“Emotional labor” is a term for the work we do when we disguise our feelings. If we’re sad, we may pretend to be cheerful; if we’re angry or irritated, we may affect a calm, untroubled façade; if we’re tired, we may put on a perky face. We’re all socialized to do this when circumstances call for it, or seem to call for it. Some professions require a great deal of emotional labor—ordination usually entails a great deal of emotional labor to meet peoples’ high expectations of clergy.There’s not much emotional labor in the Psalms, though. Psalm 150, which we sang earlier, is unalloyed praise: a great shout of joy to top off the whole Psalter. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord, hallelujah! But the Psalms cover an enormous emotional range from deep despair to raging anger to calm assurance to plaintive supplication. Even outright curses and maledictions.
But the Psalter is called in Hebrew “praises”—tehillim. It’s all praises—even when it’s not. Even Psalm 88, the darkest, complaining-est, finger-pointing-est psalm of all is still one of the “praises” of ancient Israel. There is not one word of praise, in the usual sense, in Psalm 88—it’s a polar opposite of Psalm 150.
Is the Hebrew title for the Psalms tongue-in-cheek? Sarcastic or ironic? Perhaps. Or, it could be that honest, emotionally transparent prayer honors God—putting aside emotional labor and telling God exactly how we feel is a kind of high praise. We honor a dear friend by sharing our sorrows as well as joys, our anger as well as our good cheer.
Emotional labor, whether required by etiquette, kindness or (how shall we put it…?) strategic planning, is probably something we human beings are stuck with until the kingdom comes. Although we’d probably all be better off without having so much of it.
But when we pray, we can go to our rooms and close the doors and be totally naked. This is high praise for the One who shares our solitude.
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