Generalizing Grief for the Greater Good
Have you ever been to a funeral or memorial service? The grieving family and friends have their attention divided between holding back their inner sobs and trying to relate to others who are gathered to share their memories. The harmony of quivering voices overlaying a solemn code of conduct gets punctuated by bouts of laughter from the telling of funny anecdotes. I suspect the comical stories are tacitly required so that participants have some sanctioned relief from the somber mood.
Death is nonnegotiable in its interruption of our lives. Unthinking routines are disturbed, backroom beliefs are laid bare in the light of self-reflection, and our values have their own “judgment day.” The sheer fact of death (not many facts have such power) causes us to wonder about the meaning we place on everyday events and things. Does it really matter if I get a new pair of shoes or a smartphone? Does my job make me feel meaningfully productive? Are my relationships as deep and healthy as they could be? Would anyone really care if I died? Have I lived well? And simply, “How do I cope with uncertainty?”
All of these questions are important to ask, and their lack of immediate answers often frustrates grievers. So, in an effort to outwit death, the finality of the fact is stolen. Tales are told of an unending ego, mightier than the stars that can only burn bright for so many billions of years. Pfft! In the burying of those questions, the opportunity for transformation is missed. The transformative potential is projected on the deceased so that they can be resurrected as a disembodied being. To learn all that death has to teach us is like going to a school of wisdom. Radical reorientations of values and lifestyles can be accomplished after just one semester. But Life is always providing us with more semesters, free of charge!
I want to come back to where I began in imagining the grief and potency that death of a close friend or family member has on those who are experiencing it first-hand. The sorrow feels so personal, despite seeing the pain in everyone else’s eyes. Intellectually, you know otherwise, but emotionally, it feels as if a madman called Life came into your home and shot up the place. Sure, others were wounded. But, you! You took a bullet straight into the heart. There is no surgeon skilled enough to extricate that bullet. Will your heart dare to beat again? Other people will move on, but will you? You share your sadness and expose your fragility because what else can you do? If you don’t, people wonder if “you’re OK” (meaning, “do you need 24/7 psychiatric care?”). So you show your grief to let others know that you are dealing with your loss, even if you doubt the usefulness of such a display. Numbness may even begin to set in. There’s a complete disconnection from your life and all its unsettled activity that nips at your flesh. No amount of tears can drown your grief.
Stop there now. Wallow in those imagined feelings for some moments.
I want you to generalize that state of being. Explode your feelings outward and cover all of humanity. People all over the world are experiencing these feelings of isolation and sorrow right now. Their pain is just as real as yours. Their loved ones were just as meaningful to them as yours are to you. Their cries are full of just as much anguish.
We are educated not to generalize because it leads to distortions in our understandings about the world. All white people are imperialists. All Americans support war. All Thais like spicy food. All educated people are smart. All expensive restaurants have great food. Despite how popular these descriptions are among a group, we learn to be more careful in not generalizing characteristics and/or assumptions to people who ostensibly belong to that group. The next time you lay down your credit card for the bill at the three-dollar sign restaurant, you may be wishing you had just gone to the nearest taqueria instead. Generalizing, just like anthropomorphizing, can lead to all kinds of false impressions. The grape vine whose “limbs” I severed a couple of weeks back probably did not feel the pain that I imagined it did.
But, people are all quite similar, no matter how much we focus on what separates us as individuals and groups of individuals. “Those Africans dying of AIDS” are people who are experiencing an endless chain of tragic losses. Their grief is no less debilitating. The Iraqi families who have had their lives blown apart by shrapnel suffer daily not just from their losses, but also from the knowledge that those deaths were preventable. Soldiers’ families are no less caught in this cycle of misery.
Indeed, you know all of this intellectually, but do you understand it emotionally? Politicians and celebrities who suddenly become outspoken about a social/medical issue when a catastrophe strikes their families speak to this division in understanding. They were not intellectually ignorant about pesticide-caused birth defects, but they were emotionally ignorant. They did not care that the laborers picking their strawberries were not properly protected from exposure. The world has been made aware of the dangers that coal miners face, but we haven’t changed our energy sourcing patterns. We know about poverty and we know that much of the world lacks access to healthy living standards, but the problem continues to worsen. This is not because we do not know about these issues; it’s because we don’t care enough to find out why.
If a fundamental shift in your personal life were needed so that your loved one didn’t die, would you make that change? How would you react if the only way to keep your loved one alive was to get me to reduce my constant use of plastic disposable water bottles? Would you urge me to do so or would that be “too much work” and not worth it? In other words, your loved one dying was a fair price to pay for my continued convenience of using those bottles.
It seems barbaric to put it this way, but that’s pretty much how it works, just on a larger scale. There are proposals for a better functioning social system in which people are properly fed, housed, and educated. Crime, war, and poverty are not intractable problems of humanity. They survive because of our terrifying beliefs about “human nature” (with you and those you know as the exceptions to this monstrous nature, of course!). Examine the science about human social behavior, notice how adaptable humans are, and notice what factors contribute most to our well-being. By ignoring the problem and remaining steadfastly ignorant, you are increasing the chances that you or someone you love will be the next victim of a stupidly designed social system. And when your grief overwhelms you because “something could have been done to avoid the tragedy” just remember that they, like you perhaps, didn’t have time or interest to solve such problems. Your despair was not theirs, so it was not their concern. As Helen Keller said, “It is hard to interest those who have everything in those who have nothing.” Or more bluntly, it is hard to make other people's problems matter to you.
We cannot wait until we have all experienced every preventable human-created disaster, so that is why we must generalize our emotional experiences. Being oppressed, losing a loved one, witnessing an injustice, feeling cheated, and being hurt are experiences we have all had. The specific circumstances were different, but the emotional experiences can be generalized. As we get better at that, the choice between earning interest vs. making sure no one goes without food will be a no-brainer. We will naturally act towards the greater good, not because of state compulsion, but because our hearts demand it.