The Sanity of Lament
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.