The Table Podcast

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Lament for a Son: Nicholas Wolterstorff on Grief and Suffering

Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
October 8, 2018

“My grief wasn’t about grief. It was about Eric.” Nicholas Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, a renowned scholar and author of an incredible number of books on everything from metaphysics, the history of modern philosophical figures, like John Locke and Thomas Reid, justice, love, art and aesthetics, and his most recent foray into the metaphysics of sacrament and liturgical practices. In this conversation, we asked him about his only non‑philosophical published work—Lament for a Son—an expression of profound grief written in the wake of his son Eric’s untimely death in 1983. Dr. Wolterstorff reflects on his own loss, the nature of grief, expression of lament in American society, the theological implications of suffering, and love.

Show Notes

0:00—Podcast intro
2:58—Begin interview
4:24—The story behind Lament for a Son
6:03—The “fragmentary” nature of grief
8:24—Social response to those who are grieving
9:25—Grief in American culture
11:36—Does grief love company? Grief as a shared or isolating experience
14:12—You don’t want to miss this ad
15:18—Understanding and defining grief, lament, and suffering
18:45—The connection of suffering and love
18:53—Dr. Wolterstorff reads excerpt from Lament for a Son
20:40—What we learn about love from suffering
24:22—Dr. Wolterstorff reads excerpt from Lament for a Son
26:59—Living with unanswered questions
29:40—Finding comfort in expressions of grief, reference to T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets
32:52—End interview, credits

Quotes from Nicholas Wolterstorff

  • “Grief is a special kind of suffering. It’s intensely wanting what you know cannot be.”
  • “My grief wasn’t about grief. It was about Eric.”
  • “I think we ought to own our grief. I put it like this. If Eric was worth loving when he was alive, then he’s worth grieving over when dead. Why would he not be?”
  • “‘Don’t cry’? Crying is the most appropriate thing you can think of.”
  • “If I hadn’t loved him, there wouldn’t be this agony. ‘This,’ said Jesus, ‘is the command of the Holy One. You should love your neighbor as yourself.’ In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.”

Credits

Transcript

Evan:  “The Table Audio” is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and Templeton Religion Trust.

[background music]

Dr. Wolterstorff:  I think we ought to own our grief. I put it like this. If Eric was worth loving when he was alive, then he’s worth grieving over when dead. Why would he not be, and why would I want to stifle my grief? What would be the point? Especially men in American culture, it’s expected that we be strong.

Evan:  I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions. Philosophy is often associated with detached, neutral reasoning about the world, thinking objectively or abstractly about esoteric puzzles. It turns out that philosophers are people, too.

It’s a refreshing, and inviting, and inspiring experience when you meet in a person both a formidable and incisive philosophical clarity along with a presence of patience, and wisdom, and loving concern. That’s my guest for this interview.

Philosopher, Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff, split his career as professor of philosophy at Calvin College from 1959 to 1989 and then as Noah Porter professor of philosophical theology at Yale University from 1989 to 2001.

Even since then, he’s authored an incredible number of books on everything from metaphysics, the history of modern philosophical figures, like John Locke and Thomas Reid, justice, love, art and aesthetics, and his most recent foray into the metaphysics of sacrament and liturgical practices.

Not many scholars are so capable of saying something of such importance on such a broad variety of topics. I asked Nick about his only non‑philosophical published work, “Lament for a Son,” a work and expression of profound grief written in the wake of his son Eric’s untimely death in 1983. In it, you find a man unafraid to say what he really thinks, really feels, really fears, really loves.

There is no pious talk here, nothing Pollyanna‑ish. It is frank and spacious, and it will unravel the tightly‑wound bandages that cover your wounds of loss, but with the kind of sober consolation and gives hope and peace rather than despair and turmoil.

What emerges are reflections on the nature of grief as personal, discontinuous, and fragmentary, the conflicted relationship to public expression of lament in American society, the theological implications of suffering, and loss, and ultimately, love. For as he writes in the short preface of the book, ‘Every lament is a love song.”

In 2008, I was in a Barnes & Noble in North Carolina. I’d been aware of your work in philosophy. I just had this habit, as most young philosophers do, of pouring through bookstores ‑‑ used bookstores, new bookstores, whatever ‑‑ and I stumbled across your title, Lament for a Son.

At the time, it was just a purchase to have more in my Nicholas Wolterstorff collection.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  [laughs]

Evan:  But then a week later, my wife miscarried our first pregnancy. I had already been reading the book when we found out. It was a cradle. It was a net.

