Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

This I Believe, on Faith and Grief

I've been meaning to do a post on the NPR series This I Believe for some time now. If you're not familiar with it, here's their own description:

This I Believe is a national media project engaging people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values and beliefs that guide their daily lives. NPR airs these three-minute essays on All Things Considered and Weekend Edition Sunday.

This I Believe is based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, hosted by acclaimed journalist Edward R. Murrow. In creating This I Believe, Murrow said the program sought "to point to the common meeting grounds of beliefs, which is the essence of brotherhood and the floor of our civilization"...

In reviving This I Believe, Allison and Gediman say their goal is not to persuade Americans to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, they hope to encourage people to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own.

There's plenty of installments I haven't heard, but of those that I have, "My Husband Will Call Me Tomorrow," by Becky Herz, is easily the most powerful and moving. It speaks of the role faith can and does play for many people. For me, it's a secular faith, and one consciously chosen. (There's far more to write on the subject, but just listen to the piece.)

The second piece that's stuck with me is "A Way to Honor Life," by Cortney Davis, a nurse practitioner sometimes faced with upset or grieving people, and here I shall roam far a field. I'm including it because I'm grateful for the realization she shares in it. Honestly, when I first heard Davis describe how she used to act, I felt a bit annoyed, because frankly, I've had to deal with such people my entire life. As she writes/says:

Once, I would have rushed to comfort these people. Uncomfortable myself with their grief, I'd want to ease their sadness with my cheer and consolation. I'd hug a patient and tell her to "try to get pregnant next month." I would reassure the widower, telling him, "Your wife had a long life." I'd enter the burned child's room in intensive care with a smile, rather than encouraging the mother to weep in my arms.

That dynamic makes me think of a scene from Shakespeare's Hamlet:

How is it that the clouds still hang on you?

Not so, my lord; I am too much i' the sun.

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Ay, madam, it is common.

If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

[1.2, 66-86]

I've always loved Hamlet's "I know not seems," and I've found it resonates with a fair number of teenagers, actually. Many are familiar with others' focus on appearances, and how a given emotional state of theirs can be seen by others primarily as an inconvenience. There's a difference between treating someone as a problem to be solved versus a human being who needs to be listened to, someone who might need a genuine moment of connection. The latter requires vulnerability, and risk. "Attention must be paid," as the line from Death of the Salesman goes.

I mention all this because Davis, in her former way of doing things, was interacting with others to make herself feel better, not them.

That's not to say she was a bad person, and clearly she meant well. She's also working in a job that requires a certain amount of emotional armor for most people, because otherwise burnout is inevitable. Some folks use gallows humor to cope, some go cheerful like Davis, and others take a still different route. I heard a doctor lecture on AIDS once, years ago. His delivery was surprisingly flat. However, I also knew that he was a very good man and doctor, who had dedicated his life to helping others. Because of his specialties, he had treated AIDS patients starting in the 80s, when little was known, little could be done, and the survival rate was poor. Perhaps some of his delivery was due to his own personality, but I suspect that dealing with as many terminal cases as he had just took a toll. I believe he had to create a persona or emotional space to deal with that much death and still do his job effectively.

All that said, I feel grateful when Davis says, "I no longer comfort others with false cheer," and feel sympathy when she describes dealing with the death of her parents. I also agree with her when she says:

When I grieve, when I stand by others as they grieve, even in the midst of seemingly unbearable sorrow, grief becomes a way to honor life — a way to cling to every fleeting, precious moment of joy.

That, too, like Herz, expresses a type of faith. Both pieces are lovely, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Everyone grieves in his or her own way, and in his or her own time. I've never thought that America, which possesses a heavy amount of "if you don't feel good, take a pill!" in its culture, deals with grief that well, or depression, or perhaps simply emotional non-conformity. I find, dealing with the death of my father a year ago now, that there are times I want to keep busy, that it's fine to laugh, and there are times the grief sneaks in — or strides in quite directly! — and I need to honor that. Attention must be paid. When I hear a family member's been told s/he really should move on despite it being less than a year, I want to slug the advice-givers, or at least curse them out. It's not quite as bad as the trite platitude a friend and colleague of mine diagnosed with cancer was told by someone "trying to be helpful." But no one chooses their feelings, only how they react to them, and grief doesn't plot neatly out according to a locomotive's timetable.

For example, I had a high school classmate who was killed by a drunk driver the day after we graduated. It was a freak occurrence, completely random, as he and a friend were driving to pick up a pizza. We're weren't close friends, but we knew each other quite well, as did everyone at that school and in our class. He had been a guy I just knew I'd run into later in life. His death was brutal on his family, of course. Personally, I was stunned, I was devastated, I thought and wrote about it quite a bit, and talked about it with classmates. I was trying to deal with it consciously and pretty directly. Still, almost two years later, it struck me how much I was still carrying it, and how much it had colored my thinking on an unconscious level. That realization was significant for me. But that process couldn't have been rushed, not even by me. Likewise, my current feelings do and will take their own course, and I wouldn't have it otherwise.

Since I've shifted into a more personal post, I should mention that I personally haven't felt much of the annoyance I've felt on others' behalf regarding grief over my dad's death. Some people fumble for what to say, but that's fine. The gesture is what's important, not the words themselves, and it's all appreciated. After witnessing some true vileness in the political sphere these past several years, I'm concerned at times about becoming too hardened in reaction, since it's not something I'd like to let spill over to allies and friends. ("Battle not with monsters" and all that.) As Davis used to in her professional field, it can be tempting to offer the easy answer versus the honest one in the personal realm, to give the pat response versus the riskier, genuine one. It's important for me to remember sometimes what all those people who showed up for the viewing and funeral and before and since have demonstrated. Death touches us all. And people are kind. They can be very, very kind. This I believe.


Fran said...

I read this and your post about your dad's death. I am sorry for your loss. Grief is an odd thing and quite different for us all, I find. I wish you and your family peace.

Ah- and Hamlet, very good.

I listen to This I Believe quite a bit, but don't recall the pieces you have here and am not in a position to listen.

I shall return!

Again my good wishes and peace to you as this year begins.

I see you are in Studio City. I spent two fine years of my life (98-00) over the hills and through the freeway in Los Feliz. It was a lovely time of my life.

Batocchio said...

Thanks for stopping by, Fran, and for the kind words.

The friends I have in Los Feliz like it quite a bit.