Before we move into the season of holiday celebrations, I’d like to say a few words in praise of lament. Lament—the expression of sadness, grief, mourning—is an underrated practice in contemporary life. In their book about lament called Rachel’s Cry, religion scholars Daniel Migliore and Kathleen Billman suggest that we’re reluctant as a society to publically grieve our failures, limitations, and losses. The title of their book comes from the biblical book of Jeremiah (31.15) where the prophet talks about Rachel’s inconsolable weeping for her lost children. In Jewish tradition, Rachel’s grief is revered and respected, while in Christianity her cry receives scant attention. Perhaps it’s because the Christian story ends with resolution—there’s a resurrection!—that Christians and many in the dominant culture do not give the practice of lament its due.
In the past several years, I’ve gained a healthy respect for lament. Dealing with cancer or other tough issues in life leads to lament, to a posture of sadness and sorrow. But that’s a hard sell in America much of the time, land of political slogans like, “Happy days are here again!” and “It’s morning in America.” Writer Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book, Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, begins with a chapter about her own entrance into “Cancerland” due to a breast cancer diagnosis. When she found her way to online forums on breast cancer and expressed her lament over her condition—including frustration over the lack of funding for researching breast cancer—other users in these online communities responded with words of caution about Ehrenreich’s negative attitude, telling her they were praying for her so that she might become more positive.
While there is certainly a case to be made against a constant posture of negativity in the face of life’s challenges, I worry that we don’t allow enough space for lament, especially in a more public way.
It seems to me that when religion embodies the best of what it has to offer, it makes room for lament. Religious traditions have established rituals—from All Saints Day to Yom Kippur to the Day of the Dead—that encourage public displays of lamentation. It’s also important to acknowledge, though, that holidays and rituals intended to be celebratory like Thanksgiving and Christmas can also be times of quiet (or even not-so-quiet) lament. When it comes time to celebrate and there has been significant loss since the previous time of celebration, the “most wonderful time of the year” can grow heavy with grief. Perhaps we can make more space for moments of lament—both public and private—over the next couple months.
Why a post about lament on a blog about grace? Because lament is a necessary precursor to hope. To be able to give voice to our deepest sorrows, to attend to thesufferings that ultimately pass none of us by, is to give ourselves permission to lament. And when such permission is granted, we can begin to take some steps toward healing. And healing is intimately intertwined with grace.
Here’s to lament, and to the movement toward hope and healing that often follow.