The Season of L(am)ent
One of our great strengths as Americans is our optimism. We have a long tradition of looking ahead, planning great things, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and forging ahead despite obstacles. It’s the American myth, but it’s often true. Our pioneer spirit really has accomplished great things, and we have established our country as a land of opportunity. I love that about our nation. This forced, almost mandated, optimism has a huge effect in key moments of our lives. For instance, when we get a diagnosis of a terminal disease, we refuse to accept it. We fight it. We keep a positive attitude. We never say die. We try every option, every experimental drug, every available treatment. We aren’t quitters. This isn’t bad. A positive attitude really does make a difference in both the length and the quality of our lives. So we press on, prepared to never accept defeat.
Then there’s grief. Once someone we love has died, we cry for a bit, maybe, but then we lift our chins and soldier bravely on. We don’t let the sadness win. No, we say. We don’t want a funeral. We want a “celebration of life.” And then we tell ourselves it’s time to get on with the rest of our lives. (And if we don’t tell ourselves that, some helpful soul will surely step in and tell us instead: “It’s been three weeks. Isn’t it time for you to move on?”)
Third, there’s sin. Even less than we like talking about death do we like talking about sin. (At least, our own sin.) We don’t like to talk about our own missteps. Why spend time in negative feelings, beating ourselves up over something in the past? Let’s have no more of this “such a worm as I” theology. No, we think, it’s time to move on. What’s done is done, and the less said about it the better.
It’s just that healthy life doesn’t work that way. Most of the time, when we contract a terminal disease, it kills us, despite our courage. If we force ourselves to think only positively and never acknowledge the reality of approaching death, then we aren’t ready when it comes. We haven’t said goodbye to those we love or made our peace with others. I have sat by too many bedsides, watching people continuing to struggle pathetically against the death that they had never let themselves prepare for, because that would have felt like giving in. And grief? You can’t just will it away. If you “move on with your life” before you have grieved, all you do is create a festering pocket of sorrow inside, waiting to explode. Optimism divorced from reality is delusion; recovery before healing is a lie.
And sin? Moving on without acknowledging the depths of our sin and the breadth of its effect on others is a recipe for a superficial spirituality and a narcissistic faith. Nearly half the psalms in the Hebrew Bible are psalms of lament, because the Hebrews knew that the path to wholeness went through that valley. (By contrast, only about 10% of the songs in our hymnal could be categorized as laments by any stretch of the imagination.) But maybe if we learn to mourn our sins, we truly can be healed. This Lenten season, we will explore lamentation, we will explore grief, we will face the darkness.
Because we must. Easter’s on the other side.