It has been my practice the last few years to post on Facebook something for which I am thankful, every day during the month of November leading up to Thanksgiving Day. I didn’t do that this year. It’s been a demanding year for us, and I have dutifully tried to practice gratitude in the midst of those demands, but the words get stuck in my throat and don’t make it down my arm to the computer screen. When I have tried, the words have felt forced, compelled, not without meaning but perhaps without sincerity: words I should mean but could not feel. I felt like a fraud.
Maybe, occasionally, you have experienced something similar.
Amidst my first world comforts, and growing more and more in my understanding of the sufferings of others, both here and around the world, I felt mostly—guilty. Guilty for allowing my own suffering to prevent me from expressing gratitude. Guilty for even thinking that my discomforts amounted to suffering. Guilty for not being able to summon up compassion for the suffering of others on demand. Guilty for the resentment that sometimes bubbled up when I was called on to serve in ways that I had not foreseen.
Guilt is a terrible motivator. It just made me feel worse that I couldn’t summon up even a dutiful gratitude.
Some days I couldn’t even form a charitable thought towards suffering people in my immediate circle of influence, even though my own discomforts pale in the light of their experiences. At times, I thought I could just not bear to hear one more story of loss, illness, reversal of fortune, or disappointment. And that’s before I even heard the news: human trafficking, Ferguson, corporate greed, hit-and-runs, abducted children, school shootings very close to home, and you know the list goes on. And on. And on.
Many years ago I was in the hospital after a miscarriage at sixteen weeks of pregnancy. I was devastated. I couldn’t sleep, and a night nurse who wasn’t too busy came to my room and let me talk for a while. At first, I was grateful for the opportunity to process aloud with a compassionate listener. But then she said the words that gutted my right to be devastated. “At least.” As in, “At least you’re young; you can have another baby.” Yes, ma’am, let me get right on that. Really? I shouldn’t feel sad about losing this baby because someday I will have another one? Could I please be allowed to mourn this loss first?
I read an article recently that said that a meaningful gesture of compassion never begins with the words, “At least.” At least you have a job. At least you have a home. At least you don’t have cancer like these other people. “At least” shuts down compassion, shuts down conversation, shuts down our right to have feelings of any kind. “At least” says, “You should be grateful in spite of your piddly little problems.” It says, “How dare you think that you have it bad?” “At least” rushes us from our experience of current loss or hardship or disappointment or mourning to acceptance. To the future. To a brittle but false contentment.
I realize now that, although I would never say “at least” to a suffering friend or parishioner, I have been saying it to myself. I have been telling myself that I have no right to consider my own sufferings because “at least . . .”
“At least” rushes us past lament.
The Bible contains many, many commands and reminders to express gratitude. But it also contains many examples of lament. In seminary, when I was studying the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, one thing I realized was that the books of Job and Lamentations—expressions of lament easily recognizable to even a casual reader—were written as poetry. The writing of poetry (good poetry, anyway) is not, after the first impulse, a spontaneous activity. It takes time, revision, careful attention to every word, a consideration of the range of meaning, rhythm, sound, effect on the reader. Lament was encoded. Suffering people didn’t just sit down and vomit out their thoughts into a journal and call it poetry. They considered it, mined it, lingered over it, pondered it, contemplated it, sat with it, attempted to make meaning out of it. Lament was crafted.
Biblical lament is given to us as a model. We are meant to practice lament, the same way we practice thanksgiving and prayer and praise and service and justice and mercy and humility and compassion. When we rush past lament on our way to thanksgiving, our gratitude becomes cheap and artificial. At least mine does.
I need to spend time looking at my losses and heartaches and life demands and fatigue and disappointment and confusion and weakness and inadequacy in the face. I don’t have to make meaning of them. I don’t have to resolve them. But I’m pretty sure I do have to acknowledge them. I need to honestly lay them in all their ugliness at the feet of the God who knows it all and say, “There it is. All of it. I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t like the way I feel. I don’t like that I’m not strong enough to deal with it on my own. I don’t like how petty I feel. I don’t like suffering. I don’t like feeling guilty. I’m ashamed that I would prefer an easy life.” And finally, because I’m starting to remember how God has worked in my life before, “Maybe you can do something with it. Maybe you can make something out of it.”
And when I do, God sometimes opens my eyes to see the little slivers of light, of his goodness, of his presence that have been there all along—the small graces that soften the edges of hardship. The wheelchair that just happens to line up perfectly with the height of the bed. The job that I didn’t want where I am valued and respected. A tangible, unexpected reward for service rendered years ago. A home that delights us after we were forced to move. Ministry colleagues with whom we find safe space to lament. I am finally able to say, “Thank you, Jesus.”
I recently read the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete whose plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean on a rescue mission during World War 2. He survived an unprecedented 47 days aboard a life raft, was eventually captured by the Japanese, and was singled out for untold abuse, torture, and deprivation. It’s a story of almost unimaginable suffering. And yet, small graces were evident throughout his story. His life raft was strafed by a Japanese fighter pilot, and although the raft was damaged extensively, neither he nor the two other Americans with him took a single bullet. When their raft hit the equatorial doldrums, he experienced a heavenly choir of what seemed like angels, which brought him unexpected peace and the hope of a future. A Japanese guard who had converted to Christianity under the influence of missionaries snuck him extra food and kept away some of the more sadistic guards.
Eventually Louis was rescued, but it wasn’t enough. Instead of leaving behind his wartime sufferings, he had to examine his agonies square in the face before he could call on the God of the universe to rescue his heart and soul. Although his story took him farther into darkness that I can even imagine, at the end of it was great light and life. He lived a redeemed life, full of health and vigor, into his 90s, and most of his postwar life was spent in meaningful service to the less fortunate. Small graces helped him survive and eventually thrive.
At this time of year we naturally focus on gratitude. Most Christians believe in the importance of gratitude, at least on some level; I consider it a spiritual discipline. In other words, if we practice gratitude even when we don’t feel gratitude, it changes and forms us. We become different people, kinder people, people with some of our rough edges sanded down, people with eyes to see the goodness of God even amid difficult circumstances.
But we must not pretend. Some things remain broken, unsolvable, heartbreaking. We must not put on Pollyanna faces and force ourselves to look on the bright side and ignore the dark side. We must acknowledge our pain, even if others’ pain seems to deserve more attention. If we don’t, we might miss the small graces where God touches, encourages, heals, and clears the path before us.
Thanksgiving, yes. But sometimes we must pass through lament on the way.