An Alternative To The Life You Lead

For years I maintained a Commonplace Book, a small notebook where I copied quotations which were meaningful to me. These days it’s no longer a physical blank book — I save quotes which are interesting or thought-provoking in a text file on my computer — but I still copy lines from things I read. Often they are excerpts from poetry, or bits from books about spiritual life. Sometimes the words I choose to save come from unexpected places.

Recently I was reading a book called “The Dance of Anger,” by Harriet Lerner. In Lerner’s book, I ran across the following:

Anger is neither legitimate nor illegitimate, meaningful nor pointless. Anger simply is. To ask, ‘is my anger legitimate?’ is similar to asking, “do I have a right to be thirsty? After all, I just had a glass of water fifteen minutes ago. Surely my thirst is not legitimate. And besides, what’s the point of getting thirsty when I can’t get anything to drink now, anyway?”

Those lines struck a chord in me, and I copied them out immediately. I’ve returned to them often, especially the final question — “what’s the point of getting thirsty when I can’t get anything to drink now, anyway?”

Sometimes ignoring one’s own “thirst” can be a helpful coping mechanism. For instance, when my son was a colicky infant and sleep was a scarce commodity, at a certain point I stopped even thinking about the sleep I wished I were getting, because becoming well-rested seemed like an impossible pipe dream. Sleep was a physical thirst which I couldn’t soothe, so I did my best to ignore the thirst away.

This happens all the more on levels beyond the physical. Sometimes in difficult circumstances, the safest thing to do is to shut down awareness of one’s emotional or spiritual thirst.

But like any other coping mechanism, this one can outlive its usefulness. Human beings can grow accustomed to almost anything. There is risk in allowing the practice of ignoring one’s thirst to become habitual. After a while, one might not even notice anymore that the thirst was ever there. And our emotional and spiritual thirsts are important. They come to tell us something about who we most deeply are.

Every spring, at the festival of Passover, Jews retell the story of liberation from slavery in Egypt. The classical haggadah, the book of story and song which charts our course through the celebratory dinner, teaches that “the real slavery of Israel in Egypt was that they learned to endure it.” In other words: worse than the enslavement itself was when our hearts and souls became habituated to it. When we stopped noticing our own thirsts which we had set aside.

I don’t know what you thirst for, you who are reading this. Maybe your thirst is for a different kind of spiritual practice, or for a different caliber of relationship, or for more music in your life, or for the ability to pursue a deeply-held dream. And maybe you have become so habituated to some of your thirsts that you don’t even feel them anymore.

This is one of the gifts which regular spiritual practice can offer: the spaciousness, and the discernment, to notice the thirsts we may have been hiding from our own selves. Sitting in meditation is a great way to notice all of the thoughts and frustrations and yearnings which one may have been trying to suppress. Prayer can offer a path toward this noticing, too — the Hebrew verb “to pray” comes from a root which means “to judge” or “to discern,” as in discerning one’s own inner self.

Noticing thirst is uncomfortable. It can be painful. There was a reason why we chose to stop noticing the thirst in the first place, and that reason probably hasn’t gone away. Before we can find a way to meet our own needs, we first have to admit to ourselves that we have needs that are going unmet. But authenticity calls us to be honest with ourselves about where we are and what we feel — even when what we feel is a thirst we may not yet know how to relieve.

It would be easy to ask “what’s the point of getting thirsty when I can’t get anything to drink now, anyway?” It would be easy to let the question keep us still. But if we want to continue growing as human beings, we need to take the risk of recognizing our thirsts. And then comes the even deeper risk: cultivating a sense of hope and trust that if we pursue those thirsts, we will find the sources of sweet water that we need.

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