Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I frequently get that Dylan Thomas poem stuck in my head when I’m on call at the hospital. It’s probably partially due to the fact that I like this poem, but it also swims around in my head as a question. Do (not) go gentle into that good night. How do we grieve? How do we let people go?
I’ve watched those who do and don’t go gently into that good night and some parents who do both for their child. I’ve almost prayed this poem under my breath, watching from the edge of a trauma room, standing beside a parent, willing a child to keep fighting. Do not go gentle into that good night!
I’ve been beside parents who kick and scream and physically fight the universe and those who collapse in like a black hole just opened up inside them. I’ve had times I was called in as chaplain with the hopes of calming a parent down or at least helping them lower their volume, but sometimes I just keep company and bear witness as someone rages against the dying of the light. We are not always called to quiet grief.
I fear that sometimes our faith traditions teach us to grieve quietly, to always go gently into the good night. To offer words of comfort before words of mourning, to try and cut off anguish at the pass, like that’s even a possibility. On the other hand, I sometimes see that our not going gently is refusing to accept the pending reality of death, of putting a child through pain that will serve no benefit. I believe that the Psalms offer a different perspective to both approaches
Walter Brueggeman, an Old Testament scholar, writes about Psalms of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. He explains that disorientation is the season where we experience pain, alienation, suffering, or death. During these times we can feel all sorts of negative emotions from resentment and frustration to even hatred and rage. A previous worldview is coming apart and a new one is being formed. We move from disorientation to new orientation slowly as we question and create a new world with God and creation, but one that doesn’t have all the easy answers it had before.
The problem, he states, is that we live is a world of disorientation but insist on singing songs of orientation. This, some might say, is a bold act of faith in a world of disorder, but it also might just be numb denial when we cannot handle the disorder of this world. I tell parents sometimes that God is big enough to handle whatever we throw at God. There is no honesty God cannot handle. The Psalms of disorientation teach us that. There is some pure honesty in there that I, personally, would be afraid to say to God.
I think the Psalms offer an example of how to (not) go gentle into that good night. To rage at God can be an act of faithfulness. It is faith to call out to a God because you believe God is there to hear you. There is faithfulness in the lament, in the voicing of pain, in not moving on to comfort and new orientation so quickly. I believe that when we are not in denial of the disorder of this world, that we can be open to learn when to give in to grief and when to keep raging against the dying of the light.
While I realize that I write this from the perspective of a hospital chaplain, there is not life without disorder, and how we approach God and our brothers and sisters in that disorder is important. Do we, as a faith community, leave room for lament? Do we try to soften grief too quickly? Do we focus so much energy on the fighting death that we do not know when to surround and comfort a person so that they are able to let their loved one go gently to God? Do we as a community only sing songs of orientation in a world of disorientation? How can we make room for grief and honest conversation with God and each other? How do we (not) go gentle into that good night?