When you’re grieving for the thing you got, it’s praise. And when you’re praising for the thing you lost, it’s grief. – Martin Prechtel
And so in the midst of our national tragedy, we are face to face with our cultural inability to praise and grieve. The nation is scrambling to put more Band-Aids on cancer, unable to understand what is eating away at our collective soul and ravaging us to the point where youths go on killing sprees of innocent people and politicians refuse the diagnosis. And yes, actual political steps like gun control are a first step in stopping the spread of the disease, but the real cause and causes lie deeper and it has much to do with our refusal to grieve and praise. Unless we understand how to grieve, we are powerless to bless and praise. Unless we know how to praise, we cannot grieve properly. Without praise and grief, we feel alone and abandoned and seduced by violence and death.
Consider. Just mere days after the Parkland shootings, traumatized youths who had just seen their friends murdered were displayed on national TV and argued with heartless politicians who not only offered no sincere consolation, but blamed and accused the young people. This is simply extraordinary in the face of what the human heart requires. These young people need to be held in the arms of the community, go deep into the needed grief with ritual and ceremony and song and dance and artwork and poetry and not for five minutes, but following the wisdom of a Balinese cremation or West African funeral or a Jewish Shiva sit, for days on end. No business as usual, no back to the mall and have a nice day smiles, no time spent hiding in the chat room or running around the shallow maze of non-stop texting. Time spent with elders who have lived life’s sorrows and can help them through this dark passage.
And what do we offer them? We put their tender souls on glitzy TV with commercial breaks for Pepsi moments, assault then with arguments meant to hide unrestrained greed, surround them with soul-less zombies disguised as human beings calling for more guns. And not a single commentator or viewer will consider that our inability to praise our youth and bless them and nurture them, our cynical practice of targeting them as a consumer market, of mindlessly testing them in schools, of refusing them the tools of authentic artistic expression and instead addicting them to machines, of sowing seeds of doubt as to self-worth by parading the model of sexy bodies, no one will consider that this has something to do with the growing epidemic of depression, suicide, crime and now mass murder that is growing in our youth at alarming rates. Our inability to teach them how to grieve and instead offer the ideal of shopping away our troubles and losing our sorrows in the maze of video games is all part of the mass sickness that is tearing us apart. In short, we as a culture are refusing to embrace the full spectrum of life and in so doing, contributing to the culture of death. We are showing them models of adults who have neglected their job of protecting, nurturing and loving their youth. We have put the full weight of the world on the shoulders of kids whose main concerns should be pimples qnd getting invited to the party without preparing them for the task. And impressively, they are stepping up anyway to show a courage far beyond the so-called adults around them.
To praise, to grieve, to fully feel the pain and joy of life, is to wholly embrace life, to act on behalf of life and creation and a beauty which feels its mortality each step of the way. By knowing that everything we are and everything we love and everyone we love must die and therefore loving all of it more deeply while given the gift of life, we don’t refuse death, but we don’t seek it out. Each life contains the seeds of its own demise, but each death also contains the seeds of its own rebirth and continuity.
In traditions worldwide, death that is not properly grieved creates a whole hidden community of wandering hungry ghosts who cannot fulfill their cycle and haunt us with their unresolved suffering. No one is thinking about the souls of these children feeling the comments of the Marco Rubios and Zombie Trump and how they continue to murder them even in their death. We are overpopulated with wandering ghosts, starting with all the Native Americans wiped out by genocide, all the slaves still unmourned and ungrieved, all the striking workers shot down in the name of more money for the bosses, all the witches burned for the crime of being female, and on and on and on.
The Wobblies had a saying: “Don’t mourn. Organize!” I agree 100% and I support these kids creating a national movement. But it also works the other way: “Don’t organize. Mourn!” meaning don’t skip that necessary step of living through the grief. Or at least don’t organize too soon. Or keep the two in constant conversation. Our work in this world to heal our national sickness with the tools of human politics and our personal commitment to living an authentic life. And that authentic life includes helping those in the other world by properly mourning them and grieving for them at the same time.
None of this makes for good TV or Facebook soundbytes and requires a courage that many of us are not equipped for. As Martin Prechtel says, “Praise is a skill. It has to be practiced. That’s what culture is.” Until we recognize that what’s going down is not just a political problem, but a cultural problem, I don’t believe we will get to the root of things. We need to consciously cultivate a culture that praises youth and shows them how to grieve. Education as chemotherapy, burning away the cancerous cells of unchecked greed and violence and hatred with love, creation, humor and beauty. That’s what I’m aiming for when I walk around with 3-year olds with paper plates on our heads. All the rest is just Band-Aids on cancer.