Monday, February 11, 2019

Reflections on grief denied, avoided, thwarted

Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'erfraught heart and bids it break.*

The British bard sees deeply into the core of human existence, whether or not his audience is prepared to let the truth penetrate the walls of many preferred myths.

Some of the synonyms of grief include: anguish, distress, agony, torment, woe, desolation, despondency, despair, heaviness of heart. However, in modern parlance, grief has been so emptied of the fullness of its import, as to have become diluted, over-worked and thereby neutralized of any profound imprint on the human heart.
We have even gone so far as to render “grief” a type of mental illness, needing therapy in the latest DSM-5. In order to enter the forest of the trees of the implications of the bard’s (Malcolm’s) insight, we will have to reflect on the contemporary bi-polar extremes of our divided perception of grief: on the one hand, we dismiss it as merely a part of life, not to be dwelt upon, lest we wallow in the pit of self-pity while on the other, we consider it a condition requiring psychotherapy. Both extremes have the impact of rendering grief a topic to be avoided, minimized, disdained and thereby bereft of both recognition and respectability. Linked closely to that other verboten topic, death, grief is another of the emotions that segregate men, in our responses, from women, in theirs.

Men, for the most part, privatize their experience of grief, drown it in another draft, or cocktail, depending on their social state and taste preference. Refusing to succumb to the termination of the proposed forced drowning, however, grief digs its own cavern in the core of male memory, ready to emerge, potentially with even more acidity, upon the experience of another loss. Women, on the other hand, cannot deny their own grief, neither can they bury it or dismiss it. In some sense, providing they are encircled by a version of the ‘sisterhood,’ they welcome the opportunity to embrace the depth of the anguish, supported by the empathy, compassion and friendship of peers, each of whom has her own chapter in the long historic narrative of human grief.

A still-born child, a lost pregnancy, a deceased parent or grandparent, a failed relationship, a painful twist of fate, an unwanted pregnancy, a profound betrayal in love….these are just a few of the many already drilled, yet still flourishing, wells of human experience that provide the fuel/tears/identification/community for the women among us.

Whether it is Jane Eyre, waking to find Mr. Rochester in flames needing instant extinguishing from the water basin, (in Charlotte Bronte’s novel of the same name), or Michelle Obama’s visit to a severely burned veteran in a Texas hospital room who is struggling to get out of bed to salute the wife of his Commander in Chief, women either know, or more readily accept, the deep and profound pain that comes into the life of every individual. However, for men to speak in individual human terms of their own experience of grief, whether of the death of a comrade on the battlefield, or the loss of a brother to drowning after attempting to cross a frozen river, or hearing the death of a former teacher on the day after a hospital visit in which the teacher requested his former student to comb his few hairs in an act of connection rare among men, or learning of the death of the father of a classmate inflicted at his own hands in his bread delivery truck only a few days before Christmas, risks the proverbial “wuss” or “wimp” or worse, “faggot” drubbing from male listeners/readers.

Women, too, have often adopted the male model of the emotional denier, or minimizer, especially if and when they witness a male in tears. Cry-babies, for young mothers, are not the sort of male children they prefer to be know to accept, raise or prefer. I heard once of an elderly woman who, upon learning that her husband of sixty-plus years wept openly as some Robert Service poems from the Yukon were read to him, evoking a similar reading by his long-deceased father, blurted, “Oh, well, we all knew he has always been a cry-baby!”

There simply was no recognition of the considerable difference, not matter how nuanced, between tears at a death of his father and tears of joy in memory at Service’s memorable lines that evoked memories of that father.

We have all, undoubtedly, experienced (either as audience or author) the silent wall of grief unexpressed, denied, averted, sucked into our throats, bit deeply into our lower lip, “covered” by a cigarette craving, a change of subject, an inappropriate joke, or worse, a pablum platitude that ‘covers’ over the gaping emotional wound. Most of these encounters have come from the hands, lips, tongues, eyes and larynxes of men, as women have made excuses for our diversion, in their own best rendition of the dutiful partner.

