Tragedy and the Balm of Silent Lament

What’s often lost in our desire for a better, safer world is compassion, empathy, and a shared sense of grief.
Mourning
 (Volkan Olmez)

After Job has been stripped of his wealth and status, his beloved children, and finally his health, the Bible tells us that he is finally reduced to sitting in the ashes while dressed in sackcloth, scraping away the sores that cover his body from head to toe. After hearing of his plight, three of Job’s friends — Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite — travel to witness the tragedy for themselves.

Throughout the Book of Job, these friends try to explain Job’s suffering as a result of his sin (the earliest recorded example of victim blaming, perhaps?). Their words seem wise and reasonable, but in the end, the trio is condemned for speaking falsely of the Lord and must atone for their unwise counsel. The Lord grows so angered at them that He won’t even accept their prayers. Instead, Job must intercede and pray on their behalf.

When we think of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, we tend to reflect on the negativity that surrounds them throughout the story. But despite their failures, they do something very different when they arrive and see Job in his pitiable state — something in stark contrast to their later harsh words: they weep loudly, tear their robes (a common biblical expression of grief), and join Job in his sorrow. The Bible says that “they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

[pullquote align=right]What’s often lost in our desire for a better, safer world is compassion, empathy, and a shared sense of grief.[/pullquote]

While much unwise counsel eventually flowed from their mouths, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar initially knew — perhaps on some instinctive, empathetic level — that silence is a better response than shaming, presence is more important than criticism, and sometimes, lament is more valuable than explanation.

It’s nigh-impossible to imagine such a response in today’s social media-saturated world. When tragedies strike, we’re instantly overwhelmed by a stream of thoughts, prayers, analyses, and critiques from bloggers, news anchors, politicians, pundits, and friends both real and virtual. Before the blood has dried and the dead have been buried, we seek understanding and comprehension. We want to know why each new tragedy occurs, why it was allowed to happen. We want to uncover who is responsible, who could’ve prevented it but failed to do so — and who will be held accountable.

This approach often makes sense. Consider, for instance, the recent massacre in Orlando, where Omar Mateen entered the Pulse gay nightclub and proceeded to kill and wound over a hundred people. Naturally, we want to understand how such a horrible and tragic event could have taken place, and in the process, we level critiques at America’s gun control policies (or lack thereof) and relationship with guns, Islam, homophobia, conservatives who are critical of LGBT-friendly policies, and liberals for being weak on terror.

Depending on your social and political stances, some of those explanations may seem plausible. Something clearly drove Mateen to commit this slaughter; his actions, however senseless, indicate some level of planning and forethought. If we can just identify those factors, we think, then perhaps a similar shooting can be prevented from happening elsewhere.

But while such terrible acts can and should drive us to increased dialog and consideration regarding how to make our society safer, there’s a sense in which our attempt to root out causes and assign blame can become a coping mechanism as much as anything else — a last-ditch effort to shield us from the terrible reality of life under the sun.

Sometimes, tragedy feels random — a sense that becomes even more apparent in other events that don’t fit into a framework of (apparent) cause-and-effect like the Pulse shooting. Consider another recent Florida tragedy: the death of two-year-old Lane Graves, which resulted from an alligator attack at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. Despite his parents’ struggles to save him, the boy was dragged beneath the lagoon water before their eyes. When divers found his body the next day, his family was left to travel back to their Nebraska home, make funeral arrangements, and wonder — probably until their dying day — how his death could have been prevented.

There has certainly been an outpouring of grief and sympathy for the family; as a father myself, I can imagine the horror, panic, guilt, and sorrow that they’ve experienced, and will continue to experience. At the same time, a dark undercurrent of criticism and shame has been directed at the parents, and even the dead child. One need only to peruse Twitter or view the comments on sites like BuzzFeed to find it.

Similar sentiments appeared when the Cincinnati Zoo was recently forced to kill Harambe the gorilla after he began acting aggressively towards a child who had entered his exhibit. Though the parents were legally exonerated of any wrongdoing, they were assailed by a swarm of public comments calling them to task and accusing them of endangering their child.

