When you imagine the wilderness, what do you see?
What do you feel?
I have been learning and singing a song from the show Next to Normal called “I Miss the Mountains.” The wife, Diana, has bi-polar disorder, has been medicated for years, and in that song is longing for the feelings she used to have as she experienced the highs and lows, including the feeling of “wandering through the wilderness.”
It was interesting to have her words in my mind as I revisited this week’s Torah portion where Hagar gets cast with her son from Abraham’s home into the wilderness. Genesis 21:14 “She went and she wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.”
What is this “wilderness?” Why does Diana long for it, while in Hagar’s story, it seems like such a lonely and undesirable place? A friend recently posted a quote on Facebook, “At least pain is real. I mean you look around you see nothing is real, but at least the pain is real” (from the movie Pump Up the Volume.) Ah, this what I think Diana means when she sings, “I miss the mountains, I miss the pain.” Diana misses what felt real to her. She tells us so when she sings, “Everything is balanced here, and on an even keel. Everything is perfect, nothing’s real.”
Certainly, what Hagar experiences in the wilderness is real pain as well. With no water left, she places her child at a distance from herself unable to watch the child die from thirst. While the text tells us that God responds to the cries of the boy, God does so by opening her eyes.
Every year, I am drawn to this phrase, “opened her eyes” (Genesis 21:18) and what it suggests. If her eyes only needed to be opened, then maybe there was something to be seen that she just wasn’t seeing? The text doesn’t say that God placed a well in front of her, the text says that “God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.” This phrase always suggests to me that there are always more possibilities available if we could only open our eyes and see them.
Maybe I am drawn to this phrase because I know those moments of living in the real, the real pain, the real uncertainty, the real loneliness of being in the desert. Maybe I am drawn to this phrase because I love the suggestion that what seemed like a certain reality at one moment, can be shifted by changing one’s vantage point. With our eyes opened, we may see something in our situation, in our wilderness that we hadn’t seen before.
Maybe this shift in perspective can only happen if we are living in what feels real, and when we are in the wilderness, accepting the pain and the uncertainty. Maybe it is when we try so hard to change our reality, that we miss opportunities for seeing it with new eyes and discovering new possibilities.