Jeremiah offers lesson in facing disaster


Rembrandt, Jeremiah Lamenting, 1630

Jeremiah is one of the prophets of the Old Testament. He had a terrible time. He was a decent fellow, but Jerusalem, the city that most mattered to him, was destroyed by the Babylonians (as he’d predicted) and they destroyed the temple, kidnapped the king, killed the children, and smashed up all the houses.

He was imagined by Rembrandt in a painting in 1630. The painter presents him just after he has heard the appalling news. He is trying to understand the way the world works, why bad things happen to good people, but he knows there might not always be a proper answer. We are playthings of mysterious forces that exceed us. We must somehow stomach necessity, but how? Why do appalling things happen? Who is to blame? We cast around for explanations. We could so readily turn our misery into hatred or a furious longing for vengeance; we might get lost in a spiral of regret – if only this hadn’t happened, if only things had been different, if only I had acted differently, if only others had been more aware of the looming dangers. We could descend to the depths of depression or kill ourselves – that would, in many ways, be the most natural thing to do.

Jeremiah is the saint of not going wild with anger – when it would be so understandable, but not helpful, to do so. We should keep him in our minds, and Rembrandt helps us to do that – when faced with our own more modest, but to us very real and painful, woes. All the more so, when the disasters are large and deeply frightening. He could have painted this in America at the end of 2001.

The lesson matters because we know how readily we can become bitter or brutal; how quickly we get enraged when awful things happen. The picture does not try to lull us with false comforts; it does not pretend that nothing bad has happened. It leads us to the proper idea of mourning and lamentation. The picture dignifies sorrow. It reminds us that – inevitably – grim events will cut into our lives. But it provides us with a good model in the most trying of times: when we need all the help we can get to focus on acceptance, rather than giving way to rage and despair.