This one was written by Aarik Danielsen.

“You gotta laugh to keep from crying.”

This is what passes for conventional emotional wisdom in 2017. And not without reason. Our moment feels, politically, psychically, and spiritually, like a stage play complete with buffoonish characters, bizarre stage directions and metaphors willing to do tasteful nudity. If we didn’t turn to the audience and wink at the absurdity of it all, we would never open the curtain.

And yet this logic is no logic at all. Love is patient and kind; it is not rude or self-seeking. Grief makes no such promises. It will not be mocked or laughed out of the room. Rather it is the party guest that seizes the opportunity to be inopportune, inserting itself into conversations, poking its head around potted plants, waiting for you in the coat room.

There is no order to grief. It does not respect your desire for a tidy sum.

Patton Oswalt has been doing messy emotional math in the year and a half since his wife, true crime writer Michelle McNamara, died unexpectedly. He shows his work in the recent Netflix special, Annihilation. 

For this hour at least, laughter does not drive out tears. The two don’t even take polite turns; rather they sound an antiphonal sort of meditation on death and dying to your expectation of how life goes on.

Were you to turn off Annihilation halfway through, you’d never encounter the shadow of Oswalt’s grief — and you might feel entirely satisfied with the time spent in the company of one of our brightest, strangest comic minds.

As you might expect, Oswalt skewers President Trump but is harder on the American electorate that chose him. He lays bare the willful folly of anyone who would fret over “white genocide” and shares what might be the greatest true fight story ever entered into the public record.

Oswalt then engages in a charming bit of crowd work, but lingers there longer than you might expect. It seems he is killing time, and even admits he dreads the transition into his next chunk of material.

The rest of the hour is spent honoring his late wife and gazing cockeyed at open wounds. The special’s most poignant passage finds Oswalt reflecting on having to share news of his wife’s death with their daughter. He clearly feels he is stealing the life from a girl who found everything good and true in her mother.

“You gotta laugh to keep from crying” isn’t found anywhere in the Bible. But Scripture does introduce a certain sequence into matters of life and death. Ashes are traded for beauty, “a faint spirit” exchanged for the clothes of praise and worship. Mourning is converted into dancing. A night spent weeping gives way to the joy of morning.

These promises are as sure as anything else in the holy book. Yet the Bible seems to make its claims in an eventual, ultimate sense. Beauty will overcome ashes, but it might take a while.

Joy comes with the morning but, just as in debates over the age of Earth, we’re not sure exactly how long one night or one morning actually lasts. Surely it’s not a literal dusk and dawn, not when you find yourself crying again at your desk before noon. The One whose death preceded eternal life promises that if we walk the same path — death first, then life forever — we’ll find “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

Neither Oswalt nor McNamara would agree with that. If God exists, Oswalt is angry with him. He recalls conversations with McNamara in which he argued for some sort of higher power or animating force. Her outlook on life was simpler yet still charged: “It’s chaos; be kind,” she would say.

Oswalt lands there too, a destination the Christian can’t abide. There’s much here, either political or puerile, that would cause some people of faith to cringe. But Christians need to sit up with Oswalt and endure this comedic wake. Especially when “church people” are still the people many mourners go to for comfort.

Oswalt eviscerates the platitudes we so often pass along. He saves his harshest criticisms and best punchlines for those trying everything they know to help. He can’t handle another well-intentioned soul wishing him strength on his healing journey. “Calling it a healing journey makes it harder, by the way,” he notes, adding he prefers to call the experience a “numb slog.”

Nor does Oswalt want to hear about God’s plan. If he has one, Oswalt reasons, it was too quickly and casually constructed.

Even those who would champion God’s sovereignty over life and death should, in a moment of painful quiet and honesty, admit they can’t possibly connect all the dots. What’s so wrong with acknowledging that we sit behind a veil of unknowing? That we can’t know the plan, not now and not in full?

We try to head grief off at the next pass or dictate its shape, but Oswalt reminds us this is a special sort of cruelty. Those who grieve don’t need our permission, and they won’t follow a blueprint even if they could. They have all the assent they need from a Redeemer who wept for his dead friend, even when he knew the plan was to breathe life back into his body.

Our Savior made a plan, from before time, to take away death’s sting. And still he tasted our pain to answer once and for all where his sympathies lie.

We place an expiration date on others’ grief or our own. We expect it to listen to reason and respect our timelines. But grief will continue to wedge its way between our moments of calm and clarity until the day that grief is gone for good.

By mingling joy with tears, by finding the humanity and even the deep belly-laughs in deepest pain, Oswalt goes a long way toward embodying Ecclesiastes 7:3: “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” You don’t laugh to keep from crying; you laugh, you cry, and then you start all over.

Until all tears are done for, life and death, grief and gladness, laughter and weeping will do an awkward dance. It looks more like interpretive movement than a choreographed tango. We won’t be able to chart — or even follow — all the steps. “It’s chaos; be kind” isn’t perfect advice but we could do, and probably have done, a lot worse. In those four words is the residue of holiness.