Last summer, my friends the Winters made a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Greece. I was very excited for them, having lived there myself for a couple of years as a young man, which was a long time ago. I eagerly followed their facebook posts; I drooled over their photos, and sometimes replied “Oh! Turn left at that corner! There’s a shop with the best loukoumades down there!” Most spectacular, of course, were the reports from Santorini, easily in everyone’s top-ten list of the world’s most fantastically beautiful places.
I ran into our mutual friend Denise and asked if she had seen the Winter’s posts. “Oh yes!” she exclaimed. “I had to stop looking, it was too beautiful. I wanted to be there.” Her tone was bright, but the inflection was infused with pain. I understood her words to be genuine, and strictly true: it was too beautiful; the longing was too painful. Denise’s family situation is difficult, and I know she is often unhappy. I think she is sometimes anxious, discouraged, and depressed. I suspect she is contending with a great deal of disappointment.
I like Denise, and my heart broke to hear the note of plaintive yearning in her voice. I know that feeling perfectly well, having reveled in it since childhood. There was a long period after my time overseas when I too could not look at others’ vacation photos from Europe — the longing to be there, the struggle against jealousy, was too great. I had to come to terms with the idea that if I never leave the United States again, it will have been enough: I had the chance to live there, for heavens’ sake! What smallness of heart prevents me from rejoicing with my friends?
But if I had to face what Denise has to face, I’d probably want to run away to Santorini too. I wondered what I, a friend, could say or do to make the owie go away, but nothing presented itself.
This fall, my wife and I vacationed for two weeks in a little cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in the heart of the Ottawa National Forest. We were there for the absolute peak of the autumn color. We spent a few days hiking in an old-growth forest.
The forest was mostly a brilliant yellow, except for the gold parts. It was breezy, and the leaves were just beginning to fall. I felt for sure we had wandered into Lothlórien. I recognized with a full and grateful heart that I was visiting easily one of the ten most tragically beautiful places on earth.
In my mind’s eye, I pictured a middle-aged woman, a native of Santorini, gazing sadly, not over a quaint whitewashed village, but over a dull sage slope down to the metallic sea. “Great”, she says. “a few miles in any direction and I’m confronted with the sea. I am trapped in the only life available to me: married to my useless cousin, keeping an inn, tending the vineyard. It is always perfect, beautiful summer, and I feel utterly crushed. In a travel calendar hanging in the lobby of the inn, I saw an image from a North American hardwood forest, one forest a hundred times bigger than this whole island. We have no forests in Greece. I’ve never seen a tree in autumn color. I’ve seen the olive trees in silver bloom each spring, but otherwise this island just shifts through shades of sage… I’ve never seen filtered green light, never felt cool moist air, and while I am surrounded by surf, I have never heard a waterfall.
“I can’t look at that calendar. The longing to escape, to disappear into an endless, ancient forest is too great, too painful.”
Returning from my reverie, I remembered my friend Denise. She has visited this northern forest too, I think. I wondered if she has ever seen it like this, though, at its peak of timeless, unspeakable beauty?
What, then, could I tell her? It seemed vulgar to simply say “Buck it up: there’s someone on Santorini who wishes she was in your shoes.” That’s a sentiment worthy of a dime store sympathy card. What, then, could I tell her? As my awe of the woods mingled with my own penchant for sentimentality and longing, I was aware of the destructive influence that unbridled longing has had in my own life. For me, it threatens to rob me of the joy of the very good life I have, the enjoyment of the here and now, even with its pain and disappointments. This, then, is the only word I have for my friend, though I believe she already knows it; perhaps my role is only to remind her: Joy is peace in suffering. Don’t let the longing to flee the suffering rob you of the peace and joy that is yours right here and now. God does not usually offer to spare us the suffering that appears to be an inevitable feature of most lives, but he does offer us peace of mind and joy of spirit, even in its midst. I felt that walk in the woods was a gift from God — a few minutes for my soul to receive the balm of Lothlórien.