Grief is not a feeling. Grief is a skill. And the twin of grief as a skill of life is the skill of being able to praise or love life, which means wherever you find one authentically done, the other is close at hand. Grief and the praise of life: side by side. — Stephen Jenkinson, Griefwalker
Roger Woolger made a chilling statement in his lecture about how much unresolved grief there is in our culture, how long it has been building, and what it will take to process it. I wish I’d written it down, but in a way I’m kind of glad I didn’t. It was daunting.
I get more tired of practicing the skill of grief than I ever did of practicing anything else. Wave after wave after wave. It’ll surprise you in the staff lounge. It’ll take over what you intended to be a perfectly pleasant evening. In Soviet Russia, grief practices you. And no one is ever going to applaud you at your grief recital or exhibit. You will not win a blue ribbon in a grief-back riding show. You will not earn an A+, a degree, or money for your griefwork.
Refusing to deny or disown your grief is one of the more courageous things you can do in this culture. This does not mean moping around all the time. It means rejecting numbness, practiced apathy, enforced cheer, and compulsive distraction from the ache in your chest—the ache that dwells in the same chamber as the soaring love of all that is beautiful and well, the ache that must be opened to allow the soaring sound to swell.
Orphans are not people who have no parents: they are people who don’t know their parents, who cannot go to them. Ours is a culture built upon the ruthless foundation of mass migration, but it is more so now a culture of people unable to say who their people are. In that way we are, relentlessly, orphans. Being an orphan culture does not mean that we have no wisdom. But wisdom is being confused in our time with information. Wisdom is an achievement, hard earned and faithfully paid for; it’s not a possession. — Stephen Jenkinson
In a culture like ours, so unsure of itself, so without a shared understanding of life for its people, there are subtle, enduring consequences that look like personal inadequacy, failure of will, inability or unwillingness to live deeply. But what I’ve seen over twenty five years of working with people convinces me that these problems or struggles are not bad psychology, worse parenting or lousy personality development.
What we suffer from most is culture failure, amnesia of ancestry and deep family story, phantom or sham rites of passage, no instruction on how to live with each other or with the world around us or with our dead or with our history.
Any counsel worthy of the name should have culture at its core. Any counsel worthy of the name should begin to make a place in personal life for the rumoured, scattered story of who you come from where, and why. Counsel well done and honest makes a home for the orphan wisdom of personal life in the life of the world. It tries to ask the questions that the Sufi poet Rumi asked of himself eight centuries ago, and it tries to answer them:
All day long I think about it, and at night I say it:
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
Who hears with my ear, and speaks with my tongue?
And what is the soul?
—Stephen Jenkinson again
Aside: I want to make a drum. I think I may want Stephen Jenkinson to teach me how.
And so the question looming largest in my mind of late: (be patient… it builds) I am lucky to have a career that I enjoy and that I am good at. I support myself doing important work I feel good about that does not suck my soul. I believe I have contributions to make to the field of librarianship, or at the very least, to the library employing me.
However, over the past few years, I have been forced to recognize and own a deep calling to do work that witnesses others and supports them in feeding and healing their hearts and souls. According to Michael Winkelman’s cross-cultural studies of magico-religious practitioners, this sort of work has not historically been full time work at which people made their livings. Thus, I don’t see myself facing an either/or choice.
For a while, I thought that not making an either/or choice was a cop out for security and comfort, but recently things keep coming up all over the place reminding me that people who do the kind of work I’m being drawn to have always straddled worlds. That’s the core of the work, actually.
My question is: how do you move into doing this sort of work without deciding you will be a psychotherapist, a chaplain, a bodyworker, a facilitator, a personal coach, or whatever on a full time basis? Perhaps you just call yourself Death Bear and call it an art project… Death Bear does have a day job.
I am sure the answer will unfold itself at the appropriate time(s). That is how my life tends to go when I’m paying attention. I just write this to remind myself to keep paying attention, and to clarify my intent.
I’m just beginning, as always, but it’s hard not to squint and try to make out the entire route before reaching the next turn.
And now, the severe thunderstorm comes rolling in. That’s a literal statement and not a metaphor.