Restless Seeker: From Absurdism to Hope

Isn’t it bewildering … that everything is so beautiful, despite all the horrors that exist? -Sophie Scholl, statement made during interrogation

Expectations and Shortcomings

Growing up, I learned that to be shown love, I had to be a certain way. I had to be a “good girl”: listen to my parents, be nice to other kids, be generous, self-controlled, respectful to elders, and loving to my sister. Naturally, I did not comply when I thought my elders were being unfair. Nor could I always be nice to my sister or share my ‘little treasures’ with her. At times, one word would turn me into a whirlwind of anger and vengeance. When it was over, I would find myself disappointed and ashamed of who I became during those fits.

You see, when things were all sunshine and rainbows, those traits never surfaced. It was only when I felt oppressed, sad or frustrated, that I would resort to that side of me which I was not proud of. The guilt of seeing people hurt by my words and actions was consuming and tiring—there was only so much I could feel before becoming desensitized to it. The only way I found to move forward to a place of peace with myself was to give up, accepting that for the time being part of me was flawed. Why on earth should anyone expect me to be perfect anyways?

And yet it wasn’t just that society expected me to act a certain way. I did too. I wanted to be different from who I was. Falling short of these expectations is where the cracks in my belief in God began. You see, as a child I had an appreciative love for God. I prayed every night in my bed before I fell asleep. My view of Him was that He loved good people, that the way to get closer to Him was to become better. I knew He couldn’t possibly love me as I was. I had to try harder. I began idolizing whoever I was told He loved, desiring to become like them. I wanted to please God as I pleased my parents, to know Him and be known by Him. I was not interested in afterlife promises as my incentive to be good; simply knowing that He was pleased with me would be enough to fill me with joy. Day after day, I prayed for change to happen in me.

A cycle developed of asking for forgiveness only to be followed by me failing again. Though I was told that God was forgiving and merciful, I stopped feeling forgiven. Surely, I thought, He must be tired of my repentance and empty promises by now. I was left feeling unworthy and distant from Him. How could God forgive me? Even if He did, how could I know that He had anyways? I only knew that I did not feel forgiven, and given the hurt that I caused, it would not be just of Him to simply forgive me repeatedly.

Problems in the World

My personal disappointment was amplified when I looked at the world as a whole. I could see mine and other people’s flaws scaled up. To my great dismay, I realized that even good intentions were not enough. Life, history and literature show that horrible decisions could still result.

Good intentions or not, poverty, misery, injustice and greed were just some of the plagues of the world we live in. They seemed to be inseparable parts of our history.

Stories that really shaped my worldview growing up were from a prominent author and teacher.[1] These were tender accounts about the little students he loved and taught in deep lost villages in Northern Albania. The stories depicted the cold, hunger and poverty these children were subjected to. I remember reading what I called the French version of these stories too: Les Miserables. The reality of the gypsy kids on the street added to the weight of these stories. Shunned, in deep poverty, and discriminated against, these kids were so similar to me and yet they lived so heartbreakingly different lives. The world was a sad place. Everyone was plagued by some sort of evil. Sometimes the hurt was man-made, sometimes it was not. The sadness was overwhelming and the injustice was infuriating. I did not know how to cope with the immense sadness of all the injustices in the world. Yet it instilled in me a sense of camaraderie with humanity, growing my desire to do my best in every opportunity I was given.

Humanism

It was my obligation to make the best version of me in order to help the best way possible in the future, with the hope of helping to set the balance right again. Instead of expecting instant perfection I would slowly strive to become a better person, one day at a time, while simultaneously loving myself. I was even able to apply the same principle to the way I saw the world, loving humanity despite its flaws. This concept of an accepting love was beautiful. Though I of course hoped for a day when the flaws would cease and “enlightenment” would hit us all as a species, I saw no reason why I or others should be held accountable for what we do until then so long as we were trying or had some good excuse for being “stuck.” Free from concepts of judgement, I ignored any shortcomings that I thought were part of our “human nature” and thus irreparable. It was this humanist perspective where I felt at home.

