Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Why We Mourn Princess Leia (and Prince)

Amid all of the expressions of grief and loss on Facebook and Twitter over Carrie Fisher (and Princess Leia) and George Michael and Prince and David Bowie and all of the others who have passed away this year, I’ve noticed the occasional comment or complaint about the emotion and energy that so many of us put into openly mourning the loss of prominent public figures, sports icons, entertainers and even the characters they play. I admit that I’ve wondered about this myself, even as I’ve cried and felt their loss in my heart. I mean, we don’t know these individuals. Why do we express such sadness about their deaths? In many cases, they’ve lived full and privileged lives. Why would we feel and express such heartache over them as opposed to, say, the children being killed every day in Syria and other war-torn areas of the world? I’m no psychologist, but I have a 3-part theory on this. Take it or leave it:

It’s Something We can Wrap our Heads Around
It’s often said that as humans, we have a difficult time wrapping our heads and hearts around the loss of the many, especially the many whom we are powerless to help. When we think about the deaths of millions of people during the Holocaust, to use the most devastating example I can think of, we feel horror and terror and sadness, but it’s a broad sadness. It’s such an immense tragedy that our hearts protect us. Can you imagine how incapacitated we would be if we felt keenly the death of each person lost? The grief would be overwhelming.

The same thing happens to us with the loss of the many – men, women and children – in today’s war zones. We feel rage and horror and grief about their pain and death… and it’s a broad anger. It’s a broad type of mourning. Now instead, think about the small boy sitting alone in the ambulance after his home was bombed to rubble. Think about the man walking down the street carrying his dead child in his arms. Think about the woman grieving and aching at the hospital because she has just lost all of her children in an air raid. Think about the little boy who drowned when his refugee boat sank. You can feel their loss keenly. You can feel sharp anger and grief about their circumstances. We are built to relate to other individuals. It’s not a moral challenge or a character issue. It’s just the way our minds work.

It’s Safe
If you have lost someone very close to you, then you know that openly, publicly grieving is the last thing on your mind when that person first passes away. It’s one thing to speak at a funeral or to write an obituary, because those are proscribed tasks, things we are expected to do, checklist items that are anticipated and that have a purpose and for which we follow an expected format (for the most part). These are not open, emotion-driven expressions of grief. Quite the opposite. They are things we do that are expected of us and that almost help us wade through the shock and deep grief by giving us a safe outlet and a task list to follow… almost like a lifeline we climb, rung by rung, to pull us along through those initial, molasses-like minutes and hours and days.

If you’ve lost someone very close to you, you know that your true mourning is primarily internal, at least for a while, and that the last thing on your mind – usually – is to openly grieve on Facebook. Not deeply. Not fully. In pieces and in short statements, sure, but not fully and openly. Not for a while, at least.

Ironically, our open sadness and expressions of heartache over these icons actually reinforces (I believe) that while they mean a lot to us, they are not the people we love most. It’s our ability to shout out to the world how sad we are that subtly also shows that our love is one that comes from a distance.

It’s the Loss not just of the Person but of their Impact
I believe that we also mourn these icons so deeply because of what they represent to us – the laughter and entertainment they brought us, the example and strength we learned from a character they portrayed or from the individuals themselves, the music and emotion that was the soundtrack and heartbeat to a significant time in our lives. When these artists and entertainers and figures depart, it feels like they take a part of our lives with them, like that part of us and those memories darken and die a little when these icons die. In some cases, we grieve because these individuals used their fame and prominence to make a positive difference – by sharing their own stories and struggles, by fighting for others, and by giving back to the world through good deeds and donations and adding positive energy to the Universe – and the world feels like it will be a gloomier and less giving place without them in it.

All of this being said, I hope that we all can allow each other our grief and our sadness. We’re all individuals, and we all feel things differently. If someone you know mourns the loss of an individual they didn’t know personally, why judge him or her? If a person feels safer openly grieving for a star versus openly grieving for a close loved one, then at least that individual has a positive outlet for their sadness. If we are only human and can more readily process and express anguish over an individual because the pain of the death of thousands of individuals is too great for our minds to allow us to comprehend fully, then let us grief for the individual as a proxy and know that this doesn’t mean we don’t feel deeply for the many who also are dying, often under far more terrible circumstances.

