The Common Good

Brian McLaren: Sorrow Can Make Us Better, Not Bitter

When tragedies like the Virginia Tech massacre occur, we all share certain questions.

Why did this happen? How could this happen? Should anyone be blamed? Should someone be punished?

Often these questions lead us to seek a kind of rational explanation - so that the irrational can be folded into our sense of order in the universe. Often these questions send us on a search for someone to blame - a person, a group, the devil, even God.

I have found that our understandable need for an explanation - often including the need to name someone to blame - springs not just from our rational minds, but also from our hearts, from levels we are barely conscious of.

We feel grief at the loss, pain for our neighbors who suffer, confusion at the irrationality, and anger at the injustice of it all. Sometimes all of these emotions seem to coalesce in a kind of vague rage that simmers inside us, building up like steam in a closed chamber.

We hope that the pressure can be released and the rage relieved by finding an outlet in explaining ... or in naming, blaming, and shaming someone for being at fault.

There is certainly a time for seeking explanations, including investigating fault.

But I find we make a mistake in believing that explaining and blaming will help us escape our pain. Pain in times like this, I believe, is not simply something to be escaped, resolved, fixed.

Instead, it is something to be suffered, something that must, in a sense, crash over us like a wave or knock us down like a fever, shake us so that we truly feel our feelings and name them; so that we can speak of them and share them and feel an exchange with others of sympathy, empathy, common grief, and common sorrow.

This kind of sorrow doesn't make us bitter; it makes us better. It doesn't make us smug at having an explanation; it makes us humble as we understand our shared vulnerability. It doesn't make us put up walls of blame; it tears down walls as we feel our common humanity. In so doing, it teaches us wisdom - wisdom that, in the scriptures, is often associated with pain and struggle. It softens us, makes us more sensitive to the pain that others suffer but we often ignore. It forms compassion in us.

We often are tempted to run from this softening process, which is understandable. But as we all share in this experience of tragedy, as we walk through the un-rushable process of feeling and then healing, may we allow the spirit of God to form us into more gracious, compassionate, and wise people. Doing so will raise other questions:

How can I help? Who around me needs to talk? What question can I ask that will allow my neighbors to share their pain, their fear, their anger, their sorrow? How can we open ourselves to the healing presence of God so we can walk together through "the valley of the shadow of death" - so that, even in great sadness, we "fear no evil?" (Psalm 23)

I found myself looking back today on other moments of shared sadness - the terrible assassinations of the 1960's, the loss of the space shuttle crews, the terrorist attacks of recent years, the outbreak of wars, the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina ... there have been many. I find myself now praying that our current shared sadness will do in us what it can and should. We're all in this - all of us, all of this - together. Lord, have mercy.


Brian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is an author, speaker, Red Letter Christian, and serves as board chair for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. His next book, due out in October, will be called Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope.

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