“They have greatly oppressed me from my youth—
Israel say—they have greatly oppressed me from my
but they have not gained the victory over me.” Psalm 129:1
An all-too-common story in the life of imaginative writers is a rotten childhood. Perhaps they were too contemplative, too monk-like. Maybe they were marginalized for being puny, bookish. Their parents may have been overbearing, violent, too often absent from their lives, addicted to drink or drugs. They lacked friends. Possibilities are endless.
In an effort to compensate, such kids fantasize, create secret gardens, life in a boxcar, alternative worlds, dungeons and dragons. In the absence of joy, they create their own interiors, a refuge from oppression.
What they can’t attain in day-to-day life, they make up for in imagination, and propensity for story grows abundantly. Show me a kid who doesn’t go to the prom, and I’ll show you a budding artist. That’s the trajectory of the theory.
Many towering figures in 19th century American literature lacked fathers.
Hawthorne’s died when he
was a kid. Poe was a foster child. A ton of writers were dissolute
drinkers. In my first year of teaching,
a student asked me whether you had to be an alcoholic to be a writer.
But why stop with writers? The oppressed artist is a cliché—consider VanGogh with his mangled ear and awful love life. Even when he was rich and famous, Picasso, biographers claim, was impossible to life with.
An artists’ graveyard is littered with wreckage.
The “they” which begins Psalm 129 is hugely vague because there is no clear antecedent. Who were the they, anyway? The history of revelation itself would argue, I’m sure, that the oppressors the psalmist is referring to are those heathen nations surrounding the people of Israel, starting, I suppose, with the Pharoah’s Egypt—those enemies that sought, as some still do, to destroy the Jews.
The psalmist is a cheerleader, and this opening verse of the triumphant psalm a rallying cry: “let Israel say,. . .they have not gained the victory over me.” Those oppressors, ever present, even from my youth, the poet says, have not won the victory, so there. Triumphant affirmation, a tribute to a steadfast believer’s soulful strength.
I grew up in a country where tolerance of one’s faith is a foundation for civility and civics. Unlike millions, even today, I’ve never felt even a pinch of oppression.
The family in which I was reared was intact and loving. I went to the prom, with a date. My athletic jacket was thickly hung with medals, and I was chosen by my classmates to give a speech at high school graduation. I never sought refuge in alternative worlds and felt no hot breath from heathen nations. As a kid, I swear I was not oppressed. Maybe I have no business typing these words.
But my cushy childhood does not inhibit my joy at the fist-raised affirmation that begins Psalm 129. “They have not gained the victory over me.” Whoever they is or might be, whatever sin or doubt has found its way into my own sense of reality, such darkness has not settled over my life—yet. I’ve had it good.
But what happens if the tables turn—as they always do? What happens if, now in my dotage, darkness begins to muster oppression?
If it does, I must remember to read the rallying cry of Psalm 129 again: “let Israel say—they have greatly oppressed me from my youth but they have not gained the victory over me.” I must.