Infused with a new sense of freedom, I delved into literature, mathematics and all things intellectual I could place my hands on, promising to myself that once I became a better version of me everything would fall into place. Literature deepened my ability to empathize, making me even more susceptible to overlooking human shortcomings.

Again, the only way I found to move forward was to start looking for those silver linings, for the green grass covered under the snow, for all that was still good and lovable in the world. And there was so much! A child’s laugh, the warm sun, a mountain breeze, the immense diversity of Earth’s nature, people past and present standing up against injustice and fighting for a greater ideal, the way people sacrifice themselves for others—the list could go on endlessly. I discovered that humans are very complex beings, and as such, if the good in them was seemingly greater than the evil, I was fine with ignoring the evil. I was in love with the idea of people and I wanted to contribute to the goodness of the world. I was now safe in my cocoon, pleased at how I had chosen to progress in life, as an eternal sailor traveling in good company towards an even brighter day.

Where is God?

My understanding of God had changed. He now resembled a deist god: far away, removed and not involved in the world. Any thought of Him testing me or being disappointed in me no longer crossed my mind. I now firmly believed that God could not stoop to that level. His majesty and holiness could not be associated with my shortcomings and flaws. He could not possibly be concerned with regulating how I and other humans lived. He did not judge me. How could He, knowing this is how He created me to be anyways? The idea that He would be interested in such “lowly” things was probably just an invention of people who were trying to control me and the rest of the world. As a God that did not intervene, He had set the world in motion and now looked from a distance at how we were messing up His creation. He was neither for me, nor against me and it was up to me and the power of our common humanity, to save ourselves.

This understanding eventually led me to anger towards God. If He did exist, this was an outrageous world He’d put us in. I have witnessed many horrible things happening around me. Children being abducted and trafficked, young girls lied to and sold into prostitution, people killed in senseless feuds due to land, pride, “honor,” and nationalism. Why did He not intervene? How could He stand it? No, my belief had to change. If He existed, remaining silent and inactive, He was not the good God I thought I knew. If He was not concerned with fixing the world, well then, there was no reason for me to be concerned with Him.

Though my humanist perspective was able to fill my sails with joy and life often enough, at times I was without a breeze, stuck staring at the pain in our world. It was then that I was tired of living, tired of trying, it would seem like it was all for nothing in the end anyways. The pain would wear me out if I allowed myself to feel it. Weakened, resentful and hardened I could barely ask anymore: Where was He?

Is it Worth Asking Anyways?

About the time I came to MIT, I stopped seeing a need for God’s existence altogether. Maybe our universe truly came out of nothing. And with that, the lingering desire inside me for something greater started to look for something else. With whatever level of maturity I had gained in understanding humans, our nature and our world, I realized I had in a way embarked on a lifetime journey. I was seeking for the master key, the puzzle piece that put together everything that I believed.

I found myself pondering like Feynman, over the satisfaction of having only questions rather than wrong answers. Perhaps as Camus had illustrated in the myth of Sisyphus, the struggle itself was enough to fill the heart. Except that with time it was not. I could only be satisfied with questions up to a certain point. I could only simultaneously have a full heart and struggle with the fact that the world was cruel, cold, and absurd, for so long. Just like Neo when Morpheus offered him the red and blue pills, I wanted to know how deep the rabbit hole went.

Though there were questions that could wait for later, such as the ones that satisfied me egotistically or intellectually, I was too aware of all the things the world needed (and I needed), that I could not take a “questions can be enough for now” statement seriously anymore. Deep inside I was not convinced and my journey would have to continue.

To illustrate my thought process at the time, albeit imperfectly, consider this analogy. Think of someone you know suddenly falling ill, and being in a lot of pain. If you had even heard of rumours of a medicine that could heal them, that could lessen their pain, even if there was an uncertainty that that medicine existed, wouldn’t you set out to look for it? Could you simply be satisfied with saying, “oh well, knowing that they are sick is enough”, or that “being aware of the idea that the medicine exists is enough”? No, You would search like mad, even begging if needed to in order to save your loved one from pain. Consider that you happened to come across someone that tells you that merely knowing that there is a question about the medicine is enough. You would pay no heed to that person. It might discourage you from seeking further, it might make you feel desolate that maybe the truth is that there is no such medicine, but deep down, the hope would be strong enough to want to continue. Giving up would cost too much.

