All Our Griefs ¹: What Do We Do Now?

First of all, I want to preface what follows with a declaration of hopefulness: despite all we are experiencing right now, or maybe even because  of it, this time feels like The Great Turning, a cosmic shift in awareness and consciousness that can move the whole planet into harmony and wholeness if we are willing to do the work. We are just beginning, though, a process of many, many years of more upheaval and rapid change to come.

For the past year and a half, I have quieted my own public voice for intensely personal reasons: the sudden death of my son, Brendan, 33, of an undiagnosed genetic heart condition propelled me into a place of profound silence. There have been so many major losses in my life, I erroneously thought I had gotten the hang of grief. It all seems cumulative: among all of the sorrows of my life, I was staggered by the enormity of one, brought to my knees by another, and this one has laid me flat out on the ground, excavated, and in a state of profound unknowing.  I have had nothing to say, able only to mutely join my own suffering to the pain of the entire world, which has taken up expanded residence in my shattered heart. That’s what suffering does: it connects us to all who suffer, which is ALL of us.

In addition to embracing my profound ignorance about …well….Everything, I have not had the energy to enter the fray of public discourse to say even that. Ours is an era in which every thought publicly expressed is hyper-scrutinized, and efforts to articulate positions of comity and kindness are attacked.  Everyone ends up bloodied and self-justified, positions are hardened, and nothing changes.

And now we are journeying through the best and worst of times: millions infected, almost 130,000 Americans dead and thousands more lost every day from the pandemic, many of those deaths resulting not just from insouciant leadership, but from centuries of systemic racism and gross inequality that leave some of us more vulnerable than others. And then….George Floyd murdered by the police: chained, choked, flattened on the ground.

There have been so very many George Floyds, so why the recent, rapid and welcome change in public opinion about Black Lives Matter and police brutality?

There is one factor that leaps out at me: we’re all in deep planetary grief right now: for the first time, we are aware of our shared vulnerability with every human on the planet. Whether conscious or not, all of us are living within the shadows of not only our own mortality, but of the collective fragility of Everyone, and grief cracks us open to the suffering of others. Perhaps this time, more white people than ever before are able to feel the suffering of Floyd and those of us who are black, take it in, make it our own. It’s a time of immense opportunity.

Those who have been ‘activists’ for decades can recognize the surge of outrage and genuine broken-heartedness that caused  the numbers in recent protests to swell far beyond the usual suspects… a response to what a friend calls “the agony of the moment.” How to capture this energy,  amplify it, harness it as essential fuel for transformation, rather than see it dissipate as it so often does, into self-congratulatory inactivity but no essential, transformative change?

Gandhi recognized the shadows of duragraha as the source of toxic activism: the urge to judge, dominate, and overcome an opponent, to win. Thomas Merton identified the same arrogance of heart and unwillingness to do our essential inner work as an obstacle to transformation, citing our “… will to transform ‘others’ in terms of one’s own prophetic insight²”, rather than to look at our own ignorance and complicity. 

What might doing this inner work look like?

In his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow³, Francis Weller outlines five Gateways of Grief… the many ways in which all of us carry unacknowledged and unprocessed sorrow. He calls the work of processing our own griefs “sacred activism”:  without compassion for ourselves, it is impossible to have it for others. Pity? Maybe. Compassion? No. 

Our very first order of activism has to be a commitment to do our own work, to examine our own griefs, our ego dysfunctions and manifestations, however painful. A failure to embrace our own pain dooms us to inflict it on others. Yet this is what those of us who carry unearned and unexamined privilege….of whatever origin…resist so defensively. Doing our own inner work is the very foundation, the sine qua non, of transformation. All major spiritual and philosophical traditions have taught this basic principal for millennia. We humans still ignore the message; it is intellectually and emotionally much easier in the short term, and infinitely more satisfying initially, to cultivate blame, judgment, and shaming of those we see as Other. It literally feels good temporarily to feel superior and more enlightened than another. We feel enlarged, puffed up. Satisfied. There’s a reason it’s called an inflated ego. 

Think of how much of our activism is generated by these failed paradigms: I attended a protest within the past year where the leaders instructed all present to respond to a litany of wrongs with the chant: “Shame, Shame, Shame”. I left, feeling ill. Ask yourself how shame feels. Pull into your heart’s memory one of the times in your life when you were shamed: was it a positive experience for you? Brené Brown describes shame as a profound feeling of unlovability. If Love is the metric for our actions (for me, Love is God, God is Love, Love is All) why would we ever act as if shaming anyone is a way to bring about change? Ditto Judgment. Ditto Blame. If we desire the birthing of a New Earth, these old ways of doing just about everything have to go. Judgment and blame are our misguided refusal to see and honor the utter goodness of every human on the planet: as Eckhart Tolle points out, we must not confuse each others’ unconsciousness, including our own, with Who We Are: God sparks. Chips off the old Divine Block.

We can invite each other into healing conversations of true dialogue resulting in understanding and empathy, rooted in an honoring of our common humanity, not our politics and intractable beliefs. (For some quick tips on how to get started, watch the 5 short videos on the JUST Listening website, www.justlistening.net, total running time 20 minutes)

In a true dialogue, we are open to being changed by what we hear. If we ever have the goal of trying to convince our conversation partner of our superior position, or if we listen to find points to argue or challenge rather than for the sole purpose of understanding, we have failed at dialogic communication.⁴

Much as we want to flatter ourselves and claim we have empathy, consider this: our massive physiological hard wiring for empathy is only activated if we see someone as part of our group. So let’s ask ourselves: “Who is my ‘we’?”  Who is outside my circle of love and concern? Whom do I mock or for whom do I express contempt? Judgment? Blame? And yes, this includes everyone. We are One…a single, interdependent organism. We can’t afford us-them, ‘enemy’ thinking any longer: our very survival depends on us understanding and acting on this reality of oneness.

Refusing to judge is not passive; it actually creates a powerful need to act justly…toward ourselves and others, and as Cornel West observed:  Justice is what Love looks like in public.

I offer this short reflection with a paraphrased caveat from Carl Jung: The only thing I believe is that what I believe this morning, I will not believe this afternoon. I urge you to find your own path to doing the hard inner work that is required of us in these critical times. All of us dancing on the planet are here for a reason. The time is now for contemplation, inquiry, curiosity, and dialogue with whoever is right in front of your nose. We are the ones we have been waiting for.⁵

¹ A version of this article first appeared in the Catholic Peace Fellowship newsletter, Summer 2020
² Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters.
³ See Weller’s book for descriptions of the Gateways.
⁴ Loosely based on Marist Brother Bernard Lee’s “Rules for a Dialogic Community”.
⁵ June Jordan, “Poem For South African Women”, 1979.