Why Johnny Cannot Grieve: Honoring The Lamenting Student

In John 11, Jesus learns that Lazarus is sick, though He does not come to attend to his friend until Lazarus has been dead four days. After witnessing how distraught Lazarus’ sisters were at his death, Jesus is lead to the place where Lazarus is entombed and “Jesus wept,” and after He wept, He raised him from the dead.

Seen from a contemporary vantage point, it seems strange that Christ wept, for even as Jesus was bemoaning the loss of his friend, He knew he would see him again momentarily. The tears were likely still wet on Christ’s face as he ordered the stone to be taken away. The tears of grief Christ shed were, perhaps, mingled with tears of joy as Lazarus came out bound in his grave clothes.

That Lazarus will be alive once more in ten minutes is no reason to abstain from weeping over Lazarus’ death right now. This ought to give us a sense of just how scandalous and tragic death truly is.

Over the last several weeks, I have been teaching The Consolation of Philosophy to sophomores and, with every read, find the structure of the book more and more captivating. Boethius was a 6th century Roman politico who was unjustly condemned to die as a traitor and spent the last months of his life in prison. The Consolation is his final work, a conversation between himself and Lady Philosophy, who comes to raise him up from his misery. Lady Philosophy first encounters Boethius surrounded by muses who deliver him poetry and song which only deepen his self-pity (“sitting alone in his room, listening to Radiohead on headphones”), but she dispels them and ascertains that Boethius is suffering from amnesia, having forgotten who and what he truly is. She says she will begin by giving him easy medicine, medicine for an upset stomach, and that later she will apply the more severe medicines which he is not yet fit enough to handle.

What Lady Philosophy begins with— her first line of attack on Boethius’ sadness— boils down to little more than “Count your blessings.” You’ve lived a good life. Your wife is still faithful to you. Your sons are still virtuous. You still have your health. There are men with bone cancer who will be dead in four days who would love to be in your position— two months to live and pain free! There are some men who would rather die and leave behind a faithful wife than be rejected by the love of their life and see old age! Don’t be such an ingrate, Boethius. Of course, Lady Philosophy delivers these exhortations amidst a dizzying, heady atmosphere of Platonic metaphysics, but the quick of the matter is that Boethius is not recalling all the things he has to be thankful for.

What will shock many a modern reader, especially a few modern Christians, is that after Lady Philosophy has said all this, most of the book remains to be read. Almost three-quarters, to be exact. After Philosophy finishes, Boethius tells her that it feels good to hear her say all this, but as soon as she stops talking, all the pain comes back. In essence, he says, “You might have misunderstood the situation. I’m not bemoaning the loss of my wife’s faithfulness. I’m not crying over the vice of my sons. She is yet a good woman, and my boys are still righteous. That’s not what this is about. This is about the fact my innocent blood is about to be spilled and no matter how many blessings I count, I’m still on death row.” So, too, Christ was not consoled that Lazarus left behind two pious sisters. Christ did not refrain from weeping on the grounds that He would see Lazarus again shortly. Christ wept now because Lazarus was dead now.

For all the pious appearances of “Count your blessings,” Boethius seems to think counting ones blessings (while in the midst of misery) is no more noble than simple distraction. Like Job, Boethius is a man who does not want to forget his misery. Rather, he wants to enter very deeply into it.

Americans tend to not have much time for mourning, for grief. We are easily aggravated when the end of a story offers no tidy resolution. “Positive, encouraging” songs on K-LOVE often trade in brokenness and angst, though a brokenness which can be mended by a soaring, Biblical-enough chorus. Christians long to see themselves as a people of joy and hope, and so our movies end in happiness, celebration. American Christians characterize themselves as “a blessed people,” and those in misery are simply too daft to enjoy the Garden of Delights in which God has planted us. Rejoice in all things. God works all things together for good.

To say nothing of colleagues who may have reason to grieve, I daresay every teacher will encounter a handful of students every year who do not seem particularly happy. At times, the reason for the misery of these students will be obvious, and at other times, hidden. The teacher may be close enough to an unhappy student to inquire about their grief, or such questions may feel like a helpless intrusion. While we may have many commendable reasons for wanting to lift the spirit of a grieving student, a good teacher must grapple with the fact that A) the presence of a grieving student can substantially alter the atmosphere of the classroom and B) there are many good reasons to grieve. There will sometimes arise the temptation, upon encountering a grieving student, to want to cheer that student for purely selfish reasons. They bring down the mood of the class, or they ask questions which go against the grain of a conversation you want to have, or their interests in a book tend to be rather one-sided and you find yourself again and again returning to a certain topic with which you have become bored. The presence of a grieving, sad student can often set a class on edge, and the atmosphere of leisure you want to cultivate is impeded.

A student may suffer from grief which requires no explanation. The death of a sibling, the divorce of their parents, the apostasy of a friend. At other times, appreciating the struggles of a teenager will require great humility. The sin of pride tends to require us to belittle the misery of all persons other than ourselves. Proud sixth graders tell fifth graders, “You don’t know hard classes yet.” Proud high school students tell middle-school students, “You don’t know homework yet.” Proud teachers tell high school students, “You don’t know what the real world is.” Married teachers tell single teachers, “Wait till you have to teach and take care of another human being.” Teachers will three kids tell recently-married teachers, “You have all the free time in the world.” Older teachers tell younger teachers, “Wait till your kids leave you and your body starts falling apart and you have to grade a stack of exams.” Whatever stage of life we’re in, pride makes it out to be the hardest and realest.

