I am submitting this column on the eve of the midterm elections. By the time this newspaper is published, millions of people will be disgusted and despondent, no matter who wins. Hearts will rage, poisonous words will flow, visions of doom will loom. There will be breast beating and garment rending. But amidst the gallimaufry of emotions, there will be precious little grieving. There will be grievances galore, but grievance is not grief. Grievance is a shallow and festering surface wound, a smoldering resentment that you have not received what you are owed. Grief, meanwhile, is sacred and essential to human flourishing. However, the ruling class and their media mouthpieces manipulate us with a politics of grievance, stirring up a self-righteous whirlpool of fear and entitlement.
Grievance is addictive and stifling. Grief is cleansing, transformative and healing. This is why healthy spiritual traditions and religious communities put such effort into teaching us how to grieve. Rituals around loss and love are manifold in many wisdom traditions. The Hebrew Bible contains an entire book of grief simply called “Lamentations.” The largest book in the Bible, Psalms, contains more than 40 songs of lament, some for personal loss and some for communal loss. We are currently in the liturgical season of All Souls Day, All Saints Day and Día de los Muertos, which we just celebrated around the altar in my household by telling stories, lighting candles and paying respects to those we have loved and lost.
The spirituality of grief is not just about personal catharsis. The mystical traditions teach that grief is a sacred ingredient on the path to holistic liberation. In his book, “The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise,” Martin Prechtel describes grief as born of true love. He says grieving is a way of announcing praise for that which we have loved and lost. He tells a story of attending a listless funeral where nobody knew how to grieve and realizing it was because the people had forgotten how to praise. In his tradition, giving thanks is the most essential human activity, one that brings balance to life. So, when the things we love — things that are praiseworthy — become submerged by floodwaters of resentment and grievance, the world descends into disarray. Prechtel says, “[G]rief is not depression… Depression comes from not being able to grieve, which converts our losses into violence.”
Our violent political landscape is full of vanity and bereft of praise. It is full of grievance and devoid of grief. The outcome of these impending elections has a material impact on the lives of the people I love; it is important. But I believe that, until we solve the twin spiritual crises of repressed grief and stolen praise, we will remain trapped in the vicious cycle we find ourselves in now. Whatever may come tomorrow, may we recover the arts of praise and grief on the road to breaking free.
Rev. John Helmiere is co-convener of Valley & Mountain in South Seattle.
Read more of the Nov. 9-15, 2022 issue.