I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “keep a stiff upper lip”: an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion, a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for this because it seems so quintessentially British, especially with shows like Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife. This approach originates from Stoicism (not surprisingly), though the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper behaviour.
In the West generally, there is an approach to emotions where they are kept very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. A few years ago, another English phrase was imported around the world: “keep calm and carry on”, from a poster made at the outset of World War II. These days you see it on mugs and t-shirts and phone cases. Stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.
Many people’s approach to emotions is about efficiency. We seek to swiftly move from feeling bad to feeling good again, wanting to process bad events as quickly as possible. This is partially natural. We want to take the pain away. When we are physically hurt we put bandaids on and take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation; healing still has to happen.
It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip, to keep calm and carry on. In fact, it does a lot of damage. We move on from the pain before it heals or, even worse, we suppress wounds and there is no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not at all?
In other cultures and times, processing negative emotions is more communal. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast, and commemoration); mourning was public.
Ancient Jewish culture was more like this. One of the best gifts we have to help us process emotional pain is Psalms. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But the beauty of Psalms is that God did give us words to say. He gave us words for when the pain is so deep it seems unspeakable. He gave us words to cry out to him, even when in anguish and despair, even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question.
What these psalms do is lead us into the pain and allow us to sit there awhile—to acknowledge the feelings and deal with them. We don’t need to solve the problem as quickly as possible. In his mercy and grace, God teaches us a different way.
Nearly half of the psalms are laments, journeys to take to process our emotional pain. They name fears specifically for us: fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and more. They acknowledge feelings: confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing, deep yearning. Only when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while does the poetry move us to a more hopeful future. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.
Let’s look at Psalm 13 together, one by David:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
The psalmist fears that God has left him alone in his pain.
How long must I take counsel in my soul
David despairs of his anxiety and over-thinking, mulling and stewing on the things that plague him.
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
The seemingly never-ending sadness is palpable. It remains when he pushes himself to go through his daily business, a lead weight in the heart.
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
There is a sense of injustice, that someone has overpowered him materially or emotionally. In this situation there may be loss of land or money, loss of face, loss of family, loss of power and control.
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
David pleads with God to answer him because otherwise his only rest will come in eternal sleep.
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
This sense that there will never be vindication brings to light David’s deepest feelings of yearning to be justified.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Having acknowledged the feelings and stayed with them awhile, here God, through David, brings the reader out into the light of hope.
In this model, our pain doesn’t need to be private (many of these psalms are communal psalms) nor processed quickly. This doesn’t mean we should parade and wallow in our pain and end up celebrating it. Psalms gives a shape and tempo to our processing. It acknowledges and gives validation to our feelings, and allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage.
And there are over 60 of these types of psalms, for a whole range of painful emotions and for repeated use—because it’s not as though we read one psalm and then we’re good to go. Just as we have repeated counselling sessions or doctor check-ups, we should stay in Psalms for as long as we need to. This invites God to speak comfort to us and urge us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.
The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament psalms with them. Help them to access the pace of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself. Likewise, the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and bring your pain into the light—but he wants more for us than that alone. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time, for as long as you are here on earth. And he wants to do it with you: he’s given you himself in the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort our hearts; he’s sacrificed himself in the Son to bring you freedom from sin and pain; he’s prepared a heavenly home where you will be whole. Let him lead your healing—he knows the pace to set so that you last until your heavenly prize.