In the movie Good Morning Vietnam, the dull and witless Lt. Steven Hauk is replaced as deejay by the irrepressible Robin Williams, playing Adrian Cronauer. When the commanding officer informs Lt Hauk that he’d no longer be working behind the mic, Lt. Hauk responds, “Sir, in my heart I know I’m funny.” I think I’m funny, but maybe that only comes out when you’re with me. Kim wants me to lighten up and write about something funny. Well, when I told her the following, I was smiling. Does that count?
The other day I was sitting at my desk at work, listening to a playlist of music from Jason Isbell, one of my favorite singer-songwriters. The song “Elephant” came on. In his own words, it’s “the saddest song ever.” It’s about a friend of his who is dying of cancer, and they try to live and enjoy a normal life together while trying to “ignore the elephant in the room.” The song is sad. And I skipped it.
I looked it up online, and it appears that the expression “elephant in the room” has been around since the early 1800s to refer to an obvious problem that no one wants to discuss. I’ve certainly had experience with this feeling, being somewhat familiar with the subject of Isbell’s song. But, while I get the point of the “metaphorical idiom” being employed, I don’t quite know what to do with an elephant. It probably is best to ignore it. I know that mouse-sized talk won’t scare it away. But I think a more accurate metaphor, and one I can better exploit, is to refer to the unheeded object as a coffin. A casket. After all, if you’re talking to someone howdah’d (look it up) with a deadly disease, the Spectre of Death is really the obvious thing that is often ignored. And to the idea of a “coffin in the room,” I say Amen. There are many things I’d like to put to death right now in order to cultivate inside of me that which is imperishable. And imagining myself placing my brokenness into a coffin provides some strange relief. It’s liberating. And it’s something we all can experience. Together.
Being a friend, a brother, a husband, a father, a member of a church body, there are certainly plenty of opportunities to hear about the difficulties that others are experiencing. And I want nothing more than to listen and offer any help that I might be able to provide, but often, again because of the darn cancer elephant, err coffin, I hear something along the lines of, “but this is nothing compared to what you’re going through.” I dismiss this, of course, because I consider the difficulties that everyone experiences important. At awkward moments like these, it would be freeing to say, “yes, there’s my coffin, it’s right there. It’s a beautiful, sturdy box of polished wood and is lined inside with fine upholstery. Someday they will lay my body in it, but it will never hold my soul. And what’s more, the casket is open, you can look inside, there lies all the fear that too often grips me, but there also is my unbelief, my mistakes of the past, my shame and guilt. There it all is. I have to bear the burden of this brokenness until they put my body in that coffin and lower it into the dirt.” And it’s then that someone who loves me responds, “I’ll help you carry it.” This has been my life, exposed but oh so well loved and supported.
You see, to be open, to be vulnerable, to let others know you, is to not only receive help but it is also to encourage others to do the same. Once we’ve acknowledged my coffin, we can shut the lid, and then we can talk about your problems, your mess, your brokenness. And hopefully we can put that stuff in a coffin of your own. I know it isn’t easy. I know my fear and unbelief won’t stay dead, and your struggles won’t either. So we help each other put to death our sin and brokenness and we help each other bear the pain and scars they create. The coffins are real. And they’re heavy. But we carry them until death. Yes, we’re pallbearers.
The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4, says, ” 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”
“…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus…” Like I said, heavy.
But in verse 7 Paul also gives us one of the most well-known expressions from the New Testament, the notion that our bodies are jars of clay. Earthen vessels for the gift of Christ living within us. That’s what should be acknowledged but what is really often ignored.
So picture now these broken things, including our bodies, filling a casket. And we know its destination: the ground. Gone. Forever. The stout wooden vessel and the earthen jar, our bones and all, return to dust. But our souls, the imperishable part of us united to God in Christ and preserved in life in jars of clay, carry on, someday to return to re-form our bodies from the dust, leaving behind the broken particles, to resurrect our glorified selves.
And here is where life is beautiful. There is an imperishable light within us that we live for now, and we can actively separate ourselves from the death we bear. We can push brokenness away, into a coffin as it were, and live the most fulfilling of lives apart from it, even while our hands grasp the casket’s rails. Around us are those helping to carry it, and perhaps so lightened, we are able to reach out to help others who are weary.
And then there is the time when we can lay the caskets down. We can’t bury them yet, but we can rest together. There is sweet ease in knowing one another deeply and simply enjoying sincere company. I think this is what we all desire during family dinners, on date nights, boys’ and girls’ road trips, reunions, and Sundays. The moments when we set aside the caskets in fellowship. Not ignoring them but experiencing new life without them.
People and coffins together. Can you picture such strange scenes as these? Would they be somber like a funeral? I suspect laughter would break out with the release of tension in finding that we are so connected, just as Adrian Cronauer discovered as he was leaving Vietnam. Bottled-up and frustrated, he was coaxed for one last yawp of “Good Morning Vietnam!” which turned out to be the release he needed, off-air and personal to a caravan of men facing death. Yes, laughter is often the best and most appropriate medicine for difficult circumstances. Joy made possible by acknowledging the coffin in the room.
Link: “Sir, in my heart I know I’m funny.” YouTube
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Brent, reading this story made me recall the many opportunities I had with my patients, to be honest, to be there for them and finally to be able to offer them comfort in their time of need. Not only was that my gift to them but in truth my gift was minuscule compared to the many gifts I received from them. Strength, courage, compassion, are just a few that enabled me to come back day after day,to care, to be joyful, funny, hopeful and finally to be a participant along their journey. Thank you for reminding me about the many gifts, cancer, coffin or elephant have given me over my 46 years of Nursing.