Distant Grief

anyaPublished in the Loudoun Times-Mirror, May 12, 2010

What do we do with distant grief?

When I say distant grief, I mean the grief that grips us when we hear of a tragedy that occurred in a place we have never been, to a people we do not know. I mean that sort of grief that settles in our hearts as hopelessness: “What can I do? Who am I to help?”

A member at the Unitarian Universalists of Sterling expressed the pain that has gripped her upon hearing of recent tragedies – from the earthquakes in Haiti and China, to the mining disaster in West Virginia, from the explosion and oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, to the tornadoes in the American South. She feels grief for all the loss but the grief seems unresolved, distant, disconnected.

Her struggle reminds me of the basis for an ethic of empathy in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the story of the Exodus. After the Israelites are freed from bondage they are reminded “befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is more than a call for hospitality, it is an imperative to empathize. It asks us to understand another’s woe as if it were our own.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist, speaks a similar truth in his poem “Please Call Me By My True Names,” which includes these lines: “I am a frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond, I am also the grass snake who approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.” His poem is a meditation on empathy. In it he expands his “personal experience” to include the experiences of others as his own.

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that everyone has the capacity to be courageous in the face of tragedy. Rather than ignore the fact that we live in a world rife with both suffering and joy, we can contemplate how the experiences of others matter to us, how and where distant joys and tragedies touch our own lives.
This is not easy. This path of empathy known in many ways by many faith traditions requires that we give some of our precious time to meditation or contemplation or prayer – to acts of connection that lessen the spaces between us and them. This path requires great courage, but consider what it offers. Distant grief is unresolved grief; it can feel like a dull ache. If we dare take one step closer to grief, it may call us out of numbness to empathy with our fellow beings.

The Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael is the minister at the Unitarian Universalists of Sterling.

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