The Life We Have Lost in Living

Rev. Josh Pawelek

View Video at: The Life We Have Lost in Living

“A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things”—words from the late 19thand early 20th-century American journalist and

Don Marquis

humorist, Don Marquis.[1] I’m not familiar with his work, though I see from my brief research he wrote prolifically. As I sing these words, which many regard as his most famous “serious” poem, I imagine he was fascinated with the human yearning to create, the human yearning for knowledge, the human yearning to solve problems and overcome obstacles. In his view, this yearning—this unrest, as he calls it—drives discovery, drives invention, drives innovation. It is the force behind human evolution: “but for this rebel in our breast,” he writes, “had we remained as brutes.”  Or, “when baffled lips demanded speech, speech trembled into birth.” This unrest, restlessness, yearning, desire, longing, reaching, stretching—whatever we name it, it’s one of those wonderful, intangible qualities in the human heart: it goads and guides us, directs and drives us, incites and inspires us, provokes and pushes us forward toward greater insight and learning, toward greater freedom and justice, toward ever more sophisticated technologies. It is the energy powering the engine of human progress. And in the end it is not only a human quality.  In Marquis’ words, “it leaps from star to star.” This “fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things.”

Howard Thurman

I’m reminded of a passage from the 20th-century American mystic, Howard Thurman. In his 1971 book entitled The Search for Common Ground, he suggested we not think of life as static, set, fixed, determined.[2] Rather, “life is not finished yet; creation is still going on, not only in the spinning of new worlds, systems, nebulae, and galaxies in the infinitude of space, not only in the invisible world where chemical elements are born and nourished to support conglomerates of matter yet to appear at some far-off moment in time, but also in the human body, which is still evolving, in the human mind, which so slowly loosens it corporal bonds, and in the human spirit, which forever drives to know the truth of itself and its fellows.”[3] At the core of all existing things Thurman identifies creativity, movement, drive and inexhaustible potential.

Our ministry theme for February is restlessness. What a brilliant time of year to explore this theme! Winter is beyond its halfway point; and although this particular winter has been underwhelming for us New Englanders, February is the month when we typically start to feel restless. We grow tired of winter (not including the skiers and snowboarders, of course). Thoughts of March mud, April rain and May sun call to us, coax us, tease us gently. We are almost there. Our inner selves leap forward, dragging our rusty bodies into spring. But winter takes its time. Patience, it says. Wait, it advises. Just wait. And so we are restless. Some of us even begin to seethe with a fierce unrest. You know who you are.

Here’s where I get a little confused. Winter says wait. Winter says be still. Winter says, go slowly, rest, sleep, dream, heal. This sounds like excellent spiritual advice, yes? But hold on! What about that fierce unrest seething at the core of all existing things? What about that “rebel in our breast?” What about life not finished yet? What about our human longing, yearning, passion, desire? Don’t we deny that at our peril? Isn’t it also excellent spiritual advice that says give yourself over to that fierce unrest, ride its waves, live the life that is burning in you? It is.

Wait. Don’t wait! Sleep now. Wake now my senses![4] Be patient. Seek liberation! Be still. Move! I’m confused! Sure enough, as I survey the spiritual literature on restlessness, there seem to be two general streams of thought. On one hand our restlessness is a sign we are distracted from our true spiritual work; we somehow need to overcome it. This is winter’s message to our spring-ready selves. Wait. Be still. Be quiet. Focus the breathing. Focus the mind. In her article on restlessness in our February newsletter, Marlene Geary offered this quote from a website called The Buddhist Temple: “Uddhacca means distraction. It may also be called the unsettled state of mind. Just as minute particles of ash fly about when a stone is thrown into a heap of ash, the mind which cannot rest quickly on an object but flits about from object to object is said to be distracted. The mind arising together with uddhacca is called the distracted mind. When one is overpowered by distraction, one will become a drifter, a floater, a loafer, an aimless person.”[5]

On the other hand, our restlessness guides us not away from but toward our true spiritual work. We need to pursue it. Spring beckons. Let’s follow. Creation is ongoing. Let’s create. Spiritual writer Wil Hernandez, in a book on the priest and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, says “Nouwen was an inconsolably restless soul for much of his entire earthly journey, but no doubt a passionate seeker of himself, of other people, and of his God…. Living as resident aliens in a strange land … what other kind of peace should we expect?  In this world, restlessness, and not contentment is a sign of health.”[6]

Two radically different ways of understanding restlessness. Do we resist or embrace it? What’s a minister to do? And more importantly, which restlessness is this sermon about?

