Letters to Peregrinus #12 - On Turbulence of Spirit

Dear Peregrinus (Tuesday, 8 PM):

In your recent letter, you wrote about feeling turbulent of spirit. And because you chose that word as the one that seemed most accurately to describe what it feels like to be you right now, I have paid close attention to that word. Is such turbulence as you are feeling a good thing or a bad thing?

I think that you are saying that you think this turbulence is a bad thing.

Let me explore this word with you, so that I might know better what it is that you mean, but also so that you might know whether “turbulence” is the right word to use for what you are feeling. Naming inner experiences accurately goes a long way toward understanding their nature, and is a crucial first step towards knowing how to deal with each experience in turn.

The noun “turbulence” derives from the Latin adjective turbulentus meaning “full of disturbance or commotion; restless.” I was surprised to learn that at least in its Latin source “turbulent” describes a particular kind of inner disturbance – a restlessness which disturbs the soul.

My surprise with this meaning is rooted in the fact that I have to this point considered turbulence of spirit as something undesirable, something one wants to rid from oneʼs soul, seeking peace and rest from its disordering effects. Turbulence has felt to me caused by the invasion of something from my outside to my inside. It is like a rock hurled into a calm lake: it strikes the water, disturbs its surface, generating disturbances far beyond the point of injury.

In contrast, restlessness seems to me to have its source in the nature of the soul, something that describes what the soul is – restless. Restlessness seems to me to be something desirable, something characteristic of an awakened human spirit, one that is always searching, exploring, and dissatisfied with insufficient answers to profound questions. In this regard I recall St. Augustineʼs famous line from his Confessions, Book I, chapter 1:

You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.

So my question to you, Peregrinus, is this: Is what you are experiencing a turbulence of spirit that is really a feeling of restlessness like this? St. Augustine (and not him alone in the tradition) would suggest that you consider that this restlessness may be a very positive spiritual disturbance generated in you by God Who is drawing close to you, disturbing your soul, making it want to respond more generously, more truly, and more courageously than it normally chooses to do. Such restlessness you donʼt want to be gone; rather you want it to grow stronger in you.

Do you see, Peregrinus, how noticing a word that you have used to describe your inner experience, and then thinking about that word, can help you understand yourself with more nuance and deeper insight? But your turbulence may have a different meaning than this.

Letʼs look even deeper behind the Latin adjective turbulentus to its root in the Latin noun turba meaning “a crowd” and the Latin verb turbare – the infinitive form meaning “to disturb or agitate.” Allowing these roots to thicken the texture of the meaning of this English word, we may arrive at the following definition: “turbulent is an adjective that describes a kind of inner experience of disturbance, which a person feels as a restlessness that he or she “catches” from others in a crowd.”

How may this help you understand more about the particular kind of turbulence that you are feeling? My own experience has taught me how it can happen that I can be feeling confident, steady, and peaceful of soul … until I find myself among some particular group of people. Suddenly the peace I have is disturbed by something I am “catching” from the crowd, a restlessness or nervousness or fear. The inner disturbance I feel is not really from me, but from the crowd. And if I am not careful, I can mistake what belongs to them as something that belongs to me personally.

In this regard, I ask you, Peregrinus, whether the turbulence you feel is actually from you. Or is it a disturbance that you feel generated in you when you place yourself in the midst of a certain group of people, or plant yourself in front of the evening news, or over-preference a particular news source more than a balanced mix of several of them? If this turbulence you feel is not from you but is something you “catch” when in the midst of such a crowd, then I would counsel that you avoid those particular crowds and see whether your inner peace returns to you.

This is all that I wanted today to reply. My goal is to continue to cultivate in you an ability to notice the words that you use to describe your inner experience, and then for you to learn how to discipline yourself to question whether such words are the right ones. A care for words in this way is simultaneously a care exercised in relation to your experiences.

Your affectionate friend and fellow pilgrim in the Lord,

Rick, SJ

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