For months fans of This is Us have been anxiously – and perhaps dreadingly – awaiting THE episode. THE episode where we finally find out how Jack dies.
Fellow fans, you know exactly what I mean.
We’ve known it’s coming. We’ve known it would rip our hearts out. We’ve known we would have to actually face the fact that he died. We’ve know it would put us all-too-close to raw pain we aren’t sure we can handle.
When the Super Bowl ended last night, I had mixed feelings. I was ready to just get it over with. Get ‘er done, folks. I was also dreading it, because I knew it would be painful (and because fire is already my worst fear. Thanks a lot for adding fuel to that flame. Pun intended.).
The timer one the screen read 14 minutes, then 7. I nervously played on my phone and settled into the couch. Then the awkward smile hit. The one that uncontrollably comes over my face when I think or talk about tragic things. So, as I walked back in the room after doing my business, grinning ear to ear, wondering why on earth I wasn’t just heading to bed for a good night’s sleep.
Why We Watch This is Us
Now, it begs the question, why on earth do we put ourselves through this? Why would we want to spend our relaxing evening watching something that will wreck our emotions? Why, when we are surrounded by brokenness in our real lives every day, do we want to watch brokenness unfold in the lives of fictional characters on TV?
I think it’s quite simple, actually. Simple, yet deeply revealing.
Every human being recognizes that tragedy is all around us, and that we ourselves are not immune to it. If tragedy hasn’t hit you yet, just wait – it’s coming.
We long to understand tragedy. We seek answers to the questions we cannot find words to ask. And we need to believe there is hope.
Watching tragedy unfold before us in the lives of fictional characters on a screen or in a book meets that longing in a small way, helps us grapple with those questions, and convinces us there is hope.
That’s why a show like This is Us is so popular. That’s why books like Redeeming Love or All the Light We Cannot See are bestsellers. That’s why I write the kind of fiction I write – the kind that deals with the deep, complex, hard stuff of life wrapped in a message of authentic hope.
Do we want the lighthearted, fairy-tale fluff that lets us escape reality? Absolutely. There are plenty of award-winning TV shows, movies, and books to prove that. But we still long for more.
Four Things This is Us Does for Our Souls
This is Us has done a phenomenal job of doing what any fictitious portrayal of real life, whether on screen, on stage, or on page, should do:
- It gives a voice to our grief and pain, even years after others have forgotten. We feel the characters’ pain acutely – pain that still exists in raw form two decades after the tragedy. All too often, when the funeral is over or the mess is cleaned up, the tragedy is forgotten, by everyone but those who survived it. It’s important for our healing to remember that it’s ok we’re still grieving. It’s ok we still feel pain. It’s ok that we’ll never be the same again, even years after tragedies have hit us. Healing is possible, but the pain never truly goes away, and that’s ok.
- It allows us to acknowledge the ways that experiences and people shape us for better or for worse. We see what the characters themselves do not entirely see – the way the death of Jack and the circumstances surrounding his death shape them. We watch snapshots of their childhood, their adolescence, their adulthood, and we trace the threads through their lives to understand their struggles and why they are who they are. We are fascinated by this, because we know that our experiences and the people in our lives have shaped us for better or for worse. Somehow I think it helps us heal to acknowledge that.
- It helps us wrestle through the questions we don’t want to ask of our own experiences. As each character walks through Super Bowl Sunday in their own way, we see each of them wrestling with their deepest questions. Kate asks, “Is it my fault?” Rebecca asks, “Was I strong enough for my children?” Kevin asks, “Why didn’t I reconcile with him?”, and Randall asks, “What would he have wanted?” We know that all of them are asking, “Why? Why him? Why then?” That’s the question we’re asking. That’s the question that haunts us about our experiences, the experiences of those we love, or simply the experiences of humanity in this world.
- It paints a picture of hope to show us that survival after tragedy is possible – and maybe even happiness, too. Each character carries scars left by the tragedy, some more visible than others. The journey to healing is a long one, and it’s never complete this side of heaven. But the writers of This is Us have intentionally woven strands of hope into the storyline. We’d never keep watching it if they didn’t. We see Kate finding love in Toby, a man who fights for her in the same way Jack always did. We see Rebecca finding happiness again in her marriage to Miguel, a”quieter and older” love than what she had with Jack, but she’s happy. We see that Randall has found a sense of peace in being for his girls the kind of father his dad was for him. Kevin…well, Kevin’s struggling perhaps more than any of them. But he’s alive, and he’s fighting, and he’s working through it, finally. As we watch, we think to ourselves, “They survived this. I can survive ____ too.”
The lighthearted fairy-tale stuff that helps us escape from reality won’t ever bring any real comfort, because deep down we know we can’t escape reality. Reality follows us wherever we go, and where there’s reality, there’s tragedy. In the midst of tragedy, we need the freedom to feel, to reflect, to wrestle. Most of all, we need hope.
I believe there is hope in the midst of every tragedy – hope wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ. Rather than me explain what that means, I’m going to let my friend Dave Furman explain it as he does so well in his post on Crosswalk, excerpted from his new book, Kiss the Wave: Embracing God in Your Trials.
I’ll conclude with this, my favorite go-to passage when dealing with the sticky things in life:
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
– Lamentations 3:19-26
Friends, I don’t know what tragedies are at your doorstep today or tomorrow. I don’t know what tragedies lie behind you. I don’t know what bitterness and gall await you or eat at you. But I do know, there is always hope.
Photo credit: Britney Lyn Hamm, Taken in Blue Springs, MO on February 3, 2018