I had the pleasure of speaking at a recent gathering of folks brought together to explore public forms of collective grief and rage – two of the most powerful forms of love.
The following is an excerpt from my speech - I share my personal story as to why this type of healing justice is important to me, and to anyone feeling the pain and anguish at the injustices happening in our world...
I am a descendant of northern European ancestors; I want to start off by acknowledging the generations of grief experienced by indigenous folks. I want to acknowledge that this is un-ceded Coast Salish territory that we live on, this land that we connect with, draw beauty from, and experience joy and grief within. I also want to acknowledge the ongoing resistance and anti-colonial work that indigenous people and their allies are fighting hard for, every day.
I believe that we cannot speak of grief and rage for environmental and social injustice without acknowledging and learning how to meaningfully support the anti-colonial movement - how to become more aware of our own social location as descendants of settlers who colonized.
This means actively engaging in learning opportunities to better understand my place within privilege and power, and how to be meaningful allies to those who are marginalized and oppressed.
There are many reasons that draw me to be involved in this collective.
I have been working in the field of grief education and healing for over 8 years now. This is my passion and vocation - creating more collective spaces in our communities to gain a healthy understanding of grief and to learn holistic strategies for health and healing. I believe it is through our shared experiences of pain and loss, and by providing spaces to share and connect about these things, that we can nourish a deep sense of well-being - physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, both as individuals and as a collective global community.
I have come to know, through my work with others and my personal experiences, the truth that grief speaks: that my grief, is your grief, is our grief. We all draw from the same cup of sorrows, whether it is releasing tears for our personal lives or for our communities. This cup of sorrows needs to be tended to and emptied regularly, so we can remain open-hearted and present to our selves, each other and our world.
Joanna Macy, an activist and well-known writer on systems theory and deep ecology, believes that it is not until we own and honour the despair we feel for our world that we can then come to a new way of seeing – that we can then come to a deeper motivation to be effective change agents. She says there is nothing more dangerous in our present day society as the deadening of our response – the deadening of our heart and minds to what is happening in our world. I couldn’t agree more.
On that note, I want to share personal story with you, which is perhaps the strongest pull for me to be a part of a collective exploring grief and rage together.
7 years ago, I was graduating from my Master’s program at the University of Victoria. I was in a very critical studies program looking at health and social systems. The program attracted mature students, many activists, social services front-line workers, environmental workers and others. Many were individuals who are actively working to support some of the most marginalized people in our own community here in Victoria.
I had spent the last 2 years learning from and working alongside world-renowned Canadian feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith – talk about a kickass mentor!
This is a woman that earned her PhD in Sociology in the late 60’s from University of California, Berkeley. During this time, she had started seeing that the world around her was created through male-dominated social relationships – ones that were based on power, and ones that were making women’s lives invisible and silenced. She spoke to the objective social, economic and political relations that were shaping and determining women's oppression. Through this critical lens, she devised her own methodology (Institutional Ethnography) to critically look at social relationships within institutions and systems. It is a powerful approach to make visible how systems oppress and marginalize minority groups.
As you can imagine, my eyes were opened widely during those graduate years to a landscape of systemic oppression and injustice that had not been visible to me before, because of my own privilege and lack of opportunity to learn such a critical stance.
The thing was, when I left that program, and the community of students, social activists, and professors that I had connected with often, I didn’t realize how much they had been a container for me and my grief and outrage. The program had offered a constructive way to engage and act through my grief.
So here I was, suddenly unsupported, without community, in my continued increasing awareness of the social, environmental and political injustices that were happening in the world around me. I remember watching the documentary Food Inc. that had been released that year in 2009, along with another documentary called Earthlings.
I have always been a highly sensitive and empathetic creature however this was the tipping point for me.
My heart cracked wide open. I couldn’t stop the flood gates of global despair and suffering that crashed over me. I would wake up in immense despair, with images flashing through me of global destruction, violence, suffering, and environmental degradation. I had somehow hit a taproot into our earth and collective humanity, and became intimate with her suffering.
