S.D. Smith

S.D. Smith (pictured above) made a great point yesterday. To quote the man himself:

“Maybe JR, there’ something in the discussion of what kind of sad is helpful and what kind of despair is basically hurtful. There’s a difference between digging through the septic tank to recover the wedding band and just going for a swim in the thing.”

Leave it to S.D. There’s potty humor, and then there’s S.D. Smith potty humor. But, as I said, the man makes a good point. What are the proper purposes of sadness in song and story? Allow me to answer in three principles, followed by two ways of getting sadness wrong.

Principle #1: A good sad story clarifies what is important to us. We love better when ponder what it would mean to lose the thing we love. Which is what Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is about:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I love that last line–“To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” Autumn, in many ways, is sadder than winter. The leaves’ last burst of beauty before they die and fall is more affecting than the cold and barrenness that follow after they’re gone. The best sad stories and songs do something to our souls that is comparable to what the autumn leaves do. Beauty and loss commingle–the beauty sharpened by the loss, the loss sharpened by the beauty.

Principle #2: A good sad story strengthens our empathy muscles. A good sad story makes us better at feeling for people who hurt, and that’s a good thing.

Principle #3: A sad story well-told convinces the reader that sadness doesn’t have the final say. A good sad story makes me realize that sadness is a thing to be gone through and not stepped around–because it does good work in our souls. I’m not especially interested in fiction in which sadness or hurt don’t do any particular work in people’s souls–either the characters’ or mine.

There are plenty of sad stories that don’t pass these tests. On the one hand there are sentimental stories. I ran across a great definition of sentimentality recently. Sentimentality invites us to enjoy another person’s pain rather than entering into it. Sentimental stories violate Principle #1 by cheapening the things we value rather than making them more dear. Sentimental stories violate Principle #2 by distancing us from hurt or, alternately, giving us a substitute for hurt that has no nutritional value.

I have been wanting to mention how much I love the old George Jones song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It makes me want to cry every time I hear it (and I’ve heard it a lot).

“We found some letters by his bed/ Dated nineteen-sixty two,/ And he had underlined in red/ Every single ‘I love you.’”

I defy anyone to show me a more perfectly delicious sadness in song or story. But it occurs to me that “He Stopped Loving Her Today” doesn’t pass the test I’m proposing here. It is time I acknowledge that I love that song because it’s the best sentimental song in the American songbook.

If sentimentality is one end of the bad sadness spectrum, the other end is meaningless hurt and sadness. Here I’m going to criticize a couple of books recommended by some of this blog’s most faithful readers. I am not, of course, criticizing said readers. Believe me, this blog can’t afford to lose you. I invite any and all to come to the defense of The Road and The Giving Tree.

The Road is a brutal example of a story in which suffering and sadness seem to point toward no greater good. The only way I can tolerate The Road (which, by the way, has a lot of beautiful writing and and a lot of writing that’s just the right kind of ugly for the subject matter) is to view it as a thought experiment: “Let’s pretend the universe is meaningless, and see where that idea gets us.” Where it gets me is high-tailing it back to the gospel. So it at least did that much for me. I know people who see hope in The Road (and I think this is truer for the movie–which I haven’t seen–than for the book).But as I said in a comment yesterday, any hope a person sees in this book is hope that he brought there himself. He didn’t find it there. I realize that I may have overstated my case. Again, I welcome all efforts to convince me otherwise, because I think pretty highly of Cormac McCarthy and would like to like The Road better than I do.

If The Road offers the brutal version of meaningless sadness, there’s a kinder, gentler version of meaningless sadness, and it’s brought to us by [cringe] The Giving Tree. I re-read this story after two otherwise right-thinking commenters recommended it, and I remembered why I dislike this book so much. The sadness and the sufferings of that most generous tree don’t amount to anything. The tree gives, but she gives only to indulge (and only temporarily) the whims of the boy who never benefits or grows as the result of her sacrifice. She cannot give him what he needs, and what she can give turns out to be limited. The Giving Tree might try a little tough love. What looks like sacrifice is really just co-dependence (forgive the pop-psychology word, but it’s the only one that fits). The Giving Tree is, in essence, an unfunny martyr-mother joke. You half expect it to end in a scene like the one depicted here.

