Perpetual Mourning

Earlier this week, I witnessed a pigeon get run over by a car. Eric and I were in the car on our way to get some dinner and we noticed a pigeon in the middle of the street, wings flapping, struggling to right herself, clearly injured. In one instant, we took in the scene — the struggling bird in the middle of the street, feathers scattered everywhere. In the next instant, a car came whizzing by — oblivious to this creature’s plight — and flattened the pigeon into the pavement. The bird was dead. None of the other people around seemed to notice. The driver who killed the bird didn’t even brake; they just zoomed on, racing to get through the traffic light before it turned red.

* * *

I’m not sure when exactly, but some time, years ago, I entered into a state of perpetual mourning. I’ve talked to many activists and thinkers about this topic and most agree that when you open your eyes and see the world in all its violent messiness, when you see your own implicatedness in others’ suffering, when you see the colossal task before you of working against this suffering, you mourn. Mixed with this mourning is anger and disbelief (maybe a twinge of apathy and hopelessness) and if we’re lucky, sometimes, hope. Through all of this, though, there is mourning.

When I read Judith Butler’s books Precarious Life and Frames of War for the first time, I found language to understand this state of perpetual mourning. Grief is not merely a self-indulgent practice in wallowing in our emotional responses to devastating circumstance. Grief is a political statement. Grieving someone whose life and death is typically seen as ungrievable makes a statement that that individual life and death had meaning and value outside the system of capitalist accumulation. To mourn the pigeon run over by the car is to make a statement that all animals — even those commonly dismissed as ‘pests’ — are individuals with lives and deaths that matter. To mourn the cow used for dairy in her last moments before she collapses and dies at the auction yard makes a statement that her life was important. That these individuals were important. Not as producers of milk or a source of ground beef, not as ‘pests,’ but as fellow creatures making their way through the world.

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  1. Katie: I too have been feeling a little crushed by the grieveble state of the world. Bringing Veda into this world and seeing how happy and innocent she is has really shook up my soul, and it is hard not to fear the darkness, sadness, and violence she will undoubtably witness among her own kind and with other animals. However, I also believe that this world is a balance of darkness AND light, and when I start going down the dark tunnel too often or intently, I remind myself to look up at the light, and soon I am amongst it again (if that makes sense). Yesterday I found this passage from Ram Dass that I’ve since printed out and put above my desk. It is a prescription, I feel, for how to handle the grief, how to acknowledge the message and action it requires of us, but to not be colonized by it. I will share it below, right after this final response to your post: I am 3 weeks into a dissertation draft writing marathon; it began with my mom coming out after the holidays to watch Veda and help us get into a routine of caring for her and myself, while getting the necessary writing done. The day I took my mom to the airport for her to return home, we turned left onto Beach Ave in the West End of Vancouver and met with a gaggle of geese trying to cross the road. I didn’t even think twice. With my mom and Veda in the car, I put it into park, got out, and started shooing the geese more quickly across the road, stopping traffic and the whole deal. I made sure to give distance and just enough pressure – learned from my days of working with horses, and geese are even more caustic! – so they did not attack in fear or run awry for the same reason. Honking and sqwaking in communication, they followed my cues and made it safely across the road and traffic continued. When I got back in the car, I said to my mom: “I’ve been writing about this stuff for days, might as well live it too.”

    Enter Lightly

    If we are to help heal the world, we need to remember that it is a sacred place. Our actions need to be positive statements, reminders that even in the worst times there is a world worth struggling for. We need to find ways to keep the vision alive, to acknowledge but not get caught in the dark side, to remember that even the worst aspects of suffering are only part of the whole picture. We need to enter lightly.

    Entering lightly means not ignoring suffering but treating it gently. We don’t want to ignore another’s pain, but our becoming depressed or angry about it doesn’t relieve it and may increase it. The delicate balance is in allowing ourselves to feel the pain fully, to be sad or angry or hurt by it, but not be so weighted down by it that we are unable to act to relieve it. It is a matter of ends and means again: to create a caring, loving, peaceful world, we need to act with care and love and peace.

    Easy to say, you may think, remembering your heavy hearts, tears, and anger when you first saw babies in Ethiopian refugee camps dying from malnutrition. But it is exactly at these times – in the presence of pain, injustice, and horror – that our equilibrium is most needed. How can we keep it? Meditation can help; singing or walking can help; talking with people we respect can help; simply being quiet with ourselves can help.

    It is the continuing work of life: of learning to trust that the universe is unfolding exactly as it should, no matter how it looks to us; learning to appreciate that each of us has a part in nurturing this interconnectedness whole and healing it where it is torn; discovering what our individual contribution can be, then giving ourselves fully to it. Demanding as that sounds, it is what, in the spiritual sense, we are all here for, and compassionate action gives us yet one more opportunity to live it. It is an opportunity to cooperate with the universe, to be part of what the Chinese call the great river of the Tao. It is not a coincidence that Hanuman, who in the Hindu cosmology is called the “embodiment of selfless service,” is the son of the wind god; when we give ourselves into becoming fully who we are by doing fully what we do, we experience lightness, we are like kites in wind, we are on the side of the angels, we are entering lightly.

    ~Ram Dass

    1. Tamar, what beautiful sentiments — yours and those of Ram Dass. Thank you so much for sharing. You’re so right about there needing to be a balance between seeing the dark and the light. That’s sometimes such a difficult thing to hold in mind at once, especially in those moments of extreme grief. I’ve been trying to think that there is such beauty in grief. Grief changes us, and oftentimes for the better. In solidarity — Katie
      P.S. Yaaaahooo for almost being done with the diss! I, too, am in the home stretches…so close to the end I can taste it, yet still a lot of work to be done. Sending you good writing vibes!

  2. Tamar & Katie
    Both such powerful thoughts. One if the things I have been trained in while working in conflict resolution and essentially personal crisis management is to be aware of “compassion fatigue”. Doing work that constantly addresses the suffering of others (regardless of species) demands a compassionate outlook and an immense reserve of emotional moxie. Combating this fatigue is to recognize that you have been carrying your own suffering and that of those around you. I highly recommend looking into compassion fatigue and tips for managing it.
    I have attended some trainings that were extremely useful in keeping that fatigue in check.

    1. Lucy, totally! Work on managing compassion fatigue is so important. Thanks for pointing that out. There’s a great book called ‘Trauma Stewardship: Caring for Self While Caring for Others,” which has been helpful for me in thinking about self-care while confronting the trauma experienced by others. I wish there were more trainings and workshops out there for managing this.

  3. I’m so sad after reading about the pigeon, but it makes me think about all the suffering I don’t witness or know about and I actually feel more emboldened and driven to keep moving forward with my activism as much as I can. Thank you for sharing, Katie, I am always learning from you.

    1. Thank you, Carrie! I’m so glad thinking about this invisible suffering inspires you to be more outspoken in your activism. I know it can cause some people to shut down and I’m glad you turn it into something productive. You are such an inspiration. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Melissa! That means a lot! I hope you are doing well in the new year, too. 🙂

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