I’ve been trying to recall the times in my life when I’ve felt restless. I drew a blank at first. Me, restless? I live a solidly middle-class life, two kids, two cars, a home in the Connecticut suburbs. It’s a stable and fairly sedentary life. I am content most of the time, satisfied most of the time. I immerse myself in my work. I enjoy my routine. I feel at home and grounded in New England. I seem to have little interest in travel, much to my wife’s great disappointment. Winter’s spiritual advice—be still, be patient—resonates with me.

But I am restless. There’s always been a part of me that refuses to rest. And I’ve always found ways to follow its prompting. I used to be the drummer in a rock band—actually quite a few bands over the years. Rock music in its purest form is America’s quintessential cultural expression of restlessness. With roots deep in the black spirituals of the slave plantations—those plaintive, desperate, hopeful cries for freedom; with roots deep in the blues—that musical wrestling match with suffering, with existential angst, with human failings and frailties; with its legacy of defying convention, of challenging the prevailing order, of distorting the guitar beyond recognition; with its tradition of the singer screaming, yelping, yelling and bending the notes so blue they can’t possibly be transcribed onto paper; with its perennial themes of liberation, independence, leaving home, setting out on the open road, wandering, rambling, loneliness, lost love, broken hearts, broken lives, rebellion, revolution, sex and drugs, rock music is sheer restlessness.

Marlene also quoted lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash: “I was born in a crossfire hurricane, and I howled at my ma in the drivin’ rain.”[7] (Listen/view Jumping Jack Flash) After the first few measures of build-up, the guitar hook explodes, the beat kicks in, Mick Jagger starts howling, and I have all the proof I need that a fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things. I sense at the heart of this music, quoting Marquis again, “that eager wish to soar that gave the gods their wings.”[8]

In my teens, twenties and early thirties rock music gave me an identity, a sense of purpose. It fed my longing, my yearning, my desire to create, my need to live beyond convention, to live my own life rather than the life others might have me live. It was a channel for my restlessness, a pathway for my ambition, a vehicle to leave some lasting mark on the world. But I have to be honest: there was a part of me that just didn’t fit. I wasn’t rebellious. I wasn’t a big risk-taker. I didn’t throw caution to the wind. There wasn’t much suffering and struggling in my life. I wasn’t wandering and rambling. I wasn’t lonely. I certainly wasn’t living a life of excess when it came to sex and drugs. I wasn’t born in a crossfire hurricane. I never howled at my ma in the drivin’ rain. Sure I was restless, but I was also polite, responsible, understated, orderly, and at some level I did care about what other people thought of me. So I started contemplating ministry!

My pending career change was the subject of my very first sermon which I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s regular Tuesday morning service in April, 1993. I had just been accepted to divinity school. I spoke about my frustrations with rock music—the posing and pandering, the focus on image at the expense of substance, the vapidness of the scene, the lack of meaning, the overly dramatic personalities—not to mention the ringing ears, the sore back from carrying too many Marhall stacks up and down long flights of stairs, the stink of cigarette smoke, the five-hour drives from Boston to New York to play for thirty minutes in tiny clubs, and the chronic failure to earn any money. Restlessness is exhausting. I remember, in that sermon, holding up a copy of our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition (which had just been published) and saying “this music calls to me too. This music expresses my values too. This music matches my vision too.” Ministry would be a huge change—a move toward professionalism, toward responsibility and accountability, toward greater maturity and stability, toward a more explicitly spiritual life, a more explicitly ethical life, a whole life—because that restless rock ‘n’ roll life just wasn’t cuttin’ it anymore.

