Maybe Stop Seeking?

“A short story says, ‘I looked for x, and didn’t find it,’ or, ‘I was not looking anymore, and then I found x.’ A novel says, ‘I looked for x, and found a, b, c, g, q, r, and w.’”

-Etif Batuman

So yesterday I suggested that you maybe try a thing. Now I want to suggest that you maybe should stop trying things. I’m a cornucopia of contradiction over here.

There’s a lot of narrative pressure to view our spiritual lives as a project we can work on, in which suffering is a problem we should fix or an indicator light of some underlying problem. In general we’re conditioned to expect narratives of change, rather than narratives of staying, sticking it out: romance novels that end with weddings, not marriage novels that start with them. Conversion stories. We’re glutted with these stories whose climax is some chosen, public change. (One reason friendship stories are such a strange genre is that friendships often form invisibly, through the slow accretion of time spent in common and unnecessary responsibilities sought out and undertaken. The big event in most friendship narratives is the death of one of the friends: not an act of choice, not even an act of surrender, but something breaking in from outside to be suffered and accepted.)

I’m a convert, so obviously point here is not “dramatic public changes are always bad for your spiritual life.” We have few models and little training in how to discover and practice an adult version of the faith in which we were raised, but still, I came to believe that Catholicism is true so I’m not gonna go trying to live out an adult version of something else just because patient endurance is good.

But the pressure to have a narrative of change, in which you discover what you were seeking, can affect one’s spiritual life even if you stay put within one religion or church. Try a new prayer practice! Visit some monks! Get therapy, start eating breakfast, move closer to your parents, move further from your parents…. And while you try these things, monitor yourself: Is it helping? Am I feeling better, am I acting better, am I praying better? Do I finally feel like God really loves me? No? Well what about now?

This is a great way to turn good things you actually need to do (that prayer practice, those monks, that therapist, that hometown or escape from hometown) into sources of chaos and impatience. You can damage your trust in God; you can train yourself to pursue happiness, the American mistake, the engine of our consumer dissatisfaction; you can start to make feeling God’s presence the sign of truth rather than a consolation given now and then for reasons known only to God.

Any chosen change eventually requires patient endurance, so most narratives of spiritual seeking do eventually become narratives of accepting, rather than fleeing, suffering and dryness.  But some narratives of spiritual seeking become narratives of rootless mistrust, restless anger, self-blame combined with intense focus on one’s own beliefs, emotions, and opinions.

But so, everybody with enough free time to read blog posts about the spiritual life is probably gonna try something now and then. And I can point to a million examples of things I’ve needed to try: quitting drinking, spiritual direction, daily Mass, daily rosary, go to bed before 1 a.m., all these are things I added under the pressure of my own ongoing sins and suffering and/or because somebody told me to, and they have in fact helped. I guess all I’m really saying is that it took me a stupid long time to learn one fact about the spiritual life which we should be making kindergarteners memorize, which is, “Consolations are the exception. Most days and most years will be times of patience and endurance. Neither dryness nor temptation are in and of themselves signs that you’re doing something wrong. Maybe stop poking at your internal life, and just wait it out?”

Of course, because human life is a collage of folly, the people most likely to take this advice are the ones who shouldn’t! So let’s all show one another a little mercy.

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