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McCloskey Counseling Couples & Individual | San Antonio TX | Austin TX | Marriage Counseling & Psychotherapy | Blog » The Sanity of Lament


Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are. - Augustine

The Sanity of Lament

Posted by: Mike McCloskey on August 26th, 5:05 PM. 7 Comments

A friend recently told me that as he sat down to talk with a trusted mentor about his life, he immediately burst into tears. If you knew my friend you might be surprised by this - he does not come across as one particularly given to emotional undoing. He normally seems confident, in control, and happy - and in many respects he really is. But what is it that sitting with another’s eyes upon you, taking time to reflect, speak, and listen, which has such power to undo us? What happens when a person sits with another who is seriously listening (an extremely rare occurrence for most of us), intent on knowing the inner life of another? 

The brilliant existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom wrote of a similar experience when he was leading a large seminar some years ago in which he asked attendees to tap into their not so well hidden lament:

“Imagine this scene; three to four hundred people, strangers to each other, are told to pair up and ask their partner one simple question, “What do you want?” over and over again.

Could anything be simpler? One innocent question and its answer. And yet, time after time, I have seen this group exercise evoke unexpectedly powerful feelings. Often, within minutes, the room rocks with emotion. Men and women – and these are by no means desperate or needy, but successful, well-functioning, well-dressed people who glitter as they walk – are stirred to the depths. They call out to those who are forever lost – dead or absent parents, spouses, children, friends; “I want to see you again.” “I want your love.” “I want to know you are proud of me.” “I want you to know I love you and how sorry I am I never told you.” “I want you back – I am so lonely.” “I want the childhood I never had.” So much wanting. So much longing. And so much pain, so close to the surface, only minutes deep. Destiny pain. Existence pain. Pain that is always there, whirring constantly just beneath the membrane of life.”  -  Irvin Yalom, Love’s Executioner

Recognizing this longing, this restlessness, this want in our hearts is something which many of us would rather avoid, much less explore in conversation with another. The problem with this expression of lament is that it feels so shameful, so ugly. I hate this part of me. I don’t really want you to know about it. I want to seem to you to be calm, powerful, and full of content. And so we often give to others not an invitation to the core of our faith-stuggle, but commentary on the roped-off tour of the cleaner parts of our lives.

I have often wondered if the people of God would feel so much less crazy if the songs which we sang expressed some of this lament. The trouble is that those songs don’t sell well. It would be difficult to write a song for the church borrowing Jeremiah’s words, “Why did I ever come forth from the womb to look on trouble and sorrow, so that my days have been spent in shame?” You see what I mean? It just won’t sing well. But perhaps it would do our soul good. All together now on the chorus. 

Lament is that hidden part of our soul which begs for expression but which is loathe to show itself. I find myself wondering at words which have the power to name this sorrow buried deep within us. As a community, we desperately need these words, even if we never give into the pressure of “fixing” what we find as we come to know the darker recesses of our hearts. Give yourself room to lament, room to struggle with God and others about the sorrows of your life. Ask someone else about their own sorrow, their own “what do you want?”. You might find yourself an inch closer to sanity.



  • By: 0 on August 26th 6:43 PM

    WOW! What we stuggle to hide from others and ourselves. Over the past few years, when I have been told that a hope filled life is a pain filled life, I have wondered why does it have to be that way. It seems that we have been taught not to want but yet when we want, long for, desire, we think something is wrong with us. Then we go asking to be relieved of this longing, desire or want. What would life be like if we were taught that this is normal? That this is a God-given ability? What grief would be avoided if we could accept that we will be longing and lamenting until the day that God calls us home. We expect to be filled and not wanting today, not later.

  • By: suzanne on August 26th 7:36 PM

    i am always surprised when tears come unexpectedly as i'm talking to another. i find, too, that i am awful (awfully scared) of listening to the lament of my husband. i don't want to hear it unless i can fix it. and he doesn't want me to fix it. i can't imagine singing jeremiah's songs in church, either.

  • By: Mike on August 27th 10:25 PM

    I wonder if any of us really want to be "fixed". I once heard of a person in NYC who advertised in the paper that you could call him, talk about whatever you wanted, and he promised not to say anything to you. Perhaps this is close to the Catholic form of confession.

  • By: Linda on August 28th 2:30 PM

    I could not even finish reading the post before I heard myself cry, "No!" and felt tears flood my face. It is a comfort to know that this lament is common to humankind. However comforting, it does not stop the tears.

  • By: Audrey on August 29th 8:23 AM

    Asking me "What do you want?" has proved to be the one question that renders me speechless. It is the one thing I am afraid to attempt to name.

  • By: Lori on October 5th 4:18 PM

    I've let this email sit until I had some unhurried time to read. How timely it is for me as my sister enters the last leg of her 7 year journey with breast cancer. In the midst of very challenging relational issues in my extended family that radiate out from her, it has been such a struggle to be as present I want to be with her over the years. There is much that I want for her, for myself, for my brothers and my parents, much of which may never be realized this side of heaven. It is such a comfort to know that God will make all of the relationships right one day, but my grief for my sister and for all those in my family who may well be left with many unresolved issues, is huge. Having walked with my husband, Bill, through the loss of his brother and sister to cancer in 15 months time 17 years ago, makes this all the harder. On the one hand, I'm more prepared, but on the other, I find that I'm strongly resisting engaging my emotions because it's all so painful. My sister is doing one last awful chemo in hopes of buying a little more time. I have to make myself feel my feelings so I don't stuff it. I'm so grateful for God's love and presence in the midst of it all! Jeanenne, sorry to have not been in touch. It was so good to be together in Dallas summer before last. Your words about our years together in Young Life truly blessed me. I have thought of them many times since. It's great to see all that you have done in your life! The insight and understanding revealed in your blog is wonderful! Love, Lori

  • By: Teresa on March 10th 5:28 PM

    When I asked my husband and son what they wanted (longed for, desired) on New Year's Day for this next year (2010)....I had to clarify - not a New Year's Resolution or even goal per se, just 'hoped for'.
    My son said 'a sane mother' and my husband said 'a sane wife'. I'm not sure they will be encouraged to know that my 'sanity' might mean more tears, more lament. But it is true. If I'm to live in truth I will be sad, sometimes to the point of days motionless on the couch. There is much to lament if I keep my eyes and heart open to reality.

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