It Is Such a Secret Place, the Land of Tears
“I did not know how to reach him, where to catch up with him. It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
The above is a quote from The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Indeed, the land of tears is a profoundly secret place. Describing it as such, Saint-Exupéry identifies the strangeness of another’s sadness or grief, its often impenetrable nature. As someone who’s notably deficient in empathy, the observation has always rung uncomfortably true in my attempts to comfort others. But over the past week I’ve experienced it from the other side, as one sojourning in the land of tears and sadness. And I think for many people in our lives, the tears we’ve cried flow from Saint-Exupéry’s secret and strange place.
Last Friday our little cat of almost two years was killed in the street outside our home. It was a stunningly sudden event, visceral and violent, and, as the shock gave way, the new reality settled in and near uncontrollable weeping began. For days my wife and I soaked each other’s shoulders. Her deep sorrow mirrored my own. After all, we’d lost the same beautiful thing, a shared wonder. Our precious Willow was gone. So we mourned together; the sadness and sorrow was ours. But for many onlookers I imagine our heartbreak might have appeared irrational at best, and dubiously self-pitying at worst.
Of course no one said it, but I wouldn’t blame them for thinking: ‘It was just a cat.’ Maybe as you read that last paragraph similar sentiments crossed your mind. And while only the most calloused, insensitive hearts would call sadness in this situation entirely misplaced, quite a few might find the extent of our sadness to be disproportionate. They would’ve wondered at the mention of mourning and “uncontrollable weeping,” “deep sorrow” and “heartbreak”—to quote the previous paragraph. After all, Willow was only a cat.
In many ways those thoughts illustrate Saint-Exupéry’s observation from The Little Prince. Loss sends one into a land that is often inaccessible and strange to others, even loved ones. It’s a “secret place, the land of tears.”
It’s only later in The Little Prince that we better understand why. After a meeting a fox, the little prince asks him if they might play together. But the fox tells him that would be impossible, because he isn’t “tame.” Unsure what this means, the little prince asks for an explanation. The latter says that to tame someone or something involves “creating ties,” by investing time. Again, the little prince seeks further clarity and the fox obliges. He replies, “To me, you are still only a small boy, just like a hundred thousand other small boys. And I have no need of you. And you in turn have no need of me…But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you shall be unique in the world. To you, I shall be unique in the world.”
The little prince’s earlier sojourn in the land of tears now makes sense—as does ours at present. On his own planet, the little prince had “tamed” a rose. To use the fox’s words, he’d created strong ties with a formerly unexceptional flower, through prolonged devotion and care. And in that process the flower had been transformed. It became “unique” to the little prince, changing from only one rose among many to being his rose. As the fox puts it, “It is the time you have wasted on your rose that makes your rose so important.” A few lines on, he continues, “People have forgotten this truth…You become responsible, for ever, for what you have tamed.”
The fox understands what the narrator does not, when he distinguishes talk of the prince’s rose from more “serious matters.” What made it hard for the narrator to reach the little prince in that land of tears, “to catch up with him” as he wept over his rose, was the simple fact that it was still just one of thousands. Nothing set it apart. There were no strong ties and affection, established through time and attention. Thus he couldn’t understand why the rose was so important, indeed unique, to the little prince.
Since the death of our cat my mind has returned countless times to this point in Saint-Exupéry’s writing. For many, Willow was just a cat, among so many other thousands—a faceless and furry collective. She wasn’t unique; she wasn’t theirs. But it was the time we wasted on that little creature that made her so important, unique, and altogether precious to us. Thus, “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
So what? On the one hand, I was tempted to draw a line under the previous paragraph, limiting this to a reflection on our own grief and a celebration of one delightful kitty. But, on the other hand, there’s also a lesson here. In Romans 12:15, God exhorts his people to “weep with those who weep.” As far as I can tell, that compassion isn’t based on understanding but love. We shouldn’t reserve it for sorrow that makes sense to me; to grief I deem appropriate. The exhortation is to travel with sufferers, who find themselves in that strange and secret place.