As I remember that experience ‑‑ this is years ago now ‑‑ I remember feeling that there was this great cloud of unknowing. I’m borrowing a phrase, I suppose, but it was dark. It was a darkness. It was my own particular kind of darkness, and everyone experiences these kinds of life pains and suffering in different ways and to different degrees.

We receive these things as they come, but for me, your book gave voice to the kind of grief that I was experiencing. I thanked you for this when I first met you years later. But I wanted to say again, for me and for many others who have been touched by your work in Lament for a Son, thank you.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Thank you.

Evan:  I am so grateful that you chose to just invite people onto the mourning bench, as you put it in the book, and were willing to share your grief publicly like that. Would you mind telling the story behind your experience, and the thoughts, and the considerations that went into doing this ‑‑ putting pen to paper, writing?

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Yeah. Eric was our second child, our eldest son. Was a grad student at Yale in the Art and Architecture Department. Was working on a dissertation on a German between‑the‑war architect, Schultz [inaudible 04:47] , living in Munich.

He’d been a mountain climber for many years. Loved mountain climbing. One Saturday, we learned, he took the train from Munich into Austria and climbed a mountain, and slipped, and fell, and was killed up on the mountainside.

The Austrian mountain police, or whatever they’re called, found his body and late that Sunday afternoon we got a call from his landlady saying that Eric has had an accident and then Eric has been killed.

It was like being tossed into a pool of ice. Well, somehow it both burned and was icy. It seems contradictory, but that was the sensation.

Our fourth child, third son, called him Klaus, his name was Nicholas, had a ticket to work in Munich and would see Eric, and would stay with him in his apartment.

He had ridden with friends to O’Hare Airport in Chicago. I knew what his schedule was, so I got on an airplane and met him shortly before he was to get on and managed to get the ticket changed to me. Claire and I, my wife, have since thought, “Why didn’t we both go together?” That didn’t occur to me.

I went to retrieve Eric’s body. Then I’m sitting in the airport in Luxembourg on the way back. Boy, I had a long wait, six hours, whatever, so began writing.

Evan:  You began writing, that was the day after?

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Maybe, three days after. Probably nothing of what I wrote then remains in the book, but writing the book was my way of coping. In the course of that year, I read books about death and about the grieving process, and I found them just painful. I’d read 10 pages and couldn’t read any longer.

My grief was not about grief, it was about Eric. These all seemed like a distraction about grief and so forth. The book that I wrote, Evan, I think of not as about grief. It’s a cry of grief, that’s what it is. It’s not about grief. I couldn’t write about grief. It comes in fragments.

There’s a lot of white space, fragments, then white space, another fragment. It’s not written through continuously. I think of the white space as silence. Writing in fragments just came naturally. Writing a continuous narrative felt to me somehow incompatible with grief. Death fragments, and so the book, it’s fragmentary.

It reflects the fragmentation that grief produces in a person.

Evan:  That fragmentary nature is in the experience, I’ve noticed.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  You’ve noticed it, too?

Evan:  Oh, yeah, where try as you might to form a coherent narrative, I find my mind jumping. It’s in and out of memories, and it’s in and out of different kinds of emotions. I didn’t know that you wrote that with such intentionality, but I think it’s fitting.

It’s fitting that you can jump from one expression of grief in one writer, and you can come back to try to articulate your own feeling like that.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  The fragmentary character of it reflects [laughs] the fragmentation of my life and reflects what you just said, that one flits back and forth between images and emotions. They’re not continuous, so to impose a continuous narrative on it is false to the experience.

I tried as best I could in the book to never say anything that I didn’t believe and didn’t feel, hence the fragmentary character of it. Hence there’s no pious talk. I know about the pious talk and heard a lot of pious talk, but for me, it was inauthentic. It’s nothing I didn’t feel or believe.

Evan:  This is perhaps, from what I have experienced and from what I hear other people, they bear a grievance against those who respond to grief. They mean well, and they themselves encounter grief at some point.

There is a strained social interaction around response to grief. It often cheapens. It often feels inauthentic and trite too quick. It fails to capture what’s there, and it fails to comfort. Your effort to state those feelings, again, it’s the giving voice to something.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  My experience was that many people, probably most people, don’t know what to say. When they don’t know what to say, they retreat to what they think should be said and what they’ve heard said, sort of pious platitudes, “Well, he’s better off now. He’s in heaven now.”

Evan:  “Rest in peace.”

