Saturday, April 12, 2014

Louis C.K. and Tim Keller on Grief and Joy

I recently saw an interview on the Conan O'Brien show that caught my attention. In this segment, Conan interviewed comedian Louis C.K., who described a deep sadness that he carries:
Underneath everything in your life, there's that thing, that empty - forever empty... It's the knowledge that it's all for nothing and you're alone. It's down there. And sometimes when things clear away, you're not watching it. You're in your car and you start going, 'Oh, no, here it comes - that I'm alone.' It starts to visit on you - You know, just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it.
He went on to recount a time when he chose to let this deep sadness hit him, causing him to cry on the side of the road (Warning, some language):



Via Team Coco, YouTube, uploaded September 20, 2013


It seems clear that Louis C.K. didn't just make this story up for a laugh. As comedian Steve Allen famously said in 1955 (and many others since), "The subject of most comedy is tragic [...] Comedy equals tragedy plus time." Harvard-educated comedian Conan O'Brien has even referred to his own "existential despair" coupled with "Why are we on this planet?" [Clueless Gamer segment, March 6, 2014, e.g.]. The sadness that these men describe (with humorous effect) is sometimes called existential angst, anxiety, dread, or despair - a concept that has been explored by philosophers as diverse as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Philosopher Blaise Pascal likely described this same feeling of emptiness centuries ago when he wrote that every human heart has a "God-shaped vacuum" [Pensées, 1669].

In a sermon called, "The Wounded Spirit" [Dec. 5, 2004] pastor-scholar Tim Keller addresses the same feelings. As he explores how complex the human condition is according to the Bible, he explains that existential sadness is one aspect of human sadness:
Fourthly, there's an existential aspect [to having a broken spirit]. Go to the fourth proverb down [Prov. 14:13]: “Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.” Now when you first read that, do you know what you’re automatically doing? You say, “Oh, I think I know what that’s talking about,” and you’re relativizing it. You’re saying, “Sometimes some people are laughing and they’re having fun, but down deep they’re still sad. They’re putting on a happy face. They’re trying to forget their troubles. But though they are laughing, down deep they’re sad. And though they’re trying to be happy, in the end they’re still grieving.”
But it doesn’t say, does it: “Some people, in laughter the heart is sad.”? It’s an absolute statement. And what amazed me was every single Hebrew commentator, every Hebrew scholar, that I looked at about this verse says we mustn’t relativize it. We must realize what a profound thing it’s saying. This is true of everybody. Everybody. Why?
Do you not realize there’s an existential angst that comes down deep from under every-? Everybody knows all parties eventually are going to be over. That all joy really does end in grief. You say, “What are you talking about?” Let me just give you some examples. 
Here’s the happy family, sitting around the dining room table. And the simple reality is one of those people is eventually going to see every other member dead. Death... ends everything. Everything your heart wants out of life eventually will be taken away from you. Your health will be taken away from you. If you don’t die a tragic young death, eventually your health will be taken away from you. Your loved ones will be taken away from you. Everything will be taken away from you. Everything. It’ll all be gone.
And some of you are saying, “Gee, I’m so glad I came tonight. This is a wonderful - I guess that’s right. I guess that’s true, but do you have to tell me about it? Do we have to think about it?” Guess what? Try not to think about it. And this is saying down deep you know about it. There is a ground note of sadness you cannot overcome.
New York is filled with people who say, “Well, I don’t believe I was created. I believe I’m here by accident, and I believe when you’re dead, that’s it. You rot. That’s it. You’re gone. And I understand that, but the point is have fun while you’re here.” Wait a minute. If your origin is insignificant and your destiny is insignificant (which means someday nobody will even remember anything you ever did) - If your origin is insignificant and your destiny is insignificant, have the guts to admit your life is insignificant.
What that means is unless you have some way of dealing philosophically with this (unless you have some way of ascribing meaning to the daily things that you do, which is really pretty hard), you’re going to have this ground note of sadness that, underneath all your laughter, you’re going to be sad, because you know all joy eventually ends in grief. I’m not exaggerating. Do you see what’s happening now? This is a philosophical problem, and a lot of people have it.
In fact, we all have it until somebody helps us deal with death. If you’re not able to deal with the idea of death, if you’re not able to overcome your fear of it, if you’re not able to find some way in light of death you can ascribe meaning to the things you’re doing now, today.
Do you see there’s a medical possibility for a crushed spirit? There’s an emotional, a relational, a moral, an existential, a philosophical… Do you see how -  And do you see, by the way, that doctors don’t want to think about philosophy, and friends don’t want to think about medicine? They just want to love you. Do you know what Christians do? We turn everything into moral. We say, “Oh, you’re downcast? You’re down? Well, have you claimed all the promises? Have you confessed all known sin? Are you having your quiet time? Are you praying? Are you thanking God? Are you doing everything right?” Check, check, check, check, checklists. We turn everything into a moral issue. We’re reductionistic.
And of course, the people who are into self-esteem, what do they say? “It’s all emotional and relational.” And of course, the people who think we’re just a body, what do they say? “It’s all the physical.” That’s not all. There’s a physical aspect, but not only a physical aspect. There’s an emotional aspect. There is a moral aspect. There’s an existential aspect. And finally, there's a faith aspect...
The Bible freely admits there is true grief in this world. Is there also a cure? Is there a joy to be had that won't fade and that corresponds to reality? Paul Miller, in his book A Praying Life [2009, p. 69], explores the extent of the problem and points to a solution:
Several months ago I was on a flight, sitting next to a drug rep for a major pharmaceutical company. I mentioned to her that from listening to people talk, I suspected that one-third of suburban American women were on antidepressants. The drug rep shook her head. "You're wrong. It's at least two-thirds."
Most of us simply want to get rid of anxiety. Some hunt for a magic pill that will relieve the stress. Others pursue therapy. While antidepressants and counseling have helped many people, including me, the search for a "happy pill" or "happy thoughts" will not stop our restless anxiety. It runs too deep.
Instead of fighting anxiety, we can use it as a springboard to bending our hearts to God. Instead of trying to suppress anxiety, manage it, or smother it with pleasure, we can turn our anxiety toward God.
As we saw, Keller similarly does not discount the chemical aspect of anxiety, but points to the same deeper cure: Dependence on the true God revealed in the Bible to satisfy our longings. Keller continues the above sermon:
One Hebrew commentator puts it like this: In the Bible the Tree of Life is an image of immortal, eternal life, but also it’s an image of irretrievable loss. It’s an image of cosmic nostalgia, a longing for something we remember yet we’ve never had. 
In all of the music you go to to kind of give yourself a high, you’re actually looking for a song you remember but you have never heard. What you’re looking for in love is you’re looking for arms you remember but you never really had. That’s what the Bible is saying. That’s what the Tree of Life is. Unless you understand what you’re looking for in everything - what you’re looking for is the Tree of Life - you’re not going to be wise.

