January 19, 2017
Grief does not work the same for everyone, but to anyone who’s experienced it, it’s universally recognizable. I know grief when I see it, and I see it in this moment. In the woman who caught my eye in the dressing room at the gym as we both looked away from TV coverage of you-know-what; in the texts between friends to share the acts of resistance and solidarity we have planned for the next 48 hours; in the deep exhalation of my mother’s breath as she hugged me goodnight.
This is my frame of reference, of course; there are lots of people who aren’t grieving, who are celebrating instead, because that’s how ideologies run: two ways. There are those who are “waiting and seeing,” those whose personal issues are so real and primary and in-your-face urgent that they can’t see or be concerned with anything else. I get that.
It’s complicated, and nuance matters more than ever; I know that there are legitimate concerns about the leadership and language and inclusivity of Saturday’s protest efforts; I know that there are many groups of people for whom this grief is old hat, who view these sudden and dramatic showings of outrage as privileged and lacking in self-awareness. I know that demonizing and painting with a broad brush, no matter which side is doing it, is dangerous.
But I’ve been listening to the voices who seem the wisest, both past and present; those who have stood inside of resistance for their entire lives, who have things to teach me and all of us who are interested in learning, who can offer some direction when many of us feel unmoored. Here’s one thing they all seem to agree on: calling things by their proper names.
I may lose some of you with this example, but hear me out. In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort—the power-hungry villain—is commonly referred to as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” In the first book of the series, Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor, instructs him otherwise:
“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
That’s one thing we can do. Stop equivocating things that aren’t equivalent. Stop using euphemisms because we’re scared of the truth. Stop wishing our way into cheap optimism.
We are so obsessed with positivity in this culture, to the point that we have and continue to erase narratives of whole swaths of people and refuse to make room for facts that don’t fit inside of our relentlessly cheery outlook. That is part of how we got here, and we have to stop. According to Vincent Harding, and I’m pretty sure he knew, “What is needed is more and more people to stand in the darkness.”
The other thing that I think I’ve learned—and this will seem contradictory, but I find that paradox is usually where the truth of human experience is located—hope is essential. An insistence on joy: not as a blind looking-away, but as a choice. Call the dystopian clown show what it is, then refuse to let it grind you down. Resist the bullshit narratives that want to cocoon you in fear, then go make some art. Let yourself be outraged by that which should generate outrage, even if it happens over and over and over again. Write down what you value, what you believe in—do it right now—so that you will not be normalized into someone your grief wouldn’t recognize. Create community around those values, if you haven’t already, or find one to join. Remember that you are capable of great kindness, and that, while it may not seem like it, care for the self and care for the other is a radical act.
Grief is often monstrous, consuming. But it can also be a teacher. If we’re willing, it can show us that we are all braver than we think.
“Resistance is the secret of joy.”
“[M]ake yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.”
“You defeat the devil when you hold onto hope.”
[Alice Walker / Rebecca Solnit / Run the Jewels]