The second season of the Civil War drama “Mercy Street” began airing on PBS January 22. It’s a really good show! (I happen to be on it…) If you can’t catch it Sunday nights, it’s streaming on Amazon Prime. I think new episodes go up there a week after they air on PBS. The whole first season is available to watch, as well….
Ben Lee and I (Radnor & Lee!) are finishing up our debut album, “Love Songs For God & Women” and I’m ridiculously excited to share it with you soon. Ryan Dilmore has done such a stellar job of producing. I maintain that one of life’s true pleasures is making stuff with your friends, so this whole project has been a kind of creative heaven for me.
And now, with that out of the way, a few words about grief!
I didn’t buy into the whole ‘2016 was an epic disaster’ narrative that so many people seemed to be peddling because I find time and years and life to be endlessly full and complicated and not reducible to any one thing. 2016 was as marked by light, joy, lessons and triumphs as any other fully-lived year. That said, I’m just coming out of a uniquely tough moment and looking back I see that the last ten months – in addition to all the aforementioned good stuff – have been notably and unusually grief-filled.
My grief has been threefold: collective, communal, and individual.
The collective grief – which I shared and continue to share with many – was the election, and now the daily outrages from what is clearly an unhinged administration. I touched upon this in previous Museletters. (I also wrote a piece about the election and action steps moving forward for a terrific project called “Letters to The Revolution.” Here’s the link: http://letterstotherevolution.com/josh-radnor)
It was an extraordinary thing to see the images from the women’s marches all over the globe, as well as the airport protests over the travel ban – these silver linings of outrage, mobilization, and unity. Any way you look at it, and no matter where you may sit on the political spectrum, these are tough, unsettling, occasionally frightening times. I think it’s important to acknowledge that. Burying our heads in the sand isn’t really an option. But it can be anxiety-producing, to say the least, to really take in what’s going on. I’ve had therapists I know tell me they’ve never seen a time like this. Business is booming.
I’m learning in so many ways the utility of pain and friction and heat, how those things are often essential ingredients for transformation. This is not to say we can’t learn from joy and success – because I believe we can – but failure and loss are often the sharpest and best teachers of the hardest and most useful lessons. Carl Jung once wrote: “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
Just because that statement is true doesn’t make it any less annoying.
The second source of grief, the communal grief, was over the loss of a teacher and spiritual community which I loved and in which I was very active for years. The details are unimportant but last spring I commenced a process of mourning over this loss, which in many ways continues. I’m still stumbling but ever-so-slowly locating a new kind of spiritual resilience. I’m grateful for the many harsh, quick lessons this experience has taught me. I’ve taken comfort from the words of Lao Tzu (the first part rather more famous than the second):
I only recently discovered the work of the poet Christian Wiman. He’s also an immensely gifted and insightful essayist and these two essays on God and grief have been endlessly comforting to me:
What I love about Wiman: his understanding and tacit acceptance of the fact that doubt and fear and confusion are inextricably bound up with the spiritual path. I’ve decided I no longer have any use for spiritual piety or perfection. The voices I trust on these matters are the ones who say “These are my wounds, this is my confusion, these are my defects and failings, and this is how I’m walking in spite of all of them.”
The third and most recent grief is individual and involved – as these things generally do – a swift change of expectation. The man who taught me to meditate used to say this great thing: “You can’t have a disappointment unless you made an appointment.” Life so often has different plans for us than the ones we’ve made – however earnestly – for ourselves. Some of the most difficult words to utter sincerely: “They will not mine be done.”
When the head and heart are in conflict there’s going to be some pain. The heart knows the truth and is surrendered to the reality and rightness of the situation while the mind has yet to release its grip on alternate narratives. Some of the struggle for me in this process lies in this dissonance – the longing to go backwards and forward at once. Regardless, I’m getting some super sharp lessons in surrender, acceptance, and forgiveness, all those marvelous sounding things that we all believe in fervently until the time comes to put them into action.
We live in a death-denying, pain-averse culture. I’m only really now seeing how much of a product of that culture I am, how my allergy to pain has influenced much of my decision-making. But this recent dance with grief has also acquainted me with the truth of William Blake’s statement: “The deeper the sorrow the greater the joy.” Because I can sense, even in the midst of the struggle, that on the other side of this grief is everything I ever wanted.
There’s a beautiful thought from C.S. Lewis about how we (humans) are these blocks of granite while God is the master sculptor. And each blow of the chisel – which we experience as pain, loss, heartbreak, setback and disappointment – hurts us so much. But they are ultimately what perfects us and makes us beautiful. That pain and loss are catalysts towards transformation is something I’ve always known to be true intellectually but it’s a much deeper, scarier, more immediate truth when you’re in the midst of receiving the blows of God’s chisel.
I’m supremely grateful to a friend for introducing me to the work of Francis Weller, a Jungian therapist who specializes in grief. If you’re going through any kind of grief or loss, I cannot recommend his work highly enough. Here’s a gorgeous passage from the early pages of his book “The Wild Edge of Sorrow”:
“We are remade in times of grief, broken apart and reassembled. It is hard, painful, unbidden work. No one goes in search of loss; rather, it finds us and reminds us of the temporary gift we have been given, these few sweet breaths we call life…. It was through the dark waters of grief that I came to touch my unlived life, by at last unleashing tears I had never shed for the losses in my world. Grief led me back into a world that was vivid and radiant. There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive. Through this, I have come to have a lasting faith in grief.”
We all have a cosmic appointment with grief. If we wish to truly grow, we eventually have to face all the failings, disappointments, dashed expectations, wounds, hurts, unmet needs that we’ve caulked over in order just to function in the world. We keep them stuffed down through obsessive work, relationships, all manner of addictions and distractions. But at some point the dam will break. And it will feel like calamity when in truth it is grace.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” I would suggest that the heart, once enlarged by grief, retains its new shape. Among its other functions, grief is a master teacher of compassion. An empathy instructor. We would be smaller, less noble creatures without it.
If we treat grief as ritual it will - as all ritual is meant to - change as. We cannot step into the birth if we don't first say agree to the death. This requires an enormous leap of faith. What if on the other side of death is just more death? Despair, depression, inaction? What if this grief leaves me a hollowed out husk, a shadow of my former not-so-bad-all-things-considered self? How can I trust that the current of grief will pop me up after it’s done its purifying work?
It’s no small consolation that there are others who have walked the path and reported back as to the landscape ahead. This is why elders – a woefully underused term in our society – are so important. An elder is one who has crossed the ocean of grief and lived to tell the tale. They are then, as Weller writes, capable of holding the world's sorrows with an elegant kind of grace:
"The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”
Praying that we all have the strength and resilience of spirit to meet the challenge of grief in whatever form it arrives. And that we are greeted on the other shore by the loving arms and open hearts of those who made it there before us.
P.S. If you’ve been enjoying the musings in these letters, please spread the word to any and all on whom you think they might land: http://joshradnor.instapage.com