He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
Note: Part of this essay is an excerpt from my 2013 book Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths For Turbulent Times
I will never forget the night of April 4, 1968 on which Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. The African American community in the United States was simmering and frequently erupting with rage at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. At that very moment, Senator Robert Kennedy was in Indianapolis, Indiana campaigning to become the next President of the country. Kennedy was passionate about ending racism and bringing justice to all minorities. He instinctively realized that when the news of King’s death reverberated throughout the country, an enormous retaliation from the black community would be likely. Kennedy was made aware of the assassination of King before the media had disclosed it, and with great skill and compassion, he announced it to the African American audience to which he had been speaking—extemporaneously and without a speech writer. He concluded his remarks with the above quote from Aeschylus.
Five years earlier, Robert Kennedy’s brother, President John Kennedy, had been assassinated, and subsequently, Robert was driven to deep introspection and contemplation which ultimately compelled him to run for President and to attempt to set the country on a steadfast course of justice and non-violence. In the spirit of the fallen Civil Rights leader, on that warm spring night in Indianapolis, Kennedy pled for calm, restraint, and non-violence punctuated with empathy for the loss everyone was feeling, especially the African American community.
Over the years I have found myself pondering these two sentences by the immortal author of timeless Greek tragedies. I invite you to do likewise, without attempting to analyze the words or the author, but to allow the exquisite poetry of them to wash over you like water and notice what happens.
Whatever one thinks of the Kennedy Dynasty, Bobby Kennedy experienced a profound transformation as a result of his brother Jack’s death and Bobby’s ability to allow the pain to fall drop by drop upon his heart. The grief he refused to push away led him into hours of deep reflection as well as social justice activism in which he truly listened to and began to organize on behalf of the poor until he was murdered on June 5, 1968 under circumstances as sketchy as those that killed is brother. In 1968, America went insane. The Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., outbreaks of racial unrest and violence, the unspeakable brutality at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and the election of Richard Nixon. We ranted and raved and swore that everything we were experiencing was unprecedented—it had never happened before, and things would never be this bad again. We had no idea what “bad” was or what “unprecedented” would look like 50 years later. I remember the despair I felt 50 years ago on the night of June 5. On that night, I decided to leave the Midwest and move to California to follow Bobby in his activism. My time there was short, and I would soon be back in Michigan, finishing my college education and getting progressively more radicalized in the process.
This past weekend, the Class of 2018 graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. What would normally be a time of ecstasy and endless graduation partying was subdued by the pall of the absence of the students who could not be there because they are dead. For this year’s graduates, 2018 was really, really bad and really, really unprecedented. Yet through their tears and their trauma, many from the Class of 2018 are launching a summer tour funded by hundreds of parents and families across America who support the Never Again activists of Parkland. They have survived horrific violence, and who knows if they will encounter it again as adults in a society that grows more brutal by the day. Wisdom has already come to them and through them by way of the trauma of violence. No one would have championed their cause more than Bobby Kennedy.
Fifty years later, I’m still grieving his death, and at the same time, I’m exhilarated by the Parkland Class of 2018 and this new generation of activists. Through my grieving that has lasted 50 years and the resplendent light of these Never Again millennials, I pray for wisdom–for myself and for a culture that has irredeemably lost its way as pain falls drop by drop upon our hearts.