Sunday with Ron Rolheiser: Restlessness is not depth

Nashville Cowboy (2017)

Sunday with Ron Rolheiser
Restlessness is not depth

Thirty-four years ago when I launched this column, I would never have said this: Restlessness is not something to be cultivated, no matter how romantic that might seem. Don’t get Jesus confused with Hamlet, peace with disquiet, depth with dissatisfaction, or genuine happiness with the existential anxiety of the artist. Restlessness inside us doesn’t need to be encouraged; it wreaks enough havoc all on its own.

But I’m a late convert to this view. From earliest childhood through mid-life, I courted a romance with restlessness, with stoicism, with being the lonely outsider, with being the one at the party who found it all too superficial to be real.  Maybe that contributed to my choosing seminary and priesthood; certainly it helps explain why I entitled this column, In Exile. For most of my life, I have equated restlessness with depth, as something to be cultivated.

…And much in our culture, especially in the arts and the entertainment industry, foster that temptation, namely, to self-define as restless and to identify this disquiet with depth and with the angst of the artist. Once we define ourselves in this way, as complex, incurable romantics, we have an excuse for being difficult and we also have an excuse for betrayal and infidelity.  For now, in the words of a song by The Eagles, we are restless spirits on an endless flight. Understandably, then, we fly above the ordinary rules for life and happiness and our complexity is justification enough for whatever ways we act out.  As Amy Winehouse famously self-defines: “I told you I was troubled, and you know that I’m no good.” Why should anyone be mystified by our refusal of normal life and ordinary happiness?

There’s something inside us, particularly when we are young, that tempts us towards that kind of self-definition. And, for that time in our lives, when we’re young, I believe, it’s healthy. The young are supposed to overly-idealistic, incurably romantic, and distrustful of any lazy fall into settling for second-best. As Doris Lessing puts it, there’s only one real sin in life and that’s calling second-best by anything other than what it is, second-best!  My wish is that all young people would read Plato, Augustine, John of the Cross, Karl Rahner, Nikos Kazantzakis, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Jane Austin, and Albert Camus.

But, except for authors such as Plato, Augustine, John of the Cross and Karl Rahner, who integrate that insatiable restlessness and existential angst into a bigger, meaningful narrative, we should be weary of defining ourselves as restless and cultivating that. High romanticism will only serve us well if we eventually set it within a self-understanding that doesn’t make restlessness an end in itself. Just feeling noble won’t bring much peace into our lives and, as we age and mature, peace does become the prize.  Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet, Zorba the Greek, Doctor Zhivago, and the other such mega-romantic figures on our screens and in our novels can enflame our romantic imaginations, but they aren’t in the end images for the type of intimacy that makes for a permanent meeting of hearts inside the body of Christ.

18 thoughts on “Sunday with Ron Rolheiser: Restlessness is not depth

  1. Today, I went on a sort of “walkabout,” which seemed to perplex my family. The stresses of my work situation, and that of my dear wife; of watching our children grow up; of the injustices that surround us are taking their toll. So I prepared some gear and headed out, almost on a whim.

    On queue, a deadfallen tree presented itself–“…after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” I gleaned a branch or two, leaving the rest. I then resumed my walk, along an old railroad grade through the mountains. An hour or two later, I’m back home, finishing the firewood.

    I realized that I had not felt this–happy–in a very long time. It was like I was myself for the first time in a while; like the “pieces were put back together.”

    I have to agree that this brooding restlessness is not healthy for me.


  2. Hello ChrisS,

    I am wondering if, in our calmer moments, we can more easily put the pieces of ourselves back together again.

    Sojourning seems to be our fate on this Earth, with moments for ‘resetting’ and ‘time-outs’, but if we are not led beside the still waters. how can we refresh ourselves on the journey???

    It’s those ‘still waters’ that restore strength for the journey.


  3. Roads not taken. Choices made, others rejected. Opportunities rejected.
    We ‘choose’ and enter the maze before us not fully knowing the way ahead when we are young, yes.

    But we can’t put our feet into the same stream again, no. So why not enter into the stream that is present and be more at peace? For too many, this is a hard thing because so much baggage is being carried and there is pain now and grief, and worries that will not easily be calmed.

    I’m one for retreats, time-outs, camping trips, visits to a lake in the forest, visits to state parks, sailing at night, going to a monastery for a time. If not possible, then rising VERY early to light a candle and drink coffee in the silence of the morning before the ‘crazy’ begins 🙂

    Then, in those hours of reflection, ask what CAN be done to make things better . . . what IS a way forward in a good direction?

    “16 This is what the LORD says:
    “Stand at the crossroads
    and look.
    Ask for the ancient paths: Where is the good way?
    Then walk in it and
    find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6)

    good ole Jeremiah comes to mind:

    and rest 🙂


  4. From an alternative ending to The Lord of the Rings, preserved by Christopher Tolkien from his father’s notes:

    ‘March the twenty-fifth!’ [Sam] said. ‘This day seventeen years ago, Rose wife. I didn’t think I should ever see thee again, But I kept on hoping.’

    ‘I never hoped at all, Sam,’ she said, ‘not until that very day; about noon it was,and I felt so glad that I began singing. And mother said; “Quiet, lass, there’s ruffians about.” And I said; “Let them come! Their time will soon be over. Sam’s coming back!” and you came.’

    ‘I did,’ said Sam. ‘To the most belovedest place in the world. To my Rose and my garden.’

    They went in and Sam shut the door. But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,deep and unstilled, the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-Earth.


  5. For me this brings up the word Persona. An ego based view of ourselves as portrayed to the audience in our private life story is not the full Monty. It often happens that we lose touch with the larger self and over identify with that lesser projection, the persona. The simplistic, quantifiable descriptions of who I am are veiled snapshots. They are in some part conveniences for functioning in normal society and conducting business as necessary. To completely identify as the moody artist, the serious accountant, the happy go lucky gas station attendant or the deep thinking theologian is to lose what life brings to us like a never ending stream from both inside and out. Our assessment of who we are and who God is must have some aspect of malleableness if we are to be able to assimilate the ongoing and essential life giving stream. We are the tip of our own icebergs and if we think that’s all we are we have missed the boat. Or the water or the fish or…..we’re missing some stuff.


  6. > Sometimes the things one sets in motion when young have such powerful inertia

    Yep. 😦 The past often outruns us, getting to the future before we do.


  7. God the Father created Sabbath and Jesus invites us to rest. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
    ??Matthew? ?11:28-29? ?NRSV??


  8. I think of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who was smart enough to figure out that restlessness is not depth while he was still young, and to change course. But his change of course did not save him from a short life of constant displacement, or from an early death. Sometimes the things one sets in motion when young have such powerful inertia that one cannot really alter course enough to change the outcome for the rest of one’s life. When this is the case, placing one’s hope in the promise of God’s grace is all that’s left.


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