I had come to the point where quiet contentment of simply knowing the question was exhausting. I cared about having the answer and I was willing to experiment with multiple options if needed.

The Outside Agent Acting on the Inside

While inwardly I wanted to press on to find the solution to the world’s problems, I maintained a humanist facade, trying to convince myself that I could change the world. I knew all of the philosophies (so I thought); I would change myself and that would change the world at least in part. I would help to heal whatever was broken and whatever was hurt. The problem was, everytime I held my hand open for the hurt to come in, it crushed me. I discovered the hard way that I was not strong enough for the hurt of the world.

The desire for this change in the world and in me and the desire for finding a way to finally set things right was my deepest motivation. I started reading everything I could on any type of worldview. Some of them sounded great and seemed like common sense, but were hard to implement in my own life. Maybe I was weak-willed, I thought, and maybe that is true. With time, I came to be persuaded that what I needed was an external agent making an internal change. I pictured a river going through me almost furiously, eroding away the restringed banks and removing all that was “bad,” cleaning me up and setting me right as I was intended to be.

This realization of my need for a heart change made me increasingly disappointed in the promise of religion, to the arms of which I had attempted to come back to again and again. It seemed to be so focused on the exterior, on the norms and on the rules. I could not see how these exterior things could change the interior, at least to the extent I was interested in. It was all too familiar to what had driven me away from God in the first place.

But I found heaven as love swept low.[2]

Life happens, and sometimes people’s imperfections hurt more than one can handle. It was during those times, when I found that whatever platonic love I had for people before, was failing me. In comparison to my recognition as a child of both mine and others’ shortcomings, this was terrifying. If I accepted that I was unable to love or care for others, I knew I had lost all that was me. My raison d’etre was to help, understand and love. Yet now, I found my heart unable to do so, it had become as hard as stone. I could not even cry anymore. I tried to constantly stimulate it by watching anything that could warm it and make it come alive again.

This is when I crossed paths with people that seemed to have exactly what I was lacking: a source of energy and love that they drew from. I saw people filled with joy, selflessly serving and loving one another. Desperate, I wanted to know this mysterious source, I wanted to have the passion they had.

To my surprise my “emotional breakthrough” happened while attending my first church service. I had only gone so as to not be rude to new friends that had invited me. As I saw the faithful congregation’s passion for a god I thought to be dead and nonexistent, tears started welling up in my eyes and my heart started beating faster and faster. As I saw the plentifulness of love on display, and myself so devoid of it in contrast, a river of emotions started flowing within me. I remember thinking that this love could not be lost into the vast meaningless, emptiness of our Universe. It had to be going somewhere. To me love, at least love, had to be meaningful even if nothing else was. There had to be something or someone that was stirring this type of love up. Loving an unactionable, dead god could not possibly look like this.

After that Easter service, I went back to my room and wept bitterly. Maybe it was realizing the pain of separation from the God I had once loved so innocently. Maybe it was sorrow for having acted so unforgivingly towards him if he truly existed. Maybe it was wretchedness at feeling tricked by the universe that had stolen that type of loving and joy from me. Maybe it was my regret of not having been grateful for all the wonderful things that I had been showered with over the last couple of years. Perhaps it was my pain at what I had made of myself and the state that I had brought myself to. That Easter service, was when my stone cold heart finally melted.

I was also jealous of Mary in the passage, I wished I had been there to know Jesus. She had gotten to hear his voice and to be part of his life. Though she had many faults she got to experience his forgiveness and open arms. She knew the truth; she knew him. She knew what was necessary for living. I thought, how easy it was for Mary. If god existed, and this whole Christianity thing was true, then I wished that god would have given me life at that time of history, it would have been so much easier for me to know. Right now, I simply could not.

