I was speaking to my friend about the Australian bushfires the other day, and he simply said: “They changed us. The bushfires changed Australia”. In spite of everything, could coronavirus change us?
Last week we spoke about reality – the opportunity that this moment gives us to stop, to ‘be still’, and to encounter reality as it really is – not only the gravity of the coronavirus emergency, but a chance to consider the reality of so much other evil and injustice in our world right now. The “long emergencies” on which corona sheds some light.
But it’s not just about reality – it’s about what we do with it. We need to talk about grief,
On March 13th, as the entire nation of Italy went into lockdown, Pornhub opened up free access to all Italians to its ‘premium services’. As millions wondered what they would do for the next few months, the corporation assured the Italian people that their services would “help keep you company during these next weeks at home“.
The cynicism of the porn industry aside for the moment – it’s an extreme example of a much broader point: humans are not good at reality. I’ve been really amazed, perhaps even a bit disturbed, by my own response to the crisis – jumping into a hive of frantic busyness, trying to work out how to “do” something about it or say something significant about it. On the one hand I feel terrible about what is going on in the world, on the other my instinct is to work out how to “make the best ” of this time. Simply put, I want to “manage“ things.
There’s certainly a lot to be said for being practical, especially in terms of organising ourselves to serve the most vulnerable – and for keeping our energy up at this time. And we need Jake Peralta, idiotic memes and dumb YouTube videos more thah ever right now! But can our rush to fill empty space with “stuff” – even good stuff – sometimes be a function of a deeper fear: the fear of showing up to reality as it is? We are so quick to satiate ourselves – to fill our minds and our bodies with something else, anything else, ironically keeping us from the very thing we need to do: process the world that is before us.
Nothing in me wants to sit and grieve the fact that 15,000 people have already died from this disease – nothing in me desires to go to that mental space. It seems so dry, barren and meaningless a place to go. But I know that I must. Neither do I want to engage with my fear – in particular fears about what might happen if this virus breaks out in refugee camps like Lesbos, where 20,000 people and counting are currently crammed into insanitary conditions in a space that was originally intended for a maximum of 4500. Or about what happens when this pandemic hits Sub-Saharan Africa, where health systems are so inadequate already. But I know that I must – because if I do not engage with these fears, then nothing changes.
My friend in Australia said the bushfires changed the nation. Why? Well, for lots of reasons, but in part because the nation grieved. Public grief, if we do it right, can be profoundly generative. Think about Remembrance Sunday, the yearly practice of confronting the oblivion and darkness of warfare – it is one of the most powerful motivations we could have to work in the interests of peace.
Conversely, when we do not take the time to grieve properly, we fail to learn the lessons that we need to. Take Grenfell. British society has to some extent been changed by Grenfell, but nowhere near enough. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country remain inadequately if not dangerously housed, not just in terms of fire risk, but precarity and vulnerability more broadly. Why? In part because we did not grieve properly – we grieved, but not to the point where it really started radically affecting budgetary, planning and macro housing system decisions. We moved on.
God’s offer, if we’d choose it, is to walk the quiet, slow and painful way of grief. He will meet us there, for he is grieving too, and there he will change us. At least a third of the Psalms are poems of lament, and many more deal with loss and darkness as a central theme. Ezekiel groaned, Elisha broke down in tears, Hannah sobbed uncontrollably, Jesus wept. “The Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express”. Jeremiah, says OT theologian Walter Brueggeman, walked deeper in the heart of God than almost anyone else. Why? Isaiah and Ezekiel knew God’s pain, his anger, even his wrath, but Jeremiah knew his grief. Jeremiah knew God’s grief.
But what does that actually mean in practice? What is ‘lament’? I think it has two components – space and study.
First, space – we need to allow ourselves space to just sit and be with reality, as it is. We need to feel whatever we are feeling about a crisis, even if that is nothing at all right now. If we feel sad, we need to feel sad; if we feel angry at God, we need to tell him that; if we just feel exhausted, then there is space and time for that. And when we’re in that space, we need to process – to do something with those feelings. That could be something explicitly creative, like art or writing; it might come out in poetry or in song. For me it’s often just talking to people about it, or expressing myself to God. But we need to do something with the lament, to formulate and turn it over in our hearts and minds; that’s what the Psalms are doing.
But lament also involves study. We often view lament as a highly emotional experience, and it can be. But lament is also a very deliberate process, a process of understanding, of getting to the roots of a thing. To understand a something to honour it, and to honour those affected by it.
Imagine a journalist working in a war zone, or a lawyer reporting a crime scene. Perhaps there will be times when they are deeply emotionally affected by what they are seeing, but at other times they are meticulous, attentive, even slow. At least to the outside observer, they are not in grief, but they are determined to get to the bottom of things; they will tell the truth about things. This, they know, is their contribution to justice.
At this time, when the temptation is to satiate ourselves, to fill our time with something, the invitation is to join and in some small way participate in the grief of God. It is no small task, but it is actually a profoundly healing one. I cannot explain why, I can only invite you to come with me there – the healing power is beyond the articulation of words themselves. But it is important that we go there.
“Arise, cry out in the night
as the watches of the night begin;
pour out your heart like water
in the presence of the Lord”
“Arise, cry out in the night,
as the watches of the night begin;
pour out your heart like water
in the presence of the Lord
It is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is young.
To sit silently before the LORD,
For the LORD has laid it upon him
For because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
Excerpts from Lamentations 2 and 3