It was a sudden death and unexpected – in his forties. I dreaded the moment I walked towards my friend’s coffin. I wanted to be anywhere else but there. People were mourning, sadness filled the air like heavy smog crouching over a city. As I led the service I was only feet away from his coffin and I couldn’t help but notice on the shiny surface was my reflection. There was my face staring back at me saying, “Make your life count.”
The worlds infatuation with success had me believe that my friend’s death was a time to reflect on what I had done with my life, rather than taking notice of the pain that was lodged in my heart – I lost a dear friend. I am the by-product of corrupt economy, an economy where the Holy Grail is not a richness of humanity, but instead, self-evaluation and improvement. Lament is not economically viable in today’s world.
Just like the world around me, I took my friends death as a reason to be even more productive – life was too short. Now when I look back I realise I didn’t allow the proper time to feel the loss. Then the next day came, work rolled on and on. Deadlines were tighter, important things needed done and I didn’t see a way for me to completely stop without jeopardising productivity.
There was no time to consider my friends life properly. In fact, if I slowed down to feel the true gravity of loss, I was afraid of becoming a dead weight to my work. I already had a backlog of unprocessed grief; if I allowed myself to truly lament I was afraid that I would be forced to face the rest of my pain that lurked in the dungeon like a long-term prisoner.
Today’s economy is based on measurement and constant improvement. It is amazing to me that intellectualism and art aren’t as gratifying unless it can be monetised. Productivity is king. The US Company Enron was famous for introducing a capitalistic improver called ‘rank & yank’. They told their staff that each year they would be ranked against each other and the bottom 20% would be sacked or ‘yanked’. Tradition, respect and sentimentality in the world of commerce are seen as archaic alongside the impressive pace of capitalism.
Ironically instead of improving Enron’s bottom line, the ‘rank and yank’ strategy brought rampant corruption from top to bottom as people focused only on improved results and dismissed their humanity – it was every man and woman for themselves. Then the company fell to its knees and went broke.
The idea of constant improvement has eroded our willingness to sit and stay still. Time is money. Now more than ever mental illness invades the lives of many. We are forced to deny our intuition that yells from the rooftops, “You must stop and grieve if you have suffered loss.” Our body tells us to cry and lament but we say no or give it a time limit. This conveyer belt has us all living the wrong way.
Many people are not comfortable with others who are grieving. Because we don’t allow it in our own lives it is unfamiliar, we would therefore prefer to not see it in other people if it can be helped. Most have a capacity to come alongside for a short period of time but inevitably we will hear ourselves give counsel to our fragile friends, “come on, it is time to move on.”
Most people want others to hurry up and lament quickly as thought there is an option to speed up the process, but there is no microwavable version. It is uncomfortable when someone else’s lament forces you to slow down and pay attention to your own soul – we’d all prefer to drink happiness than look inwards.
Lament is a challenging thing to do when the world is saying measure up or be fired. After all, once you disembark the speedy train of life you realise how fast it is going and it is hard to get back on. But pain gives substance to your life and a metric by which you can measure joy. If you don’t know pain you cannot appreciate joy.
Since industrialisation we have allowed a neo-liberal thread to enter our private lives and influence our emotional construct. Lament is seen as a weakness and unproductive by some because success doesn’t have time for you to be broken.
I see emotional capitalism as the choice to deny what your heart is saying by submitting to your head in order to ‘improve’. The irony is the more we deny a process of lament, the unhealthier we become. Our bodies have a unique way of getting our attention too. If we don’t embrace lament when pain visits, it will come out in other ways that are uncontrollable, forcing us to be less productive than we would have otherwise been. It is a false economy.
Whether you read the bible or not, there is a worthy passage famously referred to as ‘the beatitudes’. Jesus knew that if we did not pay attention to our soul we would in turn deny our humanity by hardening our hearts. Acknowledging we are poor and weak is not an evolutionary strength, evolution is survival of the fittest and Jesus’ words are counterintuitive to the typical view of success.
It is easy to be attracted to people who develop new and exciting ideas that propel them economically, but what should be more impressive is the courage and willingness of those who embrace grief like it is a friend. If we lose our appetite to take care of our soul and gravitate towards ambition instead, something will inevitably go terribly wrong.
Jesus understood this. His beatitudes are still as shocking as they were on the day he first shared them. Here are my three favourites:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Similar to what politicians around the world have done since the GFC, we would rather kick the can down the road towards tomorrow than embrace pain today.
My friend’s life deserved more of my heart and less of my head. I wished I cried more tears over the loss. Now I am grieving over my lack of grief.