Recently, I attended the memorial service for a close family member. He was the fourth person to die in this family, and the fourth to die before the age of 70. As the extended family began to gather in the church library prior to the service, the grief was as palpable as if it was a figure in the room. Tears flowed freely, and we embraced one another in an attempt to offer comfort in the midst of the sorrow.
After the service, as we stood in a receiving line and watched people mill about, there were many children and young toddlers in attendance. Unaware of what had brought us all together, they ran around one another playing and screaming with joy and delight. I couldn’t help but wonder at this strange juxtaposition. For in this one space of a funeral where one person had died, new life was playing all around me. How ironic that a place flooded with tears was also a place that held the delightful squeals and joyful play of young children.
Having lunch with a dear friend in the days following, we spoke of her own experience with this ironic juxtaposition of joy and sadness. She had suffered the death of her young husband to cancer. Her eyes filled with tears as she recalled the unfathomable sorrow she felt when he told her how sad he would be to leave her behind, to leave their children, and the life he loved. All of the pain surrounding his death and untimely departure from this earth she carries with her now-even as she enjoys a new relationship with another young widower. They would have never met one another had it not been for death and loss of their beloved spouses; they feel both joy and sorrow as if they are united in their hearts like conjoined twins.
Poet and author Wendell Berry writes of this marriage of joy and sorrow in his poem entitled Sabbaths 2009. He begins with a quote by William Faulkner. “‘Maybe,’ Mr. Ernest said, ‘The best word in our language, the best of all.’” The poem proceeds to describe a bookkeeper tallying all the suffering and pain in one column of his ledger, everything he now knows of grief, pain and loss. He reckons these figures in their great weight, though he has no means of truly weighing them. Then he enters all he knows of the opposite decree—of beauty and love, generosity and grace and laughter. And he weighs these unweighable figures as well, knowing they can never be measured quantities, but simply register on his heart. He closes the book, not able to say which outweighs the other—good or evil, joy or sorrow-though he longs to know. Berry concludes with the bookkeeper’s ponderings:
He only can suppose
the things of goodness, the most
momentary, are in themselves
so whole, so bright, as to redeem
the darkness and trouble of the world
though we set it all afire.
“Maybe,” the bookkeeper says. “Maybe.”(1)
For many, ‘maybe’ honestly reflects the weight of carrying both joy and sorrow in their lives and in this world. And Berry’s poem honestly describes this life that is filled with both joy and sorrow; which outweighs the other we often cannot tell. Eventually, all those we love will die, or we will leave those we love. And yet the joy that comes in loving others overflows this inevitability of death and loss. Around every corner are new lives born or re-born through life transforming events-young and old-that counterbalance the surety of loss and senescence.
While these insights are not novel, it seems we humans prefer to believe we will somehow escape sorrow, pain, and loss. Intellectually, we know that suffering is a very real possibility, but we think it will not touch us. As a result, when life is filled with sorrow or loss we are ill-equipped to cope with it. We see suffering, grief, sorrow or loss as an aberration or a departure from ‘normal’ life, failing to recognize that the journey of earthly life would always include the push and pull between sorrow and joy. For Christians, the focus can easily center on victorious living and resurrection to the exclusion of Jesus’s matter-of-fact instruction to his followers that in this world they “will have trouble, but I have overcome this world.”(2) I had forgotten that many who have gone before me as that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ “did not receive what was promised.”(3) They, too, lived in a land of ‘maybe,’ and in the bittersweet juxtaposition of joy and sorrow.
As I walked out of the church after the funeral, and I felt spent from grieving, I simultaneously felt more alive than I had felt in a long time. Feeling the full range of human emotion and experiencing the tension that exists between joy and sorrow reminds me of what it means to be alive. And while I follow the one who assures me that he “has overcome the world,” his assurance did not come without his own journey to the cross and to the full experience of human sorrow and suffering. The joy set before him accompanied him there in the most beautiful and transformative juxtaposition.
Margaret Manning is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2009, Sewanee Review, Volume 119, Number 2, Spring 2011, pp. 198-205.
(2) John 16:33.
(3) Hebrews 11:29.