Of course, there’s nobody who has put it like [C.S.] Lewis, who says, “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.” [...] 
What’s the solution? Do you know the New Testament continually says Jesus died on a tree?[...] 
See, the cross was a tree of death, but because he climbed the tree of death, we have the Tree of Life. Actually, he turned the tree of death- The cross was a tree of death to him, and therefore it was a tree of life for all of us. Now, to the degree you let that melt your heart, to the degree you see what he did for you, to the degree you rejoice in that, to the degree you orient your heart toward that and it just melts you at the thought of that love, to that degree you will experience what Tolkien calls, “joy beyond the walls of the world, more poignant than grief.”
There's a joy. It’s the foretaste of the Tree of Life. And listen, when you take the gospel - and that's what that is - and you start to use it on your spirit, that’s what you finally need. That’s the ultimate kind word. It’s the ultimate good word. And we just said, “Do you need to get rid of your isolation? Do you need emotional connection and yet nobody understands you?” The only eyes in the universe who can see you to the bottom love you to the skies. Use that on your emotion. Use that on your relational aspect. Use that on your conscience. [...]
He [Jesus] took the tree of death so you could have the Tree of Life. Use that on your emotion. Use that on your conscience. Use that on your existential angst. That’ll get rid of your fear of death. Most of all, use it on the hope of your heart. Love the people you love and love the things you love, but through them realize the ultimate song, the ultimate beauty, the ultimate arms, the ultimate Tree of Life you’re going to have.
(You can find the audio file of Tim Keller's sermon in its entirety here: The Wounded Spirit.)

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