Now I am a shadow
I long for the boundaries
Of my wandering.
-- Leonard Cohen, "This Is for You"
In this week's Jukebox I want to highlight a few songs that speak to the phenomenon of yearning. What is this yearning that we so often feel gnawing silently in our guts, perpetually urging us to fumble toward a future not yet known. One dictionary definition of yearning is, "A persistent, often wistful or melancholy desire; a longing". What is this longing? Where is its source ultimately located? Or to put it in philosophical language, what are the metaphysical and/or ontological dimensions of this persistent human experience?
Here's what a few different philosophers, theologians and spiritual traditions have had to say about this experience:
The writers of the Psalms in the Bible spoke a lot about a yearning for God. Here's but one example: "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:1-2)
And then there's the famous line of St. Augustine's from The Confessions, "Our heart is restless, until it rests in you".
Moving toward a more cosmic-evolutionary perspective, the Reverend Bruce Sanguin, a contributor here at Beams, defines God as "the non-coercive force of Love drawing everything in the universe towards it". So in this view we might say that we're always yearning for and working toward our future union with God. (You can read more about this view in Bruce's article God as the Future).
The evolutionary theologian John Haught also sets this perpetual yearning within a cosmic context. He writes, "The root of our restlessness is the whole evolution of the cosmos itself. Thus when we think about ourselves and our destiny, we can't dissociate them from the destiny of the whole universe".The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer posited a cosmic Will that was animating and driving all things in the universe forward, but he was ultimately a pessimist, believing we were under the total control of this blind force, serving it unconsciously. Nietzsche agreed with Schopenhauer on the cosmic scope of this will, but disagreed sharply that we were the mere puppets of its drives; Nietzsche saw his ubermensch, the next stage of human being, as someone who could align with this will and create themselves in a perpetual state of becoming and self-overcoming. You might say that Nietzsche wants us to tap into our restless longing and live it out joyously in a ongoing state of creative self-emergence.
In his 1980 text The Atman Project, Ken Wilber saw our perpetual restlessness as a search to re-unite with our True Self, or Atman (the Indian term)- "Under the pressure of Eros successive structures of consciousness are created and then abandoned, fashioned and then transcended, constructed and then passed by. They are created as substitutes for Atman and abandoned when these substitutes fail".
And lastly, in Zen and the Psychology of Transformation Hubert Benoit writes, "Man, because he is virtually capable of living his identity with the Absolute Principle, cannot accept the sleep of this identity".
So that's a sample of what a few thinkers and spiritual traditions have had to offer on the topic of yearning and longing and restlessness. Who's right? It's hard to say I guess, but I think it's worth becoming present to this dimension of our experience and inquiring into where it might it be emanating from, what it's pointing towards, and what (if anything) we're ultimately supposed to do with it.
Let's turn now to a few songs that have taken up this theme, and as always, feel free to add more examples in the comment section. The first is a song by Steve Earle called I Ain't Ever Satisfied. My favorite stanza- "Last night I dreamed I made it to the promised land/ I was standin' at the gate and I had the key in my hand/ Saint Peter said "come on in boy, you're finally home"/I said "no thanks Pete, I'll just be moving along". It's worth noting that this song is recorded just before Earle's long descent into addiction, and it's a warning to one place that this yearning can lead us. Thankfully Brother Steve made it through the crucible, as is still with us in fine (sober) form today.
Next up is the song The Fire Inside by Bob Seger, looking at what happens when this longing gets lost in one of the many unfulfilling cul-de-sacs of the world. But in the end, no matter how much we're stymied, "We won't be denied, the fire inside".
And lastly, a song that might be the quintessential song of yearning, U2's classic I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.