Sylvia Plath struggled to stave off the darkness. She was clinically depressed, treated multiple times with electrical convulsion therapy. When her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes dissolved, because of Hughes infidelity and him leaving her for his mistress, Plath succumbed to suicide by gas oven in her London flat. Her children were asleep upstairs. Six years later, Hughes mistress, Assia Wevill committed suicide the same way Plath did.
I’ve been reflecting on hope and the promise of Advent, how the Christian story tells us that the telos which we are moving toward, is one where all suffering ceases, wars end and all our mourning turns to joy. In the meantime, hope can be a hard thing to hold out for. The pain of broken relationships and biochemistry may make it nearly impossible. Sylvia Plath described the heartache she felt in losing Hughes in her poem Jilted:
My thoughts are crabbed and sallow,
My tears like vinegar,
Or the bitter blinking yellow
Of an acetic star.
Tonight the caustic wind, love,
Gossips late and soon,
And I wear the wry-faced pucker of
The sour lemon moon.
While like an early summer plum,
Puny, green, and tart,
Droops upon its wizened stem
My lean, unripened heart.
The bitter, the sour, the acetic, the puny green and tart, the drooping, wizened, lean and unripe.
I believe wholeheartedly in Christian hope, that the story of God’s redemption ends well. But let’s not abstract it. Hope can be a hard thing to hold on to. I don’t know the heartache of being jilted by my lover the way Plath did, nor do I have her struggles with depression. But I know heartache. I know what it is like to a lose a job, and how insignificant and incompetent it makes you feel. I know what it is like to be rejected by those I care about and felt called to love and serve. I know what it feels like to lose hope, and have my life turn sour.
Christian hope isn’t just for the nameless poor, the migrant, the refugee, or the war-torn in some far off distant land. We, ourselves, need it. When we lose hope, all the sweetness goes out of life. We despair. We give up. If we are to sustain life and joy, we need hope for tomorrow.
Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, fell to Babylon in 587 BCE. The city of Jerusalem was captured and destroyed. The temple was torn down. Many of the inhabitants died in the siege. Families were torn apart and many were carried into exile. If there was a time that God’s people lost all hope, that was it. God had abandoned them. Their nation was no more. They were under judgment for their rejection of their God.
For 70 years they were in exile. A lifetime. People were born and died in captivity. And yet, God was still at work and he hadn’t really abandoned his people. Jeremiah prophesied:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Jeremiah 31:27–29, NRSV)
At the end of 70 years, the sourness was gone, the exiles returned. The walls of Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt. They experienced what Martin Luther King used to say, “The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.” It wasn’t as it was, but their hope returned. Tough the fruit of experience was still sometimes bitter there was hope for tomorrow.
I feel sad for Sylvia Plath—depressed, rejected, despairing. Suicide is a disease that has claimed far too many lives, and I doubt if I was there I could have said any words that would restore Plath’s hopes for another day. I do know one day, maybe soon, maybe many lifetimes away that:
God will dwell with his peoples, and be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will cease. The sourness will go out of life. He will make all things new. (cf. Rev 21:4-5).