“Life is difficult.”
That’s the opening sentence in M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled, and it might be my favorite introduction to a book. Ever. Because it is honest.
What I know to be true is that life is not always difficult. It’s a mixed bag of glory and grime, punctuated by heart-wrenching beauty, and by ache too deep for words, by laughter that makes your ribs hurt for days, and by silent weeping while alone in the dark. There’s a rhythm along this spectrum of pain and joy that attends our evenings and mornings.
But there are times when exhaustion sets in from cumulative disappointment. Grief stacking upon grief shadows our landscape, making it unfamiliar and full of terrifying unknowns. Anxiety that burrows into the bones while navigating this sort of territory can rob a person of breath, make them brittle, and stretch them thin, leaving them with nerves so raw it hurts too much to hope in anything—let alone the fruition of dreams.
Perhaps we feel this in those moments, when…
…a relationship in which we planted our heart disintegrates, or is betrayed
…a loved one dies
…a friendship withers
…oppression shatters our communities in ways seen and unseen
…overt hate grinds away at our loved ones
…our fight feels diminished and history repeats
…a child’s presence is lost
… poverty of resources and relationships results in a kind of paralysis
...the promise we’ve waited for and struggled toward are not fulfilled
…life is unexpectedly reconfigured, and that new arrangement hurts
The needful blessing is space to be honest that everything is not okay.
Life is difficult. And when it is so for a prolonged time frame, it might feel impossible to pick ourselves up, dust off, and strike out again, willing to risk disappointment.
When we encounter such terrain, one thing we can do is listen to a mixtape (of sorts). We can use lyrics—potent and poetic words—that are unafraid to tell the truth about pain to help shepherd us through that pain.
The Psalmists and authors of ancient biblical texts commonly known as the Books of Wisdom, were strikingly comfortable penning poetry about how dreadful life can be. Essentially, they knew the value of a good playlist—one that finds its genesis in lament.
One such song, Psalm 137, is the cry of a group of musicians who have abandoned their instruments and songs. They are in captivity, and their captors mock them by asking them to sing songs of Zion. These are songs of an ideal home, of a promised land where the most important dreams—of community, of justice, of abundance, and peace—are realized. The musicians assert that they cannot sing such songs when they are so far from home, in a foreign land. Their song of lament does not shy away from their grief over the death of their dreams. That’s where the playlist begins—posing the question to ourselves, our communities, and to God: how on earth can you expect us to hope for anything good in a life that has become so unfamiliar?
Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger
How can we welcome this place called Here—this unyielding stranger that bears no resemblance to the future we had dreamed? What I know to be true is that profound beginnings often have their start in places that appear void, formless, parched, and foreign.
Each song incrementally shifts perspective. We see that Here is where we are now, not where we will be forever.
That shift in perspective takes time, perhaps an hour, a few days, or a month, or a year. It takes courage to begin with honest lament, to allow our disappointment to co-exist with a sense of wonder over the good and beauty in the world. It takes courage not to demand that life be positive at all times.
No matter what your playlist includes or how long your playlist is, if lamentation is given space to exist, eventually the honest prayer of, “How on earth can you ask me to hope for anything good?” will transform into a song that can carry the dual weight of lament and rejoicing. Through that song, we can find the strength to pick ourselves up, dust off, and strike out again, willing to risk disappointment.
Music is intensely personal and powerful. My own playlist tends to include songs like:
I would love to know about the songs that you find sustaining in troubled times, those that help you encounter the here and now—whatever it may hold—with honesty and, eventually, with hope.
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