Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.
–Proverbs 25:20 (ESV)
As the final scene of William Shakespeare’s King Lear opens, we see the villainous Edmund sending Lear and his beloved daughter Cordelia to prison. Cordelia is looking for some hope of escaping this fate, but Lear responds with this beautiful speech:
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.King Lear, Act V, scene 3, lines 8-17
We two alone will sing like birds in the cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon us the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies.
Singing in prison, at the lowest point in your life, brings to mind the song of Paul and Silas in the prison in Philippi (Acts 16:25). We can reach even further back to King Saul, who was beset by a “harmful spirit”. Scripture tells us that “whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him” (1 Sam. 16:23). When we are at our wit’s end, when nothing else can be done, it seems that we humans like to reach for music. Music gets past our defenses and allows us to “take upon us the mystery of things”. Singing when imprisoned in mind, body, or spirit is an act of desperation, yes, but also an act of defiance and of hope. It says to whatever it is that assails us, be it an enemy spiritual or temporal or just the pitiless workings of fate, that we are (in the words of St. Paul) “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). Where there is music, there is life and where there is life, there is hope.
Which makes it all the more perplexing that Proverbs tells us not to offer a song to those with heavy hearts. It’s either unkind, like removing someone’s coat when they’re already cold, or (at best) a useless show, like pouring vinegar on baking soda. The problem here seems to be one of attitude. Many people get very uncomfortable when confronted with strong negative emotions. So they will try to diffuse the situation by pretending everything is o.k. or offering trite optimism as the cure. Saying things like “it could be worse” or “there’s a reason for everything” show little compassion for the felt suffering of another person. The number of times I’ve heard well-meaning people tell someone who is mourning a death that their dead husband or sister or child “is in a better place now” makes me cringe. Suffering people do not need our platitudes and they don’t want us to pretend that everything is alright, as if “good” Christians never experience pain. Instead, we are called to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), just as Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:35). Of course, we are not to be maudlin either, wallowing in grief and mutual self-pity. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecc. 3:1, 4). We are to be sensitive to the “season” that other people are in and measure our response to them in accordance with that. To laugh and dance while those we love mourn and weep demonstrates a callous disregard for their suffering, just as dampening their good news with pessimism would steal their joy. It is the height of pride to insist that our own feelings and experiences should have priority over the feelings and experiences of those around us. As the Body of Christ in particular, we should experience it all, good and bad, together.
The NRSV, alone among all the English translations I can find, adds another line to this verse that comes from the Greek (Septuagint), Syriac, and Aramaic (Targum) versions of the Old Testament, but is absent from the standard Hebrew Masoretic Text: “Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood, sorrow gnaws at the human heart.” Whether or not it’s a later addition, it certainly is a resonant pair of images. Moths and worms silently and subtly destroy the integrity of clothing and wood (respectively). So does sorrow insidiously creep into our minds and hearts to steal the joy, peace, and hope that are our birthright as children of God. It is a deeply interior thing, unable to be shared even with those closest to us. We can’t really feel or even understand the secret sorrow of another. What we can do is stay with them, be present, and listen. We can, like Lear and Cordelia, pray together and tell old tales and even (as it is called for) laugh and sing. To love another person is to take upon ourselves the mystery of things, to be God’s spies on this enemy-occupied Earth we call home (for now). As a human being, you are the imago Dei, the image of God. Let us be that for one another, in joy and sorrow, in hope and despair, in life and death.