Let people grieve. Let people mourn. And be happy that they - that we - have the capacity to grieve and ache and want better for the world.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Dear 4th Graders

Dear 4th Graders,

You just missed out on something. I wanted to let you know. While you were out running around on the playground, you missed out on something pretty great.

Curious what it might have been? To answer you, let me tell you what I observed, and maybe you’ll see for yourself.

Earlier, I watched as one of your own classmates approached first one small group of you, then another, then another, a smile on his face, laughter in his eyes. He jumped in with a few of you when it was time to take silly pictures for the little end-of-year event your teachers put together for you. You didn’t push him away, but you also didn’t look at him or laugh with him. He ran up to your game of tag and asked if he could play. You didn’t tell him he couldn’t, but you also didn’t run after him or try to tag him. You just allowed your group to drift away from him time and again until he gave up trying to participate. He joked with you about some of the class games your teachers set up. You didn’t say anything mean to him in return, but you also didn’t look him in the face or smile or do much of anything.

You didn’t actively push him away or aggressively exclude him. And at the same time, you didn’t include him. In fact, you didn’t react to him at all. It was as if he wasn’t there. You effectively turned him into a ghost. A non entity. A nothing.

I’m sure some of you are decent kids. Some of you may even be nice, under the right circumstances. But I have to wonder how so many “nice” kids can be so very hurtful.

If you think about it for a moment, you’ll know the boy I’m referring to. There’s no question. He’s the only classmate you so fully and assertively shunned. Are you fooled by the smile on his face as he gives up and walks away from you? Do you really allow yourself to believe that you don’t hurt him deeply every time you treat him like he’s nothing? You’re smarter than that. You’re better than that. At least, I like to believe that you are. Think about it:  how would you feel if you were in his place, if you were treated the way you treat him over and over? How would it feel to you if your classmates never acknowledged you, never listened to you, never included you? How would you feel if no one seemed to care about your very presence?
You’re probably wondering why I said you’re missing out. Allow me to enlighten you.

That boy you exclude so readily? He’s about the least competitive kid around, and because of that, he’s also pretty much the best cheerleader you could ever hope to have. He’s supportive and generous, and if you needed someone to call on for help of any kind, he would jump to help you in a heartbeat without a worry about himself. He even cheers on the competition when he plays games and sports, because he wants the best for everyone. How many friends do you have like that? How many friends do you have who are completely okay – even happy for you – if you win and they don’t? How many of your friends, if they win, want to teach you what they know so that you can possibly beat them next time? Or would they rather keep their skills to themselves because winning, even with you, is what matters most to them?

That boy you don’t acknowledge is crazy smart. He could help you with any school work you find challenging. He’d be a phenomenal partner on a class project because he picks up knowledge almost as easily as breathing or drinking water, but more than that, he understands how to use that knowledge, how to manipulate numbers and words, and he can help you learn how to do it, too. He loves sharing knowledge. He can make school easier for you. He’d like to.

That boy you ignore even when he’s right next to you saying hello and trying to joke with you? He has a heart larger than your entire school. We all go through fun times we want to share and tough times where we need someone to listen. He’d go to the ends of the earth for any friend, to make them smile and to make sure they’re okay.

That boy you look down on because maybe he’s awkward or small or a little different from you? He’s also far braver than you. Any of you. Think about how often he has approached you – in class or on the playground – and been shunned by you, ignored by you, not accepted by you. If you were in his shoes, how many times would it take before you just gave up? Think about that for a moment. Think about how much that would hurt and how quickly you would stop trying. But he doesn’t stop. He continues to try, over and over, a huge, friendly smile on his face, hope shining through that maybe this time will be different, maybe this time you’ll include him… maybe this time he will be visible to you. Imagine how much courage that takes. I’m not sure I’m that brave, and I’m fairly certain you are not.

Today, I saw you miss out, my dear 4th graders. I saw you walk right by the chance to make not only a great friend with a true champion but also to get to know someone who’s more of a hero than you can imagine. Someone kind and brave. Someone with more of a heart than any of you have shown.

Better luck next time. 
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