The season finale of This Is Us airs tonight, and I’ve already texted a few of my friends in anticipation. Will Kevin flourish or flounder as he, once again, is faced with a Sophie choice? Will Randall be able to step into a new life and identity, or will the old patterns of perfectionism and achievement be too difficult to disrupt? Will Rebecca fail to honor her family with this newfound freedom and momentary reprieve from the grind of motherhood? Will Kate gain intimacy with Toby as she loses the protection of the extra weight? And of course, the uncertainty that’s plaguing us all: will Jack somehow be responsible for his own death?
With all of these questions, I’m forced to ask, ‘Why do we care? Why do we watch? What is it about this show that draws us in, leaves us begging for more, and keeps us hooked, week after week?’
In a word: angst.
It wasn’t too long ago that I actually learned the true meaning of angst from worship leader Christy Nockels as she shared its definition on an episode of her podcast. “Angst, often confused with anxiety, is a transcendent emotion in that it combines the unbearable anguish of life with the hopes of overcoming this seemingly impossible situation. Without the important element of hope, the emotion is anxiety, not angst. Angst denotes the constant struggle one has with the burdens of life that weighs on the dispossessed and [the ambiguity of] not knowing when the salvation will appear.” Christy encourages young worship leaders to sing with angst. She believes that’s what people need, and actually want, when being ushered towards God. And for Christy, it’s not just an idea that she likes; it’s something that she’s lived.
It’s true, though. We crave angst. We want anguish and hope. We desire struggle and salvation. We hunger for validation and victory, conflict and resolution. We wait for sunsets to call upon the darkness in order to proclaim the light. We hold on to the promises of rainbows that form with sunshine and rain. We endure, and immediately forget, labor pains that birth indescribable joy. We don’t just want one or the other; we want both. How do we manage the battle if we don’t have assurance? On the contrary, what good is faith if we never know doubt or despair? We have to walk the tension; within the polarity is where the power lives.
As we watch the Pearson family, we find what we’re looking for. We witness grief lead to freedom, promiscuity morph into future clarity, and loss give birth to a deeper shade of life. We taste how fighting brings connection, confrontation garners insight, and death makes room for new beginnings. We see ourselves, and we feel seen.
I wonder if we rely on finding angst within a television show because we sometimes deprive each other of angst in real life. All too often we create cultures that only accept the positive. We champion upbeat vibes only and happy thoughts always. We don’t allow each other to express from or wrestle with the negative. While it might appear cleaner and prettier, it inevitably feels so annoyingly monochrome, a bit like an over-medicated wind-up toy. It is a detriment to our emotions and our relationships. It eliminates authenticity and invites unnecessary pressure.
I once heard that forcing ourselves and others into the positive is like being caught in a Chinese finger trap. The more we resist, the more painful it becomes and the more ensnared we remain. It’s the intentional movement towards the tension, towards the pain, that eventually brings the freedom.
I’m thankful to have a community that embraces the polarity. Over the past few weeks at church, I’ve been sitting in the back. As I look towards the stage, where the leaders stand to implore us all, I can see members of our church family who are living in the angst. They’ve lost a loved one and raise their hands to the One who has won. They’ve experienced infidelity and sing to He who is faithful. They’ve had their lives shaken by bad news and stand firm on the ultimate Good. It is so beautiful and worshipful, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for these souls who have the courage to ride the wave of angst. It’s the place where our pain has a purpose. It’s the place where humanity meets divinity. It’s the place where Christ resides.
In that spirit, join me tonight in peering in, one last time this season, on our beloved Pearsons. Watch them stumble and love and grieve and hope. And then go ahead and listen to “Already All I Need” by Christy Nockels and tell me you aren’t moved by angst.