As I was reading 1 Samuel 1 this morning, I was struck by the sheer idiocy of the people around Hannah who didn’t know how to support her in her grief over not having a child. The bible is actually full of such examples… Yet despite this, I wonder if we’ve learned anything at all when it comes to witnessing other people’s grief.
In the text, we discover that Hannah is one of Elkanah’s two wives. His wife, “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children” (1:2). We learn that Elkanah loves Hannah dearly, despite her not being able to conceive. “On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb” (1:5).
Elkanah knows enough to treat his wife tenderly and with compassion. Yet he doesn’t fully understand her plight. He asks, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” His statement is a beautiful reminder that she is not completely barren, having his love indeed. Yet for a woman living in that particularly time period, having children was the primary function of her gender. Failure in this area was devastating to one’s identity and Peninnah, knowing this, drives the knife in, instead of offering solace to Hannah. “Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb” (1:6). Let’s hear it for girl power! Way to kick a woman when she’s down.
Hannah is clearly in pain. “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly” (1:10). But she also makes a vow to the Lord that if he will give her a child, she will present him as a servant of the temple when he is but a babe.
Now here is the real kicker. When Hannah goes to the temple to make her request before the Lord she is witnessed by the priest Eli who accuses her of being drunk because he sees her lips moving in prayer yet hears no words. He says, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine” (1:14). Now even if Hannah had been drunk, I’m not certain that is the ideal way for a priest to respond but she answers, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time” (1:15-16).
Thankfully, Eli comes around and blesses her but how typical this scenario is. How often do we cite someone who is labile as hysterical, crazy or self-indulgent? And in the church world, how common is it for folks to say that someone who is anxious or depressed doesn’t have enough faith in God? How many times have we heard something like, “Don’t worry. It will all be okay.” Sometimes it’s not okay.
Grief is messy and ugly and forces us to look at our pain. So if someone else is grieving, sometimes it’s easier to look the other way. In the powerful film, “The Bridge,” Kevin Hines, who survived a suicide attempt jumping off of the Golden Gate bridge recounts that he spent an hour walking along the bridge crying. Not one person asked him if he was okay. In fact, some European tourists asked if he could take their photo. People, hello!!!!!!!! A dude is standing on a bridge notorious as a suicide site and you aren’t curious or alarmed as to why he is crying?
So, yes, blessed are those who mourn for we all mourn at various times in our lives. “We get to carry each other. Carry each other…”