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When Depressing Stories Aren’t

A folk musician once remarked that no celebration of British traditional music is complete without a song of tragedy in which everybody dies. If you suffered through “Sir Patrick Spens” (or, worse, “The Twa Corbies”) during your high school days, then you know exactly what I mean. G. K. Chesterton once remarked that there were only two kinds of ballads: “sad ballads about broken hearts and cheerful ballads about broken heads.” He was basically right.

I have a reputation, at least within my family, of listening to depressing music. It’s rather odd, since I don’t consider myself a particularly angsty person. I test as an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs indicator and have been accused (falsely) of lacking emotions altogether. But most of my favorite folk songs are the sad ones. Why is it that some people, myself included, feel almost uplifted by music that should be depressing.

Aristotle’s theory of catharsis might be a partial explanation. In Poetics, he argued that tragedies were beneficial because they produced a cleansing effect in those who watched them. To put it another way, sad songs or stories or dramas allow us to get in touch with emotions that we cannot safely express much of the time. We don’t have to be genuinely angsty to experience those emotions, because we feel them in direct relation to what we are listening to, reading, or watching. No need to start dressing like a goth and writing poems about your death. You feel the emotions—then comes the climax—the problems resolve—and you relax.

Aristotle’s theory of catharsis isn’t the greatest justification for the existence of tragedy, as C. S. Lewis pointed out. But it does explain why some of us listen to depressing things and don’t end up depressed. Still, it’s more an effect than a cause. (Who goes to a bookshelf saying, “I feel like having some catharsis today”?)

TheHappyPrinceOscar Wilde, I suspect, had less interest in catharsis than in beauty. Most of his fairy stories end with at least one death. Probably his most famous fairy story is “The Selfish Giant,” which has been made into a children’s book. Yes, Wilde meant his stories, sad endings and all, for children. His sons, specifically, when Wilde grew tired of playing with them. But Wilde put his own hunger for beauty into the stories to the extent that he once cried when telling “The Selfish Giant” to his sons Cyril and Vyvyan. When Cyril wanted to know why, his father said that truly beautiful things always made him cry.

Sometimes Wilde’s love of beauty can carry him away—in his collection The Happy Prince and Other Stories, the descriptions are always beautiful but sometimes become too long. Generally speaking, I think that adults will probably get more out of Wilde’s fairy stories than many children will, although my ten-year-old brother enjoyed having the book read to him.

Happy_princeMy favorite of the stories is probably the one for which the volume was titled. “The Happy Prince” is such a good story that any single theme I might assign it falls short. Self-sacrifice? Loss of innocence? The need for compassion? The Happy Prince was once a great noble who lived a life without sorrow. But after his death, his spirit resides in a golden statue made to resemble him, from which he sees all the sorrows of the city he once ruled. He begs a swallow who is traveling south to begin removing some of the gems and precious metals from his statue of a body in order to alleviate some of the suffering. The swallow complies, and many of the townsfolk find relief from their poverty. But in the mean time the Happy Prince is rendered blind and ugly, and the swallow dies from the approaching winter. The Mayor orders the stripped statue to be melted down and has the swallow thrown into a dust heap. The heart of the Happy Prince, which broke when the bird died, will not melt, so the Mayor has it, too, thrown away. The story ends with these two paragraphs:

“Bring me the two most precious things in the city,” said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.

“You have rightly chosen,” said God, “for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.”

The wonderful thing about fairy stories is that they might be tragic, but only on rare occasions are they tragedies. The Happy Prince chooses sorrow and finds joy. And maybe that’s the point of a lot of fairy stories. They’re about finding wholeness in brokenness—the moment when the young Fisherman’s lost soul reenters his shattered heart.

Whatever might be said about depressing art in general, I think there’s a good deal to be said for art that, in the same stroke, can help us understand both sadness and joy.

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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Children's Literature

 

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Introverted Christians…an Oxymoron? (Pt. 1)

I just got Adam McHugh’s book, Introverts in the Church, as a birthday present. It was my fault—I asked for it. Quite literally.

My teenage brother thinks that the gift is hilarious. He’s very much an extrovert, although he insists that he isn’t an extreme one, because when he goes to social events he likes to wear dark glasses, stand to the side, and freak people out.

Right.

I’m rather sensitive about being an introvert and would prefer for him to be quiet about the whole subject. But—because I’m sensitive about being an introvert—I haven’t broached the subject. What my brother doesn’t understand is that being introverted, particularly in the Christian community, can cause a lot of pain.

It seems appropriate that the third chapter in McHugh’s book is titled “Finding Healing.” All too often introverts feel inferior—sometimes because of an implicit sense that other people disapprove of their preferences, and at other times as a result of being confronted about their failures to be extroverted enough.

As a young teen, I spent several years in a church that heavily emphasized evangelism. “Heavily”—as in, the pastor said that it didn’t matter if the kids in the church memorized much Scripture, so long as they knew a few key verses that mattered for witnessing. (Witnessing was also more important than prayer.) Witnessing meant putting gospel tracts in restrooms and handing them to random strangers and passing them out door-to-door.

I hadn’t encountered that sort of pressure before, and I began to think that I needed to witness everywhere I went, to strangers, to be a “good Christian.” If I couldn’t pass out tracts like candy at a parade, then I was a spiritual failure. So I tried to pass out tracts everywhere I went—and still felt like a spiritual failure. If I was being a “good Christian” by doing that, why didn’t it make me feel closer to God? Why would I feel worse after passing out a tract?

God got my attention several times, reminding me that I was essentially trying to work for His favor when I ought to be resting in His work on my behalf. But it wasn’t until the last two years that I really began to understand what went wrong. I was trying to witness as an extrovert when I am not one. In other words, I was trying to act like someone God didn’t make me to be. And I found that my introverted tendencies gave me opportunities to show God’s love that I would not have if I were an extrovert.

Yet I’m still recovering from the wounds that period of time left. My mother—also an introvert—spent an even longer period of time in a similar sort of church when she was a child. Her wounds go even deeper than mine, and they have not yet healed.

It’s very tempting for me to hole up in my bedroom and rehearse anti-anti-introversion rants, directed against anti-introvert extroverts in general or certain extroverts in particular. But that isn’t healing. That’s brooding–which, according to the Myers-Briggs system, is typical for my personality. Typical, but not very healthy, particularly when the brooding extends into a long-term resentment.

Healing begins with me, not with the people who warped my early teenage spiritual growth. It would be nice to go back and tell certain individuals that what they actually did was unhelpful at best, no matter what their intentions were. But I’m not likely to have that opportunity.

McHugh emphasizes that it’s important that injured introverts don’t turn into yet another victim group for the church to deal with. Healing is important. Playing the victim is not. Our primary identity must be found in Christ, not in what circumstances have done to us.

Neither is introversion an excuse for spiritual atrophying. Being a Christian is about being “stretched” as clay in the hand of our Potter. Christian extroverts may have to slow down, think about what they say before it comes out, and learn to listen. Likewise, Christian introverts may have to focus more on ministering to other people, even when it tires or intimidates us. “Servant leadership” is important for both groups–putting the needs of others before our own.

In the end, it’s that servant’s spirit that is most likely to bring about unity between extroverts and introverts. We may not immediately understand or appreciate one another, but in Christ, we are one. In the words of Paul: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2012 in Nonfiction, Spiritual Writings

 

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