A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an unfamiliar word in an article: quiddity. It’s nebulously defined as the quality that makes a thing what it is; the essence of a thing. Some call it “whatness.” I understand quiddity as that holy combination of spices in my mother’s marinade that makes her chicken fajitas better than anyone else’s. Or the annoying hand motion my friend makes when she’s ranting about something—the one that is so her. It’s the neighbor I see walking his dog every morning as I leave for work, who makes apartment-living feel a little more stable, a little more like home.
The first time quiddity sparked my curiosity—though I couldn’t name it—was in a small town outside of Big Bend National Park, in Terlingua, Texas. I had wandered into an unassuming restaurant—one with the necessary four walls, stark white, and a wooden awning bearing the brunt of the sun, plopped on top of the malty desert.
Quiet filled the dining area. There were no waiters in sight, no clanking of dishes from the kitchen. Even the older couple in the corner forewent conversation, content to focus on their plates. Only the occasional blip of static from the 10-inch tube television mounted on the wall challenged the silence.
My tostada arrived after the steady hum of a microwave. Its layers I recognized—I’ve reached for them in the grocery store myself when I’m in a hurry: prepackaged corn shell, canned refried beans and petite diced tomatoes, and pre-shredded lettuce. Not one additional spice or stroke of creative flare.
And somehow the evening filled me; it was gratifying. When I left the restaurant, I didn’t know that what should have been forgettable and underwhelming would become a rich memory.
In six months’ time, I switched churches, made new friends, moved to a different address, and started a new job.
Quiddity requires careful study, acuity. What is the distinguishing feature? How do these seemingly immaterial details come together in a way that makes the whole unlike anything else? What makes this place, this experience, this person just so? By nature, quiddity is curious and begs for discovery.
Nearly a month after I returned from Big Bend, my world began to change at a rate I couldn’t keep up with, like dominoes toppling over one another—though less orderly and intentional. In six months’ time, I switched churches, made new friends, moved to a different address, and started a new job.
I swallowed the first upheaval with humility and incorporated it into my life plan with a few tweaks and adjustments. But then the turbulence continued. And I found that just as I embraced one change, something else would shift and unravel my new vision for the future. The ground on which I stood quaked enough that I knew coming to the Lord with expectations was useless—the only question I could safely ask was, God, what are You giving me?
I looked and discovered a community of Christians who demanded I confront my own inadequacy as a leader and friends who call out my sin just as easily as they make me laugh. He provided a home that I’m learning to share with others. And He gave me a job as challenging as it is fulfilling.
A friend of mine put it this way: “When my mother passed away, I didn’t remember money she gave me, times she made me mad, when she didn’t meet my high expectations—I just missed her. Missed her presence. Missed all that she was.” Her mother encompassed an esteem for honesty, regret over forgoing a degree, a habit of leaving cabinet doors open while cooking, unfulfilled aspirations of becoming a teacher, and more. My friend defined her as she was without prescribing who she ought to have been.
The act of noticing and naming what is, rather than what we expect, reveals the richness of God’s provision—whether we asked for it or not. It’s what I’m beginning to think the psalmist meant when he wrote, “I muse on the work of Your hands” (Psalm 143:5). I’d presumed the psalmist possessed a supernatural power—one I lacked—that allowed him to see God’s goodness in every circumstance, giving him cause to praise the Lord in times of darkness and uncertainty. But I think it’s more likely he pondered the whatness before him, and there he saw the depth of God and how He filled the psalmist’s life. It’s the same awe that enables me to claim real gratification even when I can’t see goodness: My days are saturated with God.