As such, teenagers sometimes acquaint themselves with adults as “those people who have no sympathy for my kind of problems.” Coupled with the fact that Americans tend to eschew grief in favor of counting blessings, teenagers can feel as though adults are a lot of happy people who simply don’t want to deal with sad, petty adolescents. Given the unfulfilled desires typical of teenage years, adults can easily come off as people who no longer deal with grief. Adults are married and don’t worry about gaining acceptance from boyfriends or girlfriends. We drive cars and don’t worry about being left behind the social curve. We have money and can buy what we want. We don’t worry about embarrassing, restrictive parents who won’t let us see this or that movie. We’ve already graduated college. We can stay up late. Honestly, what more is there to want? Because teachers have more to lose (or more on the line) in publically expressing their sadness or dissatisfaction with life, we tend to represent our evenings and weekends as “delightful.” When adults discuss life’s difficulties with teenagers, we tend to express them as being in our past, and share stories of a difficult courtship years ago, or trials at the hands of unfair professors “back then.” Sadness right now tends to muck up the machinery of progress.

I am by no means suggesting the lectern be used as a confessional, because dealing with the grief and struggles of adulthood ought to be a delicate matter for teachers lest students be scandalized. As I’ve discussed in previous articles, there’s good rationale for a teacher remaining somewhat distant. However, classical literature opens up a host of helpful possibilities for grieving students and struggling teachers. I am not talking about Homer, though. In fact, when treating on grief and sadness, fiction is either overused or non-fiction is underused. While Achilles or Roland are characters who easily open up conversations about grief, it is far too easy for a teacher to make the grief of great heroes alien, other, or the stuff of a dramatic, but distant life. Boethius and St. Augustine and Solomon, on the other hand, speak universally when they speak of grief.

There is something richly beneficial to teenagers in hearing a teacher expound on the passages in the Consolation and the City of God which describe the misery which comes to all who live in a temporal, finite world. When a teenager hears Augustine talk of his own misery, the weighty things of academia cease to be about them adults; the grieving can reclaim academia as thing about us human beings.

In chapter four of Book XIX in the City, Augustine asks some hard, practical questions of all those philosophers who teach that the supreme good of man can be found in this life, on this planet. The gist of Augustine’s response is incredulity that anyone could be so naïve. “For what flood of eloquence can suffice to detail the miseries of this life?” he writes. “Is the body of the wise man exempt from any pain which may dispel pleasure, from any disquietude which may banish repose? The amputation or decay of the members of the body puts an end to its integrity, deformity blights its beauty, weakness its health, lassitude its vigor, sleepiness or sluggishness its activity,—and which of these is it that may not assail the flesh of the wise man?” The cross-examination carries on as the West’s most significant theologian inquires about all the terrible mishaps of bad fortune that beset even the righteous and wise.

In chapters five, six and seven of Book XIX, Augustine divides life on earth into three realms— the home, the city, the nation— and describes the miseries particular to each. “Hear how one of [the pagan] comic writers makes one of his characters express the common feelings of all men in this matter: “I am married; this is one misery. Children are born to me; they are additional cares.” What shall I say of the miseries of love which Terence also recounts—“slights, suspicions, quarrels, war to-day, peace to-morrow?” Is not human life full of such things? Do they not often occur even in honorable friendships?” While romance and childrearing are difficult, not even friends are a security against sadness. “Who ought to be, or who are more friendly than those who live in the same family? And yet who can rely even upon this friendship, seeing that secret treachery has often broken it up, and produced enmity as bitter as the amity was sweet, or seemed sweet by the most perfect dissimulation?” Similarly, much of Boethius’ Consolation is centered around describing the miseries of life on earth and how these miseries ought to only prompt us to long for that place “where thief does not break in and steal.” Lady Philosophy discusses how little control we have over our lives, the anxiety which comes from having more money and “autonomy” (always worth describing to teenagers), the desperation which comes from trying to appear beautiful and intelligent…

What is a little counter-intuitive is the sense of relief which tends to wash over grieving and sullen students during such reading and discussion. Augustine’s description of life’s miseries tends to bring joy, not increased sadness. Often enough, I find students smiling and laughing after reading Augustine describe the difficulty of knowing for sure whether friends can be trusted. They seem to say, “Oh, you know about this, too.” Students do not walk out of class glumly, but more cheerfully than they entered. This isn’t to say the bleak moments of the City are some kind of stand-up routine, because Augustine or Solomon’s comments on misery often first elicit sober nodding. However, by entering deeply into grief, as opposed to dismissing it, the words of Ecclesiastes are proven: Sorrow is better than laughter, for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.

When the miseries of life (adult life, teenage life) are dealt with forthrightly, the wonders of life can be engaged honestly and innocently, for the City finishes with at least one prolonged meditation on all the aspects of life on Earth which make it a blast (the downright giddy, exclamation-mark filled twenty-fourth chapter of Book XXII, “Of The Blessings with Which the Creator Has Filled This Life, Obnoxious Though It Be to the Curse,” in which even the useless, but beautiful “teats on a man” are considered). But before we may ascend, we must first descend.

A thousand caveats might be added before finishing this essay— about not indulging students, about joy being a command and not an option, about the genuine pettiness and self-serving quality of some “mourning,” about the dangers of “morbid introspection”— and most of those thoughts are fine and right, but are granted a kind of exclusive authority in the government of a class mood whereas Scripture speaks diversely about the value and practice of lamentation. High school students are not too young to grieve, and if they are to grieve properly, they must be shown what to grieve and how. If the classroom is to intersect the day-to-day lives of students, they cannot be automatically required to deposit their grief at the door, lest we risk them depositing their minds and spirits at the door, as well.

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