What’s happening in Afghanistan is grief-inducing and will haunt us for a generation, both the images coming out of there as well as the foreign policy decisions that brought us to this moment. We desperately want someone or something to blame to alleviate our discomfort, but this failure has both Red and Blue fingerprints on it. Blame isn’t going to be easy to pinpoint and it will distract from our ability to grieve and feel the weight of what’s transpiring.
Sadness is a strange emotion. Of all the primary things humans feel, it’s the one emotion that is difficult to get people to sit in either alone or together. We aspire to happiness, we compound our fears, and we justify our anger. But we run from sadness, and oftentimes that’s exactly where we need to stay for a moment.
The mere suggestion to sit in that sadness, however, doesn’t always go over well. Western cultures especially don’t like the idea of sadness because it means something is broken. As an achievement-oriented society, sitting in sadness is considered a sign of helplessness. Tragedy after tragedy, any offerings of “thoughts and prayers” on social media is met with derision: Thoughts and prayers don’t bring the dead back to life and delays us from producing actionable solutions.
Such criticisms aren’t exactly without merit, but they fail to recognize the power that grief has in helping illuminate what keeps us from recognizing honest-to-goodness resolve that produces sustainable solutions.
In his book Art + Faith, artist and author Makoto Fujimura expounds on the idea of grief modeled by Jesus in John 11 after the death of Lazarus.
“Before showing his power as the Son of God to resurrect Lazarus, he does something that has no practical purpose: he ‘wastes’ his time with Mary, to weep with her,” Fujimura writes.
Mary and Martha, who are sisters of Lazarus, become angry with Jesus for not coming sooner.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha says in verse 21.
Jesus becomes deeply moved by her words and he weeps. Fujimura explains:
“We are used to hearing the Christian gospel as a victorious message, but when viewed through the pinhole of Christ’s tears, that gospel may appear a bit ‘upside down.’ We are told that by following Christ, everything will be restored; in some cases, we are promised prosperity. Church programs seem to be dedicated to helping us improve our lives, have better marriages, and become better parents. All of these good outcomes are not against God’s design for abundance in the world, but John 11:35 adds to the complexity of this version of the Good News.”
Grief, then, isn’t a barrier to restoration; it is a portal. Grief forces us to acknowledge our brokenness and to tend to our wounds. Our first inclination might be like Mary and Martha: we want to identify someone at which we can direct our anger. But that merely puts a band-aid on a bigger problem. And just like a doctor who cleans a flesh wound before bandaging it up, so too our tears help flush away toxins from the human condition that could leave our hearts prone to infection down the road.
As these images continue to flood out of Afghanistan, you aren’t wrong to be angry. But do give yourself permission to grieve and sit under its weight. Feel it. Acknowledge the brokenness that could produce such gut-wrenching darkness. Internalize. And then get to work with fresh perspective and clarity, the kind of which is only possible through the cleansing of tears.