The Ethics of More

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For when a soul is in one continual state, I don’t consider it safe, nor do I think it is possible for the spirit of the Lord to be in one fixed state during this exile. (The Interior CastleTeresa of Avila)

img: desire

Credit: Andi Jetaime (2008) [CC BY]

I’ve come to find that I do my best writing in a state of turmoil.

I am a fairly emotive person. When I’m enthusiastic, my voice rises an octave in pitch and about 20 decibels in volume. I have been nervous to the point of uncontrollable shaking. I used to think people who were moved to tears by art were weird, but I cried all the way home after the ballet Nijinsky. It’s so funny to to be human – things that were never real to us can suddenly occupy our lives. But such is the wonder of it – that we can surprise ourselves, that we never fully know ourselves.

Living demands movement. We discover and evolve. We acquire information and discern what is worth retaining. But we always tend towards more and more and more.

There is a fine line between consumerism and authentic longing. And today it is harder to distinguish between one and the other. In my mind, the former is more about what you have, the latter about who you are. The problem is when people conflate these two concepts and base who they are on what they have.

It’s not a bad thing to be in a state of want. For St Gregory of Nyssa, Christian perfection is perpetual progress in becoming like God. But God is infinite, and we are finite. Thus, if we reach a point at which we feel content with ourselves, we have ceased to be truly conscious of God. St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” For Gregory, “resting in God” is about becoming more and more enveloped in grace. Our stability is in motion.

You might not agree with all of Gregory’s theology, but for a 4th century bishop, I find him strangely relevant. Today our culture encourages us to want. “Bravo,” I say. But we must want with an authentic human longing, not a shallow one that can be sedated with things. People who have experienced conversion often talking about finding fulfillment in God. That’s true and beautiful, but only when fulfillment is understood in a way that does not require stasis. The goal is to be “satisfied but not satiated” – so euphoric over what we already have that the only plausible response is to get more of it.

So what does this have to do with turmoil and the assortment of emotions that I described at the beginning of this piece? I’ve noticed so many people today are obsessed with proclaiming their worthiness – that they’re fine just the way they are. At some level, this sentiment is good and healthy. But I am worried by the sense of stagnation that it implies. If you’re fine the way you are, what’s the point of doing anything? If you’ve reached your peak, what way is there to go but backwards?

The truth is, we are never happy just the way we are. We are happy now because of an underlying anticipation for continued happiness in the future. But if we have not yet internalized the state of being simultaneously happy and desirous, it can take a bit of restlessness to get us going. But restlessness is motivation. Turmoil, enthusiasm, nervousness, crying are all signs that we are living – that we are tuned in to our experience. They happen naturally, when we recognize there is something worth going after, and going after more, perhaps through eternity.

Copyright 2015 Sarah Blake

Image: Desire, Andi Jetaime, October 25, 2008, CC.

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