Monday, June 11, 2012

A sad face is good for the heart

Ecclesiastes 7:3, 8-9 (NIV)

Frustration is better than laughter,
   because a sad face is good for the heart.
The end of a matter is better than its beginning,
   and patience is better than pride.
Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,
   for anger resides in the lap of fools.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this passage, although to be honest, I’m not quite sure to make of a lot of what I’ve been reading in Ecclesiastes the last week or so. Much of it has come across as sort of bizarro Proverbs, in that it’s written in the same style yet leaves me more confused than enlightened. Verses 8 and 9 make plenty of sense, but they seem to contrast verse 3, which on its own has me clueless. A sad face is good for the heart? Frustration is better than laughter?

In connection with verse 2 ("It is better to go to a house of mourning than go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart"), I suppose what we’re being asked is to realize how easy it is to be happy but how important it is to encounter the things that make us sad. I don’t know as if the lesson is that laughter is a bad thing — surely it makes for pleasant memories — but perhaps more so that struggles are what lead to growth and improvement.

In a romantic relationship, we often learn the most about the other party when the road is rough — either one person is going through a challenge and the other’s response illuminates their real personality, or there is a conflict between the two parties and the way it is resolved, or not resolved, speaks to the potential longevity. We are all smart enough to know life will never be completely easy, so what matters is how we navigate the choppy waters.

When you’re in a hospital room, holding your new baby in its first days of life, you may be able (unlike me) to escape thoughts of the future conflicts you will have — especially if it’s your first child. But if your second or third comes along when your older offspring have given you their share of struggles, you’re no longer so naïve. You look at the sweet, innocent child in your lap, and you just know eventually it will have its own opinions, test its limits, throw tantrums and force you, as a parent, to make the right choices to help the both of you figure out how to make it all work.

Any parent that has not had a conflict with their child has either an infant incapable of crawling or grabbing or is simply not actively involved in helping their kid make good decisions. This coming from someone who has only guided a child through the second grade — we have lots and lots of more serious issues to encounter.

On that note, I wonder if the suggestion “the end of a matter is better than its beginning” applies to a parent-child relationship. I know you never stop being a parent, but at some point you have to accept your child is an adult. I have to think that moment, or the series of events that aggregate into that benchmark, is far more meaningful than the day the child arrives.

After all, you don’t really know that baby. It has no personality. It’s yours and you gave it life and that’s immeasurably important. But that can’t compare to what it means to actually get to know your child, to learn (and shape) who they are, to see yourself reflected in them, for better or for worse, and to have a deep relationship with someone who knows you so intimately.

But all of it is cumulative. Watching your child walk is meaningful because you so recently watched them crawl. Hearing them give a graduation speech is built upon the days you worked hard to get them to speak a single word. Seeing them choose a life partner is (and I’m projecting some major hope here) a reflection of the way you modeled a good relationship in their formative years. It’s all part of the process. The end of the matter may well be better than the beginning, but the real action is at all points in between.

Naturally, not all those points will be happy times. Hopefully there will be much laughter. But those sad faces along the way are good for the heart in their own way. It isn’t the sadness itself, it’s how you respond. In the case of being a parent, it’s also about how you teach your child to respond. Together you learn about each other and make decisions about how you’ll live going forward. We’ve had some moments so far, but I think they pale in light of what’s to come. I pray I’m up to the challenge.

A prayer for June 11:

Lord, I thank you for laughter, for new beginnings and happy times. I also thank you for being with us as we go through sadness, endings and struggle. I know we never walk alone, and I am blessed by your presence all the days of my life. Please help me to remember the source of my blessings and the undying love that strengthens me. Amen.

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