Western religions less than helpful in dealing with grief
Your essay on intellectualizing and denying grief was sent to me by a valued friend. You describe very effectively the truth that to love “guarantees the experience of loss.” And yet, not to love? Simply out of the question. Life and death do follow, as day does night. Why, do you suspect, this fact as immutable as time, has not been the focus of mainstream Western religions? And conversely, well explored in the Eastern religions? — D.C., Palm Springs, Calif.
A: Your question, D.C., rests its finger squarely on the pulse of a great irony of our time: the denial of death. You say death and loss have “not been the focus of … Western religions.”
That’s an understatement. In Western civilization, religion is commonly conscripted to aid and abet the denial of death and loss.
Note that I did not say Western religion denies death and loss. I said it is conscripted in that service. See, competent religion stands squarely in a paradox: At once it stands apart from culture (to judge it and lead it), yet it is also a reflection of that culture. Christians often say it this way: “I am in the world but not of it.”
I get it. But if you walk through a corral with new boots, you’re gonna get some on ya. You’ll begin to take on both the advantages and the hazards of life in the corral. And in the corrals of Western civilization, we deny death and loss.
I find this to be especially ironic in Christianity. The central symbol of the Christian faith is the cross, which, however beautifully it decorates our pierced ears, necklaces and altars … well, before it stood for anything, it stood as a symbol of death. And not just any death, but a death barbaric and accursed beyond comprehension. Yet Christians point at this same symbol to stand for love and life also beyond comprehension. Why? How?
And it’s here I wax reprovingly to the entire Western world: Because, big dummies, any possibility of truly living and loving depends entirely on our ability to embrace death. That’s not a Christian truth. It’s a truth-truth. Those three things are inseparable. Related — by their very nature!
Sorry. I get carried away.
For all the beauty, meaning and truth that Western institutional religion has offered the world … well, in its modern form, I give it an overall C- when the subject turns to grief. It is often not useful to sad people. Sometimes it’s actually an impediment to healthy grieving. Sometimes antithetical.
You think I sound unduly critical?
In this culture, it’s the norm for me to listen to grieving patients try to wrap bad theology around their broken hearts. For example: “I know that God won’t give me any more than I can handle …”
Oh yeah? Lots of things could happen to me today that I can’t handle. If my son dies, I don’t intend to handle it. I intend to come unceremoniously apart at the seams. And God will just have to handle me not handling it for a while.
“I know my (loved one) is in a better place …”
That may well be, but your life stinks right now.
“If I just had faith …”
Well, yeah, but not the way you’re thinking about it — as an alternative to suffering. True faith is a context for suffering. No way to leapfrog from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday. All paths lead through Friday.
“I know God has some reason for this …”
I think that’s double-speak for “I’m furious with God.”
Have you ever seen someone try to paste a religious smile across the gaping wound of grief, outrage and despair? It’s creepy. And it’s not faith. It’s ego-faith. Huge difference. And it makes people miserable, depressed and bitter. It unnecessarily protracts grief.
In the 1987 movie “Roxanne,” the fire chief finds his men blithely oblivious to a fire blazing merrily in the firehouse trashcan. He scolds them: “I have a dream. If, heaven forbid, there should ever be a fire in this town, my dream is that the people would not then say, ‘Whatever you do, don’t call the fire department.’ “
I have a dream. My dream is that, if, heaven forbid, someone should fall into acute bereavement, the people would not then say, “Whatever you do, don’t go to church.”
Ironic, I say, because Jews and Christians share an idea eminently helpful to grieving people: “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.” (Isaiah 9:2) Those same words were later used by Christians to describe Jesus’ life and work (Matthew 4:16).
Where does the light live? It lives in the darkness. Want to see the light? You gotta be willing to walk into the darkness.
Grief is real darkness.
Readers take stand on comments about religion and grief
Last week, I answered D.C.’s question about why Western religion appears not to focus on grief, death and loss. Worse, I said, in Western civilization, religion often is conscripted to aid and abet the denial of death, grief and loss.
By 9:30 that same morning, I was wading deep in reader mail, my reactions to which ran the gamut — touched, inspired, gaping irony.
For those of you who asked for additional resources, I recommend Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The Denial of Death” as the definitive primer on this subject. Becker saw the denial of death as a primary culprit in so much individual and social malaise, including a chief ingredient is the proclivity for violence. The Ernest Becker Foundation (faculty.washington.edu/nelgee/) is an endless resource.
I mentioned a religious colloquialism oft recited by grieving people and, unfortunately, too often recited at grieving people: “God will never give me more than I can handle …” Turns out my criticism of this religious bon mot gored a few oxen out there. Let me try again:
Acute grief states aren’t “handled”; they are paralyzing. Devastating. Grieving people often feel crazy and can act crazy. They sleep all the time, or don’t sleep at all. They forget things, such as the car keys or closing doors or bathing. They put salt and pepper shakers in the refrigerator. They are known to have suicidal and homicidal ideation. They can and do sometimes lose reality contact altogether for a while.
