“Pacing the Cage” Until Joy Breaks In

“Sunset is an Angel Weeping / Holding out a Bloody Sword”

Ben Self / 10.7.20

There’s a beautiful Bruce Cockburn song on his 1996 album The Charity of Night that seems like it was ready-made for this year’s Covid-19 ordeal. It’s called “Pacing the Cage.” Here’s a taste of the lyrics:

Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it’s pointing toward
Sometimes you feel like you live too long
Days drip slowly on the page
You catch yourself
Pacing the cage […]

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend
Today these eyes scan bleached-out land
For the coming of the outbound stage
Pacing the cage

The song has meant a lot to me over the years, especially in drearier times. It evokes the strange combination of restlessness and emptiness at the heart of modern life. Perhaps it’s akin to that feeling you have, as the Eagles put it, “After the Thrill Is Gone,” when at some point you inevitably feel let down by life — like you were sold a bill of goods — and start scrambling for an escape hatch (or three). You wonder, is this all there is?

Since college, I’ve been prone to bouts of such gloomy discontent, which often seem, in retrospect, like an embarrassing kind of navel-gazing. For whatever reason, I think I started feeling jaded and a bit cynical long before any of my circumstances justified it. At several points in my late 20s, that world-weariness intensified into something approaching depression. Despite still being quite young, I felt hopeless and adrift in both my career and relationships. I had this sense that I’d somehow already missed my chance for any better sort of life, and that grim acceptance was the only way forward — that my best hope was just to soldier on with a kind of stoic resignation. Perhaps you can relate.

But as my dad says, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that really counts.” Now in my mid-30s, it recently occurred to me that I haven’t felt like I was “pacing the cage” for quite some time, thank God. And I don’t think it was stoic resignation that brought me here. It feels more like an unexpected gift, like the slow work of grace.

A few days ago, when I listened to that gorgeous Cockburn song for the first time in ages, I was struck by how, even though I’m literally spending my days right now “pacing” around in small enclosed spaces, I don’t carry that same burden of restless despair I used to. But why? My present circumstances aren’t that much better than they were. It goes without saying that life’s been rough in 2020, even for relatively privileged folks like me. I too have felt exhausted for months, cooped up, wracked with existential angst, starved for social contact, daydreaming about going to the library or a restaurant or concert, fretting about politics, climate change, the economy …

And yet, somehow, even in my suffering, I feel strangely buoyant.

Let me give you an example. Last Sunday, I woke up tired. I dragged myself out of bed to go walk the neighbor’s dogs, came home, talked my wife through a little anxiety, then ate Cap’n Crunch for breakfast — for the first time in a decade. We Skyped my parents, watched a church livestream, did a little yoga. We spent a couple hours cleaning and putzing around the house, argued a bit over lunch. That afternoon, I got together online with an old buddy to watch a movie — Babette’s Feast. Afterward, I lay in bed a while with my wife, did two days worth of dishes, then watched her make dinner — one of my favorites, spiced chickpea stew with coconut and turmeric. We sat on the couch and chuckled through a couple episodes of a sitcom, mopping up every last ounce of soup with crusts of bread. I ate too much ice cream. Then we walked the neighbor’s dogs again, tidied up, read a smidge, and went to bed.

It was hardly a spectacular day on the surface, not much different from the last six months worth of Sundays. And yet, as far as I’m concerned, it was as good a day as you could have. I barely left the house. But by the end of the day I was awash with gratitude, almost giddy with the stuff.

It reminded me a wonderful scene from the John Adams miniseries back in 2008. It takes place toward the end of the series and Adams’ life. Feeble and close to 90, the former president is on an evening walk with his son on the family farm in Massachusetts. After a few disgruntled remarks, he says,

Still, still I am not weary of life. Strangely, I have hope. You take away hope and what remains? What pleasures? … I have seen a queen of France with 18 million livres of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure, added to all the glitter of her jewels, did not impress me as much as that little shrub right there. Now your mother always said that I never delighted enough in the mundane, but now I find that if I look at even the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way. Rejoice evermore. Rejoice evermore! It’s a phrase from St. Paul … REJOICE EVERMORE! I wish that had always been in my heart and on my tongue. I am filled with an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees right here in admiration.

Adams was a notorious grump for much of his life, but there’s at least one actual letter he wrote late in life that used some of the ecstatic language above. What must have changed for Adams to enable him to feel this kind of relief from the politician’s life of constant jostling and striving — and have replaced it by joy? I suppose he probably had more time in his dotage to stop and smell the roses. But what else?

Surely, it’s that slow work of grace. Stephen Colbert has a sign on his computer that reads, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.” It’s an infallible sign in part because we can’t manufacture it. It’s an echo of God’s own delight in creation. It shows us God’s at work in and through us and all around us, bubbling like yeast beneath the surface, even as we’re grinding desperately away at the grist of our lives. The poet Rumi says, “God’s joy moves […] / from cell to cell.” It can shine through in anything:

Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
now a cliff covered with vines,
now a horse being saddled. It hides within these,
till one day it cracks them open.

I love that idea, that God’s joy moves through even the most mundane aspects of life — then one day cracks them open and bursts forth.

There are practical things that have measurably improved my life in recent years, and those are gifts, too. But by rights we should all be feeling pretty miserable right now, and sometimes I do. Still, I can’t help but feel like, at some point, God has cracked open parts of my life and made it a little easier for me to experience some of his joy. The world feels abustle with “rumors of glory,” as Cockburn sings elsewhere.

I can only assume there will be stretches down the road when I’ll again be overcome with that mix of restlessness and emptiness, and life will feel ceaselessly grim and uninspiring. Many I know feel that now. It’s certainly understandable. But know this: God has a way of dropping in on us when we least expect, cracking us open, springing us from our cages — opening us up to joy that otherwise felt impossible.