January derives its name from the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions often depicted with two faces looking in opposing directions.
As we usher in this month and year, many of us join in the tradition of looking back on what has been: personally, nationally and internationally; while bracing and preparing ourselves for all that might unfold in the year to come. It’s at this point of reflection that resolutions are traditionally conceived, and within them the hope of securing a better future (physically, materially, relationally or spiritually)- though this moment of reflection and resolve could be a signpost to something more profound than the thought of a more ‘successful’ year.
Flawed and frail creatures as we are, many of us will think back on 2022 as a year where we failed to embody certain virtues we aspire to. This may be professionally or personally; it might be about being a better parent or partner, or having the courage and tenacity to excel at work. Such reflections of ‘if only I’d been or done this or that, life would look and feel different’ can feel poignant, and could be pointing towards our longing for a better world and a better version of ourselves. The writer Susan Cain explores this feeling in her beautiful book Bittersweet. Cain identifies longing as an inextricable part of our nature and experience of life, one which Western society has tended to suppress in its promotion of happiness, which is often conflated with positivity (she refers to this as the ‘tyranny of positivity’). Though as she points out in the subtitle of her book, it is ‘sorrow and longing [that] make us whole’. It is often what we have lost and long for that are, at least partially, expressed in our new year’s resolutions.
This sense of the bittersweet is the inspiration for so much spiritual practice and creative endeavour. It is embodied in the elegiac poetry of Leonard Cohen, the melodies and harmonies of Beethoven and the artwork of Caravaggio. To acknowledge and meditate on this side of our human experience is healthy, humanising and wise, as this profound interview with Nick Cave explores. Yet, it is also interesting and appropriate to ask what our longing is pointing us towards, and what it says about us. In Cain’s TED talk in Edinburgh, she ends with such a plea for listeners to “follow your longing where it’s telling you to go, it’s pointing you in the direction of the sacred”. As an agnostic speaking to a non-religious audience, it’s a compelling suggestion (she acknowledges that ‘sacred’ may be an uncomfortable word for many), though she’s not the first to think of it.
“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing – to reach the mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from – my country, the place where I ought to have been born.”
C.S Lewis’s writings at various points touch on longing and desire as signposts to the divine. In his novel Till We Have Faces, he wrote; “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing – to reach the mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from – my country, the place where I ought to have been born.” For Lewis, desire and longing stretch us towards the spiritual realm. As he so poetically puts it in The Weight of Glory, “they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” The fact that we have an existential longing that this world does not seem to satisfy was a signal for Lewis that we were made for another realm. In German, the word ‘sehnsucht’ describes this feeling. It translates roughly as a feeling of homesickness for a place we have never been to.
This idea of this kind of homesickness is the inspiration behind many spiritual traditions and stories. It’s evident in the Bible’s New Testament book of Hebrews, where the writer brings to attention those people who lived (and were driven by), a sense of sehnsucht. As the writer puts it; “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had the opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.”
Resolutions and goals can be helpful for providing a focus, embedding new habits and offering the sense of a new beginning. But it’s also worth reflecting on the desire and longing that gives birth to them, and what this has to teach us. Life is often not as we would like it to be, and we long for wholeness and resolution in the many places it is lacking. Perhaps that is at least part of what it means to have faith; a belief and a hope that one day our longings might be satisfied, until which point they serve as a compass and a guide.
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