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Those beautiful, melancholy lines from the Book of Common Prayer—“in the midst of life, we are in death”—have become a kind of leitmotif for me during this month of July. Two weeks ago, in my last posting, I wrote of worrying about “a colleague’s recent serious medical diagnosis.” He died unexpectedly the next day, and his funeral was last week. Last night, I learned of the suicide of one of my former professors–with whom I had stayed in touch over the years. Tonight, I received news that after many long months of carrying for her, a friend’s mother-in-law had succumbed to her long bout with cancer. And the month is only halfway over.
As a person who deals with language for a living, I am always humbled by situations of loss (or lament, as Jessica Bratt’s Monday blog laid out so strikingly). Over the years, I have tried to keep the claims I make in my classroom about the power of language in some sort of check, but even so, theoretical inadequacy doesn’t feel quite as gutting as the actual faltering experience.
T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets defines the problem like this:
So here I am…
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion
Of course, we know this is true: we rarely have the right words at the right moment, even at the best of times. The “shabby equipment” of expression, the “undisciplined squads of emotion” fail us.
Partly, we have other means of communication to supplement this failure. The comfort and support of sitting in a funeral next to one’s best friend, for example. We realize that words are not always necessary or even desired. Ideally, we know our lives need to be a coordinated vocabulary of what we say and what we do.
Still, what I love about the Four Quartets is Eliot’s deeply Christian assertion that the effort is worth it:
“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
These two simply stated sentences have all sorts of freeing implications: Trying, not achieving, is the goal. Perfection or full expression is not the goal, either. We don’t need to worry about the result.
For Eliot, the effort of expression is vital. Knowing that we can’t control the outcome, we are nevertheless to try and speak a word of comfort, sing a song of lament, raise a cry against injustice—even if, in the moment, that language fails to truly capture all that we feel or transform all that we wish could be different or changed or healed.
“The rest is not our business” because we know whose business it is: Christ’s. The Word made flesh, the model of perfectly embodied language.