By Guest Contributor Leigh Patel, cross-posted from Decolonizing Educational Research
I was on Mass Ave. and Boylston yesterday when the bombs exploded. You’ve heard more than enough to add the details of what it felt like to be there: panic, chaos, helping, screaming, running, falling, being helped up, mass confusion.
As I’ve been feeling the adrenaline pulse its half-life through my veins, I’ve been thinking steady on the need to grieve. How very important it is for us to stop and to share in moments of trauma and loss with each other. Many of us had the supreme luxury to do just that, and the grieving will continue. But I believe our collective need to grieve, to feel difficult feelings, may actually contain some answers to the questions roiling in our heads and bodies. The need to grieve and our lack of ability to grieve may have everything to do with the cycles of seemingly more frequent and deeper violence.
Grief is hard. We find it hard to sit with ourselves, with others, but mostly ourselves when faced with grief so we do a lot of different things, some physical and some cognitive, to get away from the grief. You know the physical ones (drugs, liquor, exercise, work, sleep), but I’ve been thinking about the cognitive exercises we use to contain or get away from grief. For example, sometimes we try to rank loss as if grief should be bigger or smaller–or more accurately, longer or shorter–based on the loss. We do this to try to wrap our heads around how long we and others might be or should be grieving. Alas, grief, like most of the human experience, doesn’t obey some arbitrary logarithm.
Sometimes we tell ourselves stuff like time heals all wounds. This isn’t so much true as it is a cognitive crutch to help us feel like if we give it enough time, it just will stop hurting all by itself. Time will absolutely allow a scar or clot to develop, but it will not necessarily heal. Hard emotions become hardened when they are not dealt with.
And in the quickest and most prevalent response to catastrophes like this one, we often put a laser focus on finding the person or persons to blame. BOLO–Be On the Look Out–for, in more cases than not, a dark-skinned man. This is perhaps necessary (that’s another post) but it is also certainly a distraction from grieving because now we can think of something other than our grief, something that seems more useful, more pragmatic (that great American value) than just feeling emotions. And who among us is surprised then that this fascination with blame channels a deep national fear of the other, especially the darker other? Terrorism has become synonymous with Muslims and Arabs in this country, but not with the young white males who brought us the mass killings of 2013. This is not just an injustice of epic racial proportions in terms of group criminal profiling, it also cauterizes the ability to grieve for these profiled men and women. Put more simply, it dehumanizes. As Kahled Beydoun noted in an Op-Ed for al-Jazeera, “The societal modus operandi of instantly elevating Arab and Muslims to the level of guilt not only strips one from the ability to grieve, but has–after decades of instant vilification–created a new brand of psychological guilt.”
Grieving doesn’t serve all the different needs we have after a trauma like this, but not grieving brings with it a tariff that we should not be willing to pay. Cauterizing our emotions, denying ourselves the core human need to grieve fuels anger and retribution. When we are unable to sit with loss, we seek quick action. We seek ways to wipe our bad feelings on others, whether with words or with actions, sometimes both. We lose the ability to see the connection, to empathize for the exact same terror felt in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan. We do this instead of slower and longer reflections on what drives violence. On how our society was formed, in part, through violence to Indigenous peoples and regularly refreshes an assumption that violence is necessary, even just. When we have a collective and shared inability to grieve, we also develop a common thirst for retribution. From the gangbusters growth of the prison industrial complex to the tropes of retribution in every politician’s speech, if you didn’t know any better, you might think that violence is unavoidable. That it is a natural companion to grief.
Well, it’s not. If we allowed ourselves more time to grieve, to truly be kind and gentle with ourselves, we might develop muscles of compassion for ourselves, and then we would be able to feel compassion for others. We might try to understand that atrocious acts of violence come from circles of humanity that have been shattered, and they can only be closed through connection and kindness, not through further shattering.
So take time to grieve, to be sad, to be angry. Make space for others to do the same. If that email really has to be sent right after tragedy strikes, include an expression of concern or kindness at the top. Let’s continue to call each other, hold each other, and smile at each other. Let’s take lessons from the hackers who circumvented the Westboro Baptist Church‘s party line of bigotry and flipped their script. Let’s learn and use restorative justice, especially in our schools. We can do this.