I became immobilized, and overwhelmed in my pain for the world. I felt powerless. I sank lower and lower. I became very depressed, and hyper focused on only the shitty things happening in our world.
This was one of the darkest periods in my life – a time that I now affectionately call my period of “Global Despair”. Not that it has ever ended. My heart has been cracked open ever since.
But I have been learning how to carry this pain differently. I have been learning how to harness this sensitivity to global suffering in a meaningful and life-affirming way - a more empowering way.
We don’t grieve what we don’t love. And I am in love with our living world and all life.
Hence the community grief work that I am deeply committed to. I see grief as one of the powerful ways we come to experience our interdepedence with all beings, human and other than human. And a way we can become deeply motivated to act in service of our world.
A significant source of strength and resilience has been community. Sharing my grief and pain within a community of others has been a deeply healing balm for the anguished cries in my soul.
Allowing the vulnerability of having my heart break open in a circle of 15 to 30 other people, and being witnessed and held in that pain, rather than be alone in my kitchen (which still happens too!), is profoundly healing.
As Francis Weller teaches, grief needs both containment and release. We need others to provide a safe container for us so we can release our grief and have it transformed.
We cannot provide both containment and release for ourselves, by ourselves. Yet we live in a dominant western society that is quick to stigmatize and pathologize grief as an individual problem. This thinking keeps us immobilized. In all of our ancestral histories, grief was always done in community. It was never done in isolation. We need community to provide the safe and loving container, so that we can release our grief, and allow it to transform into renewed vitality.
I strongly believe that grief in and of itself IS an act of protest.
We are living in a consumer driven capitalist society that is continuously imploring us to numb out to what is occurring around us. We are living in a societal system that works to lull us into some great amnesia – through oppressive systems and individualizing ideologies - so that we forget our divine right to sovereignty, justice and freedom. We are living in a society that wants us to forget the divinity of our earth and our profound interconnection.
Damn rights this deserves our grief! This deserves our rage!
I use to say: well who am I to be so affected? Who am I to speak up? But I have come to learn, the real question is: who am I NOT to feel this? Who are WE not to speak up, to act out?
We believe in the power of community to bring healing, inspiration and vitality to each other. By coming together to continuously empty our communal cup of sorrows, grief and rage, we can be motivated to continue acting for positive meaningful change.
I call myself a “soul activist” – what does this mean to me? It means that my motivation in life is to live deeply, feel deeply and provide others supportive opportunities to do the same.
In this dominant North American culture we are flooded with messages and means to numb out – to avoid pain, to ease discomfort, to perpetually chase after an elusive happiness with superficial ideals. This is at a great disservice to our ability to connect with ourselves, each other, to create community, and to our potential for leading deeply meaningful, wisdom-filled lives.
This is not a new revelation to any of us.
For me, a part of living a soulful and enriching life is being companion to my grief and nurturing those difficult places where transformation occurs. I am deeply committed to this.
I believe that embracing our grief, and re-learning the skills to help ourselves and others through it, is a form of soul-activism. When we embrace grief, we come to realize that our grief is a doorway into deep connection with all life around us.
It takes great courage to face our pain when we are steeped in societal messages that grief is a personal pathology. This is, quite frankly, bullshit and only perpetuates feelings of shame and weakness.
Historically, grief was never something done in isolation. It was always the community’s responsibility to care for a griever.
Our grief needs both our loving attention and the support of others to help us carry its weight and to transform it into renewed vitality.
I would like to tell a story of transformation - a metaphorical story that came to me and is continuously evolving the more I tell it. Grief often speaks the language of metaphor, so I share this story often with rooms full of people as I lead workshops and engage in public speaking events. Through this story we can relate to our own losses and those of others.
This story stems from an expression often used when we are faced with sudden loss or a painful reality.
The sudden pain we feel is like ‘a large boulder’ that has been placed on our shoulders, weighing us down, burdening and immobilizing us.
