The Collins English Dictionary defines longing as ‘A prolonged unfulfilled desire or need.’
Longings are not easily placated. Their silence cannot be bought. They will be heard, no matter the personal inconvenience or hardship. Longings are a sign of who we are and what we value. They reside deep within us. They are an ache of the heart.
Some longings might be thought of as universal, longings that are common to all. A longing for justice, for peace, for freedom, for prosperity, for love, for a future.
COVID-19 has given rise to a shared longing. The pandemic has affected our lives, and how we live them. During these unprecedented circumstances it is normal to feel confused, fearful, lonely, and disconnected. We long for a return to the familiar, to the rhythms of life that brought meaning and purpose. There is comfort and security in what we know. Wrestling with the unknown exacerbates our stress levels.
Longing is integral to maintaining good mental health. It expresses the ‘hidden’ desires of the heart. Philosopher Alvin Platinga describes longing as ‘an ingredient of hope.’ He writes that, “you can hope only for something you want, and if you really want it, you will long for it.”
Sue Monk Kidd’s fourth novel, The Book of Longings, is a work of historical fiction, set in the first century. It is the story of a young woman named Ana, born into a wealthy family with ties to Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. She is an intelligent young woman, curious and courageous, willing to defy the expectations placed on her. She nurtures within a passion to write. She says,
“All my life, longings lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes to wail and sing through the night.”
Ana has long been able to read and write. She is possessed with unusual abilities to compose words into stories, to decipher languages and texts, to grasp hidden meanings, to hold opposing ideas in her head without conflict. Her aspirations embarrassed her parents.
Ana longs to be a voice to the voiceless. She believes that to be ignored, to be forgotten, is the worst sadness of all. She swears an oath to write down the stories of the matriarchs in the Scriptures – Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Zilpah, Bilhah, Esther…, to record their accomplishments and praise their flourishing, no matter how small. She would be a chronicler of lost stories.
Ana’s prayer suggests she has come to accept her longing as ‘divine urgency.’
Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born.
In writing about ‘the nature of longing,’ author Mike Bickle says,
While we may not ignore the longings of our heart, we can set them aside or bury them beneath our everyday existence. Our circumstances may throw up obstacles that prevent us from pursuing that which we desire.
When her parents threatened to destroy her scrolls, Ana gathered the thirteen scrolls she valued most, two vials of ink, two reed pens, three clean sheets of papyrus and a bowl. With the help of her servant Lavi, Ana located a cave where she could hide her bundle until the threat passed or a more suitable option presented itself.
There will always be opposition to our desire to live differently, to prioritise the longings of our heart. It will be framed as irresponsible, ill-conceived, a chasing after the wind. Like Ana, we need to remain strong and resolute and to await our time.
Ana’s aunt, Yaltha, was a stabilizing presence in her life. Her words were a source of strength, encouraging vigilance and inspiring hope. She reminds Ana,
“Your moment will come, and when it does, you must seize it with all the bravery you can find… Your moment will come because you will make it come.”
In certain situations, it may seem advisable to bury our longings and desires, to ignore the calling of our heart. But such a strategy is misguided, hindering our personal development, jeopardising our health. As author John Eldredge explains,
“To bury the deep longings of our hearts is not a good thing. Doing so begins to shut our hearts down, and then we fall into that ‘get on with life’ mentality… It is like a form of slow starvation. If your body does not get what it needs, you can run for a while without it. But slowly the erosion begins to manifest itself… You need nourishment.”
Longings are nourishment to the soul. The fulfilment of a longing for silence, for beauty, for distant horizons awakens and rejuvenates, inspiring visions of renewed purpose.
If we are to honour the longings of our heart, we need to understand what they are. Let us consider three specific longings that are prevalent in our society: the longing to be seen, the longing to be secure, the longing to be significant.
(1) The longing to be seen
‘One of the deepest longings of the human soul is to be seen.’ John O’Donohue (poet)
Users of social media recognise that it is one of the easiest and efficient ways to be seen. Social media is about self-presentation. It allows you to position yourself the way you want to be known. The visibility it promises brings instant recognition and social approval.
We are all familiar with the saying, ‘out of sight out of mind.’ It suggests that ‘something not seen is not thought about.’ To preserve your approval and influence on social media you need to maintain your activity. Many young people fear that any reduction to their visibility will undermine their approval, reduce their influence, and damage their social connections.
Ana’s scrolls were a living testament to her heart. They revealed her passion and would remain a tangible reminder throughout coming generations.
(2) The longing to be secure
‘The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.’ Maya Angelou (author)
The home should be a safe place, a place where young and old are free to be themselves, a place where mistakes are tolerated and forgiven, a place where it is OK to let down your guard and expose your innermost self.
Sadly, there are homes that are anything but safe, homes that are ruled by fear, and anger, and abuse. Dysfunctional families, damaged families, families that are torn apart by emotional blackmail and physical aggression, families that are the victims of violence perpetrated by ‘an aggressor’ who insists on control.
Ana knew what it was to be managed, to have her freedom curtailed, to be despised, to be shunned, to be exploited, to be judged, to feel the anger of the mob. Circumstances led her to the Therapeutae, a cluster of flat-roofed houses inhabited by a community of people dedicated to living simply and sustainably, a spiritual community who value work – tilling the soil and tending the animals – and solitude and celebration. For Ana it was a place of refuge, a place of healing, a place where she could pursue her longings, a place to call home.
(3) The longing to be significant
‘Every person has a longing to be significant; to make a contribution; to be a part of something noble and purposeful.’ John C Maxwell (author)
The desire to be significant is within everyone. We all want our lives to matter, to count for something. For some the need for recognition is paramount. They desire the approval of others for their accomplishments. Others are content to know they have been faithful in meeting expectations while discharging their duties.
Some people achieve significance through destructive means. The resort to reckless behaviour, attention seeking behaviour, to achieve notoriety.
Ana’s longing for significance was in service to the forgotten. She wrote to give a voice to the voiceless, to share their stories of courage and sacrifice, to celebrate their significance.
Finally, there is no greater service we can offer someone than to validate their longing and to encourage its emergence.
Although Ana’s husband died young, he blessed her by bending his heart to hers and listening. Ana says,
“He heard the quake that lived at my centre, and he didn’t seek to silence it.”