Honoring Grief: A Revolution of Tenderness

 © kelly rae roberts

 © kelly rae roberts

This morning when I read the news, I felt sick to my stomach. It’s not that anything specific happened—just the madness of our world. Today, it hit me hard.

These are challenging times and I often feel lost in a whirlwind of rage, disgust, grief, hope, numbness, faith, and fear. As our planet heats up, our minds are burning—and there’s so much angst in the air. Although we can say our insane administration is to blame, in some ways none of this is new—the tension’s been building for a long time.

It’s no mystery that this nation was founded on imperialism, genocide, and a patriarchal model of power, domination, and oppression. The first American “conquerors” came to these sacred soils and decimated the indigenous people who were here. We “trumped” them with our guns and greed as we lay claim to the land. Then, we savagely uprooted the people of Africa and sold them into slavery to build our mansions and manage our crops. Try as we might to deny these realities, they remain true: the land of the free has never been a land of equality and justice for all. Though the vision for the United States is noble and revolutionary things have happened here, in so many ways we've fallen short of our constitution. 

Eckhart Tolle speaks about the “pain body”—the accumulation of old emotional pain that we never faced and accepted at the time that it arose. We all carry individual pain bodies, but Tolle says we also carry a collective pain body. These transpersonal pain bodies are prevalent in certain groups that have suffered centuries of persecution. Maybe this is why I wept for days after watching Schindler’s List in high school—the film ignited my Jewish pain body and brought up the deep generational trauma that I had never consciously acknowledged. Watching the horrors that my ancestors suffered evoked such intense despair that I came home from the theater, fell on the floor, and bawled a river of ancient tears.

But Tolle says the pain body of specific groups isn’t confined to those groups alone—it affects everyone. In this country, it forms the collective American pain-body, which all Americans feel, whether we know it or not.

As I watch the madness of what’s happening in our country, I can’t help but wonder if the “collective American pain-body” has become activated—like a dormant volcano beginning to steam before it explodes. Perhaps the unacknowledged, unexpressed grief that hides in the fabric of our nation is coming to the surface. Of course, for some marginalized groups, this grief has been on the surface for decades, but we haven’t listened. We haven’t acknowledged the discomfort and fear that so many live with day after day. But now we must look—and we can’t turn away. 

Obviously, this isn’t easy to do. In our techno culture of selfies and status updates, we’re taught to deny the dark waters of grief that lie beneath our social media persona. We will it away with new age platitudes and academic rhetoric, with self-righteous anger and precious pride. We do everything possible to desensitize ourselves from our personal and collective pain, but the impact of this denial can no longer be ignored.

As the trauma of centuries begins to thaw, it’s confusing, uncomfortable, unpleasant, scary, and raw. It hurts. Who knows how to navigate these uncharted waters? Who knows what this time will bring, or how the chaos will transform into a new world order? It’s so hard to see, but maybe this unrest is the fire of love bringing what’s hidden to light so it can heal.

The late West African Dagara teacher, Sobonfu Some, shared much wisdom about this subject. She believed that modern society doesn’t teach us how to honor and release our sadness. As a result, the accumulated emotional and spiritual toxins overflow as blame or hurt towards other people. Naturally, our pain spills out and causes more pain. But Sobonfu felt that real transformation can happen if we allow our grief to flow. She said we need communal spaces and shrines where people can go to mourn and be witnessed. I completely agree. While grieving alone may not create deep and lasting change in our social structures, it’s so important for healing. 

One of the things I find most painful in our current political climate is the profound lack of humanity. Everyone has an opinion, but so often these opinions remain in the realm of the intellect and rarely touch the heart. Personally, I don’t think that’s enough. Intellectual knowledge must also be felt on the emotional level where it can be alchemized into something constructive like empathy and right action. Without this alchemy, we risk dehumanizing each other and rejecting the very people who might actually be our allies. 

As Sobonfu suggested, we need to openly acknowledge and express our grief. We need to journey into the underworld of our collective pain body and shed the tears that were never shed. We need to sit with those who are suffering on all sides and say, “I hear you. I see you. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I never listened to you before—that I never cared about your experience. I’m sorry that I never understood how my privilege and greed have caused you pain. I’m sorry that I did hurtful things out of ignorance. Please forgive me.”

Then we need to say those same words to ourselves.

Sometimes I wish the whole world could have a mass grief ritual to cry our countless tears... to sit together and say: "What have we done to each other? What have we done to our planet? What have we done to ourselves?" It may sound like new age nonsense, but I really think we need a World Grieving Day. Not so we can stay stuck in despair, guilt, and sorrow, but so we can unburden our hearts and mourn the great lie that says we're separate from each other and the earth. 

Greed and divisiveness are not our true nature—they’re not who we really are—but we've wandered so far from our essential selves that we've forgotten. If we don't feel the pain of this exile, we'll just keep trying to solve our problems by putting band aids on festering wounds. But if we acknowledge our sadness, anger, fear, and everything else, maybe we can bring some healing to our communal home. Maybe we can make reparations through our realness. 

The world is changing so fast, sometimes I feel disoriented—like I don't recognize things anymore. I try to remind myself that the nature of life is impermanent and nothing ever stays the same, but somehow that doesn't bring comfort in the face of senseless violence. Still, when I turn within, the things I criticize about others stare back at me. Everywhere I look, it's a hall of mirrors. It’s amazing how easy it is to point fingers without realizing that, in some ways, we’re always pointing to ourselves. For instance, I say I’m frustrated about women’s inequality, but a defiant inner patriarch stifles my voice and keeps me small from deep within. I say I’m concerned about pollution and climate change, but I keep poisoning my mind with the trash of negative thoughts. The outside mirrors the inside, and vice versa. This is hard to acknowledge, but it's also empowering to admit the truth. 

At the same time, I know the heart’s capacity is endless. Neuroscience now proves that through attention training like meditation and chanting we can develop greater empathy, intuition, and awareness—and less selfishness, anxiety, and stress. This means contemplative practices can help us become more conscious citizens who deeply feel and respond to the suffering of others. I think this is hugely important because spiritual practice and social engagement are two sides of the same coin. Love and justice are one. We need kind hearts and we also need gun control. We need peaceful minds, as well as equal rights. 

There’s a reason the sages and mystics of yore remain an endless inspiration around the world—they had equanimity and refused to participate in the divisive ego games that most of us fall prey to at times. Their example constantly reminds me that love is a revolutionary act. Focusing on the good in people instead of the faults; celebrating other’s achievements instead of their failures; and remembering the incredible fragility and blessing of this human birth—these have become radical acts of rebellion in our modern society. But these radical acts are timeless in their beauty and they point us toward what’s possible, even when it feels completely out of reach.

How to be soft in a hard world? How to go slow when it all goes fast? How to grieve and know that the one who grieves is also an apparition, a holy dream? These are things I'm thinking about. 

A few months ago, Pope Francis said we need a “revolution of tenderness”. I found that sentiment to be so beautiful, and so true. We do need tenderness right now—perhaps more than ever. So many people on this earth are suffering from different forms of injustice and oppression, both systemic and personal. Let’s be kind to each other as we unravel the knots of history and create a world where all people are valued and compassion reigns.

Carrie Grossman