I called my Mom after work this evening to check and see if she was blogging tonight and when she said she wouldn’t be able to just yet I decided I would throw a little random post your way. Since I’m out of classes, you might find some random or boring (??) discussions on this here blog every now and again. What you’ll find here tonight is meant to be less of an assertion than it is a discussion about some new thoughts I find intriguing.
Last summer I read a book called Ain’t Too Proud To Beg: Living Through the Lord’s Prayer by Telford Work (2007). Dr. Work is assistant professor of theology at Westmont College. I don’t know him personally but I enjoyed him to no end through his writing. His book is a rare and thrilling infusion of disciplines. I don’t want to summarize or review this unique book here, but it is certainly worth a read. Even if you disagree with Work at various points, I promise you’ll learn some things along the way. Plus, in your heart of hearts you know you feel compelled to read a book by an author named “Telford Work.”
As I do with all the books I really love, I picked the book up again last night and started flipping through it and glanced over the places where I had highlighted or made notes in the margin. I loved this book so much that even my revisiting of it took me all the way to the epilogue. The epilogue is composed of several of Work’s sermons. One of these sermons in particular caught my attention. In this sermon entitled “You Can Say That Again,” Work coins a phrase, “culture of sorrow.” He uses it in reference to our own culture and “the common sensibility that life’s true character is misfortune and that sadness rules over us” (226). He says:
“In our culture of sorrow, sadder is cooler. Joy may be desirable, but it’s not fashionable. What is? Ask the fashion industry! Does that look of aloof, disheveled, emaciated, sophistication strike you as happy? Me neither. But it’s cool! Or name a big pop band that has looked happy in its photos since the Beatles in 1964. Cool means hard stares, angry sneers, lust, and brooding . . . angst, ennui, existential despair, cynicism, political decline, environmental catastrophe, and social alienation . . . Master these and you’ll be the life of the dinner party” (226).
And taking it further, he says again:
“In our culture of sorrow, sadder is wiser. Misery has become our myth, our metanarrative. Joy is liable to be taken as immaturity or ignorance . . . If you want an Oscar, don’t go with a so-called Hollywood ending. Go with a gut-wrenching tragedy like Million Dollar Baby . . . Sadder is deeper. . . What moves a personal relationship from small-talk pleasantries to greater sincerity? Telling the truth, of course. And for us the deepest truth-telling generally involves the disclosure of pain, hardship, and anxiety. Relationships tend to deepen from shallow happiness to more authentic sorrow . . . Sadder is greater . . . Anger, fright, and fantasy bring out voters and volunteers, not joy. Fear and greed drive the economy, not joy. Sorrow acts and we react. It calls the shots” (227).
Brief Tangent: If you’re like me, you are becoming increasingly suspicious of the phrase “in our culture” because it is used so often to introduce all kinds of authoritative but contradictory statistics. I use this phrase “in our culture” out of sheer habit and because it is so delightfully malleable but I always question myself when I use it because I know full well it is typically going to introduce a generalization. Having said that, some generalizations are more legitimate than others. So even if you’re like me, and you’re super skeptical and annoying, you have to hand it to Work because his “culture of sorrow” idea sure seems to describe a significant aspect of our culture even if you don’t agree that it is indicative of our culture across the board.
The other day Colin and I watched “The Road” with Viggo Mortensen. The movie was based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Now to be fair, I did not read the novel but the movie, in my opinion, was one horrific and unimaginably depressing scene after another. Just when I thought I was watching the worst the movie had to offer we were abruptly hurled into a whole different strata of horror. And the characters didn’t even have names. Not my idea of a blockbuster night. Typically I like an emo and soul probing flick but I couldn’t discern even one strand of hope throughout the film and this led to the hardness of my heart. Anyway, the book was evidently deemed one of the most important and brilliant movies of the year. I wish I could say that the accolades surprised me but they did not. In my own opinion what was profound, was not the movie itself, but the very fact that so many people had heralded it as profound—to me that said more about “our culture” than anything else.
I’m not sure why I hadn’t thought of this whole “culture of sorrow” thing… as soon as I read the phrase I was mentally slapping my knee thinking to myself, “Telford Work is just so painfully right!!!” You know those people who can articulate a once rather opaque phenomenon dead on– well that is sort of what reading this entire book was like for me. I just kept thinking, “I would have written this myself if I would have known how to explain it.” That is the best kind of book- when it hits so closely to home that you feel you yourself could have written it even if you don’t have a fraction of the writing ability that the author has.
When Colin and I were first married, people would say things like, “Tell us the truth, what is marriage really like?” I almost felt forced to whine, complain, bare my melancholy soul—or be exposed as superficial, inauthentic, or worse–simpleminded. Now, of course, it is one thing to be honest when things really are tough and difficult, but even when things were not tough at all, and I was in fact enjoying my life and marriage, I would feel the need to give some token piece of what “reality” was really like or some slice of darkness to build credibility with my conversation partner. Good night . . . as though life is not tough enough without feeling pressure to forge expressions of grief. If you’re bothered by folk who tell you they’re “fine” when they’re really not, what about people like me who have, on occasion, acted as though things were tough when they really weren’t?!?
I was laughing a few weeks ago when I was on our trip and someone made the comment, “Everyone on this trip, is just so . . . happy!” I gotta be honest, I was sort-of-kind-of thinking the same thing to myself at first, until I saw my own log in someone else’s plank. I mean seriously, would she, or I for that matter, rather them all be depressed and lethargic rather than happy and peppy? I’ve also, time and time again, fallen prey to the naive mistake of assuming that the most thoughtful and intelligent people I know, the “thinkers” if you will, are mostly those people I know who are usually despondent. Work’s discussion of “our culture of sorrow” gave voice to some of my assumptions that I hadn’t really given much thought to before.
Now before you slap me silly, this post is not the end of the story. And it isn’t even the end of Work’s sermon. I cannot sum up this entire discussion here. This is only Part One. In Part Two of this blog (to come in the next week), I would like to explore the place of both joy and sorrow within a Christian worldview. I’m not trying to throw the baby out with the bath water (By the way, where in the world did that phrase come from? It is just beyond weird). So, for now, even though you haven’t likely read the book, what do you think about Work’s initial sermon thoughts? Have you encountered this phenomenon before? Is this perhaps a bigger issue for one generation than another?
Have you found that sadder is often “cooler” or “wiser” or “deeper” or “truer”?
Talk to me.
P.S. For those of you who have expressed a desire to buy the book–please know that this subject is not a major issue in the book, it is only in the epilogue in a short sermon. Also, it is a fairly academic read. Having made this full disclosure, I still think you will like the book.