There is a space between man's imagination and man's attainment that may only be traversed by his longing.
― Kahlil Gibran from Sand and Foam
I am thinking about longing this week. I think about it often, and I know I have written about it here before. It's a complicated thing, longing. It's a good thing, a great thing, a salvation. To long for something is an affirmation of your very self; a vibrant reminder that you care and you feel and you have a bonfire burning inside. But it is also an ache, isn't it? A pull outside of yourself – for what you desire is not with you, not yet. It is your head against the cold of the windowpane, searching, searching through the glass for that thing, that (as of yet) unattainable thing.
I tend to rest, ultimately, not on the dark side of longing, but on the light side.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.
Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Go to the Limits of Your Longing
I had an epiphany this week though. Perhaps you all already know this, but for me it was an eye opener. I realized that, historically, when I feel a longing, I immediately and unconsciously attach it to many, many thoughts or memories or fantasies. Let me explain: I long for something. Nanoseconds later I either have a fantasy about that longing – What would it be like to have this? I can see myself having it, feeling so happy, sitting in my living room basking in its glow… or I have a memory about it – I remember when I wanted this before. I almost had it, and then, in the last moment, it fell through my fingers. It felt awful, I felt like a failure…
See? In the former, my longing is hitched to a fantasy train, wildly careening down the tracks, and in the latter, it is strapped to a memory bomb, whistling and hurtling at terrifying speeds to the earth. Both are a ride. Neither will get me anywhere useful.
So my epiphany was this idea that longing is best treated with a buffer of space and reverence. It needs to breathe. It needs to be – not lonely, perhaps – but solitary. It deserves to be respected in that way. We who feel longing deserve to be respected in that way.
I know I have posted this poem before, but May Sarton says it in the very best way:
The phoebe sits on her nest
Hour after hour,
Day after day,
Waiting for life to burst out
From under her warmth.
Can I weave a nest of silence,
Weave it of listening, listening, listening,
Layer upon layer?
But one must first become small,
Nothing but a presence,
Attentive as a nesting bird,
Proffering no slightest wish
Toward anything that might happen or be given,
Only the warm, faithful waiting, contained in one’s smallness.
Beyond the question, the silence.
Before the answer, the silence.
— May Sarton, Can I Weave a Nest of Silence