There, that ought to give everybody something to talk about. Somebody, please convince me that I’ve got The Giving Tree all wrong. People love this book, and if possible, I’d prefer not to be the contrarian.

  • JJ
    1:28 PM, 17 November 2010

    Sam is Tom Green.
    Tom Green is Sam.

    I knew it.

  • Jonathan
    7:12 PM, 17 November 2010

    I’m not alone 🙂
    I too could not stomach “The Road.” The writing is awesome. But the story is, literally, hope-less. No hope. McCarthy points to the love between the father and son (okay), but the father, here it comes, DIES! And, therefore, the father’s love is forever gone too. It is foolhardy (soul-crushing) to put our hope in mortal (and fallible) creatures. “The Road” proves it.

    But we have a better Father. And we have God, the Son, who died, but He rose from the dead. Our love still lives, because our God lives. Real hope must become reality or the hope proves false.

    What I mean to say is “The Road” left me feeling empty too. Only Jesus fills our truest needs. And Jesus loves me, not because I’m good (which I’m not), but because He is good.

    Sweet. So the BEST sad story is this one: the Gospel, the story of the true God who died for evil and mortal men, and who rose again to bring these same men to Him. Sorrow in and over the evil, but hope and joy in the Son who crushed evil.

    And all for the glory of the One who loves.

  • Kristy Dempsey
    7:30 PM, 17 November 2010

    I can’t help you with your guilt over The Giving Tree. It perplexes me too.
    I love your point in Principle #2 that sad stories strengthen our empathy muscles. I’ve always felt sort of like any difficult thing I ever experienced in life had a sort of emotional memory based in the books that prepared me for it. Katherine Paterson says that books provide us an emotional rehearsal for the future. I’ve found that to be true in many ways.

  • Aaron Roughton
    8:47 PM, 17 November 2010

    I agree with both you and Tom Green in your appraisals of The Giving Tree and The Road. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t think they’re sad. They are. And I don’t have any empathy muscles, as documented by several well meaning pastors who have given me spiritual gifts inventories to see where I would be best suited to be abused as a volunteer. So if I think something’s sad, it must be. (How’s that for an argument?) But I also don’t think The Giving Tree was “hurtful.” In fact, I remember thinking as a kid that I didn’t want to be a completely ungrateful sot with a meaningless life like that kid turned out to be. It made me feel empathy for my parents and their sacrifices. In that respect it may have provided a glimpse of a road I didn’t want to take and helped me only become a mildly ungrateful sot.
    One other thought on The Giving Tree is that it certainly is a more realistic picture of how I engage Jesus than I would like to admit. I am far more likely to rest in the grace and mercy offered by the price Christ paid for me and look for what else I can gain from my position of comfort than to die to myself in service of a King. In that respect, it’s a story that’s sad but true.

    That leads me to a final thought. Where does reality fall in the sadness spectrum? I remember watching the movie about Jim Morrison that starred Val Kilmer. I hated it. I kept thinking, “Could this get any worse? Clean yourself up man!” And then he died. And though the movie makers would have us believe he ended up chilling in the desert with Sammie Davis Jr., I think otherwise. And though I’m sure the movie was made with a broad artistic license, I bet it was close to reality at its core. And it was sad. And it wasn’t hopeful. But I bet the filmmaker felt like he had made his point. I felt icky after watching it. I would rather have watched Hoosiers, because there’s nothing icky about Jimmy Chitwood running the old picket fence and dropping that last shot for the win. But The Doors wasn’t sentimental, and it wasn’t completely meaningless (unless reality is meaningless), it was just icky. And sad. Like Butterfly Kisses.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      5:44 AM, 18 November 2010

      Well spoke, Aaron. As you say, if I think something’s sad, it’s sad. By definition. And your life-changing experience with The Giving Tree reminds us that even hurtful books can help sometimes. I had thought about the fact that the behavior of the boy in The Giving Tree reflects our ingratitude and could be a lesson. I’m just troubled by the fact that the Tree’s sacrifice falls so short of redemption.
      But Jimmy Chitwood and the picket fence…that’s good storytelling right there. I knew we’d eventually find some scrap of common ground, Aaron.

