But I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones –
Still, you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant
When you’re far away from home,
So far away from home.
– Paul Simon, “American Tune”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It seems there is no longer any place in the world for such a thing as sadness. Sadness has been scratched from the catalogue of acceptable feelings and emotions. We deprive it of its former dignity and respectability by calling it a sickness, labeling it “depression,” and drowning it in therapies and drugs. In a hundred ways we sweep it under the rug and expel it from the realm of “healthy” human experience. In the process, a brand-new Brave New World has emerged – a place where “everybody is happy” and where responsible citizens keep a ready supply of soma at their belts as a defense against the onset of sadness and sorrow.
The Pilgrim sees all this for the sham it is. He understands that the world as we know it – the world through which he passes en route to his ultimate destination – is a very sad place indeed. It’s an abnormal world: a world fallen from its axis and drifting off course, the prey of relentless decay and progressive death; a world filled with sorrow and regret from one end to the other.
Because he sees the bigger picture, the Pilgrim does not have the option of turning his back on this grim situation. For him there can be no easy way of escape, no medication strong enough to mute the pain. As a follower of the “Man of Sorrows” he has an obligation to embrace and enter into the sadness. And as a homesick traveler – a stranger and exile in the country of disillusion and discontent – he aches to lay hold of the promise of something better. To that extent every step of his pilgrimage is dogged with affliction and grief.
George MacDonald gives us a portrait of such a “man of sorrows” in the character of Eric Ericson, a poet, tutor, and solitary thinker who plays a significant role in the action of the author’s monumental novel Robert Falconer. In one especially memorable scene Ericson describes for young Robert what he hears in the sound of the restless sea:
“The sea-moan is the cry of a tortured world … Its hollow bed is the cup of the world’s pain, ever rolling from side to side and dashing over its lip. Of all that might be, ought to be, nothing to be had!”
This, as Ericson clearly discerns, is the central problem of existence: all is not as it should be, nor am I the person I ought to have become. Herein is found a source of great sorrow for those who have eyes to see. The Pilgrim bears the burden of it every day of his long and tiresome journey through the kosmos.
Few writers have given us a more poignant picture of the exquisite sadness of creation than J. R. R. Tolkien. His long and detailed account of the history of Middle-earth demonstrates how a world can be both broken and beautiful at the same time (a concept many modern people seem to have difficulty grasping). The chronicles of the elves in particular return again and again to a single constant theme: the theme of a grand but dismal fall from former glory and grace. Dark threads of tragedy and loss run through nearly every elven song – like the one Legolas sings to his companions about the lovely elf-maiden Nimrodel:
Where now she wanders none can tell,
In sunlight or in shade;
For lost of yore was Nimrodel
And in the mountains strayed.
Why is this important? Because, like it or not, there is no escaping one fundamental truth: you can’t hear the Good News until you’ve heard the Bad. There will be joy in the morning for the ones who brave the darkness of the night, but it is likely to go unnoticed by those who banish the shadows by lighting their own false fires. The story does not end in sadness, because the Man of Sorrows bears our griefs and takes our iniquities upon Himself. But can this mean anything to the person who finds other ways of masking the pain?
It’s a question well worth asking.