Joy and Longing

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”     –Clive Staples Lewis*

I have felt it on a cold, starry night on a lonely mountaintop in Vermont. I have felt it in a ferny, mossy valley where the light comes through the trees in shades of green. I have felt it walking through a hayfield at sunset. But most often I have felt it on or near the water. It is a feeling of indescribable freedom, something so beautiful that it hurts, something that makes me feel very small, but very alive.  I am sure that you have felt it too. C.S. Lewis would call it joy, and define it as “a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss.” **

I felt it on Friday, as we raised the main for the first time and sailed out of the Manatee River toward the Bay and the world beyond. It was a short, but glorious afternoon in a beautiful breeze. The moment when the engine shut off and the boat mysteriously continued to glide forward through the water and all I could hear was the wind, the water, and the call of sea birds was nothing short of magical. It is why I want to do this for the rest of my life.

About ten years ago, Jay and I spent a week sailing with his folks on his Dad’s catamaran. It was a great trip, down to the Dry Tortugas and over to Key West and back to Naples. It was the first time I’d spent that kind of time on a boat. It was neat just to play at living aboard, but the last day of the trip was the most memorable. As is often the case, it started as a mistake, turned into a malfunction, and ended as serendipity. I clumsily bumped into an external fuel tank fitting which broke and caused the engine to quit, and then when it started up again, it wouldn’t go forward (pre-existing transmission troubles exacerbated by my oops), and we were forced to sail home all night long. I sat up in the quiet cockpit, staring in amazement at more stars than I had ever seen and the glowing green trail of phosphorescent creatures stirred up by our hulls passing noiselessly through the water. It was pure joy; I was hooked. I wanted it to last forever.

Lewis says, “all joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still about to be.” ** And so we pine. Even in the most perfect moment, it is felt as a pang. It is where longing and having are one. As deeply satisfying as it was to sail our boat for the first time, a thing for which we have longed for many years, present in the joy was that sense that there is more and greater out there, that this is just a tiny taste. Perhaps we will always feel that way. Perhaps that is the way it is supposed to be—a kind of homesickness for a home we have not yet known.

* From Mere Christianity, McMillan, 1943
** From Surprised by Joy, Harcourt, 1955