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by Community Contribution October 09, 2023
[make sure to check out Earth Grief Tea which is an herbal preparation made to enjoy next to this blog post and the live workshop it was derived from – available only while supplies last]
In her 1983 book Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, the Buddhist philosopher and environmentalist Joanna Macy made the stunning proclamation: “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.”
She was writing to anti-nuclear activists, urging them to keep the faith despite their perceived political losses. I have thought of Macy’s insight often over the course of the past year. One of the things I appreciate about this quote is that it links the personal experience of heartbreak to the unfathomable scale of the cosmos, suggesting that our feelings are powerful and important enough to hold it all. The whole universe. For me, Macy’s quote is prescient; despite the fact that it was written more than forty years ago, it seems to speak directly to our moment, when we are all inundated daily with despair-worthy stories and images and headlines about the state of our planet. These days, the bad news is hard to ignore. In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and in the face of accelerating climate change and species loss, many of us are feeling helpless, grief-stricken, and anxious. I think that we can find direction and encouragement in Joanna Macy’s proclamation about the extraordinary capacity of a broken heart.
Roughly one year ago, my partner received a devastating and life-altering diagnosis that turned our family life upside down. Her condition required surgery– a risky, emergency surgery– as well as extensive radiation and chemotherapy. I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly in a caregiving role, and experienced bouts of overwhelming heartache as I adjusted to the change of circumstance. Heartache in the face of loss and rapid change. Heartache in witnessing my most beloved person suffer. Heartache at the reality that all my love could not change the facts of the diagnosis nor guarantee that my partner would survive it. The sorrow I felt was sometimes debilitating, but what surprised me was that it was also often grounding, sobering. The poet and essayist Ross Gay wrote in his recent book Inciting Joy that “grief is the metabolization of change,” and I have found nothing less to be true. This past year, my moments of deepest grief were also the times when I was able to get real about my situation, to drop the kind of magical thinking that kept me holding onto ideas of things as they were in the past. As devastating as it was to acknowledge all that had changed, it was also a great relief, and it allowed me to show up for my partner with a less guarded heart. In grief, I caught up to the present.
The personal grief that I experienced softened me and expanded the room I had in my heart for other people’s troubles and pain. It was no feat of altruism on my part; rather, I learned that this is what grief does. It slows you down and overwhelms you and breaks you open, and in so doing, it attunes you to the fact that you love, that in love your heart is tethered to other beings, and you therefore begin to notice that everyone around you also loves and grieves. I spent a lot of time in the cancer wing of my local hospital this past year, accompanying my partner to treatments and appointments, and I made more connections than my memory could catalog– so many tender moments with other caregivers and patients and nurses and doctors, flashes of intimacy in public. I imagine that folks who work in hospitals must experience this sort of thing all the time: strangers beholding each other in the fullness of their loves and losses, frailty and resilience mixed all together. Grief, I think, creates that kind of space, the kind you often find in hospital waiting rooms. The kind of space within which people are together with all their complexities and all their suffering, existing side by side in a temporary community of care.
More recently, I have begun to wonder over the parallels between personal grief and the kind of collective despair that our current social and environmental crises catalyze. When I read earlier this summer about the tens of thousands of dead fish that have washed up on the Gulf Coast in Texas, my home state, an effect of warming waters, I felt devastated. I also felt surprised at my ability to hold those facts of loss – the thought of each of tens of thousands of individual fish dead – without cowering, and to acknowledge the pain it made me feel. Grief had built my endurance for sitting with difficult things. It didn’t give me the magical capacity to make hard things disappear nor to fix the world’s problems, but it did help me to slow down and consider things as they are. There is a lot of suffering to behold.
In A Sand County Almanac the ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” I have long found this quote apt. It’s certainly been true in my life that the more I learn about this planet and the beings that constitute it, the more acutely pained I feel about the crises that plague it. The feeling has often been isolating. However, these days I’m inclined to question whether it’s inevitable that “one lives alone” amid the suffering. Can the world’s wounds not bind us together? Joanna Macy, who is now ninety-four, has been convening groups for decades to practice what she calls The Work that Reconnects, a kind of group work that was originally designed to cultivate resilience among environmental activists and other concerned citizens who were in the throes of despair. The work consists of group exercises, rituals, and discussions, and is organized into four main stages, represented visually as four points along a spiral sequence. One of these stages is explicitly focused on grief, or as Macy puts it: “honoring our pain for the world.”
Alongside Joanna Macy – and Ross Gay and Aldo Leopold – I wonder what grief can do. I wonder what our grieving together in these difficult times might make possible. I would like to believe that it would expand our hearts. I would also like to believe that it would grant us new eyes, allowing us to collectively metabolize the changes we are experiencing, to see and hear and feel what is, what might yet be despite our many and grave losses...
dandelion image above by Dori Midnight
first photo by Celestine Urban
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