If God will never give me more than I can handle, and it’s pretty clear that I’m not handling it, then what conclusion is left to me but that on top of unbearable grief I am now reminded that my faith is lacking. I am spiritually inept. Competent religious people “handle” their grief, it turns out.
When religious people say, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” they unwittingly add a layer of failure and self-recrimination to the burden of someone who is doing well to remember to wear pants.
A clergywoman wrote to say she believed this maxim to be a confusion of the scriptural idea that “God will not tempt us more than we are able to withstand without providing a way out. … The point is that temptation has a way out; grief has no way out. … Grief is often unbearable, yet survivable.” — C.S., Henderson
Unbearable, yet survivable — great quote, C.S.! Exactly the darkness to which acutely grieving people must surrender if they are to “see the light,” to move on into health, wholeness and new life.
Conversely, a churchman wrote to scold me and warn me: “You have the mistaken impression that God cares whether you fall apart or not. You are apparently not familiar with the Sovereignty of God. To not place death in the providence of God is to sin against God. My impression is that if you believed in the scripture or sin, you would not have made a foolish statement like ‘God will have to handle it’ and I am sure there will come a time when you will regret having said it.” — R.H., Pahrump
Let me not mince words, R.H.: Your letter is a virtual paradigm of the point I was making in last week’s column. Exactly the kind of religion from which, as an advocate for grieving people, I would want my grieving patients to be protected.
You think it foolish for me to say God will have to handle me not handling devastating grief? Think through it again, R.H., and you will see it is precisely a confession of my limits and God’s sovereignty. Just my own tongue-in-cheek version of two Hebrew scriptures: “Why have you forsaken me?” and “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Words I deeply respect when coming out of the mouths of folks crucified by grief.
The denial of death, grief and loss in Western culture is fueled by ego inflation (the wish for immortality), the idolizing of science and left-brained rationalism, and, not the least withstanding, material affluence.
“But is the denial of death really all that harmful?” asked T.N. of Bozeman, Mont.
I thought immediately of a subplot in the 1987 movie “Moonstruck.” Rose discovers her husband, Cosmo, in an affair with a younger woman. She complains to a girlfriend, “Why do so many middle-aged men do this?” Then she answers her own question: “You know why? Because they are afraid they are going to die.”
Rose waits up for her philandering husband to come home. “Hello, Cos,” she calls to him as he mounts the stairs. “I just want you to know that no matter what you do or where you go, you’re gonna die like everyone else.”
“Thanks, Rose,” is his puzzled reply.
Growing up includes humble surrender to all we are and are not
Q: “How does one get past regret? I have regrets from my childhood, my adolescence and as a young adult. If only time travel were possible! I dream about how I would go back and do so many things differently, so that my life would be better today. I can’t seem to get past the mistakes I made as a younger person.” — Name withheld, Las Vegas
A: Here’s a fun parlor game: The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done. Ever played?
It tends to be played spontaneously — in hotel rooms or on late-night road trips. Maybe after most of the partygoers have gone home, and now it’s just you and one or two best friends in a living room. The likelihood of this game goes up in direct proportion to the number of open wine bottles and empty beer cans in the room.
The game begins: “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
Regrets fall quickly into three categories: missed opportunities, bad judgment and moral regrets.
We miss opportunities because we can’t or don’t appreciate the open door before us. For example, I regret giving up on the guitar as a freshman in college. I wish I’d had the guts and the discipline to stick with it. I was 33 before I gave myself permission to be artistic and creative, to write and sing songs. What was I afraid of?
Want the truth? I’ve spent much of my life afraid of excellence.
We miss opportunities because we have egos as big as cathedrals and, paradoxically, as frail as butterfly wings. Especially in adolescence and young adulthood. Talking to youngsters about smoking, drinking, drugs, teen pregnancy, staying in school, choosing friends wisely, training for a meaningful career … well, sometimes it feels like this:
Grown-up: “My best advice is don’t deliberately hit yourself with all your might in the head with this sledgehammer. It will really hurt and you won’t like it.”
Youngster: “Yeah, what do you know? You can’t tell me what to do!”
Our regret over missed opportunities really comes down to our embarrassing dismay over how long it took us to grow up. Not to mention the growing up we still have left to do.
We pick wrong. We’re unlucky. Mostly we choose unwisely because we are not at the time in possession of sufficient wisdom. Instead of the new car behind Door No. 1, we pick the mule behind Door No. 2. And it’s more than just the random failures of “betting on the wrong horse.” More people than you could ever imagine come to regret the decision to divorce, change jobs or relocate.
So, we’re back to growing up, because, while facts and knowledge come in a box, judgment and wisdom only come with time.
Punishing and paralyzing ourselves for unattained levels of maturity — growing up — is a bit like resenting not yet germinated wildflower seeds that lie slumbering in the desert sand. They grow and bloom when they grow and bloom. Not a moment before. Heaping contempt on the seeds doesn’t make them grow and bloom any faster.
