It’s a strange thing to pay someone to be a safe listener. And yet I frequently recommend that people do just that. I cannot overstate the work of gifted and learned therapists–to be sure, it is not only being a safe listener and the best pair of ears does not qualify one for the office. It is both an art and a science. But since it is most often patient-initiated, it is safe to say that many of us have landed on the client couch not out of clear revelation but because of the absence of a safe listener–because something is off in our human experience. And the resources within our own person, and in our own circles, cannot help. The cost of truthfulness is too high except within insulated walls with professional certificates and HIPAA security. Once there, of course, we hopefully embark upon a journey far beyond our individual know-how and presenting needs.
Significant parts of therapy, for me, have included, in essence, grieving and lamenting in the company of another person. Someone who is not hushing, not causing, and not solving the pain. And someone who is not stumbling or exhausted because of my grief. Someone as witness. Someone differentiated but allied. Someone with emotional capacity as well as resilience.
Often I have felt ashamed of sadness, grave disappointment, anger, and melancholy. The songs of rejoicing, the hope of heaven, and the pressure to be genuine but not too genuine are part of the makeup of all the women in me at this point…but in lesser proportions with each year. When I feel these emotions, I am in a tug of war. I consider the thinking brain, the feeling brain. I empathize with those closest with me, who need me to be cheery. I empathize with the closest parts of me, who need me to break something and not lie. I entertain grand plans of escape and epiphany: I look up hikes and take out. Once I went to see a movie. I am teary and sleepy. I am restless and paralyzed. I pray for help. I ask Anyone listening to see me, to show me.
In his book The Sacred Sorrow, Michael Card writes “In order to turn around and move once more in the direction of God, we must find this path [They have] carved out. We must call out to [God] in the language [God] has provided. We must regain the tearful trail. We must relearn lament” (p. 20). I believe that moving towards God includes moving towards one another. This is not about a solitary pilgrimage of radical faith; this is about maintaining humanity and connectedness in the most God-showing way as possible.
Much of scripture seems to portray this awkward dissonance real life tempts us to face, despite my lack of familiarity with what to do at these times. Is it possible that lamentations would keep us turned towards God and one another, instead of scaring both away? Lament appears throughout scripture as the only authentic option in many cases, an ancient answer–the writers denying both the complete rejection of God and, worse, the lying about God and my experience of God. Jesus suffered to know, we are told–to befriend. He answered grief with tears. How did solidarity with suffering and lament escape our modern day equation for authentic relationship?
Card also writes “When he stops lamenting, Job ceases to reach out to God [interrupted by shushing friends]…Though it may seem profoundly counterintuitive, lament and despair are polar opposites. Lament is the deepest, most costly demonstration of belief in God. Despair is the ultimate manifestation of the total denial that [God] exists” (p. 55).
Without safe people with whom to lament, and without a language of lament with which to reach out to God (even with a closed fist), I settle with despair. Like my toddler, who just uses the best sound he can enunciate, but gets frustrated when it does not lead him to the desired outcome, I can slump into despair and acedia because they are more accessible than lament. I then must deal with the guilt and the baggage of my defeated stupor, from which I justify much creative selfish expression. I then must dance endlessly with artificial systems of control and protection. I know that language. I know those coping mechanisms. I have seen despair modeled.
We abandon one another and disintegrate our selves to the ditch of despair when we have not taught, modeled, and elevated lament. Despair is ending; lament a sacred practice, resistance, of survival and authenticity.
As opposed to my chummy relationship with despair, lament stands like an attractive new teacher I only understand sometimes. But it appeals to the truest parts of my soul, and our spirits say yes, I believe, to its power–to its difference. How could Ezekiel’s scroll be like honey, when it had so much sorrow and repentance? How might we remain connected to God and one another, God’s image bearers, through suffering? How can we call Jesus friend, the crucified and suffering servant? How can I remain wholly devoted to others and my God if there is no room for unpleasantries?
Distinguishing lament from despair is key to any hope I have in facing tomorrow. To holding onto the things I value on the good days and the bad. Lament is movement and defiance, pleading for witness, insisting on arcing innocence and mercy while confessing known mistakes and guilt. Lament is how I might stay true to my experience but not enslaved to my own narrow view. Lament is worship, naked, true, and lasting.
I also cannot see a way forward in our national climate without lament. Towards racial reconciliation and justice. Towards healing and protection of women, particularly in the Church. Towards a Good News that seems trustworthy or reliable in any way.
From the clinical couch to the polished pew, may the shushing cease and the tears flow. A new song, a new norm–the only decent response to so much that surrounds us and bursts within.
Good word. The distinction between despair and lament is an important one.