T.S. Eliot

Recalling this time in my life made me think of the poet, T.S. Eliot, whose “Choruses from The Rock” we heard earlier. Eliot was a restless soul in his own way, a profoundly anxious soul. I have the impression his restlessness was so emotionally painful that he spent much of his life trying to overcome  it, trying to tame and subdue it. He was born into a prominent, liberal, Unitarian family in St. Louis in 1888. But liberalism proved to be the source of his anxiety. American individualism frightened him. Modernity frightened him. Democracy frightened him. It all led inexorably, in his view, to chaos. He feared chaos. He wanted order, tradition and ritual in his life.[9] In this poem I find him railing against the fierce unrest seething at the core of all existing things. The innovation it produces is not progress; for Eliot it is just more distraction, more chaos. He longs for stillness and quiet. Listen: “The endless cycle of idea and action,” he writes, “Endless invention, endless experiment, / Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; / Knowledge of speech, but not of silence; / Knowledge of words, and ignorance of The Word. / All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, / All our ignorance brings us nearer to death, / But nearness to death no nearer to God. / Where is the Life we have lost in living? / Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” [10] (If he’d only known what was coming!) For Eliot the fierce unrest leads only to endless asphalt roads, busyness, mindlessness, ignorance, death. In response he cries out for grounding, for regularity, reliability and repetition—not for something new and innovative, but something enduring and eternal: “O perpetual revolution of configured stars,” he cries, “O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons, / O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!”
Yeah. When I finally decided to enter the ministry, I was seeking something similar—a way out of my rock ‘n’ roll restlessness, or at least what it had become. Where was the life I had lost in living? I was seeking some connection to the eternal.  I was seeking what Eliot calls “that perpetual recurrence of determined seasons.”  I was seeking winter’s spiritual wisdom: Wait. Be still. Go slowly, rest, sleep, dream, heal. I was seeking spring’s rebirth, summer’s play and autumn’s withdrawal back into winter. I need it in my life. What peace! What serenity!

I find that peace in ministry. I find it over and over again. I find the life I had lost in living. But every time I get there and I feel healed and renewed, something else always seems to arise in me. In the midst of that peace and serenity, that silence and stillness; at the heart of that perpetual revolution of configured stars, that perpetual recurrence of determined seasons, those cycles of birth and dying, there’s a pulse. There’s a beat, a rhythm, a cadence, a pattern, a movement, a flicker. Maybe it’s those echoes of the big bang. Maybe it’s the gods and goddesses soaring around. No matter what we call it, it’s life’s rhythm.  As much as we need times of stillness and quiet, we need to dance to this rhythm too. In the midst of that peace and serenity, that silence and stillness, there it is: restlessness, a fierce unrest, a longing, a yearning, a different and new life burning inside, demanding to come out, lest it be lost. A desire to grow as a parent, as a partner, as a leader; a desire to create beautiful and compelling words, beautiful and compelling music, beautiful and compelling worship; a pervasive dissatisfaction with the way things are; a profound anger at injustice and oppression. For example, today I am angry that so many powerful people in our state seem so little interested in creating a health care system that actually prioritizes the health of people over the profits of corporations. On that question, as far as I’m concerned, this is a time for fierce unrest. This is a time for creative moral action and strength.  Sorry T.S. Eliot, this is a time to generate a little chaos. But that will also cycle around to a time of stillness and quiet.

Do you see how restlessness works?  This sermon is not about one approach or the other. The two are intertwined. The two balance each other. The life we lose in living comes from a lack of balance. The life we lose in living comes from too much restlessness or too much rest. We will always need rest after pursing our restlessness. And out of our rest a new restlessness will always emerge. Such is the rhythm of the seasons. Such is the rhythm of the stars. Such is the rhythm of life. May we always be learning to dance to this rhythm.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Marquis, Don, “A Fierce Unrest,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 304.

[2] Thurman, Howard, “Concerning the Search” (chapter in The Search for Common Ground) in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 104.

[3] Thurman, Howard, A Strange Freedom, p. 104.

[4] Mikelson, Thomas J.S., “Wake Now My Senses” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #298.

[6] Hernandez, Wil, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection (Mahwah, NJ: The Paulist Press, 2006) p. 95. Also check out Jason Carter’s reflections on Hernadez’ statement at http://tkalliance.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/spirituality-of-imperfection-restlessness-vs-contentment/

[7] “Jumping Jack Flash.” View/listen at your own risk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9XKVTNs1g4

[8] Marquis, Don, “A Fierce Unrest,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 304.

[9] This description of T.S. Eliot comes I took in Professor Cornel West’s class, “Religion and Cultural Criticism,” Harvard Divinity School, fall, 1995.

[10] Read the full text of Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock” at:

http://www.tech-samaritan.org/blog/2010/06/16/choruses-from-the-rock-t-s-eliot/