The Ache of ‘If Only’

“Could she have included Jane in the scheme, every part would have been perfect.” So thinks Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. If only her sister were there, if only they could go for walks together, all would be complete — then she would be perfectly happy.

Yet another moment’s reflection teaches her a lesson untraveled by much of humanity:

“But it is fortunate,” thought she, “that I have something to wish for. Were the whole arrangement complete, my disappointment would be certain. But here, my carrying with me one ceaseless source of regret in my sister’s absence, I may reasonably hope to have all my expectations of pleasure realized. A scheme of which every part promises delight can never be successful; and general disappointment is only warded off by the defense of some little particular vexation.” (166)

Did you catch it? This paragraph will be surgical if you let it. Upon reflection, Elizabeth discovers that she doesn’t really want her sister there at all. Why? Because she wants to maintain at least one excuse for why she isn’t finally happy. She knows that if her sister comes — if they go for their walks through the gardens — she will still not possess that happiness she longs for. And what is worse: she will no longer possess any reason for why not. What then?

Then she would have to turn and face it: she does not know what will finally make her happy, what will finally banish the ache. Maybe in the end, all hopes are false. Should she risk touching bottom? No, thinks she, the shallow disappointment of a missing sister must shield from the deeper, tongueless throb silenced of rebuttals.

Chasing Our Tail

What makes Elizabeth’s reasoning so unsettling is that she knows her sister would not fulfill her happiness — yet she prefers deception to reality. Her passions rise in mutiny against reason; she allows them the helm without struggle. She prefers to wish for her sister than to have her sister (and so break the spell). Does that sound familiar (though we are less honest)? Sure, we sigh loudly enough, but have we ever noticed the relief that comes from realizing at least one of our Janes is elsewhere, and so certain disappointment is kept at bay?

Peter Kreeft describes man’s plight this way:

If he experiences winning, he is not happy for long; but if he plays with the hope of winning, he can be happy for a long time by being both diverted (by playing) and deluded (believing he’d be truly happy if he won). Success is the sure spoiler. We are happy only climbing the mountain, not staying peacefully on the summit; only chasing the fox, not catching it; only courting, not marrying; only traveling, not arriving; only fighting wars, not keeping a boring peace. (Christianity for Modern Pagans, 181)

Success is the sure spoiler. And so, the 27-year-old Tom Brady gives an interview with 60 Minutes atop the world’s mountain — three Super Bowl rings, fame, money, power — only to question, Is this it? There has to be more . . . And so, Yo-Yo Ma tells the story of getting halfway through a perfect concert — for which he trained his whole life — only to notice, of all things, his own perfect boredom. And so, the king of Ecclesiastes, who denied his heart no pleasure, writes over and over from within a stupor, “All is vanity.” Elizabeth, with great foresight, knows the yawn found at the world’s mountaintop, as we should too, if only we were brave enough to sit in a silent room and consider it.

Well at the World’s End

I wonder if our love for the chase but not the catch, the distraction but not the dominion, doesn’t also explain some of envy’s saltiness. If jealousy be that “green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on,” have we no pleasure in being consumed?

We have a saying for finding our unmet desires (our Janes) living in another’s lawn: “The grass is always greener on the other side.” But what if we almost prefer it that way? What if our neighbor’s green grass (so pristine from this side of the fence) keeps our hopes of greater happiness watered and fed? Perhaps if we were unfortunate enough to receive an invitation into our neighbor’s yard, we might make the ill-fated discovery that our grass, in fact, is just as green (if not greener). What now?

This is orphaned man: we have not known what we desire, yet we say it is just over there. Boys chasing dragons through the forest. “On whatever plane you take it, it is not what we were looking for,” C.S. Lewis writes. He whispers what we already know over our shoulders:

Lust can be gratified. Another personality can become to us “our America, our New-found-land.” A happy marriage can be achieved. But what has any of the three, or any mixture of the three, to do with that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves? (Afterword to The Pilgrim’s Regress, 237)

No idol has yet stayed true to its promises — but who could live in a world without worship? Should the next love, next promotion, next child finally be that ladder who makes a name for itself by placing its top in the heavens? We know (oh, we know). They too will fail to punctuate; our desires will remain running sentences. We thirst but cannot find the Stream, but our thirst proves there is a stream somewhere. “Nature makes nothing in vain” (237). “Nearly there now” — the refrain of our lives. But we’ve been “there” before. The nearer we got, the browner the water. We are lovers of if only.

Walk with Elizabeth

If I were to go on a walk with Elizabeth, I would tell her exactly what she fears to know: The child of her joy is too thin and frail to survive. Her honeyed hope is false, and she is but half-serious about living to be so freely swallowed by a dream. But the irrepressible longing to crown something her mirth’s monarch is not given in vain.

Her God has placed it there.

But she stands evicted from such heights of happiness, gripping a branch below with broken wings because of sin. Justice holds a rifle at her; her life (and joy) hang by a thread sustained by the God she has sought to find happiness without. She has not honored him or given him thanks, and so that “God-shaped hole in her heart” — along with her God-programmed conscience — bears witness (graciously) to her estrangement (Romans 1:21; 2:15). Both denounce her pride and her prejudice, and point her, if she has eyes to see, to the Lord of glory who authored her.

“If only” cannot defend against the inevitable disappointment (and what is much worse) of a life unreconciled to God. Only Christ can, who “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And this Christ, fully God and fully man, through his sinless life and substitutionary death and subsequent resurrection, received by faith and repentance and evidenced by living obedience, offers to put his joy — supernatural joy — in you. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

Here, and nowhere else, can your joy be made full. One drink from this well, says he, and you shall never thirst again.