I’m sitting with one hundred University Singers, my choral group at UVa, in the gigantic John Paul Jones Arena, energized and jittery with excitement: we are about to sing for Kevin Spacey—Frank Underwood on House of Cards, Broadway & film actor and attractive on a silver fox level. Residual giggling can still be heard, since Mr. Spacey just came over to wish us good luck on our performance and ask about our sound check. When our director introduced him as “Mr. Spacey,” he smiled and said, “But you can call me Frank.” It’s a surreal moment, once in a lifetime, and the excitement only builds as more and more people arrive for the event.
A few minutes before we go onstage, a friend behind me rubs my shoulder. When I turn to her, she takes a breath and says, “They found Hannah’s body.”
Hannah. Hannah Graham. The girl who went missing over a month ago right near my house, a dear friend of many of my friends, the girl who’s case has made national headlines and dominated our conversations. The case that has left me asking more questions of God than I ever have, that has made me feel unsafe in my own home, at my school, on the streets of Charlottesville. And now, the search is finally over. They’ve found her body.
And suddenly, I’m ensnared and frozen in the space between joy and despair that I’ve been struggling to understand for the past few months. I’m caught, grappling with the excitement and the pain, and unsure how to reconcile these two feelings within me, these two tectonic plates creating burning, scraping friction in my stomach. Here I am, standing, teary-eyed, to go sing for an Academy Award-winning and incredibly talented actor, and I’m crying for Hannah’s parents, her friends, us as a university community. Which moment do I choose- the grief or the joy?
To me, this moment magnifies what I live with every day – joy and sorrow brought together. It could be on a smaller scale–the troubles of a friend coupled with a good grade on a test—but either way, the tension is a reality of life that we have to live and struggle with. When do we choose to celebrate, when do we choose to mourn?
It feels forced to constantly choose celebration. In the recent movie Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, young Alexander tells Steve Carell’s character, the highly optimistic Dad, that it’s okay to have bad days. Otherwise, how would we recognize and appreciate the good ones? It’s oft repeated, but there is truth to it. Hard things help us recognize what is beautiful and true in life, and shouldn’t be glossed over or ignored. Yet neither is it helpful to continually choose pessimism and despair; to throw my hands up and say, “Evil is everywhere. Humanity is evil and depraved. Where is the good in the world? How can there be a God?” If we do not believe that humanity is capable of both good and evil, but that we are all image-bearers of our Creator, we doom our own actions before we begin them. So how do I respond in this awful moment?
Well, as it so often does, the answer came in the music. As we shuffled on stage, some of us with tears in our eyes, a friend murmured: “We’ll sing this for her, then.” And coming to the last part of our medley of “Do You Hear the People Sing,” we sang these words:
Do you hear the people sing? Lost in the valley of the night / It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light / For the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies / Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord / They will walk behind the plough share, they will put away the sword / The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? / Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see? / Do you hear the people sing? Say do you hear the distant drums? / It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes.”
I am choosing to live in hope. I am choosing to join with others in our crusade-because there is a world beyond the barricade that is coming, that I am working towards and that began assimilating and falling into place when Jesus came to Earth over 2,000 years ago. By my actions, by adding and recovering and restoring truth and beauty to this world, I am allowed to partner with Him in this work of restoration. And so I have to choose hope. I am choosing to actively hope- to work and live in the hope of the restoration, and to work towards that goal. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t mean I am brushing off the grief and the pain. It means I am mourning; I am crying for a world that I do not believe we were made for, and I am choosing to take that pain and use it as a motivation for recovery and restoration.
It is coming; I can hear the distant drums.
Abby Deatherage is a 3rd year student studying at the University of Virginia.