Dr. Wolterstorff:  “You’ve got four others, don’t you?” At first, I found this painful, but I think eventually I learned to blot out the actual words and notice the care and love that was behind the words. That’s easier in some cases [laughs] then in other cases.

Evan:  Would you agree that the way we encounter lament for the most part in America, at least, is very private, and public expressions often either take this slightly awkward, if well‑intentioned kind of interactions, but comparing that to other cultures where the show of lament is more public, it’s a little more raw and visceral.

What do you make of the way that American life treats lament and suffering?

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Americans, by and large, it seems to me, the attitude is, “You should try to get over it. Disown your grief. Get to the point where it’s no longer part of your identity.”

Evan:  Detach from it?

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Detach from it. Later on, somebody asked, “So tell me about yourself. Who are you?” Then you recite it, and then the person who’s asking you said, “But I thought you lost a son?” Then you say, “Oh, yeah. Yeah, now that you mention it, yeah.”

To get to that point, the image is getting over, putting it behind you, getting on with things. That fits the American attitude of sort of being on top of things.

Evan:  Being in control.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Being in control. The way to be in control in this situation is to get on with things.

Evan:  Yeah. I mean, in some cases, that’s just to not grieve. It kind of picks up on the importance of a conscious grief.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  I think we ought to own our grief. I put it like this. If Eric was worth loving when he was alive, then he’s worth grieving over when dead. Why would he not be? Why would I want to stifle my grief? What would be the point? Especially men in American culture, it’s expected that we be strong.

I remember shortly after Eric died, there was a TV program. I just happened to see it. There was a couple sitting there. Their son had been killed in Iraq. The interviewer was talking to them. The man leans over, puts his hand on her knee and says, “Now, now, don’t cry.” [laughs]

Evan:  Yeah, talk about a really unhealthy stereotype.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  “Don’t cry.” Crying is the most appropriate thing you can think of.

Evan:  Yeah, but it’s a sign of weakness to this culture.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Yep.

[music]

Dr. Wolterstorff:  The book was published by Eerdmans Publishing in Grand Rapids. We were living in Grand Rapids. The first time I saw it was when I happened to go down to their publishing house. There was a wooden pallet piled high with copies of “Lament for a Son,” first time I saw it published.

I had the profound image. I can see it now. I had the profound image of lying on a surgical table, my gut open and people walking past me. I’d exposed myself. I remember standing there and thinking, “What have I done? What have I done?”

Now, it doesn’t feel like that anymore, but that was the emotion and the imagery that welled over me when I saw this packet of 200 copies on this pallet.

Evan:  With the cover image?

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Of the mountain.

Evan:  That speaks to, I guess, the importance or the delivery of sharing this. To what extent was your grief a shared experience?

Dr. Wolterstorff:  We, in the family, talked about it. The thing I observed in the book is that the grief of different persons proceeds at a different pace. When it was very intense for me, it was not especially intense for my wife, Claire, or our children and vice versa.

I’m not sure you’re aware of that. That can be very difficult because you say, “Why isn’t my spouse…? Why is she so calm about this when I’m all broken up?” The next day, it might be reversed, of course.

Shortly after Eric’s death, a friend of ours, Lewis Meads, happened to see us. He made a wonderful remark. He said, “Nick and Claire, remember, grief does not unite. It separates.” That was a really wise comment. I had assumed that there’s company in misery. No doubt there’s company in some kinds of misery.

If the Cubs lose, you know, the World Series, well, there’s company in misery, but there’s not company in grief. It tends to isolate. Surprisingly, one would think the opposite. There’s some uniting but, especially, because you grieve at different paces, it can be difficult.

Evan:  It’s an intensely personal thing which is, I think, perhaps why ignoring it can be so damaging. If it’s true that we often ignore it to unhealthy ends, you’re ignoring an important part of who you are to become.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Yes, exactly, ignoring it, trying to stifle it, forget about it.

[music]

Evan:  For more from The Table and Biola University Center for Christian Thought, check out our website at cct.biola.edu. You can sign up for our regular email journal and get access to hundreds of free resources like eBooks, short and long‑form articles, thought pieces, all sorts of videos.

Everything we do features Christian perspectives on the big questions. What is love? Can we grow from suffering? How can we disagree well? How can practices of humility and gratitude, forgiveness lead to the good life? What does it mean to be human?

For example, you can find original video interviews with philosopher, Eleonore Stump, or theologians, Stanley Hauerwas and Miroslav Volf, or event videos from Cornel West and Robert George on how to disagree with civility and humility, psychologist, Robert Emmons, on the proven effects of gratitude for human flourishing.

