Sunday, February 12, 2012

Crying, community, and celebration


There was a big funeral last Saturday—both in terms of import and in number of mourners. A long-time member of our parish, who was also a major player in the St. Louis art scene, died at 90 years old. She was vivacious and active to the end, and died what might be termed a good death, if such a thing exists, and I think it does: without much suffering, surrounded by friends and family and much love. The church was beyond packed—truly standing room only. Every pew was full to bursting, the extra chairs set up in back were all occupied, and the aisles on either side of the church were filled as well. A few choir members were absent, leaving open seats—and so a few strangers were sprinkled in with the basses and altos. The service was beautiful, replete with the words and rituals that have comforted Christians for centuries. My personal favorite is taken from a hymn that is sung at Orthodox funerals: Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing but life everlasting. All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia.

With any funeral—even one so joyous as this one, even one that is ultimately a celebration of life rather than a grim cursing at Death—there is grief. Despite our best efforts and fervent wishes to the contrary sorrow, death and loss are as much a part of living as joy and birth.  Sorrow moves us and so we respond: with words, with gestures, and above all with tears. To quote Voltaire, “Tears are the silent language of grief.” Like many people I know, I was raised to see crying as a sign of weakness--something shameful to be done in the absolute privacy of one’s room, or perhaps in the shower. I’ve made quite a study of crying over the years, primarily because I’ve done so little of it myself. From seventh grade to my freshman year of college, I didn’t cry at all (I mention this not in the spirit of macho boasting; on the contrary, I realize there is something spiritually, if not psychiatrically, amiss in this).

It is my experience—borne out by many observations-- that when we notice another person weeping, there are three possible responses (okay, probably more, but I’m this is my blog and I get to make the rules). The first is probably the most common, the one that gets employed with those who are not intimates: we look the other way, and pretend it’s not happening. The other person may not want our sympathy, or we may feel awkward about offering it. Sometimes we do this to allow the other to save face; when you see a woman crying next to the frozen pizzas at 7-11, this strategy is easiest for all concerned (having been on both sides of this scenario, I know it’s true; by the way, is there something inherently depressing about frozen pizzas? Besides the obvious, I mean). It’s only when this is our sole method of dealing with sorrow that this becomes problematic. We can use this method with our own griefs too, of course—immersing ourselves in other activities,  or relying on addictions or compulsions (from the benign to the life-threatening) in order to ignore the pain. This is the path of denial and suppression. 

The second strategy gets used with friends and strangers alike: we respond by trying to shame or cajole the other person into stopping their tears. We may not view it that way, but that's often how it feels to the sensitive recipient of such attentions. I heard a number of people at the funeral ‘comforting’ each other with “Now, now, don’t cry,” “She wouldn’t have wanted us to cry,” or “C’mon, smile.” And we do this with ourselves, too, or at least I do. Superficially, this seems like the right thing to do: No one wants to see someone they love cry. If you are a human being with a healthy allotment of empathy, it hurts to watch someone else hurt. At a deeper level, though, this response denies the validity of pain, attempting to sugarcoat it or chase it away. When we employ this tactic with ourselves, it may take a number of forms: “I don’t have anything to cry about,” “Be strong,” “Don’t let them see you cry.” This is a form of denying one’s own truth. It is also a denial of a more universal truth, captured by the psalmist: There is a time to rejoice, but there is also a time to mourn; both deserve respect. 

The last response is probably the healthiest, and is the provenance of those we want (or at least I want) to be with when sad or dismayed. It involves making space for the tears and grief, accepting and holding them. I think of it as a ‘mothering’ response: “There, there, let it all out,” “Go ahead and cry,” “A good cry will make you feel better.” It transforms what Exupery, in his beloved ‘The Little Prince,’ called “such a secret place, the land of tears.” A secret kept to oneself may be shameful, painful, or back-breakingly heavy. A secret shared—a sorrow shared—is a connection and a weight lifted. Humans are social animals; we aren’t meant to experience grief (or, really, many life experiences) alone. And even when we are alone, it’s possible to feel less so by heeding the urgings of the Divine and allowing our feelings—and our tears—to flow freely. 

Here’s to the New Year (though a little late), and to a lifetime of tears, whether of joy or of sorrow, shared in the sacred space of community. Alleluia.

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