How to deal with restlessness
Lisa Fraser ‘goes deep’ to confront a malaise that is omnipresent in modern life.
The first time I heard the word ‘restless’ was when I was watching the TV series Sex and the City as a teenager. The main character, Carrie, grieving the loss of her lover, was sinking into unhealthy habits to cope with pain: “Just like that … I was thrown right back into my old pattern: greasy Chinese, sleeping till noon … and feeling restless.”
The scene was poignant: lonely Carrie looked like a fish in a tank. She had so much love to give, but no way to express it nor anyone to give it to.
In adult life, I’ve heard many friends describe their own feelings of restlessness. Perhaps it is the manifestation of something gone wrong in modern urban life. We work hard, we commute, and at the end of the day, we wonder, “what else is there for me? Is it just that?” Many of us have something more to give, but we struggle to understand what it is.
Jack London described this irrepressible thirst for something more in his novel Call of the Wild. Sometimes we can feel like hound dogs hearing a voice from the forest; our legs are twitchy, and we’d like to sprint mindlessly far away … but where to? What for?
Lockdowns triggered this feeling in many of us. We were trapped at home, ruminating our thoughts for months, limited to online interactions, and spending evenings on our own. Yet, in most countries we’ve been freed from isolation for over a year, and restlessness hasn’t completely disappeared.
It points towards something bigger at play in society and in our nature.
The Dutch spiritual writer Henri Nouwen described how we’re falling for ‘addictions’ – fake consolations such as wealth and power, external validation, food and drink. He said that these quests, ‘leave us to face an endless series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled’.
Sometimes we’re rightly suspicious of our feelings: “follow your head, not your feelings” wise advice might tell us. But there are times when feelings can help us, particularly uncomfortable ones. They act as alarm bells telling us something is not right.
Feelings always happen for a reason. They reveal if our lifestyle and the choices we made were the right ones.
They indicate whether we should continue on the same path or choose a different direction. Listening to feelings, especially unpleasant ones, should be a trigger for change.
Restlessness can tell us we’re bored and we need to let our energy out physically or creatively. Restlessness wants to force us to take action when we’ve spent a day in front of a screen, doing intellectual tasks or scrolling down social media feeds. In such cases, sports, dancing or group games can bring relief.
Ultimately, though, restlessness wants us to be happy. It calls us to use our skills and to express sides of our personality we have neglected. Singing, writing, poetry, drawing or prayer can help us connect with our inner self, and explore the elements of our personality that are craving our attention.
But this urge for more can be deeper and make us feel helpless. We know by experience that when we are thirsty, we should give the body the water it needs, but we’re not taught what to do when it’s our heart that is thirsty, achy, frustrated.
Restlessness has a bad reputation. Left unchecked, it can lead to substance abuse and excesses. It can also trigger risk-taking behaviours like fast-driving or other types of reckless challenges.
Yet, fake consolations eventually fly back in our face like a boomerang. Dissatisfaction tells us we’re trying to quench our thirst with the wrong liquid.
In these cases, restlessness can be a manifestation of lostness. Our thirst can actually be a search for our purpose in life.
There is no quick fix for that – which is why substance abuse, the various forms of excess or external validation are not fulfilling in the longer term.
Tackling restlessness requires looking beyond short-term fixes to understand what we’re missing in life.
The first step is to face ourselves: what do I need that I do not have? Is it friendship, love, faith, a charitable cause to support…? How can I use my energy, love and time to build something greater than my daily life, something that will last?
Believers would say that restlessness is a thirst for a life closer to God. Saint Augustine famously prayed to him: “our heart is restless until it rests in you.” This path leads to a life that is less focused on material goods and quick fixes. It’s a path that is value-oriented, turned to purposes such as serving and caring for those around us.
Unpleasant as it is, restlessness is the inner voice telling us we have more to give and to create. It can be a call to greatness.
If we’re willing to embrace restlessness, that is, if we’re open to face our shortcomings, it can become a powerful driver to live a better life.
Then, the real question is: are we ready to re-orientate our life? Are we ready to make it happen?
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