For these resources and much, much more, visit cct.biola.edu. Now, back to the show.

[music]

Evan:  Have you thought about what lament is? I mean, I’m not asking for a deep philosophical treatment.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  A deep philosophical treatment.

Evan:  I’m not. You point out the resistance of suffering to be understood.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Yes. Grief is very difficult to understand. There’s something irrational about it. I think of it now as wanting with your entire being what you know cannot happen, wanting with my whole being that Eric be alive when I knew very well that Eric cannot be alive.

That’s, you might say, irrational, but it’s not sick. In a certain way, it makes no sense indeed, but it’s not sick. It can become sick.

You know what? One woman came to me who’d been grieving over her son, went to his grave every day. In her case, I thought it had become pathological. Otherwise, when people have talked to me, I say, “There’s no schedule for it. If you still cry two years later, that’s OK.”

Evan:  It resists irrational discussion.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Yes.

Evan:  To speak of the ends of it, to speak of the purpose of it and to try to foster a wider awareness of it, to button things up and put it away, it’s not something to be ignored, folded neatly, and then stuffed away into a drawer. I think in the book, you express it as, “You have become this kind of person now so that goes with you.”

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Yep, that’s part of my identity.

Evan:  It becomes part of who we are.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Who am I? I’m one whose son, Eric, was killed in a mountain climbing accident. That’s part of who I am.

Evan:  It’s just a part, but it becomes a very significant part.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Very significant.

Evan:  It’s a marking feature. Do you draw distinction between lament and suffering? I suppose suffering is simply something like the fact of encountering pain.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Of course, grief is a special kind of suffering. It’s not suffering over a broken leg or something like that. As I describe it, it’s intensely wanting what you know cannot be, that your son be back in life, be alive.

People have talked to me that, “Your child did not turn out the way you hoped and never will became an alcoholic or…” I remember a woman talking to me about that. What cannot be can take a number of different forms.

[crosstalk]

Evan:  It’s a longing.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  …and lament is in the voicing of grief.

Evan:  You say in the foreword of the book or the introduction, “Love and lament are just deeply connected.” It’s interwoven the whole way through. It’s one of these common themes. You say, “Every lament is a love song.” It’s one of these very bittersweet moments in the book.

It comes right away. It sets the stage. It does some kind of honor to the experience. It invites the person to sing with, to join the voices.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  I realize that love was behind it all, beneath it all, and so forth. It was when a friend of mine told me that he had sent a copy to all of his children. I thought, “Now that’s strange. It’s really strange.”

Then he said, “Yeah. You know, Nick, it’s a love song.” It is, but it never quite occurred to me to think of it as a love song until he said, “You know, Nick, it’s a love song.” It’s what it is.

Evan:  That’s right. Would you mind reading the speech?

Dr. Wolterstorff:  OK.

Evan:  It’s just page 89 and really the question embedded there is, what is this connection between suffering and love? What does the fact of suffering and what does the fact of an expression of grief, what does it say about the meaning of our love?

Dr. Wolterstorff:  “What is suffering? When something prized or loved is ripped away or never granted, work, someone loved, recognition of one’s dignity, life without physical pain. That is suffering or rather that’s when suffering happens. What it is, I do not know. For many days, I had been reflecting on it.

“Then suddenly as I watched the flicker of orange‑pink evening light on almost still water, the thought overwhelmed me. I understand nothing of it. Of pain, yes, cut fingers, broken bones, of sorrow and suffering, nothing at all.

“Suffering is a mystery, as deep as any in our existence. It is not, of course, a mystery whose reality some doubt. Suffering keeps its face hidden from each while making itself known to all. We are one in suffering.

“Some are wealthy, some bright, some athletic, some admired, but we all suffer for we all prize in love and in this present existence of ours prizing and loving yields suffering. Love in our world is suffering love. Some do not suffer much though for they do not love much. Suffering is for the loving.

“If I hadn’t loved him, there wouldn’t be this agony. ‘This,’ said Jesus, ‘is the command of the Holy One. You should love your neighbor as yourself.’ In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.”

Evan:  The one who loves much suffers much.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Yes.

Evan:  Have you learned anything about love because of this experience?

Dr. Wolterstorff:  I’ve learned that the one who loves much suffers much, of course. As I say in the book I think, “Until he died, until he was killed, until he fell, I didn’t realize how much I loved him.” I think that’s true in general. We don’t realize how much we love someone until they die, have a heart attack, become ill, suffer dementia, or whatever.

