Like many I am both surprised and unnerved by the election results. In an effort to deal with my complex feelings and thoughts, I’m trying to explore two aspects of the experience: one is my personal response; the other is a reflection on what I think is going on in our collective.
My personal response is grief and I need to address this. I need to come together with my family – in other words, with those that know and love me whatever our differences – and share my feelings and emotions. We who experience this as loss need to grieve: we need to comfort each other with assurances that we will come through this, and we need to encourage each other that this can all make sense in ways that we don’t appreciate now.
I have spent this year grieving the loss of people I was close to and helping their families and friends support each other in the face of things that have no immediate answer, or perhaps any answer that we are capable of understanding. The one thing that was common to all of these experiences was story-telling: telling stories of the persons we loved as a way of honoring them but also somehow integrating the new reality of their death and our loss into our lives in a way that allowed them to continue with us.
Letting in the loss – the death, the failure – is critical. We speak of grieving as letting go, but it is equally letting in. Paradoxically, they are the same thing, for the only way I can let go of someone I love is to let them in: into my heart, my body, my memory, my soul. Perhaps, in this way, their death can become something else. Often bereaved family members would say something like, I don’t want to stop feeling the pain and loss because it seems that it is all I have left. Sometimes, the thought of letting go even feels like guilt: I would be unfaithful or disloyal if I stopped feeling lonely or depressed. What this suggests is that this process of letting in as a way of letting go has its own rhythm and timing for each of us. The story-telling will end when its work is done. It’s as if the story has its own reality and its own timing.
I’m going over to Ireland next week to be with my sister who lost her husband three months ago. I know from speaking with her that she is still in pain even though she is getting on with things. We have talked about the sense that the pain and the loss will never go away but will remain with her until her own death. But it will change and take new forms, including positive and creative forms that are born out of a transformed and transforming relationship. Already I see my sister sharing in new things that are the result of her grieving process. One simple example is a relationship with a project that sends tools to people in Africa that came out of her desire to find a good home, as it were, for her husbands tools.
In short, loss can lead to new life but it requires that we let in the loss. In terms of the election, many of us clearly experience it as a death-like loss and, as with the loss of a loved one, can’t imagine the future in any positive way. So, I intend to grieve this loss with those who love me, even with some who do not experience the result in this way. This grieving process, like every other will have its own unique forms that will include strong emotions and difficult thoughts about how it might have been different. I am reminded of a close friend who died recently in an accident that stirred precisely these difficult thoughts in her husband and children: why this way? why didn’t someone stop this? There is no way around this process, there is only through it.
The second aspect of my thinking at this stage – what is going on in the collective – is, at best, inadequate, and perhaps premature. It is too close now and clearly, like the process of grieving, will change for me over time. But, in a way, it is a part of grieving also to wonder why, and to look for some kind of meaning in an experience that doesn’t fit into our expectations or even understanding.
What happened? How did this come about? Who are we? The latter is probably the toughest question: who are we now? who are we together after this?
One thought is that we are clearly facing unprecedented challenges in our world today: from global climate change to global immigration, and from global economics to global technology with all their daunting implications. Moreover, most of us feel that our basic institutions – of governance, business/commerce – are not up to the task. In a related way we feel that the more supportive institutions of healthcare, education and even religion – are weak and inadequate. We feel overwhelmed but also angry at what feels like inequality and injustice that pervades our entire society. However, our first reaction is not to come together and explore with each other in open, equal and empathic ways, how to respond, but to look for a savior. Obama was a savior eight years ago when he led us in the ‘yes we can’ chant that inevitably faded over his tenure. I say inevitable because we all know that it takes more than good intention to address difficult and complex problems and relationships. Hillary clearly did not seem to be the new savior with her promises to work hard and bring together, maybe because we are not there yet (the fact that she is a woman is perhaps part of this) and need to do more savior-searching.
My concern is that rather than a savior, this time we have elected someone who simply reflects our frustration and anger. Of course, only someone who is frustrated and angry himself could carry this collective angst; only a superficial narcissist would have the inclination to take on this mantle. It may be that this will be a temporary – even short-lived – delusion on his and our part. It may be that we will all – including him – realize that we can only address complex challenges with complex approaches that include truly skillful conversations. But it may be also that we have to live out this delusion and experience the absurdity in ways that teach us the hard way. That’s the fear that many of us feel.
A final thought is on a way of holding all this without losing it completely? I recall some words about hope from Vaclav Havel, the writer and philosopher who became a political leader (first president of the Czech Republic) and attempted to truly carry a similar burden. He spoke of hope as a ‘dimension of the soul’ [that] is not dependent on some particular observation of the world.’ Hope, he suggests, is ‘an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.’ I don’t think he was simply being religious in a pious way, as in ‘this world is not my home…’. Rather he seemed to see hope of this nature as ‘a determination to work for something because it is good, not because it stands a chance to succeed.’ He concludes by saying that hope is not the same as optimism, the conviction that something will turn out well, but ‘certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.’
This, for me, brings me to something that I can live with in the face of experiences that seem death-like. But not only live with, in the sense of put up with, but something that gives me strength to live and keep going. In Havel’s words, to ‘continually try new things.’ This kind of hope is surely something worth cultivating.