The Need for Frontiers

Since moving out West, I have found myself fascinated by literature about the frontier. What made people leave the comforts of acred land nestled with shade trees and by an abundance of water risk everything to move to a draught-stricken, untamed, and often uncomfortable land? Was it truly just a lust for land and stars and space? At what point does the risk overrun the reward of such wanderlust?

I am not the first to question these things. Much wiser and more eloquent writers have spent their lives dug into these questions which seem to grow in the parched soil of the West, Wallace Stegner, John Steinbeck, and Seamus Heaney being among my favorites.

Raising three boys, I am watching the hunger for frontiers in my own home. Whenever our stringent schedules allow, we find ourselves longing for some new hike to explore or middling mountain to conquer. When we first moved here ten years ago, I remember reading a plaque at one of our favorite regional parks about mountain lions needing thousands of acres to satisfy their innate need to roam. I watched as my then-young pack of boys ran every which way, needing their own vast territories. It seems mountain lions, little men, and their mothers still need such space.

Whenever we steal away from San Diego to find new frontiers, we enjoy ourselves, but we never leave satisfied. Even on the car ride home, fresh off of a hike (smelling less-than-fresh), we are planning our next adventure. We may not be homesteaders in Conestoga wagons, but I think the same spirit drives us both, separated as we are by centuries and technologies.

Frustrated Frontiers

If some humans are hard-wired for frontiers, all humans share in the frustration that comes when the sought-out frontier cannot carry the weights we have placed upon them. The disillusionment and insidious distilling of disappointment we feel even when we have seen and experienced natural beauty evidences that we are made for more than this life.

In his short story The Red Pony, John Steinbeck explores the theme of the disappointment that comes when we reach the limits of our frontiers. The grandfather in the story is stuck in his memories of his frontier days, though they have long past. He continues to tell the same stories, much to the chagrin of his family.

“It wasn’t Indians that were important, nor adventures, nor even getting out here…It was westering and westering… When we saw the mountains at last, we cried- all of us. But it wasn’t getting here that mattered- it was movement and westering.”

After years of telling the same stories, Grandfather finally admits the frustration on the end of frontiers, whether physical or metaphysical.

“Then we came down to the sea, and it was done…There’s no place to go. There’s the ocean to stop you. There’s a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them.”

Our boys have wanderlust to visit the national parks. They get it honest from their momma who gets it honest from her parents. But even the most amazing natural wonders will stop them like the ocean stopped grandfather. Even in the modern world where frontiers barely exist, we continue our westering. We simply place the frontier line as a certain level of lifestyle or a far-off benchmark of achievement. If we can’t go west anymore, we instead seek to go up- up the ladder of success, following the way of more. More money, more possessions, more adventure, more travel, more influence, more fame.

Yet, all of those frontiers have oceans that will stop us dead in our tracks.

The Father’s Frontier

The reality is that we were made for the inexhaustible and the eternal. Eternity has been stamped in our feeble hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We were made to live in the context of an unlimited God whose wonders never cease. In the words of C.S. Lewis, we are wired to keep going “further up and in further in!”

Our hunger for beauty will always outpace the beauty of this broken world. Our need for newness will always be frustrated in our sin-aged world. The shiny of a new home or a new season of life or a new toy will always become scratched. This is a severe mercy that pushes us into the Father’s frontier.

The only ocean we will encounter on that frontier is the never-ceasing ocean of His love. If, rather than seeking to move “westward,” whatever that means for you, we commit to moving deeper into His love and the knowledge of Him, we will never be ultimately disappointed (Romans 5:1-5).

Hymn-writer Frederick Faber perfectly captures this reality in “The Eternal Spirit.”

“Ocean, wide-flowing ocean,
Thou, of uncreated love;
I tremble as within my soul,
I feel Thy waters move.
Thou art a sea without a shore;
Awful, immense, Thou art;
A sea which can contract itself
Within my narrow heart.”

If other frontiers are leaving you frustrated, come join the march of the saints towards the Father’s frontier. Such a pilgrimage will last for an eternity!

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