Evan:  I’ve got a recent experience of this, and it came in the form of a childhood friend. I fell out of touch with him after high school, but really we spent about 10 years’ week‑to‑week close friends. We were surfing buddies.

We made mischief together as children. I really hadn’t talked to him for now going on 15 years. He recently passed after a long struggle with addiction. His passing has unearthed quite a bit.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  How much affection you had for him.

Evan:  Yes. Of course, it’s tied in with I lament not only his passing, but I lament falling out of touch and the loss of that time. Our paths took very different turns, but it’s just this evidence of…I think you speak in terms of absence and presence. In the absence of a person, actually their presence is very deeply felt.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Exactly. As you’re suggesting, it’s typical in that regrets well up. That part of the grief is the welling up of regrets, “Why didn’t I do this?” As you say, “Why didn’t I keep in touch with him?”

In Eric’s case he was always adventuresome, always took risks. I’d warn him. He loved mountain climbing and I never said to him, “Eric, you shouldn’t do that. Just be careful.”

I’ve talked to mountain climbing people. They don’t think he was careless. It was a slip of the foot. It was spring. Snow was beginning to melt, so it was unstable. Should he not have climbed? Well, the mountain climbing people say, “Well, it’s not so clear.” I don’t feel angry about it.

Regret, of course, and grief, but I don’t say to myself, “Boy, I’m angry that he did it.” I did find that afterwards I, for a while, for a couple of months became extremely protective of our other children. Daughter Amy’s riding to work with her bike and I think, “Oh Amy, I’ll drive you. Don’t take your bike, I’ll drive you to work.” As if, “Please stay in bed all of you.”

[laughter]

Evan:  Stay in the house.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Stay in the house.

Evan:  We’ll take care of you. This is that risk in some ways. It’s a different expression of the risk, but there’s just a major loss of control that this represents.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Exactly.

Evan:  We celebrate our illusion of control.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  We’re not in control.

[music]

Evan:  There’s this quandary as we observe those who encounter suffering. Some people grow from it, and they’re caused actually to flourish. They become the benefactors in a situation. They’re made stronger. Their post‑traumatic growth can be a rich experience for a person and we see the opposite.

We see that suffering can undo a person. It can tear them to pieces, psychologically, physically. Once we begin to tease these things out, the question why rears its ugly head. We also have this very deep puzzle about the human response to suffering. In some of this, page 96 and 97 here, you say about as much.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  “Suffering may do us good, may be a blessing, something to be thankful for. This, I have learned. Ordinarily, we think of the powerful and wealthy as blessed. They enjoy what we call the good things of life. But maybe the little ones, the downtrodden people and assaulted persons are blessed as well.

“I do not mean that they will be compensated for their sufferings. I mean that, perhaps, the treading down is itself a blessing or can become a blessing. Rich as any come into those we call the lucky ones. Suffering is a shout of ‘No’ by one’s whole existence to that over which one suffers.

“The shout of ‘No’ by nerves, and gut, and glammed, and heart to pain, to death, to injustice, to depression, to hunger, to humiliation, to bondage, to abandonment. And sometimes, not always sometimes when the cry is intense, there emerges a radiance which elsewhere seldom appears a glow of courage, of love, of insight, of selflessness, of faith.

“In that radiance, we see best what humanity was meant to be. That the radiance which emerges from acquaintance with grief is a blessing to others is familiar though perplexing. How can we treasure the radiance while struggling against what brought it about?

“How can we thank God for sufferings yield while asking for its removal? But what I have learned is something stranger still. Suffering may be among the sufferer’s blessings. I think of a former colleague who upon recovering from a heart attack remarked that he would not have missed it for the life of him.

“In the valley of suffering, despair and bitterness are brewed, but there also character is made. The valley of suffering is the veil of soul‑making, but now things slip and slide around. How do I tell my blessings? For what do I give thanks and for what do I lament?

“Am I sometimes to sorrow over my delight and sometimes to delight over my sorrow? And how do I sustain my ‘No’ to my son’s early death while accepting with gratitude the opportunity offered of becoming what otherwise I could never be? How do I receive my suffering as blessing while repulsing the obscene thought that God jiggled the mountain to make me better?”

[music]

Evan:  I take it that there aren’t good answers to these questions.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  I don’t know. At least, I’ve not found them.

Evan:  What do you make of this fact that there are no good answers or they’re hard to find?

