Pain and Lament
By Anthony Casperson
I’ve been thinking a lot about pain recently. It seems to be all around us. Difficult decisions have been made because of situations out of our control. People mourn the loss of life. Injury and illness rise up to bring chronic discomfort. Some have merely added new pain to their old wounds. And for others, the breaking of their heart is a new (and unwelcome) experience.
Though not every pain is equal in scope or magnitude, all who experience such anguish are valid in their expression of hurt. There’s an outcry for release, a desire to be removed from the grief. We have a word for this concept.
It’s something that’s been around for most of human existence, the need to express, act out, and remove ourselves from pain. Biblically speaking, we can see a vast expanse of expression. From Jacob, who grieved at the (falsified) news of the loss of his favored son’s life in Gen. 37, to Peter, who wept at his denial the night Jesus was betrayed, we see lament transcends the millennia.
Jeremiah lamented when the city around him crumbled to violence. The siege leading to mass starvation and exploitation. All throughout the Psalms, David cried out to God for justice against those who oppressed others. And he wept at his own failings as well. And Job tore his clothes, covered himself in dust and ashes, and set himself literally in the dumps because everything had been taken away form him: the lives of his children, his immense wealth, and even his health.
I decided to write about lament today with hesitation. Politically and socially-charged instances of pain have been in the forefront of many people’s minds in the past couple of weeks. Long-held ideologies have built walls between people. We take sides to point blame, injuredly clawing at each other in the thought that it’ll release us from the insufferable pain.
So, I had to think about how to approach the subject of lament without adding to the hate that seems so easily birthed in words on the internet. I came to the conclusion that we could look at truth about lament in the bible and when I need further real-life illustrations, I can voice my own lament of dealing with the physical pain I’ve been living with over the past few weeks. It would then be possible for us all to extrapolate and apply the ideas about lament to pain that is far greater in scope and magnitude without the boundaries that easily separate us. Perhaps truth can bypass some walls without raising hatred.
There are three truths about lament at which we can look. The first is almost self-explanatory. Lament causes us to bear our hearts. It’s emotional. We could try to be logical about our situation, but no systematic argumentation will release the pain. We feel. We weep. We hurt. Our emotional state has been torn asunder. And now is not the time for rational analysis. We can’t think ourselves out of such fresh emotional pain. It’s through our emotions that we deal with the felt pain.
The bible shows some people lamenting as beating their breast. The pain felt in our hearts inflicted physically in the same area. I also can’t help but think of every moment where someone tore their clothes in lament as showcasing this heart-bearing in a near-literal sense. In their grief, they reveal their heart.
As illustration, allow me to discuss the excruciating physical pain I’ve experienced in the past couple of weeks. My shoulder and arm have hardly ceased screaming in agony from what is assumed to be a pinched nerve. (Though the pain has been very slowly decreasing as the days go on.) Only by lying on my back has the pain lessened. (A position in which I am nearly unlikely to fall asleep.)
After the first night, where I got between 15-20 minutes of sleep total, I hoped the next night would finally allow me some rest. But as that night went on and the pain wouldn’t stop, I couldn’t help but find myself weeping. Tears fell as I gave voice to my lament in moans that literally woke up someone else in a nearby room. The emotion flooded out as I lamented the situation. And no amount of rational thought that such an emotional outburst wouldn’t help me sleep either could cease the release of agony.
Lament comes straight from the heart. It’s only after time has begun its healing process that we can take in the mental aspects of the situation. Let’s feel free to let loose our emotions as we lament the pain we experience. And if we see someone struggling with various pains of life, let’s allow them time to feel, before we try to use our words. No one has ever been healed by argumentation.
Secondly, we can see that lament is public. It’s not something that we should cover up when we’re around other people. We often feel ashamed that we experience this agony, but truthfully, only when we allow our pain to see the light of day can the healing process begin. Who knows how much more hurt others can inflict on us if we hide the pain. And they can’t even begin to help if we don’t reveal it.
Oftentimes, in the bible, those who lament cover themselves in dust and ashes. It’s an association with decay and death as we mourn the loss of what once was true but is no more. From dust humanity was made, and to dust we will return.
But even more so, covering oneself with ashes is something not easily undone. We can’t hide the dirt easily. And only after a thorough washing can it begin to be removed. Often needing someone else to point out any of the dust that still needs to be removed. Even then, the dirt can leave a stain, just as the pain has left its mark on us.
In my own situation, I saw certain deadlines arriving in my daily life and began to push myself so that I could achieve them. But I ended up setting myself back in the healing process because I worried what those who were depending on me would think if I told them about my pain. I was forced to tell them because of this backslide of healing and they were not only understanding, but also gave words of encouragement. And knowing that there are some lifting me up to God for healing reminds me of his work when I so easily forget.
Lament can’t happen alone. Stuffing it down inside only deepens the wound. We have to allow others in so that we can heal rather than be hurt again by others. Let’s stop buying the lie that others will think us weak if we show our lament. It takes great strength to cover ourselves in ashes so that others might cover us with their love.
Finally, lament is messy. When I first considered writing about pain and lament, I looked at the word “catharsis.” The definition I came across talked about the release of strong emotion in order to provide relief. And I learned that this has been the most common idea of the word from the time of Aristotle.
But there’s a rarer use of the word that predates the philosopher. It was used of certain medical concoctions that caused “purgation by evacuation.” An issuer of catharsis caused one’s stomach to release it’s contents or caused one’s bowels to release. “It” gets everywhere (if you take my meaning).
We get more mileage out of the covered in ashes aspect of biblical lament here. The mess of lament follows that person to every location they tread. They can’t help but scatter dust as every movement sends small pieces of the lamentation process into the air. The lament deposits onto others around them.
I realized on that second night sleeping how messy pain can be when the person I woke up tried to offer help. Every suggestion on their part was met with a quick and angry refusal. In the moment I thought, “No, I don’t need help. I need sleep. And the pain to go away. You can’t do any of that, so go away.”
My pain released from me in a negative manner. Something that I had to realize in the moment to stop so that the mess didn’t do further damage. My pain didn’t give me the right to hurt others with my mess. Thankfully, that person understood and accepted my later apology. But letting the catharsis hit the fan was a bad aiming on my part while seeking the release of the agony.
Lament is a cathartic means of dealing with pain. To experience lament is to cause a mess, whether literally or figuratively. But we do need to be careful not to paint others with our mess because that will just cause pain in their lives. The purge involved in catharsis is good and helpful, but only when aimed in the right direction. Otherwise it’s just causing someone else to experience a similar pain.
Lament is emotional, public, and messy. When experienced well, it brings healing to the pain through the aid of others. If we try to rationalize away, keep secret, or hold in the pain, then healing won’t happen properly.
I think there’s a reason why people in the bible lament in similar fashion, even though they are centuries removed from each other. A person wailing and weeping, who has torn their clothing, covered in dust and ashes participates in the truth of what lament is.
Let’s lament today for the pain we experience, no matter the scope or magnitude of the agony. It’s time to heal.