It’s 11:00 P.M. I have had a nice evening with friends and a few drinks, and now I am back in my room alone. No more conversation. Nothing to say, and nothing to listen to but the sound of fluttering leaves outside, the toothbrush and paste against my teeth, creaking floors, and the rustle of sheets as I climb into bed.
I prop myself up on my elbow and flick on the nearest lamp. Silence settles and thoughts and feelings begin to twirl through my head as I take a moment to be still.
I feel an anxious restlessness. Like I am waiting for an answer to a question, wanting to finish something I left incomplete, or trying to satisfy some craving. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t feel good. It feels lonely and urgent. All I know is that I am not content enough to let myself slip into sleep.
I grab my phone without any specific purpose, almost subconsciously. My unfocused gaze passes over the many digital squares full of potential connection: Facebook, Instagram, my Twitter feed.
I don’t find anything, but I can’t stop looking. It’s like my fingers are some other part of me, involuntarily passing through pages of stories, pictures, and comments. I am in a weird daze, all instinct and blind drive with no focused attention. Just a flow of images and words.
Eventually, something grabs my attention. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just works to fill this restless space. I gaze at the screen for an hour or so until exhaustion overtakes me, and I finally drift to sleep. It’s like 12:09 A.M.
Ronald Rolheiser writes, “…there is within us a fundamental dis-ease, an unquenchable fire that renders us incapable, in this life, of ever coming to full peace….We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congenitally dis-eased, living lives, as Thoreau once suggested, of quiet desperation.”
This “fire” unexpectedly flared with particular intensity that night. Its intensity left me feeling like I was driven beyond my control, overwhelmed by a need to fill some sort of emptiness or longing. And my response was to fill it with a fast fix of social media. I didn’t feel resolution, and I didn’t know why I really felt restless. I knew I was running away from something that would return.
Sure enough, a few evenings later I have the same experience. This time, I resist the strong urge to grab my phone. Instead, I go to the chair in my room, shut off the lights, recline, and close my eyes. I hear the breeze outside, the soft whirring of the water diffuser, and the ringing in my own ears. I sit and breath, slowly letting my tense stomach muscles relax and my shoulders rest.
At first the quiet focuses my attention on the restlessness, making it feel even more acute. But at the same time, this quiet draws me to recognize that I am not alone in this tension. God is with me. So instead of grabbing for my phone, I turn to him. I let my feelings open to him, as if confiding to a friend.
As I do this, the urgency of my feelings slowly resides and gradually I start to perceive what was going on. I see that my restlessness is being caused by some sort of dissatisfaction that I have forgotten about or denied out of fear of what it might mean.
Now, as I face it I see that I feel alone and flat. I realize as I look over my life that I don’t feel excited or drawn by anything. I feel like I am in a fog without a hopeful guiding light. The only things that do come to mind are what I am missing: a significant other, children, friends with me from places I’ve left, etc. I am dissatisfied and doubtful about my life, and this leaves me feeling empty and vulnerable.
Yet as I begin to admit these feelings, I also experience another movement born out of them. Slowly my memory draws me to moments in the past four years where I felt unimaginably blessed, and knew I was right where I needed to be. I remember how joyful I felt in taking vows and laughing with my friends. I remember how my heart broke and grew while ministering to students and inmates.
I see that although I feel dissatisfied, it doesn’t mean that I truly am dissatisfied. Underneath my restlessness is a deeper and authentic current of commitment and love to God and my vocation. And I see that this commitment and love do not rely on feeling good all the time. It’s much more secure and sure than a sharp but fleeting feeling.
I realize that I can only return to the security of this deeper current if I have the courage to renounce passing distractions and face these feelings in my own solitude. I need to silently reflect, rather than turn to Facebook or Netflix for a quick fix. By facing myself in silence, I am able to come back to my true source of peace.