Trauma and loss are ancient and familiar realities for life on our planet, and no one is exempt from the cost they exact. Marilynne Robinson talks about lacrimae rerum – the tears in things
Trauma and loss are ancient and familiar realities for life on our planet, and no one is exempt from the cost they exact. Marilynne Robinson talks about lacrimae rerum – the tears in things. Edvard Munch’s The Scream, painted in 1894, was created in the context of death, madness and depression; since then, Munch’s image of threat, loneliness and alienation has been reproduced many times over, in many formats, even in comic books. Ancient myths from every culture depict violence, betrayal and loss of innocence. Holy Scripture does the same. The Psalms give voice to the sorrow and longing that lives in all hearts: things are not as they should be, or have once been. “My tears have been my food night and day,” says King David. If we are alive, we know tears!
Sometimes we can have an intense experience of what is brutal about life on our sorry planet – what has been destroyed, what cannot be restored to wholeness. The awareness is like a sudden cold rain – we can’t stop it, much as we can’t undo its effect. The result is dread, bringing with it the ardent wish for naiveté, not knowing, turning back the clock. PTSD sufferers must feel like this – wishing they had not seen or done what they now know will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Women and men who have suffered insult to their bodies and spirits by sexual predators also know that something has happened that cannot be undone or forgotten. Their tears are bitter indeed.
A balm in Gilead
Like the archetypal Adam and Eve, we sometimes stand naked before the truth of things: what were merely words before, have become knowledge. Such knowledge has the power to undo us, and in my imagination I hear a silent lament, a scream as it were, echoing across time: What have I done? What has been done to me? And we might say with writer Adele Wiseman, “I want to know what can make brutality bearable” (Memoirs of a Book Molesting Childhood, 30).
There is another cry that has echoed across the ages: the cry of Jesus Christ on the cross. It was also a cry of sorrow, loneliness, alienation and betrayal. It was a cry of bleak knowledge as well – the kind we all have about what we have irretrievably lost one way or another. The kind Adam and Eve had as they trudged out of the Garden.
And yet, according to the story, the last cry of all on that day in Gethsemane was an astonishing “It is finished.”
Christians believe it was that unlikely cry that has the power to propel the world forward out of its misery, to make brutality bearable, to dry up “the tears in things.” One of my Chinese ESL students once said, “I wish for this story to be true.” I think that all people throughout the ages have had a similar wish: that there is a balm for what ails them, that there is someone listening to their story, that there is a power to put a stop to grief.
Because, God knows, belief is fragile, we are sometimes given glimpses that “it is finished” is a real and resounding summons to the world to have courage. When that happens, we are in what some have called a sacred moment, an Easter moment. A few weeks ago in my church, we experienced one such sacred moment. A father of four lively children who was felled two years ago by a post-concussion brain injury stood up to tell the congregation about the struggle he and his family were going through. He was unsteady, his voice faltered; he struggled to control his tears. His wife stood by him, and held his arm. He told about the loss of his career. He talked about pain and depression, his intolerance for light and noise. That he had suffered and was still suffering was clear to us all. When he was finished, the congregation applauded and rose to its feet in empathy. I am not a sentimental person, but it seemed to me that a blanket of love and commiseration surrounded that couple that day.
Will this moment in church change anything – for that couple or for us?
But still, for a moment, we were suffering together: we were in it with them. In the Munch painting, the main figure is far away from the two figures in the distance, emphasizing loneliness.
But for a moment in church that day, we were present for each other. Amazing Grace.