For my days are consumed like smoke,
and my bones are burned as an hearth.
My heart is smitten, and withered like grass;
so that I forget to eat my bread.
The psalmist, teetering on breakdown, writes the most poignant verse—pens lines of personal loss, of captivity, of extended exile.
I am like a pelican of the wilderness:
I am like an owl of the desert.
I watch, and am as a sparrow
alone upon the house top. -Psalm 102
These verses are two and a half millennia old. Yet every month when I come to this poetry, I am thrown a rope; my small woes are given new perspective, and the larger ones—those of loss and pain, the ones I have no control over—are given voice.
The pelican in the wilderness, the solitary desert owl, teach us nothing about our own experience of loneliness, except to train our sights, brilliantly, on the scene of our emotional anguish. That’s what beautifully sad art does. It points to the tangle in the understory, then throws an indiscriminating arm around our melancholy shoulders.
And here, we don’t want Mr. Peale or Gilbert and Sullivan or any elevating art, we need Ode to a Nightingale, we need tragic poetry. We need the slow dark-blue arch of a minor chord, we need deep purple swaths of paint on large canvasses. And we need, as Elton John sang, the “sad song that says so much.”
It’s a phenomenon we’re familiar with. Sad songs make us feel better. Psychology says as much. The stuff that pools must be slogged through to find the drain. All the inner-splinters must first of all fester. They bleed us as they leave—then leave a lingering salutary effect.
So when I hear of the horrendous loss from a typhoon half-a-world-away, or of a bomber who uses his own body as medium; when I daily recall a daughter who lives with chronic pain, a mother who bears up under the late and unkind stages of aging, I take comfort in Keats and Sexton, Virginia Wolfe and Howlin’ Wolf.
I am soothed by the psalmist. And truth is, I’m consoled more by Jesus’ cry, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me!” than his, “I go to prepare a place for you.”
A good friend who has had cancer talks about the imperative, for mental well-being, of embracing and honouring our losses. Her experience is that,
This should tell us that the attempt of exclusively focusing on the positive, as per the pop-guru—whether or not this is even possible—is self-damaging. As Keats says somewhere, pains and trouble schools the intelligence and makes it a soul. And if Keats is correct, it means that the avoidance of negative emotion stunts us. Actually makes us less tolerant, less sympathetic, less compassionate.
And now I’m reminded of a strain of Christianity (raise your hand if you’ve heard of this…yes I see that hand) that esteems a particular devotion to something called the “victorious Christian life.” Which is how otherwise well meaning people abandon their humanity in an attempt to live up to a false and impossible model. Here, any failing can be shared, so long as it ends with the personal proclamation of Christ’s victory over said failing. Anything less signals a lack of faith or unconfessed sin. For those whose lives are a collage of aches, who can’t quite achieve those daily victories, it’s a decidedly abusive standard, a double-bind for the sake of maintaining an unsullied facade to present to the unwashed.
But of course it’s not just a brand of Christianity, or religion, that dictate for stoic piety, it’s somehow deeper, it’s our western culture’s embarrassment about sadness, about the vulnerability of mourning. A vulnerability that could, if allowed, school us in compassion and mercy.
But then, when I think of it, we do have some songs, some poetry, some tools for the trail.