Let’s name the “levels” of our being:

  • You have fleeting thoughts throughout the day, most of which are insignificant.
  • You also have longings, hopes, and dreams that are far more important.
  • Deep within you, you have experienced the cry for love, hope, and joy, which feels almost primal to your being.

I call these layers of our being the Shallows, Midlands, and Depths.

The Shallows of our being are characterized and ruled by the distractions of life. In the Shallows we flit from thought to thought, distraction to distraction almost unpredictably. You know how this goes—you’re driving down the road listening to a podcast on the intelligence of dogs when the host makes a passing reference to his birthday. Your brain seizes on this little inconsequential remark, and you suddenly remember you forgot your mother’s birthday, which leads to some panicked thoughts about how to make up for it and where you can buy a birthday card today. You think of the store that might have a card, and you recall that it’s next to a great taco joint, which causes you to realize how much you love carnitas, and in a matter of a few nanoseconds you are miles from the actual topic of the podcast.

This is most people’s mental life nowadays—a fluttering array of randomly distracting thoughts flitting along like a thousand butterflies. Those are the Shallows of your existence.

The Midlands are characterized and ruled by what I, echoing Jesus’ words, would call “the cares of life,” the deeper worries, heartaches, longings, and aspirations that occupy the human heart (see Luke 21:34 and Matthew 4:19). Things like the health of your aging parents, the learning struggles of your children, the status of a troubled relationship, the progress of your career or lack thereof. Your finances, your own health, your hopes and fears for your future or the future of your loved ones.

I hope this helps you distinguish between the Midlands and the Shallows. The Midlands are deeper down in our being because they are the terrain of weightier matters. When Jesus said, “Watch yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with ... the cares of this life” (Luke 21:34), this is the geography of heartache and fear he was referring to.

Distractions keep you in the Shallows for much of your day. They burn mental energy and take your focus on a roller coaster ride. But it is the pressures of the Midlands that keep you up at night—those are the things that cause us to pray, the things that give us ulcers. The Midlands, not the Shallows, tend to be the place of our tears.

Deeper still, down in the “depths of your being,” is the essence of your existence, and the dwelling place of God (now that you have invited him to live in you!). The Depths are characterized and ruled by eternal things like faith, hope, love, and joy, to name a few. The prisoner sentenced to solitary confinement, the patient living out the final days of life in a lonely hospital room, and the castaway stranded on a remote island all discover that what once seemed so important now pales in the light of their longing to see their loved ones one more time.

We all have a deep inner life, whether we pay attention to it or not. This is very hopeful, because we can learn to access it.

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