By The Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman
We were sitting together on a lovely forested cliff in northern Manhattan. The persistent leafy green opulence, amiably coexisting with the cry of sirens and flash of silver rooftops, always surprises and delights me. The park is simultaneously an oasis and a reminder of natural wonders, lush and alive, within and beyond the City’s borders.
My friend had just made his first trip out of New York since Covid hit. I could picture the town as he described it. I traveled there years ago with a woman I loved desperately. Every time he mentioned the town’s name, I felt a tug of longing for a lover I still occasionally grieve.
“I think I need to go back,” I told him.
“Yes,” he said, “you need to make it your own.”
He meant I needed to claim the town. I meant I needed to claim the longing.
Merriam-Webster defines longing as “a strong desire especially for something unattainable.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as “a yearning desire.” Embedded in these competing definitions is a question: can longing be fruitful, or not? Is it hopeful, or hopeless? The noun “longing” is related to the adjective “long” — “measuring a great distance,” according to the OED. Longing is the feeling evoked when one becomes aware of a great distance between one and one’s desire. Can the distance be traversed? Well intentioned folks offering comfort in the midst of a breakup sometimes ask, “Do you think you can get back together?” It doesn’t help. It is hardly ever the right question.
Longing is a perverse, paradoxical concept. It hurts. It is comforting. Both at once. True to its linguistic relationship to distance, longing is not the immediate, acute pain just after something has been torn from your heart. Longing sets in. After the initial wound of our parting had closed, I was perplexed by the ache I still felt. My therapist observed, “You long for her.” This. Yes. In a flash I felt and saw the complexity of my longing: it named the ache I felt, and it was also the place where I was in a sense still with her. She felt distant. She felt close.
What I feel in that place of longing, though, is not her. It is my love for her. It is my capacity and desire to love well. I don’t want to return to a relationship that ended because, beautiful as aspects of it were, it simply wasn’t viable. I want to take the capacity to love deeply and share it generously, in places, with people, where it will bear fruit. I don’t just want to do this; I long to do it.
This kind of longing is not about returning to a romanticized “normal,” and these days I feel it acutely in almost all parts of my life. Sure, there are things I miss from the old days, like the simple of joy of hugs, unmasked conversations, and not having to disinfect the groceries. But the possibility that we could return to business as usual is one of my great terrors. I fear we’ll squander this moment of protest and national awakening. I long for us to bring our capacity for deep love to bear, upending systems that do violence to people’s bodies and souls, rejecting the callous brutality and relentless, small-bore stinginess that pervades and characterizes so much of the old normal.
Longing to experience love that is lush and leafy green, I find myself asking: what is coming? How can we traverse the great distance between here and the just world so many of us envision? How to prepare? How to birth it?
I find myself saying over and over a psalm that names this longing:
God, you are my God
I search for you
my soul thirsts for you
my body yearns for you*
This God, the one for whom I long, is the embodiment of justice, alive in spaces where human beings reach through their individual struggles to connect, where we can name and share longing for a life that is just a little easier, where folx are generous with one another just because we can be. These are forested cliffs where we name our longings aloud, claim them together, and shoulder each other’s burdens in ways that make the loneliness of life just a little easier to bear, sometimes with wonder, surprise, delight.
This is the oasis I’d like to enter, even as the sirens cry and the densely populated apartment building roofs peek through the leaves. Claiming our longing for such a world, feeling the closeness of the vision even when it hurts to feel it, is how I hope we will get there together.
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The Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman
Liz Edman is an Episcopal priest and political strategist. She is the author of Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press, 2016).