Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Bitter Psalmist

The Psalms are sometimes described as comforting--recommended to those wrestling with dark nights of the soul. Reading over the past few days' Lenten Psalms, I'm afraid that any general recommendation of this kind strikes me as careless. For every Psalm 23, with its shepherding Lord leading us beside still waters, there is a Psalm 35, with its bargaining voice bitterly begging the Lord to put enemies to shame and violence in return for the promise of later praise. "Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me! Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers . . . ." The psalmist's resentment is matched only by self-righteousness: "But as for me, when they were sick, I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting. I prayed with head bowed on my bosom, as though I grieved for a friend or a brother; I went about as one who laments for a mother, bowed down and in mourning."

As material for worship, I do not claim insight into how to handle such a text. But reflection on this public confession of anger, weakness, and desperation did make me think about an apparent paradox of our broadly self-disclosing culture. That we have such a culture should be obvious to anyone who has a social media account, or anyone who has heard a politician or celebrity criticized not so much for engaging in shameful behavior, but for being unwilling to "share" with the public her feelings about such behavior. On the one hand, we make extensive demands on people to unveil their inner lives. We do so both in our relation to public figures and in our friendships and intimate relationships. Nietzsche diagnoses this tendency as another kind of bargaining: "People who give us their complete trust believe that they therefore have a right to our own. This conclusion is false: rights are not won by gifts."

On the other hand, we often have very little patience for disclosures when they are offered. We require public confessions to end with expressions of renewed self-resolve ("I'm just excited to move on to the next phase of my life") or the kinds of promises that are almost impossible to keep ("I'm just so sorry I let down my fans, and I will never let that happen again.") Of course, that we have such requirements does not mean that we always want people to satisfy them, which would take away the fun of excoriating those who fail to do so. Indeed, one suspects that the opportunity for such judgments may be the real good sought by far too many hearers of confessions, both public and private.

The illusion of public openness encourages forgetfulness of one of Christ's most pervasive messages--that we have no standing on which to judge the hearts of others. It is so, so easy to forget.

I should know better. Having been painfully shy since I was a very small child, I had the blessing of turning painfully awkward in adolescence and being the subject of psychological and, less often,  physical bullying. Being a false master of instrumental reasoning even back then, I decided to stop looking so awkward as quickly as possible, and set about reading and applying the relevant tomes. My reward for this, since it did nothing, of course, about my natural shyness, was that my new high school classmates decided that I must be a horrible snob. They had no way of knowing that I was really a nerd in hiding.

As an adult, a bout with a chronic but invisible illness showed me how quick people can be to attribute any failings to motives that are easily available to them, when they have no access to the real ones. Pain that is not seen cannot explain impatience with colleagues or struggles in relationships, and people will fill in what they cannot explain.

These are relatively easy examples to share, but I am not claiming to be self-disclosing. The point is--I should know. But I forget. Indeed, this tendency is perhaps the besetting sin of shy people: we are constantly presuming to understand other people's reactions to us, as if we are uniquely capable of seeing disdain in the face of others.

Any such presumption fails profoundly to respect the differences between persons as well as the vexed problems of self-knowledge. None of us either owns or fully understands a single human being--least of all ourselves. The presumption that we can, and that we can make judgments on the basis of such knowledge, results in some of the subtlest and therefore most painful forms of cruelty available to otherwise civilized people.

Any confession of pain or weakness therefore demands the utmost compassion. We cannot purge our discourse of "offensive" language, since the number of offenses is infinite. But we can take seriously, and charitably, claims that one has indeed been offended, even if the source of that offense has been a source of joy for us. The practices and institutions that nourish one person always have the potential to wound someone else. That is how human power works.

So I will endeavor to be grateful to the psalmist, who had the courage to record resentment, despair, and unabashed demandingness of God. This courage enables us to speak these feelings aloud, under the protection of corporate recitation of scripture. And they can perhaps remind us that those beings of otherness to whom we pass the peace may truly be in need of it. As are we.

1 comment:

  1. This one's deep with several surprising turns. Thanks, MW. The Psalmist is so naked. He's like Montaigne, isn't he?