Vigils for eight murdered gay men, like the one held recently in Toronto, following the horrific criminal case of the landscaper-murdered, would have been unimaginable only a couple of decades ago. Outpourings of grief, from bereaved parents, both mothers and fathers, following mass shootings in Parkland, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Arvada, the Montreal Polytechnique, while necessary and honourable, hardly pay tribute to the depth of the suffering inside the hearts and minds and psyches of the grieving. Morphing grief into public protests, and potentially into new gun laws, and security measures, while worthy, will never erase the pain of the suffering of those directly impacted as victims of the wanton abuse of power and the evidence of hollow and empty hearts of the perpetrators.

The most profound, if undetected and unparsed, “grief” of the perpetrators that provokes many of the horrible acts of savagery is nevertheless embedded within the broken limbs, the spilled blood, and the organs laid waste in the aftermath. And while we are highly sensitive to the one kind of the grief, of the victims and their families, we are far less open and receptive to the origins of the brutal acts themselves, and the stories of the mostly men who have inflicted so much pain.

War, itself, another of the theatres of human mass destruction and devastation, continues to hold an imponderable sway over millions of men and women, in the presumed belief that there is honour in those acts of carnage that are inflicted on the battlefield. And likewise, we are much more ready to listen to and to repeat stories of our loved ones who have fought and died in service to our country than we are to open to the utter traumas they have suffered and inflicted. Our ears and our eyes are open to acts of human bravery from those “allied” to our cause, while remaining closed to the suffering we are inflicting on another side. And that dynamic pertains to all initiators of military conflict.

Chris Hedges quotes wartime Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, in his column, Peter Jackson’s Cartoon War, in truthdig,com, of this date:

"Inexhaustible vanity that will never admit a mistake..individuals who would rather the million perish than that they as leaders should own—even to themselves—that they were blunderers…the notoriety attained by a narrow and stubborn egotism, unsurpassed among the record of disaster wrought by human complacency…a bad scheme badly handled…impossible orders issued by Generals who had no idea what the execution of their commands really meant…this insane enterprise…this muddy and muddle-headed venture."

These words, and their source, seem almost unexpected, surprising and perhaps even ironic, at least to those who have read about the heroic aspects of military conflict, and who continue to aspire to repeat its tragedies. And if men (mostly men in power in various capitals around the world) continue both to celebrate the honour and dignity of increased military arms build-up, and the deployment of these killing machines as examples of their political and national prowess, continue to fulfil another “male myth” that they do not regard grief as a significant human experience, or worse they deny its reality and its significance in their personal lives, (given that they would appear weak and ineffectual to millions of their constituents), we will continue to read proud headlines of renewed arms races.

And we will continue to experience a divide between those candle-light vigils for victims of mass killings, and the flag-draped coffins airlifted to Dover Delaware of the way heroes, to whose families will go the national flag.

· The stories of the empty and hollow teachers who gave students the strap for nor legitimate reason, and

· the parents who inflicted their pride and anger onto the bodies and spirits of their own children without cause or justification, and

· the employers who dismissed workers without due process or “cause” because they were determined to protect their “regime” and

· the law enforcement officers whose need for power and control drowned both their empathy and their pursuit of the full disclosure of the story behind the story (their job) and permitted and encouraged then to act out a macho version of their professional roles in appropriately,

· and the men and women whose need for domination and power (requiring an innocent and submissive co-conspirator) estranged them from their better angels and the full consciousness of the truth of their abuse of power

· and the political class who has so imbibed the kool-aid of a perversion of power, including an arrogant blindness to and denial of the killer instinct, and permitted and fostered a military mind-set, budget and arms arsenal that would destroy the planet and everyone on it

· and the news outlets that subscribe to the same toxifying anaesthetic of entertainment embedded in the the honorifics of military engagement, upon which your ratings are predictably based

· and the corporations, including the arms manufacturers and the pharmaceuticals whose livelihood (profit based) depends on the continuation of a deadly myth of hard power as the primary means of attaining and sustaining national security (on all fronts, especially those “Zombie” dictatorships in Iran, Turkey, North Korea, Russia and China, according to Bernard Levy)

All of these stories, of personal injustice, anguish, pain and tragedy as well as military massacres, not only need to be told and re-told; they demand to be told and re-told, until we are no longer trapped in the “whispers that plague the o’erfraught heart and bids it break”.

*(Malcolm, in Shakespeare’s MacBeth Act 4 Scene 3)

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