Wish I had a nickel for every celebrity I’ve ever seen on a talk show who smiles a superior, enlightened smile, nods like the Buddha, and says meaningfully, “I have no regrets.”
May I be frank? If you have no regrets, then take a hike. I don’t want to know you. Because, while you might have been a “being,” you’ve never been a human being. Human beings have regrets. Buckets of them.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?
I’ll die ashamed of the way I treated my little sister when I was growing up. Oh sure, I can explain it clinically in the context of my family’s systemic dysfunction. I was the Hero. She was the Scapegoat. Blah blah blah.
I was cruel to her because it assuaged my ego to be cruel to her. That she has forgiven me boggles the mind. An undeserved gift.
Here’s where I’m supposed to take off on my “forgive yourself” speech, right? Wrong. Great if you can forgive yourself. But before that’s even possible, we must tell ourselves the truth and accept that truth. The truth includes regret. Guilt. Sorrow.
Growing up includes a humble surrender to all we are and are not. The regrettable parts of our past become just as important as the laudable parts. Ironic treasures. Sources of surprising peace and wisdom. A tether for ego. A measure by which we appreciate the miracle of love and friendship.
You’ll never hear me say, “I have no regrets.” What I strive for is not having any regrets about my regrets.
I no longer apologize for being a human being.
Teaching human wholeness outside the institution
Q: You have mentioned in previous columns being a former member of the ordained clergy. Why former? Are you still involved in church work today? — T.O., Little Rock, Ark.
A: In the nine months since we added Tuesday’s Asking Human Matters to my regular Sunday column, yours is the sixth time I’ve been asked this question. I didn’t respond the first five times. Not sure why I’m responding now.
Am I still involved in church work? In the broader sense, the work I’m doing today is virtually identical to my previous life as a parish priest. I provide people a context of meaning, safety and encouragement in which to confront themselves, learn, suffer, celebrate, grow. I teach. I communicate a vision of human wholeness and authenticity.
Same vocation. Different location. Different audience. And so much more room to breathe.
But if you’re asking specifically if I’m any longer serving institutional religion in a professional capacity, the answer is no. I’ve returned to civilian life, as it were.
Ever read Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? Or seen the film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson? The setting is among the patients and workers at a mental institution.
In Kesey’s story, you meet our hero, R.P. McMurphy, a con man who pretends to be a mental health case to avoid a prison work farm. He challenges authority. He teaches the mental patients to be sane.
You also meet Nurse Ratched, the ward superintendent. You don’t like her. Kesey describes her as “enormous, capable of swelling up bigger and bigger to monstrous proportions.” As you keep reading, you wonder if she’s a very good psych nurse. Pages later, you wonder if she’s helping the patients. Still later, you wonder if she’s hurting the patients.
But it is worse still than all that. In the end you discover that Nurse Ratched needs the patients to be sick. She conscripts the patients to maintain the polished persona necessary to avoid confronting her own injured and insecure self.
Billy is a 31-year-old stuttering neurotic. McMurphy sneaks two prostitutes onto the ward late at night, one of whom spends the night with Billy. When Nurse Ratched arrives on the scene the next morning, she is outraged. Billy comes hopping out of his room, pulling on his pants, to the applause of the other patients.
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself,” says Nurse Ratched, voice dripping with the very shame she so desperately needs Billy to wear. And, for the first time in his life, in the company of a powerful woman, Billy, utterly sane, sets his gaze and says, without stuttering, “No, ma’am.”
I’m not advocating sex workers as part of the regular treatment plan for psych patients, but who cannot see this tawdry romp has been a healing intervention for Billy? He is in this moment wholly himself.
Off balance for but a few seconds, you can see the feral intelligence of a new idea bloom behind the nurse’s eyes. “Well,” she says smugly. “We’ll see what your mother has to say about this.”
Billy begins to stutter again. He begs Nurse Ratched not to tell his mother. They take him back to his room, screaming. Billy breaks a glass and cuts his own throat. Kills himself.
Only McMurphy sees the evil as evil. He jumps on Nurse Ratched. Attempts to choke her to death. For his trouble, he gets a lobotomy.
But I think McMurphy’s real crisis happens earlier in the book. Nurse Ratched leads group therapy. McMurphy is dumbfounded, incredulous to learn that he is the only patient in this hospital who is remanded there. Every one else is free — totally free — to leave the hospital at any time. But they don’t leave. They remain passive. In effect, they agree to both obedience and unwellness because they are, in the end, just as invested in Nurse Ratched’s persona as she is.
No one cares. This is McMurphy’s real horror. His unspeakable pain.
Thus endeth my little allegory.
I didn’t leave because of Nurse Ratched. I left because it finally occurred to me that, collectively speaking, everyone was just fine with Nurse Ratched.
I left before they gave me a lobotomy.