Why a sad song for the road makes you kinder

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.

n_sask_riverAnd haven’t we all sat in our house, alone? So empty, that the thought of some kind of filling made us nauseous, so down that a happily-encouraging word sounded staggeringly cheap.

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,

…in properly honouring them they can transform something rigid and toxic into something fertile and sustaining, something firm enough to support both the laughter and the tears.

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.


  1. Oh, you’ve opened a vein and bled on the page again, Stephen, and invited me to do the same. This bloodletting is essential and your words timely as I struggle with my own dark anniversary soon. “Give yourself permission to feel,” the grief book says. And I do and I don’t. For all the reasons you give. Thank you for speaking it right out loud, this jump off the page, grab-me-by-the-brain-and-shake-me-thorough truth.

  2. Thank you for this reminder. The vulnerability that accompanies mourning is, I believe, what frightens us away from it. It is difficult to face entirely on our own, and equally difficult to share and risk the judgment that, surely by now, you have finished with your grief, that perhaps there is something wrong with you, or that perhaps you ought to do more to transcend it somehow. And yet it is, in my experience, this vulnerable place where we encounter miracles and love and something really, really powerful, something sacred.

  3. Stephen,

    As always, you amaze me. Who else who tie together Psalms, Anne Sexton, and REM (one of my favorite songs by the way)…and provides a message that at once both perplexes me and feels just right for the moment.

    I sit here with jet lag and emotional exhaustion having just returned from the U.N. climate meetings in Warsaw. A city that brought us Copernicus, Chopin, and Curie – as strange a mix perhaps as you have put together in this piece. But it also is the Warsaw of the Ghetto and the Uprising, and now I ponder the fate and suffering of ancestors unknown. And now this city brings together the international climate meetings and the coal summit in the same week – the yin and yang of our environmental future, the future of humanity.
    The conference which opened as we saw the first images of the typhoon damage and with the negotiator from the Philippines announcing his fast until progress is made. Self-damaging. As futile as the Warsaw Uprising, but valiant, nonetheless.

    It has been some time since I have thought of Anne Sexton. I was introduced to her and Sylvia Plath in a poetry class in college. It was taught by the father of a good high school friend. I had never known his battle with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. It was a lot to take in at 19 years old. But he inspired in me a love for poetry, verse that I too seldom find time to read.

    If avoidance of negative emotion stunts us, I must be growing in leaps and bounds as I weep for students who are apathetic to their own future, for the 200,000 Polish resisters who died on the streets, for Yeb Sano and his hunger, for the lack of progress at yet another COP meeting, for the planet. All while I ponder your reference to that “strain of Christianity”. Again, I wonder how you read my thoughts.

  4. I so enjoy reading your comments and updates Diane. I always learn something. Warsaw must have been fascinating. (And thank you for the additional history) But I do feel your disappointment at the pace of change, at the apathy you encounter. Still, your study, your work is critical. And I’m thankful that people like you walk among us. And yes, sometimes all we can do is curl up with Sexton and R.E.M., which, in the midst of your “emotional exhaustion” is exactly the thing to do.

  5. An outstanding piece, Steve, even among your outstanding pieces. I particularly resonated with your prophetic words about the “victorious Christian life” which leaves very little place for that highest of Christ-like existence, the “fellowship of suffering.”

    I also appreciated all of the other comments.

  6. Thank you Stephen. I love this; it’s pastoral and timely for me. I appreciate the consistent, poetic, Christ-centric-human-beingism of your writing. I’d love to sit down for a coffee with you sometime soon, if you’ll have me. 🙂

  7. Thank you Stephen for expressing so well the double bind of not only being required to run a difficult race well but having to do it with a victorious smile all the while so as not to offend the sensibilities of other Christians. I am learning that Joy comes in mourning not only when the morning comes. It is those moments when we are fully engaged, whether tears of deep sorrow or laughter erupting from the belly, that we can know joy. Those moments that call from deep to deep reveal an honesty that connects us to our foundation; when we feel whole and vital and greater than we are in the ordinary moments. When we have a broader view of what success looks like, we recognize there is many faces of joy not only the one with the beatific smile.

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