[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 15 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Utopian Yearnings.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
On a recent excursion to REI, I strolled passed a newly painted mantra on the parking garage wall: “I didn’t know where I was going until I got there. Cheryl Strayed.” In her book, Wild, Strayed typifies the phenomenon of wanderlust. Wrestling existential anxieties resulting from tragedy and addiction, she flees to the wilderness to spend three months on the Pacific Crest Trail in the western United States. For Strayed, wanderlust went beyond a strong impulse or yearning to travel. Wrapped up in the unquenchable thirst for new places and experiences is the hope “to understand one’s existence.” Strayed articulated this as, “I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in.”
When I think of my own wanderlust, I find too it’s more than a travel bug. I grew up in a generic suburb to the small city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the age of 16, I lamented that I had never ventured beyond the time zone, let alone climbed into an airplane to go to somewhere I would deem exotic. So following my junior year of high school, I leapt at the opportunity to travel to Belize with my youth group. The trip only ignited my thirst for more. I have collected over two dozen stamps in my passport by traveling every year since, but I still haven’t satisfied the yearning that keeps me going.
Wanderlust redeemed is a hunger for Heaven.I’m not alone in my wanderings. REI posted 2.4 billion dollars in revenue in 2015. More than 73 million Americans traveled abroad in 2015. A quick search of #wanderlust on Pinterest or Instagram produces millions of results. The popularity of Anthony Bourdain’s global food expeditions, TV shows like House Hunters International, and works like Wild reveal a prevalent pull in our culture to journey beyond one’s borders. Countless others experience the pull of wanderlust like Strayed and me. What causes so many to place their treasure in travel? Why is it that we wander?
Many travel out of sheer enjoyment of new places and new experiences. Others may be escaping discontentment or hiding from problems within and without. A desire to impress others on social media with how grand and exciting our lives are certainly induces selfies on summits. But underlying all these, maybe the reason we wander is much simpler. Maybe the reason we wander is that we haven’t arrived yet. The hunger for foreign lands, pristine wildernesses, exquisite foods, and unique narratives is just not yet satisfied.
“Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are ongoing which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy,” writes C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. My wanderlust persists because no matter how far or frequently I travel, I’m left unsatisfied. Lewis goes on to describe three ways of reacting to such dissatisfaction. The first, the fool’s way, ambles through life bored and discontented, “trotting … from continent to continent, from hobby to hobby, always thinking that the latest is ‘the Real Thing’ at last and always disappointed.”
I have been Lewis’s Ambling Fool; I have spent my twenties wandering. In college I trotted from major to major; after college from job to job. I have lived in four different cities in the United States and traveled to dozens of different countries. Constantly fluttering without landing for more than a moment, all because I couldn’t find the right career or the perfect calling to cause me to stay. But maybe this was because I had set my sights too low, thinking I would find “the Real Thing” Lewis spoke of. Perhaps because I was searching only for a worldly occupation or an earthly home, I came up dry.
The second response, Lewis explains, is the Disillusioned Sensible Man who “settles down and learns not to expect too much and represses the part of himself” that desires and seeks out “infinite happiness.” The constant self-induced commotion of my early twenties and the repeated disappointment easily paved the way for me to become this Disillusioned Man: “Nothing satisfies, nothing ever will.” Likewise, many of my peers from college who tenaciously fought for causes have relented and become dismayed, foregoing that change can take place or that this hunger can be met.
