Is it abnormal to feel saddened by the lovelessness and wrongness of much that happens in life? No. “Every little thing that happens” often contains sorrows. Even with lovely things, there is often a worm in the apple. At minimum, good things do not last—“Pleasures pass but sorrows stay,” as an old saying put it. And many everyday things are plain wrong: backbiting in the workplace, gossip and factions in church, arguing and indifference at home, deceptive dealings in money matters, ill health, friendships that drift apart or turn sour. If we are honest—and not cynical—the things that happen often leave us grieved and aggrieved. (And even cynical people have a history of grief and grievance, but got tired of investing energy into sorrow and mourning.)
But what goes into the particular sadnesses that beset this letter writer? The questions she poses capture some of her difficulties. In responding, I will have to make some assumptions. That’s particularly obvious in a letter, but a version of it occurs in every face to face counseling relationship as well. We never know another person fully, so we always respond out of partial knowing. A good conversation or correspondence often contains a fair bit of correcting the ways we misconstrue each other.
So the first thing I say is that feeling life’s sadness is not abnormal. Our Savior is pointedly a man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief, and aggrieved by what is grievous. The psalms express Jesus’ experience, and many psalms are in the “minor key” emotionally—more dysphoric than euphoric, more sorrowful or anxious or aggrieved than cheerful. But it is a sorrow that continually reckons with specific promises of God: his lovingkindness, his watchful care, his forgiveness, the reality that he is our only true refuge. This experience of sorrows in search of the God who willingly makes himself known can become increasingly our own. Psalms take us by the hand. We learn how to honestly face trouble, how to give voice to deep internal struggles… and how this can often segue into a “major key” sense of confidence, safety, and even (on occasion) exultant joy.
The second half of that last sentence might have surprised you. Life is full of broken things that aim to break you. Yet we learn the humanity of faith, looking troubles in the eye, giving voice to our distress, looking God in the eye. And the Lord restores your soul. He is with you. He has a way of modulating the key in which life plays.
What about the phenomena of other people who appear to be “completely happy”? I think it largely bears witness to shallowness in the fellowship, in the friendships and acquaintances, in the family and neighborhood. People wear masks, putting a good face on things. Perhaps our letter writer is being taken in by the personal p.r., propaganda, and spin? Eliphaz misinterpreted Job’s struggle and gave him poor counsel, but some of his observations were on target: “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).
Even more important, Christian faith roots in the humility that honestly reckons with our need. The first four beatitudes stress the right kind of poverty, sorrow, neediness, hunger, and thirst (Matthew 5:3–6). The wise know that they are weak: 2 Corinthians 12:8–10, Hebrews 5:2 and 5:7. Fools are self-confident, think they need nothing, and do not know that they are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (Revelation 3:17). True self-awareness begins with understanding these things. True understanding reckons with our mortality—“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
Henry David Thoreau was no Christian, but he was a close observer: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” So the appearance—unruffled competency? self-satisfaction? the onward-and-upward of successful living?—is most likely an illusion. Consider the good show to be a product of denial, staying busy, self-promotion, dishonesty (with oneself, even). It’s delusional, a case of believing one’s own spin, of being afraid to stop and look. Also, consider that perception to be a misperception, partly a product of not looking deeply enough, lovingly enough, at others. We live in a world full of darkness, brokenness, hurt, disappointment, sin and death. Life is not the way it’s meant to be. The happy veneer is a veneer.
But this doesn’t mean we are called to be depressives, swallowed up in sorrows. Consider a case study in subtly contrasting responses. The same set of life experiences underlies both “the blues” and “Negro spirituals.” Both give voice to the black community’s experience of living under slavery, injustice, oppression, poverty, and racism. Here is an archetypal expression of that experience given voice in an old “Jewish spiritual”:
My heart is wounded. I mourn. Dismay has gripped me. Is there no balm in Gilead? If my head were water and my eyes a spring of tears, I would weep day and night. (Jeremiah 8:21–9:1)
The blues takes the experience of pain and grieves honestly, movingly. Some emotional relief comes through honest catharsis, through musical expression, through shared experience. But there is no hope in the blues. The faith expressed in a spiritual takes the same experience of pain, and grieves honestly, movingly, but with hope. We might say that the old spirituals took the question mark of Jeremiah 8:22—Is there no balm?—and turned it into an exclamation point: “There is a balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole! There is a balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul!” Jesus is the difference-maker between the blues and the spiritual. Sadness and loss do not get last say.