Dr. Wolterstorff:  What I’ve learned is that you have to live the questions. I suppose tacitly assume that my faith, Christianity, consists of answers to questions. It does, but what I learned here is that part of it is learning to live the right questions and learning to live the unanswered questions.

That can be precarious, but that’s my experience. Those questions that I ask there I don’t have answers to them.

Evan:  Those are at the bottom, really. When you dig, and dig, and dig.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Exactly. Down there are those questions.

Evan:  Those questions are the ones that you have to live with.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  How can I acknowledge that this book many people tell me has been a blessing to them? That I would never have written it, obviously never could have written it if Eric had not died.

How can I acknowledge that and still say, “It was terrible. It was horrible. Children should not die young. They should flourish until full of years?” How can I say both those things, feel both those things? I don’t know. I do.

Evan:  That’s just a very brutal fact. Poetry, you use poetry.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  No, I can’t actually write poetry.

Evan:  I think there is a poetic nature to some of your expressions, but you also just quote it. You quote the Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.

That was my first encounter of the Four Quartets was in Lament for a Son.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Oh I see.

Evan:  You were introducing me to…

Dr. Wolterstorff:  To T.S. Eliot.

Evan:  …to T.S. Eliot. I think I knew him for Cats.

[laughter]

Evan:  That’s one of the T.S. Eliot’s, but on the last page of the proper portion of the book, the end of the book after which you add an appendix of this beautiful requiem to your son. On the last page, you quote T.S. Eliot. I’ll have you read one more time. It’s a short passage from Four Quartets.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  “We must be still and still moving into another intensity for a further reunion. A deeper communion through the dark cold and the empty desolation, the wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.” That last line, “In my end is my beginning” is on Eric’s tombstone.

Evan:  Is it? This comes from a much longer piece of Eliot. Where did you find comfort? You describe frustration with reading books about grief.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  I couldn’t stand them.

Evan:  You’re quoting a letter of consolation from now and you’re quoting confessions at times, you’re quoting some poetry. Where was the comfort there, or where was the helpfulness?

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Instead of the ones I quote, instead of there being about grief, they’re expressions of grief. When I came across an expression of grief, not a clumsy one, there I felt comradeship. I felt fellowship. I felt a kindred soul.

Evan:  I felt that I had been handed a tool, your book and the elements that you’ve introduced. I’ve read that Eliot quote now at a funeral. I now see it as a tool. I mean a tool in the best sense, the kind of tools that you’d receive from your grandfather.

Old woodworking tools that represent great effort, that represent something deep about the human experience and invite the user to be part of something. This has been, I think, the redemptive aspects of the book.

If lament just is a giving voice to grief and to our suffering, our personal suffering, and we must encounter it at some point, then so much the better to have well‑worn tools.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  [laughs] That’s a good way of putting it. A good way of putting it.

Evan:  This is one of the many ways [laughs] I’ve appreciated the work.

Man:  Here and there does not matter. We must be still and still moving into another intensity for a further union, a deeper communion. Through the dark, cold, and empty desolation, the wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Evan:  What about this passage from Four Quartets made you note it as one of these tools, one of these things to give expression?

Dr. Wolterstorff:  I don’t remember. I must have known it. I think it was something after Eric’s death that led me to read the Four Quartets again. I’d read them before, but I had some vague memory of what was going on in them and discovered a kindred soul there. It was a vague memory of what I’d seen in them before.

Now, of course, when I’d read it after Eric’s death, there were lines that jumped out that previously I would probably have read and read past, read over. That’s what grief does. It reorganizes your world. It reorganizes how you read scripture, how you read poetry.

Evan:  It reorganizes your experience in many ways.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  It reorganizes your experience. It changes what you notice and what you don’t notice, what’s important and what’s not important. It’s a profound reordering of experience and perception.

Evan:  I think your willingness to publish this is a great act of courage, and I want to say thank you again.

Dr. Wolterstorff:  Thank you.

Evan:  I want to continue to share this, and I will continue to turn to it when suffering inevitably comes. Thank you, Nick.

[background music]

Evan:  The Table Audio is hosted by me, Evan Rosa, and it’s produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation. Theme music is by The Brilliance.

Production and engineering by The Narrativo Group, more at narrativogroup.com. Edited and mixed by TJ Hester. To subscribe to The Table Audio, check us out on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, Google Play, wherever you listen to podcasts.

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On Twitter, you can follow me @evan_rosa and you can follow The Center for Christian Thought @biolacct or visit our website, cct.biola.edu.

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