Restlessness is a lot like a vague itch. It hides under your clothes. And sometimes it feels like no matter how much you try to scratch it through your sweater it’s hiding right under the surface of your skin. Itches are rarely seen and most of the time they’re pretty benign. But sometimes you take off your coat and realize you’ve been nursing a pressure sore that is slowly eating you away.
I listened to Tim Keller’s sermon on Hebrews 4 last week and realized that restlessness is seen in the boredom of being alone and the inescapable cycles of busyness we live in. We like to deal with our restless itch by scratching it with our activities and rituals and relationships, as though being busier would make that itch go away rather than eventually break out of the skin and bleed out our soul.
Some people have a megaphone conscience and acutely feel the restlessness it generates. Others more self assured, pour themselves into their accomplishments, unable to stop, not so much ignoring the restlessness but being unaware of what truly drives them. They can only sense a vague unease and the inability to be alone by themselves. No wonder laying down to sleep can be a terror for so many. Restlessness can have many masks and who knows where else she lurks? Underlying all of that is a relational problem of your self’s inability to relate its self to its self.
I wish I was like a child again! When we were children we would fear the boogeyman at night but as adults we dread ourselves. While half of me is faced with my shortcomings the other looks up into the blinding radiance of God’s being. The infinite gap between God and myself, is like a beautiful woman that terrifies and makes you conscious of your own deficits. As Keller preached on Hebrews 4, I was reminded that we’re always trying to cover that up by our own priestly sacrifices to get rid of that unclean restlessness.
Like every human, I long to be okay. But what do you do when the measuring stick is an infinite being and the chase is endless? What sacrifice is ever enough? Sometimes I think maybe if I just knew a little bit more anatomy I would be a better physiotherapist. Or if I just could make some money I would be a more loving husband. And so on until what I’m really hoping for is to be a better person. With each sacrifice, I secretly hope it’s the final one.
A popular saying is that ‘there is no rest for the weary’. Restlessness doesn’t go away no matter how much we sacrifice ourselves to appease our conscience because they’re never good enough. We often think that rest comes at the completion of our work the way God rested on the 7th day of creation from his. But true eternal rest is a gift of God. What blew my mind as I listened to Keller’s sermon was that entering God’s rest meant putting down every pretense in our life, to recognize our shame and nakedness before his piercing Word and to come weary to Jesus who would take our burdens. I only wish that entering that resting was as easy as I heard it preached. I guess that’s why it’s a gift. It’s something to ask for not earn.
It has been a busy year so far for my family and I. At the beginning of the year I decided to begin studying my Master of Divinity degree at Christ College because I thought it was a better path to developing what abilities God had given me and how I would best help others. The semester was a hard one. Besides learning a completely new and dead language (Koine Greek) I also began a new role as clinical educator at work and the constant juggling between the 2 responsibilities meant that by June my body was worn out and my mind was absent. I needed a holiday. By July I was in Sabah, Malaysia enjoying the tropical weather and seeing my grandmother whom I had not seen in 13 years. But while the weather was sunny and the waves were calm, a storm in my heart still raged. I experienced a gnawing restlessness that grew each day and fully manifested itself only once I had returned to Sydney and prepared to return to ‘normal life’.
This restlessness of mine which I am prone to experiencing was crippling. Around the same time, I had struggled to know how I ought to rest and what to prioritize in the upcoming semester. Was I even studying the right course? Why was it so hard? How else should I be using my time? From the moment I entered my last clinical note, I think my mind had already begun to consider the alternatives I could be doing with my time and my life despite my constraints. Being open to new possibilities was exhausting, like never ending research for a product you want to buy. In the end, it came down to what I perceived as the absurdity of my life. What was the point of my labors if none of my work will be remembered? This is something that has become increasingly obvious to me. After all, Jean Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion at 26 while Nietzsche only became the youngest professor at the University of Basel at 24. As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’ Accompanying this feeling of insignificance is a feeling of missing out, that there is a life out there where I might be happy, leading everyday that I haven’t realized it to be filled with constant regret and envy at those to appear to have found it (though I haven’t actually met anyone who has yet). It wasn’t until the first day of returning to work at my clinic that I read this an article on restlessness in the Art of Manliness.
One of the most valuable lessons for the young to learn is that it takes a great man to accomplish a great undertaking, and that both are necessarily few in one generation. If this lesson were learned and heeded half the heartache of our mature years might be avoided. Effort, and high resolve, and noble purpose are excellent qualities of character; but they can never enable a man to lift himself by the boot-straps nor accomplish the unattainable. It is at once the weakness and greatness of some to conceive what they attempt to do of so high a degree of excellence that no human power can reach it. The natural effect of this is a restless desire to accomplish something far beyond what is ordinarily attained even by surpassing talent. When such a desire has taken possession of the heart, the usual achievements of men seem poor indeed. With their broad views and far-sighted stretch of thought, it seems trivial to come down to the common affairs of every-day life. It is to them a small thing to do good and get good in the plain old common-sense way. J. Clinton Ransom, The Successful Man, 1886
Thanks to the technological developments of the last 2 centuries, the accumulation of wealth in the West and the emphasis on self autonomy, we are served a buffet of endless possibilities and enticed by endless temptations and expectations. How can one live in such a world? The solution I think seems to be by a good dose of humility. Just as the writer of Ecclesiastes concluded that there is nothing better for man than to fear God and keep his commandments, so Kierkegaard reminds us that there is little way of knowing if the life we have chosen for ourselves is the best. Often the responsibility of this immense choice can crush us from ever making a decision. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Humility and faith are the keys to enjoying the present and leaving the future to the One who sees all that is under the sun. Complement this with TGC’s article “How Do I Discern If My Ambition is Godly?”
Though we shouldn’t be overly introspective—exhaustively questioning the motives of everything we do—it’s helpful to keep a pulse on our ambition. I’ve found one basic principle helpful: Godly ambition requires both hustle and humility.
- ## How to Cure Neurasthenia (Restlessness) | The Art of Manliness
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