One could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed in this particular American moment. No matter your vantage point, we live in uncertain, hateful times. To quote a local pastor, “All is not well among us.” Each of us has felt the creeping anxiety of uncertainty, or the erasing sadness of marginality, or the confusing alienation from people once trusted, or the ambiguity that comes from no longer knowing who represents what to whom. Perhaps if we contextualize our own frustrations with those of our neighbors we might find that we belong—unsure but hopeful—together.
If you have children, school shootings, drug use and soaring rates of anxiety and self-harm can be terrifying. If your skin is brown, or you appear ambiguously ethnic to others, you might be reasonably fearful of overt acts of hate or of chronic suspicion from law enforcement. If you advocate for the sanctity of early life, recent laws passed in Virginia and New York can make you question how our society can tolerate such evil. If you love a person with a terrible medical diagnosis, the repetitive trauma of watching them struggle to live is compounded by the fear that lawmakers who “represent” you might eliminate their healthcare. If you think of yourself as a good person who is kind to others, you might feel accosted by the possibility that others might think you bigoted or racist. If you are wealthy, trade wars and a stock market based on the feelings on investors erodes security. If you are poor, hearing about a strong economy while working full time without access to healthcare or a living wage might feel like slowly drowning. If you believe America should protect its natural resources, and has traded long-term global viability for access to fossil fuels, you are stunned that we seem to be making it worse on purpose. If you believe that black lives often don’t matter in America, hearing about elected officials who thought it was fun to reenact a racist practice from the Jim Crow days likely feels disorienting and demeaning. If you understand the way trauma works in kids, then the idea that our government can’t or won’t reunite children with their families feels like slow motion horror. If you try hard in your life to live at peace, serve others and stay out of trouble, then all the outrage, eye rolling and accusation might feel like an assault.
Nearly everyone has a good reason to feel abused, to be angry or to worry. Many of us seem to think the best path forward is to blame others, to raise hell in an effort to get others to care, or even to try reaching across lines of difference to learn from another perspective. In addition to these, I wonder if it also helps to name our grief? The laundry list above can feel like whining, or worse, like an attack. Those of us who avoid complaining, who take pride in “owning our junk”, who fancy ourselves people of action, likely have trouble sitting with the sadness, pain, anxiety and anger such concerns bring to the surface. Nevertheless, it is good to name our grief.
Our religious traditions would agree. The Jewish people know lamentations usher the lamenter before God, who is the only true source of hope. Islamic tradition makes space for memorializing the hardships and sufferings of the faithful as they seek to end corruption and live generous lives. Christianity offers both worship and lament as viable paths to recognizing the hope of the Messiah. These ancient Abrahamic traditions remind us that uttering the ways that we cause pain—and grieving over the actions of others that cause us pain—are genuine expressions of our humanity and genuine pleas from our humbled states that connect us to one another.
Accusation and guilt often feel like more satisfying alternatives, but they fail to move us toward healing. Accusation keeps our feet planted on the ground while we jab at those around us. Guilt sinks us deep into our souls, paralyzing us and preventing us from looking out or up for the hand of an ally. Naming our grief is different. It allows us to move past both accusation and guilt until we come face to face with our disappointment. It allows us to feel sad without blaming that emotion on ourselves or someone else. When we name the things we have done alongside the things done to us we eventually find our selves. By this I mean we come to remember we are people whose hearts get broken living around other people whose hearts get broken. This affirming of our humanity, this gazing inward at our sadness instead of pointing outward at our blame, prepares us for gratitude and, finally, for meaningful action.
One of my favorite admonitions in the Bible is when Paul, from prison, reminded friends to be “watchful and thankful.” He knew that if we only watched the world around us we would despair. He knew that paying attention can be dangerous work for the soul. He also knew that if we only focused on our own gratitude we might reduce our ability to see that hurt in others. The antidote for anxiety, selfishness and despair, according to Paul, is to pay attention with gratitude.
My sister and her husband are living through a type of hell on earth as they love their older son through terminal brain cancer. Coping skills and belief systems tend to fall apart when smashed against the anguish of watching a kid you adore suffer in relentless, soul-crushing ways. They are watchful. They see it all. And it nearly kills them. They speak their grief, naming their suffering until they run out of words. And then they find gratitude even when they don’t want to. When we pay attention, gratitude wells up, and our souls, almost in an act of defiant betrayal, are lifted. Watching and thanking, we find a way to make it through the hour.
As I learn from them, and others I know who have every right to be angry and to despair, I find myself following in their wake. Pay attention to all of it. All is not well. Watch anyway. Name your grief and lament your way into hope before a God who can hold it. And then allow your soul to be lightened by gratitude. Thankfulness lifts us out of ourselves so that we see those around us. We find empathy and connectedness when we notice the many ways we hope in the midst of overwhelming pain. Then, and only then, are we able to take action, to challenge the forces that cause our pain, to speak against systems of unjust power, until we are heard. If we want to find light in the dark, we need to see and name the dark, reach out to hold other reaching hands, and give thanks that we are not alone after all.