When life gives you what you need but not what you want (reflections on 2018)

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My word for 2018 was “Joy.” I wanted more joy in my life and I got it. But wow, I wasn’t expecting how it would happen. I should have remembered that joy is often birthed into our lives through pain. What I’ve learned is that true joy is hard won. It requires courage and sacrifice.

This year I had to give up the home of my dreams, all of my dogs and two friendships that I thought I could never live without.

I watched my husband give up his stable job of twenty years for a business venture that, while not exactly risky, was definitely an unknown.

I also had to entrust myself to a new psychiatrist, a new neighborhood and life as a renter instead of a homeowner.

I emerged from all these changes feeling lighter, more peaceful and yes, more joyful.

At the beginning of this year when I thought about wanting more joy in my life, I didn’t realize how many things I’d been hanging onto that were actually inhibiting joy. I was hoarding things and animals and relationships to make myself feel more whole. I had to lose a lot of that this year in order to face the reality I’ve been avoiding for so long. And when I finally did let go, I was confronted with a reality that was difficult to face.

The utter loneliness of the human condition.

I finally let myself accept the terrible, terrifying truth: there is no person, no animal, no purpose, no THING that can ever satisfy the deepest longings of my soul. Not even Jesus.

Let me explain that. What I mean is: I grew up in a culture that sang songs about Jesus as the “lover of my soul” and “all that thrills my soul is Jesus.” My favorite saint is St. Thérèse of Lisieux who was rapturously in love with Jesus. I’ve been looking for this Jesus all my life. I’ve been craving this personal relationship with Jesus, this personal experience of Jesus that was supposed to transcend all else.

But now I begin to think this isn’t healthy for someone like me. I listen to other people talk about Jesus. How they’re “wild” about Him. How they’re “happy-clappy” Jesus people. Instead, I brushed up against atheism this year. I became terminally disillusioned with evangelicalism as a whole. And I watched as my love for the Catholic Church was dashed against the rocks of more and more and more sex abuse scandals.

Perhaps my problem all along has been seeking a relationship with Jesus that was never meant to be. I’ve been studying 18th c. literature and have come across the idea of “disinterestedness.” This does not mean uninterested. Rather, it is an aesthetic attitude, a way of perceiving things that is unbiased by personal interest.

And there’s the rub. So much of my spiritual journey has been corrupted by cloying self interest. I want so many things from my relationship with Jesus.

I think the defining flaw, here, is that I’ve always presumed Jesus was knowable. That Jesus wanted to have a relationship with me. But, honestly, the Jesus I saw in the Gospels this year really disturbed me. He scared me. He’s unpredictable. He’s harsh.

Take this story in Luke chapter 9. So this guy who wants to say goodbye to his family before running away after Jesus and Jesus is all: “Whoever puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

As my kids would say: RIP that guy.

Another guy is like: “I gotta bury my dad” and Jesus is all: “Let the dead bury the dead.”

For real, Jesus?

The point is, maybe I don’t know Jesus. And maybe that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Maybe I’ve been trying to have this relationship when, really, it’s not about me and my cozy little personal relationship with God. Maybe I need to practice some disinterestedness.

So, that’s my 2018. I lost things and I gained freedom. I got chopped down and grew back up.

I grew up better. Wiser. I’m now fully stabilized on meds. I got accepted to grad school and finished my first semester with straight A’s. My kids are growing up and away and my home is growing quieter and emptier. But in that emptiness, I’m finding something unexpected: fullness of joy.

Who knew joy would come bearing so many tears? I didn’t.

This year I got what I needed. But not what I wanted. And I’m finding a rugged peace in that. All is well.

Elizabeth Esther3 Comments