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What do you truly desire?

Inspired by a Netflix series and an Ash Wednesday retreat, Sarah-Leah Pimentel reflects on what she wants out of life. She explains that a sense of disconnectedness is one of the characteristics of modern life and suggests ways in which we can restore interpersonal and spiritual relationships.

I probably shouldn’t broadcast on a Catholic website that I’ve become completely hooked on the Netflix series Lucifer, a tale about the devil who has decided to leave hell and seek a new life on earth!

Once I looked past the distorted theology and a few scenes that I just couldn’t watch, I found that it was a sci-fi fantasy tale that uses the superhero genre to communicate some deeper truths about the complexity of the human condition. What made this tale unique is that the superhero is deeply flawed and the show examines how personal woundedness affects our actions and decisions.

To give readers a bit of context: Lucifer helps a police detective to solve crimes. One of the methods Lucifer uses to elicit the truth from suspected murderers is to hypnotize them and ask: “What do you truly desire?” The answers are almost always surprising.

What I am really looking for is the intimacy of connectedness.

Some suspects reveal their fears, resentment, jealousy, hatred, or a desire for power as the root cause behind their crimes. Others simply want to be accepted or recognized, and to look after their loved ones. Their choices to fulfill these desires makes some of them murderers, while others choose a different path, realizing that murder will not bring them the happiness  they seek.

The question, repeated every episode over a five-season binge and asked in a different context during an Ash Wednesday retreat, made me think about my own desires. What do I truly desire?

I started making a list. I wish to return to a semblance of my former life. I want to see my work colleagues in person. I want to go out without fear of COVID-19. I want to travel. I want to be able to attend Mass regularly without restricted numbers and pre-recorded music. I want to hug my family and friends.

Upon deeper reflection, however, I realized that this is not what I truly desired. What I am really looking for is the intimacy of connectedness — something I had lost long before the pandemic.

Desiring the connections of youth

I’m sure we all remember those heady days of youth, when we felt everything intensely. Heartbreaks felt like the end of the world. Winning a sports match filled us with euphoria and victory. Best friends knew our deepest secrets, held secure by the bond of trust and friendship. We had deep conversations late into the night as we tried to put words to the world we were experiencing for the first time.

I remember parish retreats where I felt so close to God. I could really speak with Him, bare my soul and the messages that I sensed were the Holy Spirit speaking were so real that there was no doubt whether God existed. I knew with all certainty that God loved me and had a plan for me.

As I enter middle age, I wonder what happened to those deep certainties and interconnectedness with the natural and supernatural life.

We all remember those heady days of youth, when we felt everything intensely.

Some friendships have persevered but with only a few exceptions, conversations revolve only around our careers, family, concerns about the state of the country and the world. A good day at the office or the completion of a project doesn’t elicit any euphoria, only the tiredness of knowing that the next project will bring more hard work.

I go through most of my days going through the motions of waking up, getting ready for work, slogging all day at a computer, cooking dinner, tidying up and landing up in bed far too tired to manage more than a few minutes of tv before succumbing to dreamless sleep. And it all begins again the next day.

Even prayer time is just the habit of routine. There is nothing new, no discoveries or insights, just the comfort from a line of scripture and intercessions for the ever-growing list of people asking for prayers. Religiously themed books seem to tell me nothing new, but in fairness, I doubt I can focus on much more than a few paragraphs at any given time, making it hard to connect with any book and allowing it to affect me in a meaningful way.

I realized that the pandemic has only exacerbated what has been happening for a long time, a slow disconnection from the heart of life. Life has been reduced to a series of routine activities. Even hikes or walks on the beach do not lift my soul to great heights. At most, there is a just a sense of relief at being able to stop a little and relax.

Yes, what I desire is the intimacy of connectedness.

But where do I find it? Old friends have moved away. I have moved away. Although we still talk, we no longer share common experiences and contexts. I lack the energy and time to invest in building new friendships, and even when I do, I am more cautious than the younger me would have been. I have learnt that you cannot trust everyone, that some things must remain unsaid. Perhaps I have even treated God the same way, keeping something away from Him too.

Lack of connectedness: a symptom of our times

I share this because I don’t think my experience is unique. I think it is the germ of the age in which we live. We live fluid lives. Relationships are rarely lifelong. We outgrow people. People outgrow us.

Each time we hold back, we draw further into our own isolation and disconnectedness.

The pressures of being constantly online (for work and escapism) consume us. We change jobs frequently and move across the country or across the world in search of better financial and professional opportunities. The same thing happens in our parish communities. We change parishes with each new town or when we disagree with the priest or a sodality. Maybe we stop going to church altogether. Maybe we seek out online communities or no community at all.

In so doing, we learn to give a little less of ourselves, dedicating less time to building meaningful relationships, holding back, fearful of being hurt, betrayed, abandoned, or simply just too tired to care. And each time we hold back, we draw further into our own isolation and disconnectedness. Having lost our attachments, we become more self-centered, selfish. But instead of finding ourselves, we begin to dislike who we have become.

In the series, Lucifer has several hang-ups that prevent him from truly connecting with others, but his default position is to blame someone else — normally God — for his situation. He is extraordinarily selfish and turns the focus of every situation onto himself. As the series progresses, he comes to the realization that the source of his problems is his self-loathing.

When he recognizes this, he begins to see the effect he has on others. He knows that there is a greater good and wants to be part of it, but his unresolved fears and self-hatred make him run away instead. Except that he cannot run too far. Ever before him is the idea that he has been made for greater things and ultimately begins to work on himself, to discover who he really is and what his purpose is.

A Lenten journey of self-discovery

Perhaps that is the journey for some of us this Lent. Instead of giving up something, when we feel that we have given up so much already, we can instead use these 40 days to reconnect with ourselves, our friends and family and with God. It won’t be easy, accustomed as we are to keeping everyone at a safe arms-length. But it’s the challenge we need to embrace if we truly want to live to our full potential.

Instead of giving up something, we can use these 40 days to reconnect with ourselves, our friends and family and with God.

How about one act of reconnection for each day of Lent? A phone call to an old friend. Rereading verses that once upon a time we highlighted in our Bibles. Rediscovering a book or a film that impacted our youth. Making time to allow ourselves to feel joy, sadness, love, pain, or any emotion at all. Taking the time to watch the sunrise or sunset with a renewed sense of awe.

By taking on one small action each day, we can strip away our fears and disillusions and rediscover who God truly made us to be, so that on Easter Sunday we can resurrect with Christ who calls us to be “fully alive” (Jn 10:10).

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.