing where all the hidden restaurants are, where the cool places are, and having friends you are comfortable being yourself around while going to said places, is an underrated feeling. I also miss my family. These guys are the support system that keeps me both sane and from doing as many dumb things as I would if left to my own devices, and being so far away can take its toll sometimes. Facetime conversations are no substitute for the warmth of a hug or time spent together.
This desire for the familiar serves as a reflection of my larger experience during this previous semester at Duke. The last few, miserable weeks left me feeling like I was stuck in classrooms learning about things I did not want to learn about, doing assignments I did not care about, and wondering what the hell I was even doing with my life. It is one thing to say you want to be a theology professor during your best moments of intense reflection, it is another thing to say you want to be a theology professor when you find yourself skipping every reading because you are simply tired of words. In the midst of this, Texas Tech basketball went all the way to the national championship, providing an exhilarating distraction from having to deal with feelings of existential dread. Problem is, Tech blew it in the final moments, the most disappointing sports moment of my life. A few days later, I faced the sting of rejection in a situation which I suspect might have turned out successful given different circumstances, and perhaps a little less of my trademark sense for bad timing in matters of love. In my infinite wisdom, I decided that listening to Texas country was a good idea throughout all of this, and I managed to pile homesickness on top of my other preexistent feels. All things considered, spring semester me was not sure he wanted to be at Duke Divinity anymore.
I do not share this as a sob story to earn sympathy but as an example of what radical change and unmet expectations can result in. Many of us are far less ready to accept change than we imagine ourselves to be, and sometimes the full weight of change only bothers us once we finally realize the burdens we have unknowingly been carrying. Many of us are also far less independent than we would like to think. I am one of these people. To our detriment, we live in modern societies that afford us easy access to busyness and distraction at the cost of finding true meaning in life. Those periods of painful destabilization that push us out of our comfort zones are truly blessings, because in these changes often come our greatest moments of clarity and perspective.
It sounds silly now, but I used to think I was above all this emotion, that I was in control and that this control was wise. At some point during those formative teenage years, I internalized that popular idea that men are supposed to be tough and that others do not want to see the vulnerable you. I have since learned otherwise. Much of my growth came in two stages—realizing just how much emotions affect the decisions of others, and realizing just how much emotions affect my own life. With that awareness came the slow understanding I am just now getting around to living with, that to be fully human is to embrace the full range of human emotion—to not only understand them but to feel them fully—and to hold that in complementary tension with the workings of the mind. I believe the proper relationship between the two is not the subversion of one under the other but instead an equal partnership. Such a balance is difficult to strike, but being fully human is fully worth it.
I suppose this might seem like common sense to those who approach life more from their hearts than I do, but I wonder, if we chose to listen to the longings of our hearts, what might they tell us about finding meaning in life? I can think of several:
- acceptance (to be seen as you are and welcomed for it)
- comfort (to experience peace and security)
- order (to obtain some measure of control and power)
- to be loved (to be cherished by another)
- knowledge (to be able to achieve one’s means, whether relational or intrapersonal)
- excitement (to find joy in life)
- achievement (to obtain rewards, whether internal or external)
- to be right (to be justified)
- clarity (to find purpose in life)
- status (to be admired/respected)
Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and some people desire these things to more or less degrees than others. Everyone however feels each of these longings to some extent and, whether consciously or not, searches for their corresponding meanings. One possible trap that many people fall into is not attending to, or even ignoring, some of these longings. This rarely ends well in the long run. For so much of my life, I have lived for knowledge and achievement, as though these two things could form the foundation of a satisfying life. What an amazing self-deception. Living with this approach, the younger me who entered college thought he was ready to take on the world, to go anywhere and do anything. Present day me wonders in light of all of this whether there are things worth living for that are worth compromising on ambitions.
A driven, and healthy person could, with a little luck, perhaps create the kind of life that addresses these longings, yet there is a great chance that such a person would still feel like something is missing. This feeling of discontent is arguably one of the reasons why religion is such an inseparable part of the human experience in both the past and the future, and persons such as myself would suggest that something (or rather someone) truly is missing. To truly find meaning is life, one more step is required: to look beyond ourselves to another.
One of the things I find beautiful about the Christian faith is that it invites us into a new world that addresses these longings, even if, like most things in life, it does not fully satisfy them. God accepts us as we are and teaches us to accept others as they are. God cherishes us, and teaches us to cherish others. God gives us bodies and life by which to rule the earth as God’s representatives. God gives us a spirit of comfort and a community to be comforted by. God gives us the tools by which to wonder and imagine, as well as Jesus, who reveals God. God gives us a mission which, when things are going well, should be exciting. God offers a reward for our faithfulness that is greater than any earthly reward. God declares us right, and gives us the resources and tools by which to consider what is right. God offers a vision of life that is filled with purpose. God offers us honor and power in the coming world, but shaped after the pattern of Christ’s self-emptying incarnation.
Glimpsing Christianity’s beauty does not always result in a new life within this world however. Often our desires are twisted and warped to seek the fulfillment of these longings through the wrong means and in the wrong things. We place expectations on objects, experiences, and people who cannot then bear their weight. And even if one does magically have their desires mostly in order, there is still the looming gap between us and God. I know as well as anyone that, just because Christianity can be beautiful, this does not therefore make it true. There is always that second voice that says all of this is for naught, and that one would be better off pursuing happiness as life’s meaning. Yet happiness is less enduring than that deep sense of contentment so many people spend their lives searching for. It survives during those seasons of life when happiness does not come as easily. Though the pleasures of this earth may bring happiness, they so often fail to bring that ultimate feeling of satisfaction that everyone longs for.
C.S. Lewis noted something similar in one of his more famous ideas—the link between human desire and the existence of God. Human desires correspond to real human needs, yet the pleasures that promise to satisfy these needs never do so completely. The human heart wants something beyond mere pleasure. It is reasonable then to suggest that this longing for something greater points to a real human need—what Lewis suggests is the need to know and relate to God, who is the origin and fulfillment of our desires. I would dare to call the satisfaction of this ultimate desire contentment, or perhaps even a deep, abiding joyful and mournful love and a perception of beauty. Like our salvation, our experience of this contentment is sadly only a foretaste of the future glory to come; in this life, it is not complete. How confident Lewis was in his own arguments, no one can know for sure. Neither am I certain that Christianity is true nor that it is always beautiful, but I am willing to bet my life on what little I know that Jesus is the one person worth wagering one’s life on.
Before C.S. Lewis, there was Augustine, who wrote one of the most profound lines in all of Christian literature: “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” I am not a very spiritual person, and, to be brutally honest, I have always been skeptical of this idea when a plate of tacos could deliver more immediate and consistent results. In some way, this is God’s comfort (God is ultimately responsible for the tacos after all and why I have the capacity to find them appetizing), but this sort of pleasure falls short of joy when it is not redirected with thankfulness or praise toward the one who is its source, much like a Frisbee tossed the wrong direction into a heavy wind. I am still not sure if I completely believe Augustine, but I think I might just be ready to accept his idea…or at least to live with it for a while.
Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.