The Way the Truth and the Life

I had always thought of Jesus as one more of the enlightened teachers, that understood the ultimate reality and had reached the ultimate truth. Besides, Christianity with all of its bloody history[3] was contaminated I thought, and the last place I would go to find Truth. However, that morning at church, I realized that I wanted to know more about this source of life I saw so visible in the lives of these Christians.

As I started reading the Bible I was initially pretty convinced against the case it made for God, if such a God existed. However, as I read about the life and teachings of Jesus I was struck by the answers I was finding. His teachings were so similar to those of the ideal world I dreamt of. Jesus was a human after my own heart!

But he was also so much more. He healed diseases and sicknesses, he drove away “spirits” that I equated with (potentially) the demons and voices that we all have inside us, he had compassion and he forgave sins as one with authority, he experienced suffering and pain, he promised that he could set people truly free, give them life to the fullest, and start a Kingdom of God on earth. He claimed, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life,”[4] answers I had been looking for — and he was claiming to be all three. This man was no ordinary man. He was so much more than anyone I had ever read of.

It was through him, whom I regarded as trustworthy based on his words and deeds, that I came to see God in a different light. I never thought that it pained Him to be separate from us. That was weakness and beneath Him I had thought, yet Jesus talked about and exemplified God’s forgiveness and love. A God that loves us despite our shortcomings and unfaithfulness towards Him, and a forgiveness that was possible and justified because Jesus took our sin at the cross. Jesus surrounded himself with people that were rejected by everyone else. His love was a pursuing, extravagant, and lavish one.

Knock and the door will be opened, seek and you will find.

So much of it sounded too good to be true while at the same time it seemed to be too strange of a story to have been made up. There was still theology I had yet to understand and multiple questions I did not have answers to. It was at this point where I found myself at a crossroad. I could reasonably choose to be on either side of the coin: this story being true or it being false. Tired of the possibilities of truth and lies I prayed a simple prayer that if this was the truth I would no longer feel hostility towards this story any longer.[5]

That prayer was answered a few weeks later when I found myself reading a Christian theology book[6] (that I had randomly found in an East Campus lounge) and found myself agreeing or simply just understanding all that it was talking about. This was not the first time I had heard these concepts. Yet, now they all made sense somehow, they fitted the world I lived in, the self I knew. As I went on to reading another book,[7] all my stumbling blocks were one by one either criticized or demolished.

As I started experimenting and dipping my feet in the water, I asked to be liberated from the particular habit I had of binge watching, that happened especially in crucial times when I was extremely busy. Next time I was tempted to watch Netflix, there was no desire whatsoever in me to follow suit. I simply did not want to anymore. I know people can try to explain this in several ways, many of my friends have, but I know how difficult it had been before for me to give up, despite really wanting to.

A turning point was when I finally decided that I wanted to become one of Jesus’ followers and get my spiritual sustenance from Him. I embarked on a journey where I started to experiment more and more, slowly getting to know God all over again, this time through Jesus. I learned about being filled with God’s Holy Spirit and how that will be the ultimate way of sanctification, of creating the army of New Men, one that could heal and love the world just like Jesus did.

I am not perfect, nor is the world, and I cannot change the world alone. Yet this I do know: there is hope because of Him. Because of faith in Him, I know God is good, and I am known by Him. I know that He sent a Messiah down to save us, proving that love is stronger than hate and life is stronger than death. That he gave us a source of peace that the world can never give and promised to be with us always, until the final renewal of all things.

“Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” – Confessions, St. Augustine

 

 

1 Millosh Gjergj Nikolla (Migjeni)

2 Hillsong United, Touch the sky

3 most personally the Serbian-Bosnian/Kosovo War

4 John 14:6

5 Luke 11:1-11

6 Curtis Martin, Made for More

7 C.S. Lewis, Ch 10: Nice People or New Men from Mere Christianity. This concept was particularly intriguing to me because of the Communist idea of making the new man.

 

Erjona Topalli ’16 is from Tirana, Albania. She is majoring in Computer Science. Outside of academics, she loves learning about and discussing languages, literature, philosophy, movies and anything else that catches a glimpse of the immense creative power humans are endowed with.

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