Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/18/2011

Perhaps I just don’t want to be happy.

Or I’m not a scientific American.

When the worst happens. . . we experience a sense of profound shock and disorientation. Yet neuroscientists and psychologists who look back at the consequences of these horrific events have learned something surprising: most victims of tragedy soon begin to recover and ultimately emerge largely emotionally intact. Most of us demonstrate astonishing natural resilience to the worst that life throws our way (1).

I don’t think so.

Yesterday, as usual, I attended services at my church. It was Palm Sunday. As usual, I couldn’t figure out exactly why I was there. Most Sundays I’m able to listen, to think about what’s said, to wallow in the music, to participate in the ritual even though I don’t believe a word of it. I arrived early thinking I might participate in the procession with palms from the parking lot into the church. I showed up and realized two things: the whole congregation was not participating (it wasn’t clear who was), and I could not stand in the sun for fifteen minutes until the procession was to begin (rosacea).

Yesterday in the afternoon I began reading an article that I thought might be useful in teaching. It begins:

It is a commonplace assumption that language has its limits, that there are realities and types of experience words are just not able to handle. I want to take issue with this assumption and argue that there is inherently nothing that is beyond words and that this fact about language has ethical implications (2).

Here’s what I have to say about the articles from which these two snippets come: apparently neither writer has ever been in a place of sadness from which he cannot extricate himself, and neither has ever tried to explain that in writing.

A couple of days ago I received an email from a cousin in which she said,

I pray that God lead her to the finest medical care available to her; that she have clarity and wisdom as her options for treatment are laid before her; that she have a peace that only comes from God and may she know His love unquestionably. Happy glorious Easter!!

This was a response to my email telling her that my sister has breast cancer. The rest of her message concerned her own sister’s breast cancer (stage 3 invasive), her own brush (non-invasive) with the disease three years ago, and the information that our aunt (the sister of my cousin’s mother and my father) died of breast cancer.

I am startled—no, stupefied (“to stun, as with a narcotic, a shock, or a strong emotion”) by anyone’s ability to put in a 121-word message both the information that three women my sister and I are closely related to have had breast cancer (one fatally) and the prayer that my sister have “a peace that only comes from God.” Oh, and the wish for a “Happy glorious Easter.”

This is not a little harangue about how I have lost my faith because my sister has breast cancer or some such nonsense. I completely believe that my sister, a strong woman who has worked hard to make herself physically and mentally healthy over the last few years, will look back on the cancer as a really huge nuisance someday fairly soon.

Yesterday I had to leave the Palm Sunday service at my church—turn and walk out the back door instead of heading for the communion rail when it was my turn. I would have left sooner had I been able to figure out a way to escape from the center of a very long pew filled with people I did not know (it’s an enormous church, both structurally and people-wise).

James Conlon begins his argument that “there is inherently nothing that is beyond words” with an example from dance. He quotes the choreographer Balanchine saying that dance is “an attempt to get the audience to ‘see the music’” (3). He then quotes Stravinsky on Balanchine’s choreography of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. Stravinsky approved of the dance because it is “perfectly complementary to and coordinated with the dialogues of the music.” Complementary to and coordinated with does not mean “expressive of.” It does not mean the dance explains or even describes the music. Or is the music.

If “there is inherently nothing that is beyond words,” I ought to be able to say exactly why I cannot comprehend my cousin’s wish for a “Happy glorious Easter” in the face of her discussion of breast cancer. I ought to be able to say exactly why I could not go to the altar rail for communion. That another side to every idea is valid is obvious in a response to the Scientific American article I began with.  In a dissenting reader’s comment, Allan Leventhal, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, American University, objects that

Grief is the most intense form of sadness and the article treats its course as ordinarily following some normal process of resolution (resiliency), not an unusual characterization for grief. . . the process is regarded as normal . . . However, many of the characteristics of grief are cited in diagnoses of depression as reasons for prescribing drugs, an inconsistency that goes uncommented upon here in discussing resiliency . . . (5).

And I’m not advocating the use of psychotropic drugs, either.

There is plenty in my life that is beyond words, or, perhaps, for which words that were once meaningful and expressive no longer suffice. I used to have words for my sense of resilience to the worst that life throws my way. I used to have words that were expressive of nearly everything going on in my body and my mind.  The words of the Palm Sunday liturgy used to say something that I could not say about the structure of my existence, and I was willing to use those words.

My grieving now is not so much for the tragic events in my life—the loss of my lover, my mother, my brother-in-law—or the suffering of those close to me—my father and my sister most importantly—as it is for the loss of my ability to think and talk about these things.

I don’t believe there will be a “Happy glorious Easter” this year or any time soon. I don’t believe the comforting “words of institution” for the communion. I don’t believe in the blessings of the church. I hardly believe any “spiritual” language at all. Conlon would say I am simply unable to find the words for what I do believe—that they do exist (and I am somehow limited in capacity because I cannot find them). But I think at this moment, right here at my desk in Dallas, Texas, there is something I cannot say, but that I know, something that keeps me resilient, something that lets me go on. I’m not talking about either Stix’s neurological “true grit” or about something “spiritual.” If I knew what it is, I would say so.

Until then, I will be sad that I cannot find those words, which probably means I cannot find the idea. And that sadness is what I can least explain in words.
(1) Stix, Gary. “The Neuroscience of True Grit. (Cover story).” Scientific American 304.3 (2011): 28-33.
(2) Conlon, James. “Against Ineffability.” Forum Philosophicum: International Journal for Philosophy 15.2 (2010): 381-400.
(3) Conlon. Ibid.
(4) Conlon quoting: Stravinsky, Igor and Robert Craft. Dialogues and a Diary. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963 (80).
(5) Stix, Ibid.


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