  • S.D. Smith
    10:45 PM, 17 November 2010

    Firstly, thanks for including my grammar and punctuation errors in the quote. Most kind. I have another picture to send you.
    Second, I appreciate your words. Very well said. I have been trying to sort out this question in my mind for a while. I’ve been confused about sentimentalism and why I sometimes love it and sometimes don’t and whether I ever should.

    This post helps me along the way to better understanding.

    I’ll add my two cents on this by saying –here I go, saying it– that I think many Christians go mining for shards of hope in a toxic mine, come up with some fingernail-sized haul and act like they discovered the New World.

    “You have to see this,” and other exhortations follow. And if some Puritanical believer (used intentionally) asks, “Um, is this really good for people?” they are immediately shoved into the relegation room with the “I have a small concern about Harry Potter” and “I still think it’s OK to speak out against abortion” crowd. “Come on, get with it.” I this case the ultimate appeal is to trendiness and artistic/cultural convictions instead of (or against) Scripture.

    Maybe that’s tangential to this discussion. Also, I think I have a high fever and have that overall dullness of mind that comes with sick-ness.

    So, if you’re thinking, “He’s sick” when you read my comment…you are correct.

    Sincerely, Tom Green.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      5:47 AM, 18 November 2010

      Dadgum, Tom Green, that’s funny: “I think many Christians go mining for shards of hope in a toxic mine, come up with some fingernail-sized haul and act like they discovered the New World.”
      Gina, we’ll miss you and your hot Kool Aid. Actually, Gina, if the doorknob hasn’t hit you on the behind yet, I hope you’ll read my apology in the next blog post.

  • S.D. Smith
    11:06 PM, 17 November 2010

    Also, I loved the hot koolaid link.
    Especially since the Pommies actually call it squash. Made it that much funnier.

    Love, Tom Green.

  • gina
    3:35 AM, 18 November 2010

    I am never coming back. I hate this place. I love hot kool aid. It’s my favorite.

  • Joe
    2:22 PM, 18 November 2010

    Jonathan, your comments about sentimentality remind of a talk that Dr. Ralph Wood gave at Vanderbilt a few years ago. It was entitled, “Flannery O’Connor on Sentimentality as the Enemy of Religion, Education, and Ethics.” One of the most memorable quotes was this: “Sentimentality is to Christianity what pornography is to art.” There was typed handout/outline for that lecture. If you’re interested, I can get a copy to you for your perusal.

  • Andrew
    2:33 PM, 18 November 2010

    St. Augustine gives us his thoughts on sad stories, from a 3rd Century perspective.
    In book three of Confessions he describes his pre-conversion enjoyment of sad theatre:

    “Stage plays also captivated me, with their sights full of the images of my own miseries: fuel for my own fire. Now, why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure? Yet, as a spectator, he wishes to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very sense of grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched madness?”

    He seems to think that there is some usefulness sad fiction because it can teach compassion:

    “Tears and sorrow, then, are loved. Surely every man desires to be joyful. And, though no one is willingly miserable, one may, nevertheless, be pleased to be merciful so that we love their sorrows because without them we should have nothing to pity. This also springs from that same vein of friendship. …”

    He writes a good bit more about this and you can read various translations online.

    So the ancient Romans like sad stories. Is it a universal appreciation across time and cultures?

  • Laura Peterson
    6:10 PM, 21 November 2010

    I’m curious if anyone here has read Robert Cormier? I picked up “The Chocolate War” for a class in college and when I was done I wanted to throw it across the room. I would place it in the “swimming in the septic tank,” category, yet I have friends who love his work because he doesn’t shy away from harsh realities, I guess. I think I saw some of that in The Road as well, but I’m more willing to forgive Cormac McCarthy for the meaninglessness, because I love his writing. Plus, his name is Cormac.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      1:17 PM, 22 November 2010

      I don’t know anything about Cormier, Laura. You’re right that good prose covers a multitude of sins. If I was inclined to fling a Cormac McCarthy book across the room, I would wait until I was finished reading it first. I feel the same way about Christopher Hitchens; I don’t much like his conclusions, but he’s just so smart, I always want to see what he’s going to say next.

