Vol 1, Num 3 :: 2002.10.11 — 2002.10.24
I am riding in the minivan with my family along some suburban Denver highway listening to Cat Stevens on headphones in an attempt to drown out the trip’s pervasive sub-par country music. I am feeling sorry for myself. “Trouble” comes on and I find myself wishing the song were a comfort to me. “Trouble, oh, trouble set me free. I have seen your face and it’s too much, too much for me.” I wish I had some personal sorrow to dwell on—something of more importance than country-tinged pop music.
But the fact remains that I am living an idyllic life. I survey my family—Mom, Dad, the four of us kids roaming out west for sight-seeing and mountain-biking on our last family trip before I get married in a few months. Aside from the occasional fights and tension, there is plenty of love, talent, and socially acceptable features to go around. And I am longing for sadness. Are humans driven in some paradoxical way to seek sorrow in spite of our professed quest for happiness?
A selfish moment leads to a revelation—praise God for His patience! I pull my journal out of my bag and begin to write. I document the van, the location, the family, the music. The discovery begins with the word “paradox.”
The Fall seems to be the introduction of paradox into the human experience. The fact that created creatures would willingly disobey their Creator seems to be the ultimate paradox, one that directly resulted from our abuse of free will. We were created for worship, for joy, for love, but through a single act of pride, we lost our perfect capacities for all of these good things.
Most relevant to the issue at hand is the loss of perfect joy. Since the Fall, our knowledge of sorrow cripples our abilities to accept and experience full joy. For this reason, we need sorrow or we feel empty. But this is not an attempt to justify or explain depression, self-pity, or even the occasional bad day. God, in His infinite wisdom, uses our incongruities to serve His good purposes. Because we cannot accept full joy since the Fall and therefore have a need for sorrow, we find sorrow in three ways.
The first way is through personal sorrow, which can be understood better as sorrow finding us. Personal sorrow comes in the form of oppression, whether that oppression is economic, social, spiritual, physical, psychological, etc. Oppression is unavoidable by the oppressed and the result of injustice imposed by an oppressor.
The second way we find sorrow is through fictional sorrow. I am often guilty of this illegitimate solution to the need for sorrow when I indulge my feelings and dwell on past sorrow or make up reasons to feel sorrow. On sad days, I can worry about that selfish thing someone did to me when I didn’t deserve it or I can pace the floor when my husband is fifteen minutes late, imagining the worst possible situation. Fictional sorrow is unproductive, a bandage for a broken leg, a safe solution to the inexplicable need. People who indulge in fictional sorrow can even go so far as to create actual situations for themselves in which they have an excuse to feel badly. In this way, we play out that first sin of pride over and over again.
The third solution to the necessity of sorrow is through community sorrow. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have less personal sorrow can, rather than indulge in fictional sorrow, involve ourselves in the experience and relief of those who have real personal sorrow, that is, those who have sorrow as a result of oppression. In doing so, we humbly lift up the needs of others and offer ourselves in service to right wrongs, to heal wounds, to eliminate injustices.
In this third way of approaching the need for sorrow, another paradox exists. In seeking sorrow, we are also driven to eliminate sorrow. This is where God’s wisdom negates the results of our own stupidity. While our longing for sorrow can be destructive when it leads to prideful solitude, it becomes productive when we use it to build community. If we are relatively stable financially, emotionally, spiritually, etc., we can use our time, our money, our talents to help others in need. Stability (lack of personal sorrow) is a gift, but it is not an end in itself. It practically enables us to pursue the elimination of others’ sorrow.
It is also a paradox of the Christian faith that in lifting others up, we lift ourselves up. The last will be first and the first will be last, says Jesus in Matthew 20. I often imagine what society would look like if we took these principles to heart. We’re so used to looking out for ourselves, but imagine if we all stopped looking out for ourselves to look out for all of the other people in our lives. Instead of being one person putting one’s own needs first, each person would have hundreds of people lifting him or her up to a position worthy of respect. We only stand to gain by giving.
And there are infinite possibilities for giving practically toward the end of building community. For example, we who have secure property in the U.S. can stand together with indigenous people whose land is being illegally confiscated. We who make a sufficient salary can advocate a living wage for low-wage workers who want to support their families without working three jobs. We who live in relative absence of crisis can be volunteer counselors at a crisis pregnancy center that reaches out to scared, lonely and sometimes abused women. We who have can give.
Any effort toward helping others is an improvement over indulging in self-pity with only the narrow view afforded us in our own microcosmic experiences. When I think of the “progress” of the human race since the Fall, I am most embarrassed of my own moments of pride like I experienced in my parents’ minivan in Colorado. But I am most proud of our optimistic attempts to reclaim some sense of Eden, when we walked and talked with God, when the earth was wholly good, and when all creatures lived in peace.