Imagine Wanting Only This, by Kristen Radtke

Imagine Wanting Only This is a graphic nonfiction chronicle of the author’s passage through young adulthood. Two motifs arise early and recur throughout the narrative: the loss of a beloved uncle to a genetic condition that runs in Radtke’s family, and her fascination with ruins—abandoned buildings, historic sites, ghost towns.

The author’s restless quest for something more than “only this” takes her to far-flung destinations: Gary, Indiana, Chicago, Iowa, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Iceland, Italy, and Europe at large. It propels her to into contemplations of war, ecology, love, and the study of antiquities. Conversations with fellow art students, airplane companions, a priest, a faith healer, a cardiologist, and residents of abandoned mining towns convey and further her ruminations.

Radtke’s unflinching portrayal of emptiness is undeniably unsettling. But I appreciate that she doesn’t offer platitudes about finding satisfaction in, say, self-realization, or achieving one’s potential, or even family or an amorphous “faith.”

The narrative touches briefly on religion but does not delve into it deeply. I am curious to know whether in her private journey Radtke has done so more extensively than her memoir represents. If so, she has probably observed that Christian theologians and thinkers throughout history have engaged in a similar search for meaning.

Thinkers through History

In the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo, a North African bishop and prolific theologian still revered by all branches of the contemporary Christian church, wrote in his autobiography, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions).

In 1670 French mathematician Blaise Pascal expressed a similar truth. He observed that separation from the Creator has left us all with an “infinite abyss” that “can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself” (Pensées, Penguin Books 1966, p. 75).

I interpret the title of Radtke’s book to mean that, much as she might like to, she cannot imagine being content with the here and now. Eschewing the facile satisfaction with materiality that most of us settle for is commendable. Imagine Wanting Only This closes with the reflection that someday we will all be gone, and the places we have inhabited will retain no trace of us.

Radtke’s words call to mind Psalm 103: “As for man, … he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (verses 15–16). The psalmist, however, does not stop there. The whole of the psalm is a celebration of the God who, though infinitely greater than us, cherishes compassion and love for his creation.

Twentieth-century author C.S. Lewis wrote, in addition to the much-loved Chronicles of Narnia, several accessible treatises on faith. “The Weight of Glory” is a short essay with much to ponder in every paragraph.1 This oft-quoted passage poignantly describes our tendency to settle for far less than we were intended for:

“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Macmillan 1965, p. 3–4

Not Home Yet

Some thirty-five years ago, before I had read any of these writers, I concluded that no meaningful life was possible apart from the one who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jesus Christ, Gospel of John, chapter 14, verse 6). The words spoken to Jesus by the Apostle Peter resonated the result of my own meditations: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Gospel of John, chapter 6, verse 68).

While I could wish that Radtke’s search had reached similar resolution, her narrative does not preclude it. The absence of simplistic answers leaves open the possibility of a conclusion like that put forth by Lewis:

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world”

Mere Christianity, Macmillan 1952, p. 120

1Pastor John Piper draws heavily on Lewis in his 1986 book Desiring God. His principle proposition is “Christian hedonism”—the idea that God created us to find ultimate fulfillment of our every desire in him.

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