Sharing Sorrow: Why We Read Sad Literature

The other night some friends and I were discussing sorrowful literature—why we read it and so often cherish it. Even if a book is mostly not sad, the parts of it that inspired sorrow in us remain in our minds, provoking a continued and deep reflexion in us, and very often they hold a special place in our hearts. Such scenes as the funeral in the beginning of The Two Towers (in The Fellowship of the Ring film version), the death near the end of Anne of Green Gables, and the final depressive spiral and death in Anna Karenina—if we’ve read these, we remember them with particular intensity, not just as a once intense feeling, but as a deep and solemn experience. I ventured to ask my friends why we seek this out, and here I reflect on some of what I have learned.

The Intimacy of Our Pain

The first is that we treasure such stories (I speak here primarily of fiction, but this could relate to memoirs and related personal accounts as well) because they often relate experiences personal to the author, and the reader feels that something intimate is shared. I share my deepest sorrows less readily than my greatest joys. My friend gave the example of Kafka’s The Trial and Metamorphosis, which, along with the rest of his writings, Kafka requested be burned after his death (his friend published them instead). Another example is Edgar Allen Poe, most of whose works (including The Raven) were written after the death of his wife. We understand that the author is not just sharing a thought, but an experience, either one they underwent or one which echoes a pain they have felt. They are sharing not just the fruit of their mind, but of their soul and heart: And they are entrusting us with it. It is vulnerable to share our deepest wounds, to entrust them to others to either pity or scorn; to regard with indifference or with solemn reverence; to treat frivolously or with care, love, and empathy.

The Transformation of History

Another friend said that she believes the sorrow in literature about history shows us how we can learn from mistakes of the past and strive to something greater. Reading about the Holocaust can teach us how to avoid future holocausts. This shows that sorrow is the experience of a perceived evil, and thus it can move us to remedy that evil if possible. If I am sorrowful at my loneliness, I am moved to seek out friendship, and to cherish and delight in it when I have it—and this is joy, to delight and rest in the good. So sorrow is healthy in this way: As pain moves us to address a physical ailment, so sorrow moves us to address a spiritual need: Loneliness moves one to seek true friendship; despair, a sure hope; fear, true peace.

Sorrow that is not pure in the truth, that does not reflect reality, is depressive sadness or despair of joy. Here I speak not of depression which is caused by a chemical imbalance, and may need to be addressed by the use of medication as well as a healthy, fulfilling, and balanced life. Rather, the books or stories which have no hope do not reflect reality, nor are they healthy for our souls. As my third friend put it, overwhelmingly sad books are not great literature. They do not feel real. This is because they do not reflect the goodness of life amidst sorrow and pain. A desert is understood as something which lacks abundant water and greenery; we do not define a forest as a place that lacks sand and dry heat. So books that pretend there is no goodness and beauty in life, stories which imply or state that life itself is not a good and lovely thing, these are lies. The books that feel real are those which address both sorrow and joy, pain and healing. When I finished the show Dollhouse, which till the end was excellent, I sat still for half an hour in a state of something like listlessness. It ended on a depressive note, which, in life’s musical theme in which we live, is not actually the end of the song. For the truth is that we are made for joy, hence we are desirous of something great and lovely and filled with life. In this way we know that death cannot be the end, for we were not made for death, but for life and abundant life. In this desire, which finds its source in the truth of God in Christ, we know that the melody must transfigure, must take up the raucous roars of hate and timid trepidations of fear and transform them into a new melody—not a new song, but the fulfillment of the life’s continuous music in a great and wondrous theme, interweaving all others and yet becoming something new in itself. This is redemption through the Blood of Christ, through the most sorrowful and beautiful event in the story of the world: an event which takes up all history into itself as the final theme of life which fulfills all sorrow and wounds in love and healing.

Learning Pity and Hope

These thoughts were gathered together as I considered a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, in which he describes the great spirit Nienna:

‘Mightier than Estë is Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi; she dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor [the Dark Enemy]. So great was her sorrow, as the Music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began. But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope. Her halls are west of West, upon the borders of the world; and she comes seldom to the city of Valimar where all is glad. She goes rather to the halls of Mandos [the halls of dead Elves], which are near to her own; and all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom. The windows of her house look outward from the walls of the world.’1

In this I saw the culmination of the thoughts of my friends (the fourth friend being Ronald, as Tolkien’s friends called him). Sorrowful literature, and those stories and persons who inspire sorrow in us, invite us to revere, to seek, and to foster beauty. Fear pushes us to move away from a danger. But sorrow inspires us to move through pain and gloom with greater meekness, patience, courage, and hope for healing and love. Pure sorrow comes as a beautiful and solemn maiden of kindly and lovely countenance: With gentle hands, strengthening gaze, and understanding eyes, she shows us the way to joy, to a joy greater than we ever would have desired if not for the ache in our hearts. When we fail to love, she offers sadness unto joyful repentance in the bosom of forgiveness and reconciliation; when we are in need, she comes as a friend who will walk with us in our dire straits; when we hurt for exhaustion, fear, anxiety, and various burdens, she shares our pain in her own heart, and strengthens our resolve to hope in and persevere unto the dawn; and when we mourn for death, she weeps with us, and does not leave the broken-hearted.

A Mother’s Sorrow, a Father’s Love

When we hearken to Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, we learn pity for others and hope in eternal life. For pure sorrow moves the soul to address the wrong by putting love and understanding, mercy and tears, where before they were lacking. And so comforted by the Mother of Sorrows, who wept for Her Son Jesus and for us whom He died and rose for, we gain the strength to weep not only for the evil in our own lives, but in the whole world. We are inspired by love, and moved to love. For sorrow is a profound and eternal thing, a thing which contains the past and the future and draws them both, through memory and hope, into the present as love. Its strength is unlike some other emotions which burst forth and die fast, or which waver on the outskirts of the soul as gentle ripples of water. For when sorrow is pure in truth and love, it is a burden which bears all burdens. It knows no rest as a mother’s love love knows no rest, yet does not diminish in strength but ever deepens in the heart, till it meets that Joy of joys, that Hope of hopes, that Light and Life Who has taken all sorrow into His Heart, and transformed it into the fullness of beauty and joy in the redemptive love of the Cross and Resurrection.

This is why we need stories with true sorrow, why we find good stories of pure sorrow, real life, true joy, and redemptive love so wonderful. They show us that someone understands, that there are times when it is right to be sad, and they inspire us to put love where love is little. This is why a steadfast friend who will share in our joys and sorrows is so necessary for us to find and hold fast to, and why we must love others in this way. As Christ loved us, so must we love: By coming to know others, building friendship with them, sharing hurts and joys with them, and seeking always to put love where it is lacking. I do not write this to tell you that all who experience sorrow will become strong and learn to love. We cannot do this on our own. We learn to do so in part through others. But it is on the Cross that we most clearly see Love: For while we were yet sinners, sick and in need and not wanting help, it is then that God sent His only Son to die for us.2 Seeing His pity, we know His love and can receive it. Repenting, we receive His love and can give it. And on the strength and eternity of this Love, we can persevere until that day of gladness when the Daystar appears, and He shall wipe away all tears. So we can live, we can not only live but thrive in this vale of tears. For it is in knowing God’s love for us that we learn to love others and have the strength and courage to do so. And in this way they shall come to know Him through us, experiencing His love in us, as of a great and lovely and beautiful story.

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.

Psalm 126:5-6
by Jeffrey McPheeters (photographybyheart.com)
  1. This comes from the Valaquenta, which precedes the Silmarillion proper.
  2. Romans 5:8.

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