Perfection in pain
by Monk Damascene
At the time of acute self-consciousness at the birth of adulthood, when the soul is still innocent and open, has not been hardened, and the world is a big apple with possibilities that are seemingly limitless, and relationships can seem to be so perfect and so easily perfect, and the soul has been just awakened to the intense sense of personhood, self-hood, and asks (for the first and sometimes only time in one’s life) the question of who he is and why he’s here, the soul is wide open and seeks to go beyond itself. The person feels deeply and intensely, having not yet learned to block and hide these feelings which later prove too painful, and he longs to share this feeling, this self-awareness, this intensity, this pain with others, and to feel what others feel, especially those who are going through the same thing. Everything is poured out freely, sometimes too freely, and there is no attempt to guard one’s inner world from being trampled on. The child who has never been hit by a car, if he is not told of the dangers, will have no fear of walking into a busy street.
However, when the person gets older, as time passes, the perfect “soul-mate” relationships which began so intensely, like a wondrous blossoming flower, become disappointing because there was nothing higher to hold them together; and the seemingly limitless possibilities which present themselves in youth become smaller, one possibility closing itself off after another once one goes further on a certain path (for each person can only take one path at a time). And then occurs what has formerly been feared and rejected – a layer forms on top of the raw person, a protective coating; and it cannot be helped, for pure vulnerability is too painful. All this explains why the youth of today fear so much to get old, why they will do anything to prevent it. Many young people, even if they have exposed themselves to rottenness in their search for reality and intensity, if they get out of it in time, are still good, innocent kids, because in a backwards and self-contradictory way, they have been striving to preserve innocence.
This also explains why the lyrics of many contemporary musicians, when they are young and first start out, are so poignant and direct, while later lyrics of the same people become increasingly obscure, to the point that those listeners who have practically lived on the earlier songs can get less and less from the later ones.
(An Attempt at an Answer)
At the time of acute self-consciousness and the awareness of the eternal question “Why,” the person must be able to direct that self-awareness and painful yearning to something higher than himself — to God, Who became flesh and suffered as we do. It is not enough to pour this painful yearning out to another person — that may help for a time, but it is not enough for eternity. The human soul seeks perfection, and there is nothing perfect except God. Other human beings, even if they seem perfect at first, always turn out to be imperfect, and that can be a great source of disillusionment to idealistic youth. A human being can be a vehicle to reach the end (God), and almost always such a human being is needed, but that person cannot be seen as an end in himself. However, in our post-modern age, when youth have been denied a knowledge of God, the perfection is usually at first sought in one or (usually) several human beings, or in unworthy lesser vehicles such as wealth, beauty, or fame. Again, one must turn one’s painful feelings of self-knowledge and longing to go outside oneself — to God, for only He has the infinite love to meet them. We know God through this very pain.
“Remembrance of God is pain of heart endured in the spirit of devotion, but he who forgets God becomes self-indulgent and insensitive.”
— Mark the Ascetic
“No one achieved anything without pain of heart.”
— Elders Barsanuphius and John.
The inward pain and intensity experienced in adolescence is not only good, but is even vital for the future development of the soul, its drawing closer to God. It is a moment of truth, and that is why it is so important that these strong feelings – that “all or nothing,” “I won’t settled for second-best” feeling of God-given youthful idealism — be quickly channeled to Him who is not “second-best,” who is the Ultimate. If this would happen, more youth of today would turn to monasticism — which is the “all or nothing” life, not settling for second-best, but giving up everything for a higher end: the Kingdom not of this world. But there must be strength and backbone in young people to keep alive the flame of their idealistic yearning when all kinds of worldly tares attempt to choke out the newly sprouted seeds.
If one channels one’s pain, self-awareness, etc., upwards, there is possibility for endless growth in the spirit. However, if one keeps it flowing on a horizontal level it will lead to stagnation, despair, or “selling out.” Even if one can keep it going, always trying to be intense and real, if there is nothing else than that he will just keep going around in circles, not getting anywhere. Life cannot be imbued with meaning simply by the attempt to live it intensely. Being intense and “having a real emotion” is not the ultimate answer — it is a partial answer, for it is only a means and not an end. The answer — the Truth — is God Who was nailed to the Cross, to whom may the youth of today turn in their pain of heart — so that they will not grow up just into boring worldly adults but into Saints, growing into the likeness of God, and will continue growing not just into middle or old age, but throughout eternity, all the while still preserving their innocence.
All popular attempts not to “sell out” to the jaded “adult” world have failed, because they are still part of the one big “sell out:” the “sell-out” of man to this world, and the abandonment of the radically otherworldly revelation of the Crucified God for the sake of worldly Christianity, false spiritual paths, materialism, hedonism, or nihilism.
“Christ is the only exit from this world. All other exits — sexual rapture, political utopia, economic independence — are but blind alleys in which rot the corpses of the many who have tried them.”
— Fr. Seraphim Rose