The Gift of Need & Distress

breugel winter landscape

Pieter the Elder Brueghel, Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap, 1565

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread,  nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord; And they shall wander from sea to sea; and from the north even to the east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it.       ~Amos 8:11-12

It is from need and distress that new forms of life take their rise, and not from mere wishes or from the requirements of our ideals.         ~Carl Jung, “The Modern Spiritual Problem”

Often it’s not the “best-laid plans” that turn out to completely change a person’s life. Often it is the persistent feeling of unanswered need and distress that opens the door in the wall where none had appeared before.   Most times these feelings aren’t even directed towards anything – they are simply deep emotions without a specific object other than to be answered. When a person begins to heed these feelings there can be a long period of “not this, not this” that follows, as one thing/idea/lifestyle is picked up, tried on, and discarded. And this brings on more distress – and deeper longing.

In the mid-90s, I experienced an intense and lengthy period of this objectless need and distress. I had finished graduate school a few years prior and knew myself to be a de-centered subject swimming in a sea of -isms.  I had a pleasant full-time job as an editor at a small press. I lived in a lovely little cottage with a lovely little garden fifteen minutes from the ocean.  I went to movies and plays with friends.  I felt numb and mechanical – an unreal thing moving through a chaos of arising phenomena whose only meaning was that assigned by my mind – which was itself nothing more than a random phenomenon arising from the meat between my ears.

You see my problem.

In 1995, out of some instinct for self-torture, I read Daniel Dennett’s terrible book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. I think now that my soul was going for the homeopathic cure:  if a substance causes symptoms that are like the symptoms of the illness, then that substance will cure the illness.  Daniel Dennett’s book was exactly like what was wrong with me.

It wasn’t the subject matter itself that was horrifying. I accept as fact evolution and the origin of the universe in the “big bang” (or whatever physical mechanism comes to be discovered.)  This is a physical universe, and its workings are wonderful.  I have no quarrel with science.

But Dennett’s book finally touched and disclosed the deep wound that I was carrying.  He began the book by quoting an old hymn that I have loved since childhood:

Morning has broken
Like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing
Fresh from the Word

And he ended the book with the same hymn.  His purpose was to show that nothing had changed now that he had stripped all mystery and meaning and God from the world.  It was all still beautiful.  He talked about how he would share this hymn with his grandchildren and they with theirs.  It was all good and pleasantly convincing: people still loved their families, found satisfaction in their work, and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. Not a speck of God or spirit required.

One would think I would have already dealt in grad school with a world devoid of God.  I guess I thought I had and that it was intellectually sound and not a problem.  But  Dennett’s use of that particular hymn to show how unnecessary was an idea of God or of higher purpose or of deeper meaning – that was the medicine that brought my own deep symptoms to the surface.

He also inadvertently gave me a wonderful answer in a footnote buried in the middle of the book.  (I apologize for not being able to quote directly, but I don’t have the book in front of me, and haven’t looked at it in twenty years.)  The footnote was attached to his discussion of the origin of the universe in the big bang.  It read (paraphrasing):  Some might ask what came prior to the big bang.  This is an absurd question as it is outside space and time and therefore cannot be answered by observational science and calculus that depend on both.  This may be the place where one could insert God, though that wouldn’t change anything.

But it changed everything for me.  I finally had a sense of direction.  Instead of standing frozen in a meaningless void, I felt the first stirring of movement toward.

Shortly after my encounter with Dennett’s book, I picked up William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, portions of which I had read in an undergraduate class.  Now it sparkled with the depth and meaning for which I was starving.  The following passage answered Dennett precisely, and it has stayed with me down the years. The metaphor is so clear and perfect; it is nearly prophetic in its expression of our current state – both as a culture and as individuals.

The lustre of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with. Let our common experiences be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let our suffering have an immortal significance; let Heaven smile upon the earth, and deities pay their visits; let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in;- and his days pass by with zest; they stir with prospects, they thrill with remoter values. Place round them on the contrary the curdling cold and gloom and absence of all permanent meaning which for pure naturalism and the popular science evolutionism of our time are all that is visible ultimately, and the thrill stops short, or turns rather to an anxious trembling.

For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological speculations, mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation. (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 122)

This passage is as reflective of today as it was of the pre-WWI period in which it was written. We are living right smack in the middle of the old Irish curse – the one about living in interesting times.  A time of transition and deep uncertainty.  We are running to and fro, as the prophet Amos told us, seeking the word of the Lord (some Ultimate Meaning) and finding it not. Our bonfires are ruddier than they’ve ever been, and our skating more frantically merry. We pick up one thing after another and discard it. Not this. Not this.

Sshh – is the word we’re looking for.  Or one of them.  The need and distress aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.  They’re our call out of complacency – out of superficial optimisms and happy thoughts that don’t take into account the deep suffering everywhere around us, threaded through the world.  And that thread is weaving the cocoon that will gather us into the new life.  We need to find time to be still with our distress and hold it – there, there, now – and find its medicine. Not this. Not this. Not yet.

Waiting. Silence. Solitude.

Be still.

I knew only too well how easily the longing accepts false objects and through what dark ways the pursuit of them leads us: but I also saw that the Desire itself contains the corrective of all these errors. the only fatal error was to pretend that you had passed from desire to fruition, when, in reality, you had found either nothing, or desire itself, or the satisfaction of some different desire.       ~CS Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress



Dennett, Daniel C.  Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

James, William.  The Varieties of Religious Experience.  New York: New American Library, 1958 (1902).

Jung, Carl Gustav. “The Modern Spiritual Problem (1931).” Modern Man in Search of a Soul. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1933.

Lewis, C. S. “Preface to the Third Edition.” The Pilgrim’s Regress. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958 (1933).