Grief, Compassion, and Change.
I had an opportunity to speak to a small group today. I’m sharing the majority of my comments here as well.
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I am a born and raised Midwesterner who has almost always lived on land belonging to the Potawatomi. I grew up in a small town called Crawfordsville, IN before moving to the Chicago suburbs during high school, and aside from a short stint in Nashville after college, have always lived in the Midwest. I have a rather ecumenical protestant background. I was raised in the United Methodist tradition, attended a Wesleyan college where I wrote my senior thesis on Martin Luther, and spent some time in an Evangelical Free church and a fundamentalist storefront church in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. In 2017, after a lifetime in various evangelical expressions, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church.
What that brief biographical background obscures, however, is the various ups and downs and twists and turns my faith journey has taken. In order to tell my story briefly, I have smoothed out the rough patches. That biography, as I presented it, does not touch on the depth of my faith crisis during my undergraduate years, when I felt the cognitive dissonance between an evangelical Christian political environment embracing false justification for the military invasion of Iraq, and the god I was learning about in my Bible courses—let alone the unexpected struggle of confronting my assumed & inherited stance on biblical inerrancy.
It elides the unease I felt but could not articulate through many years in the evangelical churches I attended, that I felt I had to hide my social or theological beliefs in order to maintain standing—and if I, a cisgender white guy, must do all this in an environment built for my success, how much more must anyone else contort in order to fit the mold?
It overlooks the pain of losing a social support group overnight when we left our church, or the anger and grief over seeing longstanding prejudices be tapped in order for Trump to gain power.
And that’s what I want to name today: Grief. Grief is always with us, but I trace the overwhelming sense of grief that seems to permeate every day to the media shifts that happened here in the US around 2014, with the Ferguson Uprising leading to the Black Lives Matter movement. From that point forward, due to the realtime effects of following the suffering of our fellow citizens online via Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms, we cannot ignore them.
Marshall McLuhan foresaw this when he wrote in 1967 that:
“In an electric information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained—ignored. Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.”
What McLuhan did not foresee was the denial of that suffering and the callousness of our dialogue. And we grieve that, too – and that such callousness primarily works to make the systems that need such desperate change all the more resistant to it. There have been all manner of developments in the US and elsewhere, since that admittedly arbitrary date of 2014, that have been callous: a parade of harmful decisions by our government, the politicization of public health during an unchecked pandemic, and much more.
There are all manner of griefs, and they do not always overlap or intersect. On Indigenous People’s Day, we make space for the celebration of Indigenous cultures. We must also make space today and every day for their grief and anger, and not mix it with the grief we may feel if we come from a different background that laments our complicity for how a complex and conflicted millennia old faith like Christianity was so readily adapted into a harmful so-called doctrine of discovery, and has served for centuries all the way to today as both a tool of oppression by white European colonizers and liberation for those they have oppressed.
As I as a white person learn second-hand about the lived experience of the global majority, I may hold and process that as a form of grief, but it is not the same to that felt by others. And that is ok. We do not need to add our griefs onto others. They need not overlap or intersect.
Grief breaks our heart, but it often breaks our hearts open. It is in those moments when, even if we do not wish it, we are more receptive. Grief forces you into introspection. The shock of death deepens the senses. Light feels more intense. The vibrancy of living things—of trees and plant life, of animals, of the busyness of the world—is juxtaposed by the stillness and finality of death.
Part of grief is sharing the stories and anecdotes about our life with the departed. This public grief is part of the process. By sharing it—either widely or on a smaller, intimate scale—we honor them and acknowledge to the world that we are hurt and tender.
There are private griefs we hold closer to our hearts. The things we do not share. And those guarded griefs are ways we honor our selves, and set boundaries with the world.
Those private griefs shape us. They may stem from the death of a loved one, the death of a relationship, the death of a point-of-view, the death of a community. The grief of unanswered prayers. The loss of trust. These are our deepest wounds, and how we see to their healing is up to us to determine.
Which makes me all the more compassionate for people that share their grief with the world, and for those who are not given a choice in the matter. For communities that experience violence and death, their loss becomes a news story. Some elect to use their grief to contribute to a larger conversation or to lead the conversation in a new direction, while others wish for privacy.
When someone shares their grief with you or the broader public, they are trusting you with their vulnerability. In the throes of it, we know precisely the sting and victory of death, and Paul’s words are no consolation.
Some griefs are sacred and secret. If a person shares even a seemingly “small” sliver of grief with you, there are likely many more moments that have gone unsaid.
There is so much grief in the world. I hope there is enough compassion, too.1
Finally, when it comes to a life of faith, an ethical life, grief offers us opportunities to reconsider our practices. So much grief comes from committing to an unyielding position and learning the hard way. In the midst of grief we are offered the opportunity to reconsider our practices and beliefs. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in Living Buddha, Living Christ in a section called “true faith is alive:”
“In the beginning, we might have embarked upon the path of Buddhism thanks to a belief in reincarnation, but as we continue to practice and touch reality, our beliefs change. We needn’t be afraid of this. In the course of our study and practice, as we touch reality more and more deeply, our beliefs naturally evolve and become more solid. When our beliefs are based on our own direct experience of reality and not on notions offered by others, no one can remove these beliefs from us. Making a long-term commitment to a concept is much more dangerous. If ten years pass without the growth of our belief, one day we will wake up and discover that we can no longer believe in what we did. The notion of ten years ago is no longer sound or adequate, and we are plunged into the darkness of disbelief.
Our faith must be alive. It cannot be just a set of rigid beliefs and notions. Our faith must evolve every day and bring us joy, peace, freedom, and love. Faith implies practice, living our daily life in mindfulness. Some people think that prayer or meditation involves only our minds or our hearts. But we also have to pray with our bodies, with our actions in the world. And our actions must be modelled after those of the living Buddha or the living Christ. If we live as they did, we will have deep understanding and pure actions, and we will do our share to help create a more peaceful world for our children and all of the children of God.”2
Grief can bring about change. In a similar spirit, the Potawatomi author Kaitlin Curtice acknowledges the role of change in her book, Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God:
“And so, I loosely call myself a Christian. And so, I also call myself Indigenous. I am Potawatomi, constantly being called to my belonging with the love that only Creator, Mamogosnan, can hold, has always held, and always will hold for all of us. It is a difficult journey, and I don’t know where it will lead. Years from now, I may no longer call myself a Christian, no longer engage with the church, and if so, I will still call this journey sacred as the thing that it is, the truths it has taught me, the people it has brought into my life. My faith is not a faith to be held over others or a faith that forces others into submission but an inclusive, universal faith constantly asking what the gift of Mystery truly is and how we can better care for the earth we live on, who constantly teaches us what it means to be humble.”3
I’ll close with this quote from a forthcoming book called Rest is Resistance by Tricia Hersey that was shared online. Ms. Hersey runs The The Nap Ministry, an organization that examines rest as a form of resistance and reparations by curating spaces for the community to rest via community rest activations, immersive workshops, performance art installations, and social media. This is the quote, which is challenging me today:
May the presence of grief among us guide us to be more compassionate, and help us as we seek to heal ourselves and others.
Living Buddha, Living Christ 20th Anniversary Edition (pp. 135-136). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Curtice, Kaitlin B.. Native (pp. 17-18). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.