GRIEF AND HOPE

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.

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24 Responses to GRIEF AND HOPE

  1. judy godino says:

    I sent a text early on 11/9 to my daughter saying “sad news today”.
    she responded with these wise words as she usually does.

    ” hi mom,
    yes. its pretty incomprehensible.
    in some ways though, it only puts the reality of the negativity we are living in where we cannot hide from it. love and truth will win. this will inspire all of us to recommit to the work we each came here to do.”

  2. Danny Martin says:

    A wise comment indeed, Judy. I would add that this negative reaction to perceived threat is in all of us so it will not be enough to project it onto the obvious individuals and groups.

  3. Deborah says:

    Thank you, dear Danny, for your deeply thoughtful words as we all process our feelings following the election that compound our serious concerns about the future of our nation and our world. It is good to gather together – we had a very healing group conversation at the Spirit Salon at Katonah SPACE last night, helping one another grapple with shock, grief and how to open our hearts. And thank you for Havel’s notion that hope is ‘a dimension of the soul’ – for hope we must.

    • Danny Martin says:

      Your comments, Deborah, remind me of the words of the biologist E.O. Wilson who once said that the human species has been successful (survived) because we formed groups: we came together. The challenge is to come together across our differences especially when they seem so far apart. But it will not be enough to come together only with those who think as we do. We probably need to start there, with close family and friends, as we do when we are grieving, but only as a step toward the harder gatherings. Hillary’s statement that ‘we are stronger together’ must refer to holding our differences together in a way that generates new shared understanding…

  4. bridget rippey says:

    Dear Danny and all your friends there in the US,
    I have read your thoughtful reflections with great interest and found much reasonated with comments and discussion here too…this result says much to all of us in the world and that’s the scary bit, we saw it here with Brexit..watching the results unravel and the debates thereafter from here in Northern Ireland has been unsettling and yet….I like your thoughts on hope. Hillary’s concession speech was inspired- I think she too must have read Havels words for there was surely that message of ” fighting for whats right is always worthwhile” and lets keep doing just that. Like many across the civilised world i pray that we weather this “storm”, learn lessons from the disaffected and find new ways to engage everyone positively in”lighting the candle” as another famous first lady once said and join together to shape a more positive future.Thinking of you all Cousin Bridgetx

    • Danny Martin says:

      Thanks Bridget. I think the reason that you in Ireland resonate with our reactions is that we are all facing the same essential challenges of a changing world where the old ways of thinking (and organizing ourselves) are no longer adequate. How could they be! Thomas Kuhn wrote a little classic in 1962 called ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ in which he coined a phrase that we are familiar with today: ‘paradigm shift’. He described it in terms of a system (society) experiencing anomie (the breakdown of social bonds and standards) in the face of unprecedented change and challenges. The process of change goes something like this: first there are groups on the margins that claim to be able to address the new challenges, but they are perceived by the establishment as a threat and ‘crucified.’ However, as the anomie and breakdown continue and deepen in the old system (paradigm) there is a gradual drift to the margin-groups which then become the center of a new paradigm. The process is revolutionary (not simple progressive) but also continuous, for there will always be new challenges that demand new awareness and new thinking and action. All of which suggests we have to look for the seeds of a new paradigm on the margins which are always the most fertile places in an ecosystem.

  5. Erik Allgoewer says:

    Dear Danny,
    I agree with your thoughts. The process of grieving is essential as a response to a man who won the présidentiel election by dishing out words of hatred and division.
    And yet, beyond grieving, we have to look for answers (pretty quickly) since he is determined to put into action a dreadful political program.
    My dream would be that a civic movement makes itself known by people wearing a signe that says on a simple button worn on a coat, jacket, shirt or hat the word “RESPECT”. It is short and the exact antidote to the poisons he has been distilling for the last year: Angst of the “other” and an attitude towards women that in 2016 should have put him in jail and not opened him the door into the Oval Office.
    Let’s try before it becomes unlawful “to have a dream” !
    Respectfully
    Erik

    • Danny Martin says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Erik. Of course we have to move beyond grieving but we also have to go through it. I tried to make the point that the only way to let go (in order to move to a new way) is to let it. Grieving is a way of letting in what we have experienced, partly as a way of avoiding the obvious traps of a reactive response: projecting and blaming. Trump and company are clearly bad news, but they also reflected the angst of real – and decent people. Nicholas Kristof, who has been a strong critic of Trump all along, wrote this in the NY Times this morning: “Democrats are too quick to caricature Trump supporters as deplorables. Sure, some are racists or misogynists, but many are good people who had voted for Obama in the past. My rural hometown, Yamhill, Ore., is pro-Trump, and I can tell you: The voters there are not all bigoted monsters, but well-meaning people upended by economic changes such as the disappearance of good manufacturing jobs. They feel betrayed by the Democratic and Republican establishments, and finally a candidate spoke to them.” Our civic movement must speak to them too (especially when they find out soon enough that Trump will not deliver any of the things he promised them….). The Dream has to be ‘our dream…’

  6. Rev. Dr. Franklin ("Skip") Vilas says:

    Hey, Danny

    Many thanks for your thoughts. They are right on. I learned to live this process when, as you may remember, the dream died at Wainwright Housein 1989. Our truth, our mission lay beyond the bounds of what we were actively experiencing at the time.

    One of my sorrows is that, turning 82 in several weeks, I may not see us out of the blight on our environmental hopes which will occur under Trump’s presidency. But, as Barack said in the wake of this disaster, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep on living the mission.

    So sorry to hear of your brother in laws death. Joyce sends her love.

    Skip

    • Danny Martin says:

      I remember it well, Skip, and I shared the death with you. Perhaps indeed, there is a timing (kairos in Greek) in things – ‘a tide in the affairs of men…’ – that is not our timing (we are all, especially us children of the ’60s, feeling the passing of the other time – kronos, the Greeks called it). But I’ve always admired and appreciated your constancy even in the face of death-like disappointments. To repeat Havel’s words about hope as ‘a determination to work for something because it is good, not because it stands a chance to succeed.’ Of course, this has nothing to do with passivity: I think hope also inspires us to keep on keeping on in ways that Erik’s civic movement describes.

    • Dear Skip,
      I hear you. We must have faith that the dreams we have actively pursued are like seeds in the ground. Not all will sprout, not all will flower. But we can know that we have given what we have in our hearts for the future of our world.
      Deepak Chopra has said that he feels he is “part of the transition team.” I often find that comforting in the face of the current evolutionary leap for humanity whose very future is imperiled without it.
      When Heinrich Harrer was trekking across the Himalayas into Tibet around the end of WWII with no supplies or communications, he encountered numerous near-disasters. Yet his response was always, “Temporary setback!”
      You have planted many beautiful seeds, dear Skip. Don’t let the temporary setbacks get you down.
      Love and appreciation,
      Deborah

  7. Nancy Read says:

    Thank you for this, Danny.
    Yesterday I knew that I was in deep mourning. Today I still feel that deep sadness but also know the importance of hope and working for what we believe in. I will be on this seesaw for awhile, I think. We will all have to be vigilant against hopelessness and hate and do what we can to encourage our better angels.

    • Danny Martin says:

      I like your emphasis about the importance of being vigilant against hopelessness and hate, Nancy. And ‘our better angels’ are not pious dolls but creative and artful energies for healing and change.

  8. Kathleen Deignan says:

    Thanks Danny for these words, as ever so comforting and wise. Bless all those Millennials who too to the streets all over the country last night to find each other and begin walking together along new pathways that people with the audacity of hope will need to make one step at a time. We know the direction. We have each other. It is the majority of the country, as the popular vote reveals. And those who voted otherwise did not necessarily vote for the things that will inevitably unfold in this new time (can’t say the name yet).

    In trying to make sense of this moment with my own Millennials at Iona, facing into their despondency and for many, their desolation and sense of powerlessness, I told them my story.

    My story of my political coming of age, like them, 18-22: President Kennedy assassinated when I was 15; Malcolm, RFK, MLK when I was 19; VIety Nam, Kent State, Watts, a low grade civil war, etc.

    Coming of age politically is so important and when it happens like this as it has for them, so disorienting and discouraging. They feel totally bewildered and powerless.

    So yes Hope and finding a new language of/for hope, which in itself “is a thing without feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the song WITHOUT THE WORDS that never stops at all…”

    We research the words…

    • Danny Martin says:

      ‘Sings the songs without the words that never stops at all!’ I’m reminded of another great poet who has just left us – Leonard Cohen – who wrote and sang: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering; there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’

  9. Tayria Ward says:

    Dearest Danny,
    Thank you for your beautiful thoughts. I love the “letting in” as a deeply necessary part of “letting go.” It helps to see that so clearly. You’ve always been exceptionally good with such turns of phrase.

    My daughter sent me some thoughts of one of her former professors’ this morning that I’ll encapsulate here as I find them so helpful. He spoke of Albert Camus’ essay arguing that Sisyphus was happy—that his endless rock-pushing represented the work of rebellion that all people of good faith must do. Though at times we feel we are getting nowhere and feel radically demoralized, pushing the boulder back up the hill is the work. The boulder has fallen way back down into the valley now, but together, strong together, we will push it back up.

    Hillary is a beautiful example of someone who has done this her whole life. Once she dusts herself off, rests and recovers, I can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.

    Wish I could be with you to talk through the grief, my friend.
    Much love,
    Tayria

    • Danny Martin says:

      Camus was a hero for my teen years as the true rebel who was constant in the face of endless challenges. I imagine most of us who have attempted to contribute to the process of change and growth have felt like Sisyphus…

  10. Anne Pearson says:

    Dearest Danny, I am deeply grateful to you for triggering, with your eloquence, a sense of community angst and courage to join in the strength of positive action in the face of this desperate loss. I have always taken pleasure in Quaker Memorial Services because of the warm, humorous, loving stories that are told, remembering the life that no longer moves forward, but will always remain with us. Additionally, I remember someone saying wisely, that being in the position of President has always had a profound effect on the person elected, often transforming their abilities. Let us hope we can contribute to that possible effect on Trump, by joining together to tell him stories of hope and progress for the people of this troubled country. May your trip to Ireland bring your sister hope and joy. Warmest love and wishes, Anne
    (please note my new email address below)

    • Danny Martin says:

      As you say, joining in the strength of positive action is the heart of it, Anne. Your other thought about the effect the office of President can have on the person elected is certainly a hopeful one….

  11. Fr. Francis Gargani CSsR says:

    Maybe I am unwilling to enter into the grieving process because it feels like “giving in,” but I am convinced that this election is not valid, and is the result of clandestine manipulation of the system. There is just too much coincidence of Russia’s involvement of invasion into the ‘e’ mails, the illegal last-minute entry of the FBI Director on ‘e’ mails supposedly only unearthed on Weiner’s computer, and Wiki-leaks public detestation of Hillary and decision to destroy her. I refuse to accept this election as valid, and refuse to roll over and just support each other with stories. I think we should all be mad as hell that somehow this bigot and xenophobe and misogynist and racist should now dare to call himself our President. HE IS NOT MY PRESIDENT and NEVER WILL BE. And any so-called grieving process whose goal is to bring me to acceptance of this absurd and evil status quo situation makes no sense to me at all! I think justified outrage is the appropriate response and my hope is in the refusal of us who know better to roll over and meditate for some false inner peace when we should be women and men who are willing to protest the rampant racism that has been unleashed by this very dangerous man and the movement he is now abetting. I refuse to grieve. I don’t accept there has been a death of the democratic process or the death of justice or the death of hope!!!! WHAT ARE YOU GRIEVING?!
    Be outraged! Yes, be rooted in peace and conviction in the victory of resurrection love but something is seriously wrong here. I know there is a lot of desperation and anger in a whole swath of people but I also know there are just too many people of good will who saw this man as a desperate demagogue. This is the time for people who are convinced that sexism and racism and targeting immigrants and Moslems and any other group is the force of evil among us to stand up and refuse to watch the destruction of our nation. Tell your stories, and may they empower us all to be willing to fuel mass protests against the bigotry and hatred that has been unleashed. Already, there have been record number of attacks against transgender people in the “heartland” of this nation! Who is going to grieve for them?! I grieve that people will console each other and not take up the banner of real consolation, the banner of justice for the aggrieved!

  12. Danny Martin says:

    Francis, I so resonate with your outrage. Nor do I see grieving as simply consoling ourselves into acceptance but rather a way of truly ‘letting in’ the reality in a way that generates a deep response because that is what is needed. I liked what David Brooks said this morning in the NY times: ‘Trump’s bigotry, dishonesty and promise-breaking will have to be denounced. We can’t go morally numb. But he needs to be replaced with a program that addresses the problems that fueled his assent.
    After all, the guy will probably resign or be impeached within a year. The future is closer than you think.

  13. Thank you, dear Danny, for your thoughtful words and for all these “replys” too.

  14. Sue Wootton says:

    Ditto from me!! I so appreciate your wise words, Danny, and those of all the other writers in this forum as well …Last week left me mostly speechless and numb, but coming together with so many other eloquent friends – both in person and virtual — has been very restorative. It does seem that something just doesn’t jibe about this whole election, especially now that we know more about the popular vote totals vs. the Electoral College. I’m trying to feel hopeful for our Republic, and agree that the future is closer than we know, however nothing is guaranteed…

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