But there is an alternative to both of these: the “Christian Way.” The Christian Way says, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
In 2015, my husband and I took a seven-month sabbatical during which we put 11,000 miles on a pinstriped, pearl white Harley-Davidson Road King Classic by traveling from national park to national park throughout the western United States. One day, we set off in first light from the outskirts of Lassen Volcanic National Park for Crater Lake. Our plan had been to camp there that night. But the campground was full when we arrived in the early afternoon. So we kept going. We attempted two other campsites but crowds and mosquitoes pushed us on. We followed Route 138 westward along the North Umqua River through the Umqua National Forest at dusk. The evergreen forest ran thickly up the valley walls, interrupted at points by bare rock cliffs. Suddenly two young bucks burst from the thicket 20 feet ahead of us onto the road. They had emerged from the dense brush on the one side only to find the steep drop off to the river shore on the other; the two had no option but run along the road until they found a clearing. We safely tailed them for several hundred feet. In the stretching shadows of the evening sun, I could hear the thudding of their hooves heard even above the motorcycle’s rumble. I started to believe that I was traveling through Middle-earth or Narnia rather than Oregon. Once the deer disappeared into the bushes again, reason returned, and I laughed off such a thought, as those fanciful lands don’t actually exist. Then, as suddenly as the deer had appeared, so a scene from penultimate chapter of Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia occupied my thoughts.
In The Last Battle, the kings, queens, and creatures of Narnia find themselves in a new but very familiar country. Upon further investigation, they discover that they are in fact in Narnia, but a better, more robust Narnia. With this realization, Jewel the Unicorn proclaims, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it until now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this.”
Narnia may not actually exist, but Heaven does. And the reason I loved the ride through the Umqua National Forest—and have loved so many other places I have rode, run, hiked, and wandered through—is because they faintly resemble the New Heaven and New Earth that God has waiting for us in Christ. Lewis picks up this thought in the same chapter of Mere Christianity. He posits that earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy our heavenly desire but only to arouse it. From which he concludes:
I must take care, on the one hand, to never despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never mistake them for the something else which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.
No travel can satisfy our wanderlust because what we hunger for cannot be had in this world. But Lewis is not advocating we squelch a desire to travel because it persists on this side of eternity. We do not have to be like the foolish man, always disappointed, or the disillusioned man, resentfully self-satiated. Rather, we can embrace wanderlust all the more as a whetting of our appetites for the life to come. Wanderlust redeemed is a hunger for Heaven.
We need not scorn or idolize the kaleidoscope hues of delicate dancing flowers of an alpine meadow or the colliding aromas of an open-air market. We can enjoy and embrace the exhilaration of peering over a precipice at an expanding wilderness and the bubbling anticipation when we feel the jet wheels touch down in a foreign country. We can nourish our wanderlust because of what it points us to. And all of the things we enjoy about travel are glimpses of the best gift of all: eternity enjoying God unhindered by sin, pain, or dissatisfaction.
My husband and I started a tradition of reading psalms on summits. When we’ve reached the apex of our hike, sweaty and sore but enthralled with the scenery and sensory, we turn to praise the One who created it all. We shift our focus from the gift to the Giver, praising Him that if this landscape is so unfathomably beautiful, how much more so will be the next, the true, the new earth.
God assures us of this promise of the new earth through Abraham’s story in Hebrews 13. Abraham by faith “went out, not knowing where he was going.” By faith he wandered, as did his son and grandson, living in tents in the wilderness. They left this earth unsatisfied, “not having received the things promised but having seen them from afar and having acknowledged that they were strangers on this earth… But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared for them a city.”
Perhaps God has placed in us a wanderlust like the one Abraham lived with, a force that compels us to go to places we know not for only purposes that only God can bring about. If this is the case, then not only can we go and enjoy the going, but we must go. Perhaps God has placed wanderlust in our souls to carry His Gospel where others are not willing to go. In this regard, we do not travel for traveling’s sake. Nor do we travel, as I have done for so many years, for self-discovery or self-improvement. There is a greater mission at stake. Rather, we travel for Kingdom purposes. We travel to help others to see and to want and to press on to that other Country, our heavenly homeland. Lewis exhorts, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”
If you jet set, backpack, or ride the rails, do so with your sights set on heaven and the Giver of the good gifts, looking for opportunities to point others to Christ as you go. For me, that often looks like inviting friends along on hikes, talking about our existential anxieties, and singing a psalm on the summit. I can’t imagine anything better, but I hope with assurance that the better will come.
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