In both of these stories, one might detect a hint of existential desperation in the vehement criticism heaped on grieving parents (not to mention vacation resorts and zoos). Tragedies like these reveal a grim reality that we don’t like to admit: life is often uncontrollable, unpredictable, capricious. We are not nearly in control of our lives as much as we think or hope we are.

Perhaps our ancestors, who were more familiar with phenomena like famine, war, and disease, were more comfortable with acknowledging their fragile mortality, but it unnerves us moderns — particularly here in the States, where we have many fallbacks and layers of security that can shield us from much suffering. Of course, certain events — stock market crashes, for instance — can have major ripple effects, but safety nets like unemployment assistance, government-assisted welfare, and state-run outreach and development programs ameliorate the damage.

These measures are good things, the results of a society taking care of its own. They may not help everyone or work in every situation, but we can’t discount their utility out of hand. But even with safety nets in place, along with numerous layers of defense (police, law enforcement agencies, the military) insulating our society from danger, we can’t truly escape the fact that pain, suffering, disappointment, and most of all, death constantly lurk around the corner for us all. And they can’t be stopped — not really.

So when tragedy does happen — when death does assert itself — our first impulse is often to start pointing fingers, assigning blame, and setting up scapegoats. We enter into “damage control” mode, thinking that if we can only identify what causes a man to shoot into a crowd of innocent people or allows a kid to be killed by a wild animal, then maybe, just maybe, we will have some measure of control. We can be autonomous. We can stave off our end for a little while longer.

What’s often lost in our desire for a better, safer world, however, is compassion, empathy, and a shared sense of grief. It becomes disconcerting to empathize with grieving parents who have experienced a completely unpredictable tragedy, because doing so forces us to realize that similar events — a miscarriage, a traffic accident, a terminal cancer diagnosis — can happen to us. Similarly, it becomes uncomfortable to think that we might have anything in common with those whose opinions and political stances might have, from our own perspective, somehow created the conditions that allowed tragedy to happen — which makes us all the more willing to implicate and demonize entire religions, people groups, and political ideologies rather than work together towards a common good out of a shared sense of loss and grief.

Perhaps unintentionally, many of us have become like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar in the latter chapters of Job. Perhaps, like Job’s friends, we think we’re bravely speaking uncomfortable truths when, in fact, our hard rhetoric does little to help those who we speak to or bring resolution, clarity, or peace to the situations we speak about. At least Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, to their credit, had a grasp on the importance of lament — in the very beginning, anyway. Sadly, many in our culture don’t even seem to have that any more. Would that we were more inclined to be like Job’s friends at the end of chapter 2, capable of entering in someone’s grief — not by trying to fix it or explain it away, but by keeping our own mouths shut and seeking to experience their pain as they do, alongside them. Isn’t this at the heart of Paul’s admonishment to the Romans to “weep with those who weep”? We’re not told to explain why they’re weeping, or to figure out a way to stop their weeping. We’re told merely to weep.

It’s so tempting to find answers, to seek to understand why horrible, senseless tragedies happen. And understanding is not a bad thing to pursue; to suggest otherwise is to surrender to helplessness and apathy when we’re called to promote justice and mercy. Of course law enforcement officials should study criminal cases, and politicians should pass laws with an eye towards prevention; of course resorts should reevaluate and improve their methods for keeping guests safe. But those efforts, as worthy as they are, won’t bring healing in the moment, nor do they assuage the deep existential ache that unexpected loss stirs in our souls.

Job gave God the perfect opportunity to explain why suffering exists, particularly for the righteous — to explain once and for all the problem of evil. But God sidesteps that opportunity entirely; He never offers Job an explanation for why bad things happen to good people, or anyone for that matter. Instead, He offers Himself. He offers to be present in Job’s suffering, just like Job’s friends were once — and that turns out to be enough. Job is driven to confess, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

When confronted with the stark reality of our own powerlessness, Job’s words seem impossible to say, and perhaps even trite and offensive. But perhaps this is what our presence in the midst of such tragedies, our mourning and lamentation rather than shaming and recrimination, can bring about. Perhaps this is a channel through which God brings good out of great evil — not our attempts to control evil or explain it away, but our decision to experience it together, united by an acknowledgement of our shared, frail humanity.

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .