In many of the ancient Greek literary masterpieces, the tragic hero was often defined by his hubris, a certain overreaching of his state or abilities that inevitably ended in disaster. Mortals strive for something more and nearly grasp the heavens, only to have them tumble into ruin among them.
Yet for all the tragic comedy that the reader can tease out from the beginning, there is something nevertheless ennobling about the hubris of the great man, for while he certainly errs in his overestimation, yet by the same token it is this decisive lack of contentedness with how things must be that makes him great, even if it leads to infamy.
Quite unlike the greater part of those in this mortal coil, for him to live and to die is simply not enough. He cannot be satisfied with the dregs of the mortal world, sensing perhaps that he is made for more, even if his desire outstrips his capacity.
This was brought to mind as I was reading Psalm 77 today, wherein the Psalmist pours out his heart in this same sort of existential distraught:
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan
I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah
Initially, the lament seems out of place. He specifically states that he cries aloud to God so that God may hear him, as if God would not hear him any other way. But this, of course, is merely a superficial reading. In view of course is the Psalmist’s own distress; the repetition of his cry merely underscores the depth of anguish, as if to say “this is so important to me that I will keep saying it until I can say it no more.”
I was struck by how he recounts the arduous nature of his lament, how it keeps him awake at night, how his is almost a state of rigor mortis from stretching out his hands. But even more noteworthy is the statement:
“my soul refuses to be comforted.”
This is intensified not because he is absent from God, but precisely because he is earnestly seeking after him. He meditates and the anguish intensifies; he contemplates God and God seems further removed.
As I was contemplating this, I wondered what this might mean on a deeper-than-surface level. What does it mean to seek God in a way that one refuses to be comforted? Can seeking the source of healing and goodness lead to the pain of the soul?
In pursuing this meaning a little deeper, I thought about what it means to be comforted, and how that often manifests itself in our lives. We go through trouble and it hurts; we bear the pain and sometimes it is assuaged quickly while other times it lingers throughout the rest of our lives.
Our friends and family often do their best to surround us with comfort and love which can take some of the sting of pain away, but comfort is perhaps always ultimately out of reach.
However, sometimes comfort can come at too cheap of a price. We have all experienced those who offer cheap sentiments and platitudes as if comfort can be bought for words, or who offer condolences that we know aren’t sincere. God is often thrown into the bargain, and we toss scripture verses around like magic slips that can ward off the spirits of pain if you only find the right one. You can find books of these invocations for any situation, and while I exaggerate slightly, they are often of little consolation in the midst of pain.
It is perhaps here where the Psalmist’s plight begins to make more sense. It is probably the sad tragedy of our race that most of us suffer not from too much hubris, but rather from being content with too little. We accept the dregs that life offers by default and too infrequently push on towards something greater or higher or nobler.
The Psalmist here finds himself in despair but remembers the goodness of the Lord. He later recounts the mighty deeds that form the existential experience of his people with God, that manifestation of God’s greatness and love. Thus, as he works through his misery, he will not be content with anything less than this.
He cannot be comforted precisely because he will not settle for anything less than this union with God. Cheap comfort or emotional catharsis or even an amelioration of the situation are simply too poor of substitutes for the real thing, which is why he persists in his reaching and in the stretching out of his hands. The agony wears upon him, but in his remembrance of who God is he knows that the lessening of his pain is simply not worth not having God himself.
What is truly interesting is that there seems to be a link drawn here. Does the pain of the situation actually allow the soul to seek God when it perhaps might not otherwise? Or, perhaps more fittingly, would a sudden resolution perhaps be exactly what the Psalmist does not really need?
Thus, the more he seeks, the more he desires, and the less he will be content with. In an inversion of what seems to be the case, it is not the situation that is actually the problem; it is rather that he must have union with God, and anything less is simply not worth having.
The anguish of pain in the body and soul transforms into an anguish of desire for love and union with God, and perhaps it can be no other way.