Beloved Irish Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue on How Our Restlessness Fuels Our Creativity
By Maria Popova
“Longing is the transfiguration of aloneness,” David Whyte wrote. To master the art of being alone — which is perhaps the most challenging and anxiety-producing art of our time — is to acknowledge our longing for connection, for a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves, and to orient ourselves differently toward that core yearning, to envelop it with more gentleness and less judgment.
The alchemy of that transfiguration is what the great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008) explores in Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong (public library) — an immensely insightful lens on the timeless turbulences of the human heart, informed by ancient wisdom and addressed to the modern experience of life.
We live in a world that responds to our longing; it is a place where the echoes always return, even if sometimes slowly… The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature. Cut off from others, we atrophy and turn in on ourselves. The sense of belonging is the natural balance of our lives… There is some innocent childlike side to the human heart that is always deeply hurt when we are excluded… When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness; we become vulnerable to fear and negativity.
The ancient and eternal values of human life — truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love — are all statements of true belonging; they are the also the secret intention and dream of human longing.
And yet, although we long for integration, we are fundamentally fragmentary. The dynamic interaction between these two poles, O’Donohue argues, is a central animating force of the human experience:
No thing is ultimately at one with itself. Everything that is alive holds distance within itself. This is especially true of the human self. It is the deepest intimacy which is nevertheless infused with infinite distance. There is some strange sense in which distance and closeness are sisters, the two sides of the one experience. Distance awakens longing; closeness is belonging. Yet they are always in a dynamic interflow with each other.
Our hunger to belong is the longing to find a bridge across the distance from isolation to intimacy.
Much like our neediness maps out our incompleteness and, in doing so, provides the essential emotional intelligence necessary for true human connection, our longing to belong brings us closer both to ourselves and to one another. O’Donohue writes:
There is a huge abyss within every mind. When we belong, we have an outside mooring to prevent us from falling into ourselves.
There is a lovely balance at the heart of our nature: each of us is utterly unique and yet we live in the most intimate kinship with everyone and everything else… Our hunger to belong is the desire to awaken this hidden affinity.
And yet belonging is always and invariably incomplete. The subtle sense of homelessness that this incompleteness seeds in us is the root of the creative impulse — something the great choreographer Martha Graham captured in her wonderful notion of “divine dissatisfaction.” O’Donohue considers how we interpolate between our longing for connection and the solitary urgency that gives rise to the creative impulse:
There is a divine restlessness in the human heart. Though our bodies maintain an outer stability and consistency, the heart is an eternal nomad. No circle of belonging can ever contain all the longings of the human heart. As Shakespeare said, we have “immortal longings.” All human creativity issues from the urgency of longing.
The restlessness in the human heart will never be finally stilled by any person, project, or place. The longing is eternal. This is what constantly qualifies and enlarges our circles of belonging. There is a constant and vital tension between longing and belonging. Without the shelter of belonging, our longings would lack direction, focus, and context; they would be aimless and haunted, constantly tugging the heart in a myriad of opposing directions. Without belonging, our longing would be demented. As memory gathers and anchors time, so does belonging shelter longing.
When longing dies, creativity ceases. The arduous task of being a human is to balance longing and belonging so that they work with and against each other to ensure that all the potential and gifts that sleep in the clay of the heart may be awakened and realized in this one life.
How to awaken these gifts is what O’Donohue goes on to examine in the remainder of Eternal Echoes. Complement it with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why frustration is essential for satisfaction, Tove Jansson’s philosophical Moomin parable of belonging, and David Whyte on how to belong with yourself, then revisit O’Donohue on beauty and desire and the essence of true friendship.
Published January 11, 2016