Kathleen M. Pike, PhD


About this time of year, many moons ago, I tiptoed out of my apartment in the dark of night to leave the urban sprawl of Tokyo on a quest. I was answering the beckoning call of Mt. Fuji. This iconic and majestic mountain rises 3776 meters above sea level and proudly watches over Tokyo from afar. Sighting it from vantage points around the city never gets old. Mt. Fuji is not a particularly technical climb, but the serious elevation gain marked by steep inclines, long switchbacks and a rapidly changing microclimate mean that many people who depart base camp never summit.

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Three friends and I started our climb before sunrise, and alternately eased our way and wrestled our way through altitude sickness, blinding sun and then a hail storm to reach the rim of this dormant volcano. The exhilaration I felt when we reached the peak still makes my heart race today. Within moments, we were all on our cell phones calling loved ones back in the city to share the thrill. “Yes, yes, yes! I am calling from the top of Mt. Fuji; we did it; it’s breathtaking.” And then a wave of sadness washed over me. The end of longing.

1. What is longing? Merriam Webster defines longing as “a strong desire especially for something unattainable.” Longing rests in that hollow created out of yearning for something that is beyond our grasp in the current moment. It has an urgency. It makes us vulnerable as it lays bare our desires. Longing is emotional tension that arises between what is and what we wish could be – right now, right here – but isn’t.

2. Longing is the space in-between. World renown violinist, Isaac Stern famously said that anyone can play the notes. It’s what happens between the notes that makes the music. That day, from the peak of Mt. Fuji, we cancelled out the space in-between. Cell phones in hand, longing was eliminated. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a luddite, and it was so fun to share our excitement with loved ones curled up on the sofa at home. But we robbed ourselves of the opportunity to feel any longing. In the desire to connect and share the joy, we created an eclipse that took us out of simply being in the moment. No time to imagine sharing the story. No time to anticipate the responses of our loved ones. No waiting.

3. What is the gift of waiting and longing? We have come to expect that what we want can and should be instantly satisfied. Want that new shampoo? Amazon Prime delivers in a day. Want to watch that movie? Netflix or Hulu have it on demand. What to hear that new song by Taylor Swift? iTunes has you covered. Immediately. Load times of more than three seconds on a website cause most people to click elsewhere. For the most part, the convenience is amazing and wonderful. In our emotional and psychological worlds, however, having our every need met on demand is not only not realistic, it is not good for our mental health.

4. Learning to engage with longing. Getting comfortable with that space in-between creates the opportunity to reflect on what we value and who we care about. It is an invitation to be present in the moment. It is an offering for self-reflection and getting to know ourselves better. It teaches us patience, humility, and impulse control. It connects us to our vulnerabilities, which paradoxically makes us strong. It gives us time to imagine and create. If we slow down long enough to get comfortable with longing, we will be freed to live more fully in the present that is.

5. The gift of longing satisfied. We all have moments when waiting is coupled with longing. The high school student who sends off college applications. The parent whose child is sent to war. The mother-to-be. The loved ones who sit in the hospital waiting room longing to hear whether the surgery was successful. The list goes on. Of course, not all longing is satisfied with the outcomes we hope for, but when we allow ourselves to long for something that is eventually satisfied, the joy is intensified and all the sweeter. The opportunity for even greater celebration is created.

These are days of waiting and longing. We long for a coronavirus vaccine. We long for physical distancing restrictions to be lifted so we can travel and see loved ones again. We long for the ballot counting to be over. We are in that in-between space where longing invites us to learn about ourselves and others and grow in our patience, humility and resilience. I get it, and I believe it. So when I wish for that quick satisfaction of just calling home, I hope that I can hear the other beckoning call from Mt. Fuji that reminds me to stop and savor the longing, no matter how hard it is.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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