There’s something about sorrow, pain, and suffering that make an individual and his thoughts more poignant, mature, and full of meaning. No one likes to suffer. Yet there is something beautiful, almost hopeful that comes out of loss and difficult times.
I thought about this while reflecting on the words of the Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which seems to come alive in this dark time in which we live. Combined with its minor key tune, its words signal that it was written by someone who knew suffering and loss but had learned to have hope even in the storms of life.
But how do we find that hope? Is it found simply by slapping on a smile and telling ourselves everything will be alright? Hardly. A look at the hymn gives us insight into our own time and how we can weather our difficulties by grasping the hope it offers.
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Although many of us aren’t experiencing captivity right now, the lockdowns of 2020 taught us a little bit what it was like to be in lonely exile away from friends and loved ones. And tyranny? Those same lockdowns and the diktats that followed them have given us a taste of what it’s like to live under tyrants. Yet as the next verses tell us, we can put this misery and gloom behind us by looking to God and the salvation He promises:
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Americans certainly have experienced a lot of gloom and misery lately. Anxiety and depression have increased between 25 percent and 30 percent worldwide during the pandemic, an October 2021 study published in The Lancet found. The younger age ranges especially experienced higher rates of depression and anxiety, with the 20-24 age range seeing the highest increases. Commenting on that study in Psychology Today, Dr. Lantie Jorandby raised several possible reasons for the increase in younger people, particularly the fact that job losses and school disruptions due to COVID have been more prevalent among the young, and the social isolation caused by the pandemic affected the young more.
Image Credit: The Lancet
But Jorandby may have overlooked another key reason, a reason which O Come, O Come Emmanuel speaks to: a lack of God in their lives.
So many in our society are quick to forget God. Even before the pandemic the decline of religious affiliation was accelerating and belief in God was declining. This is particularly the case with younger adults, as 31 percent of millennials and 33 percent of Generation Z report no religious affiliation in a 2021 Gallup poll. Granted, the pandemic was difficult enough to raise anyone’s stress levels. Yet what if the lack of God in their lives left people—young ones especially—with no hope, no way of dealing with despair? As this hymn teaches, it is through God and His plan of redemption that we can cast off despair and live in hope.
That same message is one touched on by Anthony Esolen in the November issue of Chronicles Magazine. There is a difference between hope and optimism, Esolen writes. The optimist fixates on external circumstances and convinces himself that tomorrow will be bright. But unlike the optimist, “the man of hope does not pretend to force the future, or to know what it will bring.” This is not to say that the man of hope does not have difficulties. But it is in that hope that he finds peace:
He does not presume to know ‘the right side of history’…. Yet he gives himself to the adventure of life, an adventure that may bring him much suffering. Will he see the end of that suffering? He does not know, but he trusts in the Divine, and he carries on. In his very suffering he is more cheerful and more at peace than is the pleasure seeker in his jittery bursts of optimism.
We will all undoubtedly face suffering in the days and years ahead, for suffering is part of life—even a life that is not besieged by a pandemic and the fallout which that brings. But how we deal with that suffering is what makes the difference between a life of hope and life of despair. For those who want to live the former, meditating upon and incorporating the meaning of the Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” will go a long way toward accomplishing such a desire, dispelling gloom and despair in the process.