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Posted April 15, 2010

Living with Frustration and Tension

By Ron Rolheiser

Among William Blake’s infamous Proverbs from Hell we find this one: Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.

There are subtle layers of meaning to this, but on the surface it speaks volumes, especially for our generation. Today we are for the most part congenitally unwilling and existentially unable to carry tension for long periods of time, to live with frustration, to accept incompleteness, to be at peace with the circumstances of our lives, to be comfortable inside our own skins, and to live without consummation in the face of sexual desire. Of course, in the end, we do not have a choice. We are not above our humanity and simply have to accept and live with the tensions of incompleteness, but we struggle to do so without bitter impatience, pathological restlessness, and all kinds of compensatory activities.

Emotionally and morally, this is our Achilles heel. Our generation has some wonderful emotional and moral qualities, but patience, chastity, contentment with the limits of circumstance, and the capacity to nobly live out tension are not our strengths. The effects of this can be seen everywhere, not least inside of our struggle to be faithful to our relational commitments.

We have made life-long commitment in marriage very difficult because we find it hard to accept that any marriage, no matter how good, cannot take away our loneliness. We have descralized sexuality and severed its link to marriage because we are unable accept sex as limited to a marriage commitment. We have basically rendered consecrated celibacy existentially impossible because no one, we feel, can be expected to carry sexual tension for a lifetime. And, most painful of all, we have sown a deep restlessness inside of ourselves because, in our incapacity to accept the incompleteness of our lives, we torture ourselves with the thought that we are missing out on life, that we should not have to live with so much incompleteness, and that the full symphony for which we so deeply long should already be ours.

And the fault is not entirely our own. Much of it lies with those who were supposed to prepare us for life and did not give us the emotional and psychological tools to more naturally and nobly accept life’s innate frustrations and the conscriptive asceticism that brings with it. More simply, too many of us were not taught that life is hard, that we have to spend most of it waiting in one kind of frustration or other, and that this is the natural state of things. Too many of us were given a false set of expectations. We were given the impression that indeed we could have it all, clear-cut joy without a shadow and full intimacy without frustration or distance.

Worse still, many of us were not given the simple, basic permission to live in frustration, that is, to feel okay about ourselves and about our lives even when for the most part we are frustrated. We were not given permission to accept that frustration is natural, the normal state of things, and that it is okay to accept ourselves and our lives as they are and find joy and happiness inside of them, in spite of the frustrations.

I’m still part of the generation whose moral and religious elders gave us this permission. I got this from my parents who, deeply schooled in the concept of original sin, understood themselves as “mourning and weeping in a valley of tears”. This, rather stoic, perspective which believes that on this side of eternity all joy comes with a shadow, did not make them morbid. The opposite, it gave them permission to accept the limits of their lives and the circumstances of their lives and, paradoxically, find joy in the imperfect precisely because they were not expecting the perfect. They understood that it is normal to be frustrated, to not have everything you want, to have to live in incompleteness, and to accept that in this life we will experience more hunger than satiation.

Most of us will have to learn this the hard way, through bitter experience, through tears, and through a lot of restlessness from which we might be spared if we already knew that hunger, not satiation, is what is normal. As Karl Rahner famously puts it: In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we finally learn that here in this life all symphonies must remain unfinished.

Wisdom and maturity invariably do find us and life eventually turns each of us into an ascetic. We may kick against the goad for a while, like a child kicking against a mother’s restraining arms, but eventually we tire, stop wailing, and accept the restraints, though not always peacefully. But it can be peaceful, if we accept that frustration is normal.

And so I would amend Blake’s proverb: Better to murder an infant in its cradle … unless you give that child a realistic set of expectations with which to deal with unrequited desire and frustration.