The other day, I saw an article online that said Joni Mitchell was in a coma.
My heart beat faster and I hurriedly clicked the link to read more, saddened and shocked that we might lose one of the greatest singer-songwriters in America, the woman whose music played while I washed dishes in my kitchen sink at home. I prayed for her recovery.
And when I was finished, it struck me how odd this prayer of mine was–not because I had prayed for Joni, but because of the things I hadn’t really prayed about, not yet. Two student deaths at Northwestern. Over 7,000 people dead after the devastation in Nepal. The riots in Baltimore and the injustice of systematized racism. The martyrdom of hundreds of Christians by ISIS. And then add all those things to the fact that the article ended up being only a false rumor.
How was it that my heart was so dumbstruck by the idea of losing a famous singer, but not by the mass destruction and incalculable suffering going on all around me?
Maybe it’s because I felt a personal connection to Joni. But I also think it has something to do with the idea the human capacity for grief begins, like most things do, as something very small, and grows with time and experience.
And my experience with grief has been smaller than most. After all, I am young. I am white. I am healthy. I am Christian. I am American. I am from an upper-middle class neighborhood. I have lots of friends. I have a loving family. I go to an elite university. Most of the time, I have very little reason to grieve. Yes, of course there has been suffering in my life–divorce, social isolation, coping with ADHD, professional rejection, familial strain, the suicide of a very dear friend, dealing with anxiety. But these are minor sufferings compared to what other people (even some of my close friends) have lived through–severe depression, poverty, racial and religious discrimination, cancer, violent hate crimes against them and their loved ones. For these people–most people in the world, actually–grief is a daily reality. You would think all of this constant pain would desensitize them after a while, and maybe sometimes it does. But I think that–at least, in my experience–desensitization to suffering is a privilege that only those distant from it can afford. I feel like most of the time, these people’s capacity for grief only grows larger.
But as for me–as empathetic as God has made me: I can’t deny that I am inexperienced when it comes to grieving. It is much easier for me to grieve for one person than it is to grieve for a thousand.
So there I was, sitting in front of my laptop, shaken up by a comatose Joni Mitchell and somehow not as much by all this other stuff happening in the world around me–not to say that my sadness over her illness was a bad thing, because God grieves over that stuff, too–but I felt guilty for caring about this thing that seemed so small compared to everything else and for not having an immediate, visceral reaction to Nepal, to Baltimore. I felt guilty, because lately, all I’d been feeling was joyful.
After all, it seems like God has been blessing me a little extra lately, answering prayers. I’m back at Northwestern, I’m enjoying my classes, I’m loving the sunshine and the warm spring weather, I’m exploring the city, I’m spending time with my favorite people, I’m getting excited for graduation and spending the summer in Evanston and whatever comes after that. So I wonder: in light of all that has been going on in the world, is it wrong or insensitive or ignorant of me to feel so much joy?
But then I also think that feeling guilty for being happy or rejecting God’s blessings would be wrong, too. The circumstances of my life are all God’s mercy. This is His plan for me. I won’t be ungrateful to Him or ignorantly wish to suffer like other people do. I definitely don’t envy those other people. I don’t want to have to experience suffering or death or injustice, especially not every day or on a large scale.
Even so, I also can’t deny the fact that it exists. There’s still pain. There’s still grief. The world is still broken. I suppose that the question, then, is what I choose to do about it.
I could close my eyes. I could avoid intimacy with others’ pain, anger, sadness, for fear of my heart breaking under its burden. I could become numb. I could hold out my grief in front of me, pinched between my index fingers and thumbs, like a dress I’m not quite sure will fit, and fold it up, neatly and crisply, and tuck it away into some dark corner where no one, not even I, would ever have to look at it again.
I could pray for God to redeem my grief. To redeem my prayerlessness in regard to the suffering of His people, humanity. To give me the courage and humility to enter into others’ pain. To mourn with those who mourn, to weep with the weeping. I could, as Joni said, “be prepared to bleed.”
I could simply listen and learn from others. I could correct injustice where I see it. And when there is still pain, still suffering, still grief, after all this–I could choose to remind myself and others that despite all the darkness in this world, there is a Light who will never fade into shadow. Who desires to know us, to be our joy in the midst of our grief, whether it be large or small. Who will one day overcome and illuminate us with His glory, more brilliant than a thousand suns.
And on that joyous day, He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more. We will never mourn or cry or feel pain again. We won’t even remember that our grief existed.
All the old things will pass away, and in their place, He will make everything new.
“A Case of You” performed by James Blake (Joni Mitchell cover)
“The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell