It begins at home. Because they are innocent, because their spontaneous bursts and tenders of love are indelible, because you cannot, nor will not, deny how much you are captivated, you are driven to contemplate the future when you will no longer be there. Heidegger noted that human life is riven with anxiety. But every parent looking up from a feverish child knows this without Philosophy 101. And grandparents double down on that. They know that their days are getting shorter. Even if they are thrust into full time parental roles, they recognize that those they hold most dear will not likely have them for support in their unsteady adult years.
When my first son was born as Ronald Reagan was upping the nuclear ante against the Soviets, I was paralyzed by the prospect of a seemingly inevitable nuclear winter. But inspiring voices around the globe (such as the Australian physician Helen Caldicott and Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov) broke up the apocalyptic ice and gave me hope for my little one. Now, however, as I look beyond the bunnies and ballerinas of my granddaughter, the geopolitical atmosphere encompasses me with dread. Our news is saturated with babies washed up on shore or riverbed, others heartlessly ripped from parents or relatives and caged in concentrated holding cells. Add to this the inundating reports of child abuse and human trafficking. Then, take a shuddering glance at the myopic response to global warming.
It is enough to give anyone pause. Enough to wonder if all the assurances we make to one another will simply dissolve under the press of our atmospheric upheavals. Are we to be abandoned, left to our own desperate devices in this last gasp of the Anthropocene? Has the economist’s cynical dictum (“In the long run we are all dead”) now come knocking insistently at our front door? Are we left with nothing but the hauntingly forsaken refrain: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”?
But with this song a door opens. Through those plaintive tones come millennia of lamentation. If you are patient, you will pick up a constant beat. Our cry echoes in the surround sound of untold generations. There we detect that, from the Lament for Ur, composed over 4,000 years ago, from the protestations of Job, from the troubled tunes of the troubadours, from the blues seeping through saxophones, to the handwritten cries posted after 9/11, humans have not gone silently away. Dylan Thomas’ advice not “to go gently into that good night” but to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” actually is more of a postscript. Human have been doing that from the start.
Indeed, lament is one of our greatest human tools. Forged in the wombs and hearts of women, polished on their lips, cries of lament have accompanied us in the midst of staggering loss. We can do more than stand stupefied before nothingness. We can lift our broken hearts and cry out, as Shakespeare offered, to “give sorrow words.” And in our words, our songs, we truly become conscious of the strands that have been broken and yet still bind. We can carry our pain forward. We can even enter those areas of the heart that only hurt can open. For lament trumpets a fundamental truth: we are in pain because we care. Lament plays on those subtle chords of memory, breaking through appearances and percussing to our depths.
And as we sing, we take a stand. We realize more than ever before that we are not alone. We join the human species not at the hip but in the marrow. We slowly learn how to sing in halting fashion. We catch on to the antiphons from long ago and anticipate future variations. Time does not stand still. It deepens. The present is no longer a vanishing instant but an occasion for absorbing a multitude of voices. When we sing our grief we wonderfully betray ourselves. For our hearts spill out into the crevices of the universe.
Perhaps this is what the ancients meant when they spoke about being “created.” The thought of death not only concentrates the mind, it forces us to admit we are not gods. As the Psalmist would put it, we are “like grass.” Some would find this simile to be debasing. But there is a rank reality to it. We are contingent, slight, and soon cut down. But we do not have to demand to be something fancier, as Jesus reminded his listeners. The weeds of the field outflanked the refinement of Solomon. The poet W. S. Merwin catches the fragile beauty of it all: … ”grasses go on rippling / in the shimmering daylight of their lives” (“Time in the Grass,” The Moon before Morning, 2015).
Don Cupitt sees this stark contingency of our lives to be the source of living now at what he calls “the end of time.” There is no longer any need to presume that there is some predetermined script or outcome. We do not need to pretend that we are any more than who we are. That is more than enough. We find out that real living is not found in maintaining control; it is discovered when you give yourself away. It is not a matter of holding out, but of letting go (Ethics in the Last Days of Humanity, 2016). Our fears for our dear ones multiply endlessly when we presume we can find an algorithm to insure and insulate the future. We forget that each of us is actually a tragic-comic amalgamation of countless reproductions and survivals, randomness, sheer dumb luck, fumbles, misdirection, and unnoticed generosities. Our laments betray our complicated connections. Our songs tender what we hold most dear.
And because we lament, we can stand up and notice what is really going on, honestly perhaps for the first time. And because we see that everything is transitory, we can act without pretention, making modest moves in the zig-zag cacophony of our lives. And because we see how precious it all is, we can surrender ourselves wholeheartedly, as everything murmurs in an ineluctable and unwavering lullaby.
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Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.
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