Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul. (Walt Whitman, “A Noiseless Patient Spider”)
(In the final entry of this three part series, I’ll apply the qualities and experiences of Whitman’s noiseless, patient spider to my own search for joy.)
I never thought I’d identify with a spider, but I do believe, along with many other interpreters, that Whitman captured the sentiments and tendencies of many artists and thinkers (of which I’d at least like to become when I grow up) through his little eight-legged friend. Although I’m not so sure Whitman would say the spider derived its purpose from the Lord—in fact, his poem can sound quite existential—Whitman’s spider has served, for me, as another great image of pursuing God.
First, I’m persistently inquisitive and quite intolerant of easy answers, or in Whitman’s words: “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them” (line 8). My soul feels most nourished when learning, whether from an old book or conversation, but as Solomon wrote, “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (ESV, Ecclesiastes 1.18). Over the years, I developed the following assumptions:
If only I could read the right book.
If only I could create something beautiful.
If only I could understand this theological truth.
If only I could pray and read my Bible, not just enough, but correctly.
So I “launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of myself” (Whitman line 4). At first it seemed I was “ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them,” but eventually, striving left me weary, stole the joy of life, and replaced it with the idolatry of perfectionism and approval seeking (5).
Second, like Whitman’s spider, I’ve felt “surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,” which is great for writing and thinking, but not so great for cultivating intimacy (7). I could add the following to my list of if statements:
If only I could make my family happy.
If only I could get married and have kids.
If only I could maintain deep, stable, and lasting friendships.
I thought recurring loneliness meant I was unlovable and inadequate, and I wanted to assuage the pain I carried and its resulting guilt, so I launched more filaments: spinning, spinning, spinning. But not too long ago, I was telling a friend that it no longer mattered how good things were with family or friends, and I knew that I could even be married and with children, and I would still feel so lonely, and empty, and not even sure I cared.
I’m not one to dismiss loneliness or depression, but for once I wondered if perhaps, the loneliness wouldn’t ever go away, not because I was hopeless as I had believed in worse moments, but because this particular loneliness wasn’t indicative of a missing relationship or accomplishment in this world. At least not entirely.
For years, I thought something was wrong with me. Then I realized, something is wrong with me, wrong with this world I live in—but not in the way I originally thought.
I was made for another world. The spider wasn’t meant to stay on the promontory, but to “explore the vacant vast surrounding” (3) with the hope that the bridge will form, the ductile anchor will hold, and the gossamer thread will catch somewhere (9-10).
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. 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. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of 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 never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.
from Mere Christianity
by C.S. Lewis
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Harper One, 1980.
The Bible. The English Standard Version. Crossway, 2008.
Whitman, Walt. “The Noiseless Patient Spider.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45473/a-noiseless-patient-spider. Accessed 9 July 2017. Because my copy of The Norton Anthology of Literature doesn’t contain this marvelous poem in the Whitman section.
Photo taken from http://www.fredsullivan.com/uncategorized/its-raining-spiders-in-australia.