Reposted from Medium
“Why”, she asked me, “are Americans like this? Why don’t they care that their kids are killing each other, killing themselves, that they won’t retire?”
It wasn’t a new question. It was one I hear regularly from most of my non-American friends. They’re a little horrified, baffled, and dumbstruck. The answer, though — or at least mine — cuts to the core of who people allow themselves to be. There is a way in which Americans do not allow themselves to be at all, in which they keep themselves hidden, suffocated, and small, by which I mean people with empathy, grace, courage, wisdom, and truth.
To mature, one must grieve. Grieve like the midnight mourns the moon. Let me explain that.
When we grieve, what do we do? “Ah!” we cry, “if only I had said this!” or “My God! If only I had told them I loved them more!” That is why our hearts burst apart. We are out of chances now. But for what, precisely?
In grief we know two kinds of imperfection. The imperfection in ourselves — that not matter how much we do, it can never be enough. No matter how much we tell them we love them, even if we say it a thousand times a day, it cannot for an instant stop death, decay, age, time, the fall. And we know the imperfection in those we love — no matter how bad or terrible they have been, how much they have wounded us, still, we yearn to have been held by them, and to hold them, too.
Ah. How beautiful. How sad. How strange. That only through grief do we truly come to know ourselves, in this deepest of ways.
What are we, then? What has grief taught us about this difficult and impossible thing called being alive?
Grief has taught us that we are as fragile as the spring. As evanescent as dust. As powerless as silence. And now, and only now, do we understand these things at all: grace, courage, wisdom, truth, beauty. To be small, powerless, evanescent — that is each of us. Every one of us, at all moments. Now we understand why wounding another life is harmful, and lifting up all those that we touch is our first obligation. Grief teaches us the meaning of love.
In this way, when we lose those we love, we grow, mature, develop. Grief for one person — a mother, a father, a brother, a sister — offers us a beautiful and strange gift, too. Through that grief, we are really mourning everyone — not just in the way that when I lose, I know a little what loss feels like for you, too. Or in the sense that all the pain and suffering in being flows through us thus. But in a deeper and truer way still.
We are grieving universal loss. What do I mean by “universal loss”? I mean that now we are really learning that we are all imperfect things. Each and every one. So limited, so little. And so what we are really grieving for, too, at last, is ourselves — helpless things, in the face of this terrible, tragic, wondrous thing called life. We have understood that all we are, do, or have can never be enough, no matter how mightily we try, to stop the inevitability of loss, or even to take its pain away. Nothing.
Midnight and the moon, remember? They can never touch. That is us, too, in this deepest of ways. What one can do is shine, and what they other can do is hold. That is us, too — our truth and our beauty.
Finally, we are here. We can give thanks. We are not ignorant things anymore — nor are we perfect in our imperfection. We are something greater still. We are powerful in our powerlessness, we are graceful in our fear, we are loving in our ugliness. We know, deep down in our bones, now, what it means to live, and live fully, even in the surety of loss, death, and dust. Shining and holding.
Now. Let me come back to Americans. I do not think they have had the experience of grieving in this way. When I look around, I see a culture deeply and badly out of touch with grief. Don’t you see it too? I see plastic smiles. I see artificial happiness. I see a false cheer. I see any kind of sadness being stigmatized. I see a childish regression into superhero fantasies and money worship. But all these things say to me: we do not know how to grieve. We are terrified of grief, mourning, sorrow, sadness. But they do not know how to shine and hold each other, too, as a result.
Let me put it another way. American culture is still premised on a deep, profound denial of the powerlessness and helplessness of being human. It’s about being strong and powerful, isn’t it? The self-help, the politics, the films, the books — all these are fairy tales of gaining absolute power, or falling at the feet of those who have it. So what Americans end up lacking is a sense of grounding in life itself: the empathy, gentleness, and grace that comes from understanding how fragile every life really is.
Now, what happens to people who have not had the experience of grief? They go on hoping for perfection, don’t they? If you have understood the above, what I am really saying is that grief teaches us imperfection. But Americans are still obsessed with perfection. They desire perfect lives. They demand perfect performance. They want perfect relationships. American culture and society are both premised on perfection. At work, if you’re not perfect — bang, you’re out. In life, if you’re not perfect, you’re nobody.
Even in the way that they pretend to admire imperfection, they are really celebrating perfection. There is a perfect way to be fat, a perfect way to be sad, a perfect way to be unhappy, a perfect way to be lonely. But that is not imperfection at all — the sad fat person posting happy smiling pictures on Instagram. Imperfection is the beautiful surrender to grief.
So here Americans are. They are trapped in rage and despair and anxiety. But they will not grieve for imperfection — and thus free themselves of the burdens of perfection. They still demand perfection from one another — and that is why they cannot treat one another gently. So a culture of cruelty emerges. Kids shoot kids when they’re not numbing themselves with drugs. These are the wages of perfection as a way of life. We might be angry at all that — but the real question: are we grieving?
I do not think we are. I think that Americans protect themselves from grief, with toys, gadgets, designer lifestyles, apps. But these things are a poor excuse for living. Until we understand the gift of grief, we are only ever running away from pain. But pain, like a ghost, will follow us to the ends of the earth. It can only be undone by being held.