Wednesday, August 15, 2012
It is, like a rattlesnake rattle, designed to make us recoil. The threat of pain will abruptly, even involuntarily change our behavior. Everything inside of us screams that pain is to be avoided.
Not precisely so.
This morning's reflection was Psalm 137. It is, perhaps, the single nastiest pericope in all of the Bible:
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said,
‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
This song of pain was created by the exiled tribes of Judah, who were invaded, conquered and transported across hundreds of miles of wilderness to Babylon. All that they held dear was unreachable. The temple where they gathered to encounter and worship their God was now forcibly abandoned. All that had been home to them was less than a dot on the far horizon, and they had no reason to believe they'd ever see it again. In fact, the writers and initial singers of this song would never make it back home. It was lost forever to them.
If you are unfortunate enough to be a member of an oppressed group, this poem's despair, anger and violent cry for vengeance no doubt resonate within you. If you are, like me, in the cushy position of being a to-the-manor-born member of the dominant sub-group of the richest, most powerful nation in human history, maybe not so much.
Why would anyone go out of their way to even read this, let alone reflect on it? Because it is healthy to do so. It is good medicine.
Pain is an alarm. When your arm hurts, you look at it, touch it, focus on it. You find the problem and do what you can to fix it. You get help as necessary. You cry out.
The loss of capacity to feel pain is among the most dangerous of afflictions. If your backside is on fire, you should want to know about it before irreversible damage results.
I'm sure you're with me so far. Here's what's going to be on the test:
• avoiding painful injury = healthy
• ignoring pain = unhealthy
My mom is slipping quickly away into the darkness of Alzheimer's Disease. Last week I dropped by for a quick visit/errand to my parents on my way to other things. My kids waited in the car, wishing to avoid a painful emotional injury. I went in to lay out their pills for the week, and found myself alone at the table with my mother. She asked innocently enough if I did this sort of thing for other people. I looked up, smiled and said "no, just for the two of you." She smiled and said "that's very nice of you," and, looking into her pretty vacant eyes, I realized she clearly had no idea who I was. At that moment, all that had once been home to me was less than a dot on the far horizon.
When I got back to the car, I took a deep breath and told my kids about it. They said they were sorry it happened and reflected how much that must have hurt. I said "eh, I'm okay."
They both just looked at me in disbelieving silence. Dae reached out her hand and touched my arm and said "you know, Dad, it's okay if you're not okay sometimes, too."
My kids are probably the holiest agnostics I know. The injury had already occurred. All I was doing was ignoring the pain.
We all, each of us, find ourselves exiled at one time or another in life. These days, when I say I love my mother, to be honest, I am mostly confessing a longing for something not quite captured in all those family photographs. I wish I still could be living what we were experiencing when that Instamatic shutter clicked, not the flat, boxed-in replicas that are nothing more than aging paper and decaying chemicals. Most of what I really feel these days when I look at that hollowing shell of a human being is pity and unanswerable longing. How can I sing her favorite songs? This wicked disease has carried us away. This awful place is a decidedly strange land.
And where shall I direct my anger? At the inanimate and inanimating buildup of deadening proteins in the channels of her brain? At a society that wastes billions a day on stupid wars and partisan name-calling while many among us rot from the inside out? Rest assured, if I ever learn that Alzheimer's is a result of exposure to some carcinogen (say non-stick or aluminum cookware) and some shadowy corporate/agency-"they" KNEW about it, I will most definitely be looking for little ones to dash upon rocks!
We all, each of us, find ourselves exiled at one time or another in life. Feel the pain. Follow it to its source. Recognize the timeless wisdom that included the likes of Psalm 137 in our Bibles. Once the pain has arrived, it is best to acknowledge it, explore it and sing it out loud. Once that nasty rattlesnake has bitten, it's the only way to remove the poison.
Call this my Psalm 137. Will you sing yours?
(Each Wednesday morning from 7:30-7:50, I host a time of quiet reflection at our church sanctuary in West Bloomfield. A psalm is read, the very briefest of words spoken, and then a time of quiet reflection and meditation is opened. It is a new part of my own faith discipline that I want to share with others. All are welcome. Psalm 137 was this morning's offering.)