So here you find yourself with this heavy boulder placed on your back. Your legs are trembling under the weight, your shoulders are tight and pained under the pressure, and your neck is crooked and cricked.
You may hardly be able to stand under the immense weight, and all you can do is feel the pain and discomfort. Then, a little time passes and you notice that your legs have stopped shaking. You notice that perhaps your muscles are getting stronger, and by golly, you may even have some new muscles you didn’t even know existed!
And, maybe a few people in your life have come by and lent you a hand, propping up the weight of the boulder for a little bit. You find yourself with small pockets of energy. Slowly, you are able to devise a pulley and strap system so the weight is more evenly distributed, your neck is no longer cricked, and you are standing more upright.
One day someone comes along and says “hey – there is a piece at the back here that looks like it is ready to fall off – let me get that for you” and they pull out a small chisel and gently tap the boulder and a little piece falls off. They then leave the chisel with you as a gift. Eventually there are more bits of the solid boulder that loosen. Bit by bit you are able to reach up and chisel small pieces off.
Another person comes along and says “hey, I can empathize with having a boulder – I found it really helpful to do 15 squats and lunges a day to strengthen my legs to carry the weight”. Maybe you try this and it helps a little. Maybe you really don’t like squats, so you just do 8 lunges every second day, and it seems to work for you, strengthening your ability to hold the burden of the boulder.
Time passes and you weather storms, winds, hail, and a few sunny days here and there. The weather wears away at your boulder, polishing it off. And soon that boulder is noticeably lighter – it isn’t gone, but you realize you are carrying it differently.
And with more time, slowly, that boulder starts taking on a new shape – a polished statue perhaps, or a small carved totem. Or perhaps a beautiful crystal starts to be uncovered as the boulder pieces fall away. This new ‘something’, in its half ragged and half polished new form, becomes a source of strength and resilience.
Your transformed boulder is a marker of how far you have come through your pain. Perhaps it even becomes small enough to tuck away in your pocket, or to leave at home on certain days. You can now decide when to bring it out or when to share it with others.
Your boulder has become a source of compassion.
You realize your boulder has gifted you strength, empathy and the ability to be with others who have a newly placed boulder on their shoulders. You understand that to help another doesn’t mean to reach over and try to lift that person’s heavy boulder off them, because it is not just a burden for a while, it is also a potential for transformation.
Everyone has a right to experience their boulders and its potential shape-shifting transformation.
And you don’t ignore their boulder and pained bodies shaking underneath its weight. Instead you say – “here is my hand, let me walk with you awhile –perhaps I can leave you with my chisel”...
To be there for ourselves and others through difficult times is to not turn a blind eye to the boulder heap upon each others' shoulders. To not try to knock them off and bury them, but rather to see the boulders, acknowledge them, and to know them for their sorrow and joy.
To companion is to walk alongside another who is carrying a heavy boulder, and to lend a hand for a while – to do a few lunges and squats together.
Our pain and the difficult times in our lives are a great source of transformation and connection.
The more we are willing to be with our own boulders and take the courage to carry them and see them through to their potential for shape-shifting, the more we are able to be there for others to do the same with their boulders.
For the most part however, our society encourages us to take those boulders, dig a hole, hide them away, and to never look back. This perpetuates shame and myths of weakness and personal pathology.
I will never forget what a young man shared with me while in a youth group I was leading. He told me that for years he had buried his boulders deep into the ground. Many were stashed there. But recently, because he was experiencing community and more supportive people in his life including his girlfriend, he felt he had the courage to go back and start digging up those boulders to carry them and to allow them the opportunity to transform.
We all have boulders, and we all need supportive companions to help us carry their weight and offer moments of solace. This is our soulful right.
Shauna Janz, MA is a passionate speaker, writer, educator, and musician. She engages audiences with her ability to create connective experiences that inspire empathy, insight and both personal and trans-personal awareness - never without a sprinkle of humor and laughter.