Lost in the Cosmos

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For at least the last few generations in the West, it’s been taken for granted that life is an opportunity to “find yourself,” and “makes something” of yourself. Few people question that these projects are intelligible; they make sense because they seem to rest on plausible assumptions about how we experience life.

These assumptions are in a sense given, or taken for granted. But they constitute problems that we ourselves have created. In order for “finding yourself” to be meaningful, you have to understand yourself to be lost in the first place. Why go in search of something unless you do not already possess it?

In a similar way, “making something of yourself,” implies that without doing so, you – a modern man or woman – are nothing until you become someone.

This existential situation is a direct result of the rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition. When St. Augustine wrote on the first page of Confessions “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until we rest in thee,” he made clear that he was done searching for himself – he knew who he was and who made him – and so had no need to “make something of himself” because he understood himself to be already made.

Even contemporary atheists must admit that man does not (yet) wholly create himself, that whatever we do can only be a re-creating of that which has already been created. We might decide to treat ourselves as raw material to be “improved” via science and technology and politics, but it’s clear that we did not create the raw material.

Saint Augustine Disputing with the Heretics by Vergós Group, c. 1480 [National Art Museum of Catalonia, Barcelona]
Saint Augustine Disputing with the Heretics by Vergós Group, c. 1480 [National Art Museum of Catalonia, Barcelona]

But what of that “restlessness”? If modern man is to feel at home, if he is to “rest,” he thinks it will not be in God, but in society and history. The only home he will ever have is among other men. Whatever needs he has will have to be understood as capable of being satisfied in this world. If he finds himself still unsatisfied, still restless in this world, he will not, as C. S. Lewis advised, consider the possibility that he was made for another one. That option has been foreclosed. He will instead simply have to get used to the restlessness – or tranquilize it.

Elsewhere in Confessions, Augustine acknowledges that God knows him better than he even knows himself, which makes God’s love of Augustine beyond anything Augustine might do for himself and beyond any love he might experience from another. To paraphrase St. Anselm, God’s love is by definition that than which no greater love can be imagined.

One needn’t be a saint, or even a believer, to admit that, like Augustine, we all want to be loved for who we truly are. People will say exactly this but usually discover that another person, no matter how loving, is somehow not enough. At which point, many people typically move on to another lover in the misguided belief that the problem lies in finding the right person.

“True love” lies beyond romance, though romantics have tried to claim it for romance. Love that is true is love that is based on knowing who we really are. And who can do that? Modern man needs to be loved in this way as much as Augustine did, but without Augustine’s God he will have trouble finding it.

The love of the world will not be true because the world will never truly know us. What are the chances that another person will know us better than we know ourselves? Even if such a person exists, who is lucky enough to find her or him? Moreover, if we do not know who we truly are, if we’re truly lost, we might not even recognize it when we are loved truly.

Moreover, starting out as no one, our effort to make ourselves into someone is in part an effort to make ourselves into someone who is worthy of love, i.e. lovable. We do this by trying to become what we and others – which is to say society – value and find worthy. And what we learn very early in life is that not all, in fact not even most people matter; not all are found equally worthy of attention, adoration, respect, admiration, or love.

As far as the world is concerned, some of us do not even exist. As the sociology textbooks tell us, we are a result or product of social interactions. In short, we can know ourselves only as society knows us, and if society knows us as unlovable, as unworthy of love, that is who we are. We can maybe search for some group, attempt to strategically manage the impression we give others so as to at least appear to be the sort of person society finds worthy. But in the end, we can only know ourselves as we are known by others, by society.

St. Augustine was at rest even in this world because he cared little for the cares of this world. What does it matter to him what society thinks of him? God’s opinion is all that matters to Augustine, and God loves him even in his sin and at his worst because God created him, sustains him, and has redeemed him.

St. Augustine may have resided temporarily in the City of Man, but he rested in peace in the City of God. In part, that’s what made him a saint.

Clifford Staples is a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Dakota and a Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Cliff is a lector at weekday Mass and a member of St. Michael’s Jail Ministry. His essays have appeared in The Catholic Thing, Crisis, The Christian Review, and Catholic Exchange.