Breathe into your longing. Embrace it, even if just for a few moments.
Back in the early 1980s, my drug of choice was Simon le Bon of Duran Duran. Remember Duran Duran? They were minimally talented, bright-eyed, smooth-skinned British boys who inspired Beatles-level ardor in thousands and thousands of awkward young things like me. Despite the makeup and fedoras, they were probably the most telegenic band to hatch into the public eye around the time MTV first came on the air.
The feeling of that crush is still fresh to me, now a 40-year-old married mother of two. It was visceral. When I touched into wanting this particular grown man to hold me, to kiss me, to gaze down into my eyes, it was like dipping a toe into something bottomless. My longing was both a howling void and soft dark womb. It made me want to cry and scream and laugh and dance. It hurt. Literally. I wanted so much, so hard, that it hurt.
Back then, 13- and 14-year-olds were still generally pretty innocent. My fellow “Durannies” and I didn’t have any real notion of what a 20-year-old pop star might want to do with a willing young groupie. Most likely, if someone had filled us in on those details, we’d have emitted shocked exclamations of “Eeewww! Disgusting!” We had just enough information to be enthralled, mystified and full of fear. When combined with the requisite hormone-initiated internal stirrings and attractions, ignorance intensified the whole experience of wanting. The resulting shimmering mess of confusion and craving addled me almost completely.
Rumi wrote a poem called “Love Dogs.” He wrote, “Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. That whining is the connection.” He wrote, “The grief you cry out from/draws you toward union…Your pure sadness/that wants help/is the secret cup.”
The experience of longing can show us our heart’s true desire—the very things we should try to obtain. Deep longing can help support us in making difficult changes to move toward the object of that desire. And it’s part of the American cultural identity to go after what we want. If I want it bad enough, I can make it happen. I’m the captain of my own ship. I can do whatever I set my mind to!
We are encouraged to forego any manner of dawdling when it comes to getting exactly what we want. Usually, there are multiple ways for others to profit from our journey from longing to fulfillment. An entire consumer culture has been built on squashing even the faintest hint of longing with an avalanche of stuff.
Want to be young again? Don’t delay; you know parentheses have their place, just not on your face! Just buy this concoction or have this procedure. Want to catch that partner who you just know is your soul mate? Find the right book. Take a class. Really, it’s is as simple as finding the right resources, and there are more resources than ever before! Longing for a spiritual experience? Take this drug. Join this church. Find this prophet. Do this breath work. Come on, get on it! What are you waiting for? Go. Go!
When the obtaining seems impossible, we exert the power of the will to cut off the longing at its root. We make ourselves stop wanting when we cannot have what we want. A choice is made to want something else instead—something we’re more likely to get.
When that choice is made consciously, we are renouncing desire, and there is maturity in this.
We make a choice to move out of the dizzying realm of longing and into a more grounded place. But when we unconsciously shut longing unfulfilled out of our lives, or refuse to let ourselves long for anything because we’re afraid of the intensity of experience that longing might bring, we’re cheating ourselves out of one of the great ontological emotions.
What if the longing to be young again is really just the first appreciation you’ve ever had for how gosh-darn stunning a young, ripe, smooth-skinned woman really is? How she is the vessel through which new life comes, and how the simple power of her presence is enough to drive men mad? When you were younger you didn’t really have a clue. But now, that longing is telling you to appreciate one of the most beautiful and compelling things on Earth. You don’t have to be it. You can just enjoy it.
(If enough 40-plus women realize this, the “anti-aging cosmeceutical” industry is gonna be in a whole hell of a lot of trouble. I’ll be the one throwing a party over its demise).
Think back to a great, unrequited love in your own life. Can you remember the feeling of deep longing for something unattainable? What have you longed for? Go to that longing. Feel what it feels like. If you weren’t conditioned to think that longing is something to fulfill as quickly as possible, wouldn’t you find a kind of joy in the experience of longing itself?
Have a listen to this song by singer-songwriter Dave Matthews, who has a lock on the expression of longing: a pure, nectar-sweet, howling-at-the-moon, gorgeous-in-and-of-itself kind of longing. At an acoustic show played in 1999 with Tim Reynolds at Luther College, Matthews tells a story about a girl who gives him directions on a city street and walks away, at which point he finds himself taken by her beauty. He turns to look for her but she’s disappeared into the crowd. His song “Little Thing” comes from that experience. This version makes all the little hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
The next time you long for something, pause before you go after it with guns blazing. Breathe into your longing. Embrace it, even if just for a few moments. This is what it feels like to lose yourself. Psychologist Robert Augustus Masters puts it beautifully: he says, “Date your longing.”
When you long for some need or want to be fulfilled by your partner, your parent, your employer or your friend, pause and feel the longing itself. Recognize that just as spending money on stuff to temporarily squelch desire doesn’t really work, it also doesn’t work to expect someone else to put you out of the misery of longing unfulfilled. You’re responsible for it, and it wants you to acknowledge it and feel it fully. It ain’t going anywhere until you either experience it or consciously renounce it within yourself.
Recognize that longing isn’t an obstacle, but a path. Get cozy with your longing; let it crack you open; see how it illuminates what’s most important to you, what brings you the most joy.
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