Have mercy on me, O Lord,
For I am in distress.
Tears have wasted my eyes,
My throat and my heart.
For my life is spent with sorrow
And my years with sighs.
Affliction has broken down my strength
And my bones waste away.
In the face of all my foes
I am a reproach,
An object of scorn to my neighbors
And of fear to my friends.
Those who see me in the street
Run far away from me.
I am like a dead man, forgotten,
Like a thing thrown away.
But as for me, I trust in you, Lord,
I say: ‘You are my God.
Let your face shine on your servant.
Save me in your love.’
(Verses 10-13, 15, 17)
I sat on the periphery of an unfamiliar church, paying my respects to my cousin who took his own life. As his wife passed me, I gently tugged her sleeve and hugged her tightly as she wept on my shoulder. After a brief exchange of painful words – “I’m trying to hold myself together,” she’d said – she took a heavy breath as she approached the casket of her dead husband. She collapsed to her knees, grabbed the side of the casket, and sobbed.
It was a sight I had not fully prepared to endure myself. Not that I had chosen to attend the funeral for my own sake, but rather to support my family, it just happened to activate the grief vortex of one memory after another. Seemingly unrelated losses appeared in my mind’s eye, and I kept them for a time before they withered.
The pastor read a few passages from my cousin’s well-worn Bible, apparently used during his stint in prison years ago. I only caught a few phrases and wondered, “Did Bryan feel like a thing thrown away? What happens when we are so hopeless that we feel as if God Himself has discarded us, rendering us useless to this world?”
Prolonged grief takes its toll on so many. A close friend of mine who has lost over a dozen babies to miscarriage once commented to me, “It’s as if people think death is contagious. When they see me, they turn away.” Transparent in her many losses, she’d lost several friends. She was no longer invited to social gatherings. She felt like the thing thrown away, as the psalmist comments here when people run in the opposite direction as if he were a dead man.
Death is not contagious, yet we fear it as if it were. Perhaps that’s why the psalmist wants us to understand the place our lamentations have in our movements through grief. None of the psalms of lamentation end with despair. There is a true acknowledgment of the pain, of the years of affliction, even – as in this psalm – but the ending is always a plea to God.
I wonder now if some of us lose the ability to cry to God with a real sense that He will deliver us in some way. It seems to me that despair happens more slowly than we’d like to think, especially in the cases of suicides that shock us into speculation and grotesque images of their final moments. When year after year of loss occurs in a person’s life, the pattern appears to be an endless strand of disappointments and suffering.
No one can endure endless suffering. Even Jesus had a definitive point in which His suffering culminated in death, and then – thankfully, to our eternal advantage – the resurrection.
But I think despair erodes our ability to see the proverbial light. We want to see the light. We need to see it, even a glimpse of it beyond our darkness. But the years wear on us. They weigh heavily and turn us into a grim version of who we once were. Then we assume that tomorrow will involve more struggles than triumphs, and days become weeks become years.
Eventually we cannot see beyond the darkness. It consumes us.
I wonder if this is what it feels like to believe you are not worthy of anything good, to the point of taking your own life. Where is hope in the midst of despair, in the pivotal moment of no return?
In my own life, hope in its sentimental versions faded into stark faith. Instead of thinking that I’d be happy again someday, I rode on the raw belief that God was good and that I didn’t have to possess answers to questions that couldn’t be understood, anyway.
As Rilke once sagaciously wrote, “Live the questions now.”
Isn’t that the essence of hope? To live the questions? Because maybe Rilke was correct in saying that we would one day “gradually, without noticing, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Living the answers to our big questions – without noticing or realizing it – is, to me, the epitome of trust in God. Without knowing when, or how, or even why, we first muddle through, then (by way of faithfulness) keep showing up every day to appeal to God, and then find ourselves at a destination unfamiliar but solid.
Hope is the boat. Faith is the sail. And trust moves us through the waters of feeling like a discarded, worthless thing toward the promised land of security and flourishing.
Image: LEON, SPAIN – JULY 17, 2014: Stained glass window in the cathedral of Leon, Castille and Leon, Spain. Shutterstock/jorisvo