Wednesday, May 27, 2015

When There's Nothing Intelligent to Say

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my dad many years ago. It was right after my grandfather--my mother's father--told me that he felt that my father dismissed him. The situation was this: My grandfather had lost his wife a couple months earlier and often came to tears. When my my grandfather teared up around my dad, my father looked away and didn’t say anything, and my grandfather interpreted this as my father thinking that he was crazy. 

When my parents and I were having lunch, my mom shared that her father felt that my dad just didn’t see him or understand him. My dad responded, “I don’t know why he’d think that!” So I explained the conversation I had with grandpa Carlson, that when he came to tears, my dad’s silence and looking away caused him anguish. My dad responded, “But there’s nothing intelligent to say.” 

Yes, in the face of human suffering, there is nothing intelligent to say. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t a response. Gestures of compassion and kindness are called for when we encounter another in pain or sorrow. 

Since that conversation, my father has become much more aware of people who are suffering with loss. But this takes practice and this takes unstuffing our own grief. Every encounter with someone in sorrow is an opportunity for connection, connection not only with others but our own deeper selves! 

We naturally avoid pain and seek to distance ourselves from it. It is discomforting to encounter someone in acute pain or sorrow to the extent we carry unresolved grief. But avoiding the pain that others feel leaves us distant from them--and ultimately from our true selves. 

The same goes for what’s happening in the world that is awful. When we witness suffering or oppression or negligence, we are liable to look away and not say anything--and push what’s real away from our own consciousness. When faced with how our planet is becoming inhabitable to many species and is changing because of the excessive use of fossil fuels, we are liable to look away, not say anything, and convince ourselves everything is okay. In the face of injustice and oppression and environmental degredation, there is nothing intelligent to say, only the response. Gestures of compassion and love, which may appear to many as righteousness and anger. But if we approach our justice work with attention, with care, and with a strategic vision, our responses can make a tremendous difference. 

Sometimes, what happens in the world is so awful, there isn't anything intelligent to say. There's only the response, affirming human dignity and standing with others who share our commitment to seeking compassionate witness and resistance in the face of the unspeakable.

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