In an effort to break my “look at the Facebook app every time I have a free minute” habit, I have been keeping the texts of spiritual books on my phone, to read little snippets during my down time. The latest book has been the excellent Searching for and Maintaining Peace by Father Jacques Philippe. Like everything he writes, it is fabulous. I highly recommend you read it, along with anything else of his that you can get your hands on. He is that good.
In discussing the various situations that can cause us to lose our peace, he quotes the French Jesuit Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote about the feeling we often have that “the real life is elsewhere.” Father Philippe goes on to say, “I am concentrated on the negatives of my situation, on that which I lack in order to be happy. This renders me unhappy, envious and discouraged and I am unable to go forward. The real life is elsewhere, I tell myself, and I simply forget to live.”
Do you ever feel this way? Like the life you’re living isn’t the life you’re supposed to be living? Not in the sense that you’re living sinfully or anything. But just that you’re in the wrong place, and that if you were in a different place, or a different circumstance, or a different state of life or stage of life, and that if things were different, then your real life would begin?
I know that I, as a single person, am deeply inclined to this kind of thinking. I don’t have a family. I don’t have a spouse. I don’t have children. If I had those things, then I would have the life I am supposed to have. A real life. A good life. Or maybe if I moved somewhere else or did something else. But then I talk to other people, in different circumstances. And they tell me that they, too, are restless. That they could do so much more good if they weren’t confined to the duties of home and hearth. Or that real life will begin when the kids are older. Or when the kids are out of the house. Or when they have kids. Or when they retire. Or when they go back to work. Or when they move to a different city or get a different job. Whatever.
Father Philippe hit me right between the eyes with this one. He says, “It is not the exterior circumstances that must change; it is above all our hearts that must change.” My “real life” is not in some other place, or some other time, or some other circumstance. It is right here, right now. No matter how much I may romanticize my visions of an alternative life, God has placed me right here, in this one. This is where he meets me. This is where he walks with me and gives me the grace to ask for my daily bread. This is where he sustains me.
I’m not saying, of course, that it’s impossible that God may at some point call you or me elsewhere. Or that you shouldn’t walk away from a life of sin or work to improve ourselves or our lives. What I am saying is that constant restlessness — that idea that our “real lives” have not yet started — prevents us from living God’s will for ourselves in the “now,” and keeps us from recognizing the good in the lives the Lord has given us.
Father Philippe says that this kind of distorted thinking can especially impact us in our spiritual lives — that we can convince ourselves that we are unable to grow in holiness because of some external condition in our lives. That if only we were healthier, or lived closer to a chapel, or had more time to pray, we would grow in ways that we are now not capable of. We forget that he has promised he will not leave us lacking, that he will provide whatever we need to grow in holiness.
And that, primarily, “to grow or to enrich one’s spiritual life is to learn to love.”
So that is the answer. Wherever we are, in whatever state or situation God has planted us, we need to love. Period. Whether it’s the family in front of us, the neighbors next to us, or the poor and underprivileged in our communities, we never lack for opportunities to serve, to bring the love of God to others. And, as my favorite saint said, “We find ourselves only through a sincere gift of ourselves.” And, to paraphrase him, we find our lives through finding ways to give within the context of the lives we already have.
Whatever is going on in your life — whatever crosses or difficulties you may be experiencing, however wonderful you think life could be in another place or another stage — God has placed you where you are. And he is working through all of those crosses and difficulties, for your good. All he asks from you is that you trust him, and walk in his ways.
So, instead of daydreaming about that different life, open your eyes to the one you have. Look around. How can you make it better? Who can you love more perfectly? How can you grow closer to God, right here where he has planted you?
That, my friend, is real life.