  • Drina
    5:09 PM, 3 December 2010

    Hi, Sorry I’m so late in joining the discussion and I understand if you’ve all moved on by now. I finished reading The Road a few weeks ago, and have to say that I came away with very different thoughts than the ones I’m reading here. What do you all think about the symbolism of the fire? The fire that the father and son always refer to when they say that they are keeping it burning, and the one that the boy asks about to the man in the ski parka at the end. I think this is symbolic of good, of living for good and using their lives to keep the fire burning. I think it’s a reason for existence, the thing that makes life good despite all the evil the main characters encounter in the book. I didn’t see the hope ending with the father’s death at all. The man came to bring the boy to a better place. And because his father lived long enough for the boy to reach a better way of life, his own life was not in vain, either. And it seemed to me that McCarthy was saying, “And lest you doubt that there is hope, I’m going to give all of this imagery of new life”. I refer to the man in the ski parka’s description of where they are going, and the author’s own description of the mountain – a boy and a girl, new and green growth, fresh waters with trout. I don’t think this is all so obvious it’s spelled out for you, but I do think it’s there without the reader having to “read into it too much.” I think that’s partly what makes it good writing. Any thoughts?

  • Rob
    3:57 PM, 6 December 2010

    Jonathan,These posts on sad stories have come (it seems to me) as an answer to prayer about my son. He is almost five. And sometimes he is mean to other children. Okay, he’s often mean to other children. (He is often kind and giving as well.) “What’s going on with him?” is something we are praying and discussing often. Obviously this isn’t the forum to go into all the details of the situation, but we remain somewhat desperate. So, when you mentioned how sad stories can strengthen our empathy muscles, I became eager to read some such books with our son. Perhaps we’ll start with Edward Tulane. Is there one (or many) that would recommend with the specific goal of helping to develop emphathy in a five year old boy?
    Thanks for your posts. By the way, I came to your site by way of the Rabbit Room and have The Charlatan’s Boy smack dab on top of my stack of books to read. I can’t wait.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      4:36 PM, 6 December 2010

      Hey, Rob–Thanks for your comment. Without asking for too much detail, when you say your son is mean, what kind of mean are you talking about? Do you mean he’s overly aggressive–as in, he’s always pushing people down and cutting in line–or do you mean he’s mean in a premeditated, calculated way? We have friends whose son was quite aggressive when he was young. He was always getting sent to the principal’s office. One day the principal sat him down and had a beautiful conversation with him. She said, “Robert, all these aggressive impulses that you’re always getting in trouble for–God put them there for a reason. One day you’re going to be a man, and you’ll be called upon to fight for your family, to fight for your business, to fight for people who don’t have anybody else to fight for them. You go after what’s important to you, and that’s a good thing. God is going to use that to do great things through you. Now, in the meantime, we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to get you through second grade…” I don’t know how much second-grade Robert grasped what the principal was telling him, but it did a world of good for his parents to hear it. Is it possible that those words apply to your situation?

      In any case, a few empathy-building books are always a good thing. I’m not an expert on books for five-year-olds, but Kristy upthread recommended some good picture books.

      But I hope you will also consider reading and discussing books in which people aggressively pursue the good of other people. There’s a lot for an aggressive little boy to like about the Narnia books, for instance. A simple question like, “Why did the Peter fight the wolf?” can be a great teaching moment. I don’t know if you’ve seen my new post for today, but it touches on this idea of asking good questions when you read with your kids.

      I’m also reminded of something that my friend SD Smith wrote on his blog (and the Rabbit Room) a couple of months back. He saw some movie about owls and got all fired up and came home and wrote a post about it that you might want to read. Here’s a memorable line:

      The Guardians protect the vulnerable, they serve the weak. They do not use their power and authority to serve themselves, but fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.

      You can read that post here.

  • Rob
    4:46 PM, 7 December 2010

    Yes, when I say he does “mean” things, I mean he pushes and hits, seemingly without care that he is hurting someone else. I think the principal’s words do apply to my son as well. Such a helpful perspective to see that aggression as part of God’s design and plans for his life. Thank you.

    When I originally read S.D.’s post on “some movie about owls”, I showed the trailer to my son, but he said it would be too scary. (Interesting that he can be so seemingly non-empathetic at times towards other children and then deeply weep when the old buffalo dies during a National Geographic special.) Maybe we’ll get the DVD when it comes out in a couple weeks. That way we can fast-forward any scary-ish scenes AND we can pause throughout to ask some good questions!

    Thank you again for your thoughtful and helpful response.

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