Misplaced Longing: What Should We Be Striving For?

Hello, my name is Jennifer, and I am a constant striver.  If there were a 12-step program for people who strive too much, I would certainly join.  In fact, I would want to make it a better program, fix anything that was wrong with it, and if there wasn’t anything wrong with it – by gum – I would find something, and fix it pronto.

I’ve often read that children subjected to instability from a young age will often grow up to be strivers and fixers.  My parents divorced when I was five, and from that time, I have been trying to get them back together.   Not literally – at least not for long – but inside me, in an attempt to mend my brokenness.   In the sudden whirlwind of changing homes and changing schools and absent parents (I was sent to live with my grandparents for a time) I felt I was at the center of a raging storm, and must have somehow caused it.  But nothing I did made it any better.  I got angry and scared and cried, but that didn’t change anything.

Eventually, I settled into a new life with my mom and sister, and regained some stability.  Yet, I retained the feeling that things could go wrong at any moment, and no one around me could prevent it.  So I learned to make things right myself, to make disaster prevention my lifelong project.

It began with striving for perfect grades in school.  If I got less than an A, I was very upset with myself.  And I had to keep the house clean when Mom didn’t feel well enough to do it.  If everything was tidy and in order, chaos could be kept at bay.   Mom – while loving and protective – was always the wildcard.  Sometimes she was happy, and sometimes miserable.    So I had to learn to keep an even keel, to be steady and strong for the three of us.

One safety net was my dreams for the future: for a time when I would be an adult and could have a different life, a more ordered life of my own where I was in charge and everything made sense.  Another was the many books that I read to learn how to live, how to behave, how to escape when the world was too scary.  I could be the heroine of a novel, a completely different person; I could try on different roles until one felt complete and real.

I have carried these defenses into adulthood, the belief that with enough striving I could make any situation better.  It has served me well in some instances, but hampered me in others.

It has made me want to shape life in a way that it can’t be shaped, to organize my life into submission.   It has made me believe, on some level, that because my life was painful and chaotic in childhood that God and the universe owe me an ever-improving future, with all the things I missed out on growing up.

But I know that’s not how it works; that no one gets to create their own life.  Sure, we do to a certain degree, but life always throws us curve balls.  The unexpected presents itself regularly; it is part of the plan.

Many wise people have said that all we can control is our attitude.  I don’t really care for this reality, because I want to control all events as well.  Somehow I got the idea that I know what is best for me: that I need certain friends, or I need to live in a certain house, or have a certain job.  That God wants me to have the full, brimming life of “normalcy” that I have been trying to recover since I was five.   But what God really wants, I believe, is for me to love him, and he wants my spirit to grow, and he wants me to let go of everything but him.

And he has his own mysterious ways of making these things happen.  Maybe he put me in an unsettled family so that I would learn – eventually – that he is my only safety net.

Maybe he takes things away from us, and turns our lives upside down, so that we will learn that he is our one true reality.  We are the living, breathing images of God walking upon the earth; each of us a sign of his love and beauty.

Nothing else matters.  Sure, it’s good to have goals and hopes and dreams.  And, I believe, ultimately, that God will help us make this earthly world a reflection of heavenly virtue and beauty.  But I believe that our souls are the main thing: the only real thing.  And he will do whatever it takes to wake us up, to remind us again and again to strive for the only thing that matters.

Our hopes may be dashed; we may not get what we think we need; but in the ruins of the life we wanted, we can see a glimpse of the life we need.  A life where we look in the eyes of others and see God’s loving spark within.  Where we look at the rivers that flow and the sun and moon overhead and we know that God is father and mother and sister and brother.  And we know him by knowing each other and loving each other.  We are each an eternal reflection of his loving, heavenly light.

Misplaced

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My Own Little Bed

When I was 5 years old, my parents divorced and I was sent to live with my grandparents. I was not happy about this. My grandparents lived in a rambling house with many strange, drafty rooms and I, small and lonely, did not belong there.

I wanted my parents, my mom’s kind eyes and warm hand on my cheek; my dad lifting me on his shoulders, calling me Jenny.

But they lived apart now, and I was in this drafty old house until everything was sorted out, and then, I was told, I would live with my mom in a new place. I did not want a new place. I wanted things the way they were before.

But there were cats in this house; two Siamese cats. I liked cats, and sometimes they would let me pet them if I sat very still.

And I liked the little bed that my grandparents put in their own big room just for me. Their bed was huge and usually empty. They always came to bed after me and got up much earlier than me.

But my bed was small and cozy with lots of soft blankets, and about the same size as me. Sometimes as I snuggled in it at night, I could hear a freight train rumble past on the hill behind the house. I wondered where it was going. I was glad I was in my safe bed, and not out there in the cold night. As I drifted off, the house nestled around me, and I felt loved.

Childhood Revisited