The value of lament in troubled times

In the US, many of us are woefully bad at lament. Cultural pressure insists that regardless of our circumstances, we should grab our bootstraps and get on with it. We don’t want to be accused of having a so-called pity party, so we buck up, smile (almost) genuinely, and post a selfie marked #tooblessedtobestressed.

But is this grin-and-bear-it attitude healthy?

Three long years of 2020

For example, the coronavirus pandemic: anybody else feel like 2020 lasted about three years? I’m grateful, of course I am, that we are finally starting to figure out life with covid; here in the US it’s merely an inconvenience now, at least for most people. Still, during the past three years, many of us have lost loved ones, missed out on milestone moments, or suffered from prolonged illness ourselves. And that’s just the pandemic’s fall-out. Life’s run-of-the mill challenges and tragedies have continued as well.

Sloppy overcorrections lead to bigger problems

lament and don't erase
Typewriter Eraser. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

It’s too much; so we try to sweep sorrow into the corners of our hearts, painting over it with a broad brush of busyness. It doesn’t really work, and it seems like no matter what we use to conceal it–misplaced guilt, rationalized excuses, or strained happiness–it just looks worse.

Eventually, our pain starts to look like the typo we made back in the days of actual typewriters. Remember? We would try to scrub the mistake away with that eraser-wheel-thing first. Next, we’d try one of those little plastic films—the ones coated with something that was almost like white ink, but not quite. When that didn’t do the trick, we’d reach for the liquid paper, which in its earliest days was rarely liquid and never looked like paper. By the end, the tiny typo would look like a big gloppy grey mess.

Lament > Forced Positivity

Could it be that pressing forward with forced positivity is having a similar effect on our private struggles? What if we tried the practice of lament instead?

In her book, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us, Cole Arthur Riley offers a beautiful description of lament. She says, “In lament, our task is never to convince someone of the brokenness of this world; it is to convince them of the world’s worth in the first place. True lament is not born from that trite sentiment that the world is bad but rather from a deep conviction that it is worthy of goodness.”

Lamenting means we call out our pain, lay it out in the open. It means that sometimes we must hold onto pain even when we would rather not. When we lament, we resist the urge to drive pain away with pointless clichés: “It could be worse,” or “I ought to be grateful,” or “At least [insert unthinkable calamity] did not happen.”

Feeling pain without shame

Lament allows us to feel the pain in our lives without shame. You can say, “I’m sad because I did not get an interview and I really wanted that job.” Or, “I’m disappointed because I planned on a vacation with my family, but some folks got covid and now we can’t go.” Or, “I’m angry because my loved one is sick and I can’t be with them right now.”  You can also say, “I hate that my black and brown friends are oppressed by systemic racism;” “I hate that police officers with integrity get lumped in with all the crooked ones;” “I hate that people have to live in substandard housing.” Or even “I hate that covid is still a factor in my daily life.”

Psalm 142

Lamenting is biblical; the Bible is chocked full of lamentations. Psalm 142, for example.

With my voice I cry to the Lord;
with my voice I make supplication to the Lord.

I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.

When my spirit is faint, you know my way.
In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.
Look on my right hand and see—there is no one who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me; no one cares for me.

I cry to you, O Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”
Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low.

Save me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me.
Bring me out of prison, so that I may give thanks to your name.
The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.

Lament, grieve, cry, complain

That’s lament. The psalmist pours out complaints and troubles before God. As the psalm unfolds, it’s clear that this is a person who is exhausted from life’s struggles. Sure, the final confession is that God will bless the psalmist, but it takes a minute or ten for that realization to take form. You’re not being ungrateful if you allow yourself to feel pain. Go ahead! Let yourself grieve. Be angry. Cry out to God. Imitate the psalmist and pour out your complaints before God, empty yourself. God will be fine; I promise.

And then, when you are ready, lean into the love of Jesus. Trust God’s guidance. Yield to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. And know that when you are in pain (and when you’re not), you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.

By Aileen MItchell Lawrimore

Aileen Mitchell Lawrimore is a mother x 3, wife x 35 (years not men), minister, speaker, writer, retreat leader, and lover of beagles and books. She has a lot to say.