Every 50 years? Mourning and Activism
Updated: Jul 9, 2019
Marisa Guerin, PhD - February 26, 2018
For those of us who were young persons 50 years ago, it was the middle of a dramatic and turbulent time in the world and the USA. The recent passionate, grieving activism of teenagers in the wake of the horrifying experience of the killings at Stoneman Douglass High School reminds me of the passion and indignation that fueled the activism of the 60's and 70's.
The drama of those years seemed inescapable, carried on the force of a world-wide movement of young persons renouncing the hypocrisy or corruption of older generations. It showed up as protest against the war in Vietnam, nonviolent civil disobedience for civil rights and against racism, grief for those whose innocence or convictions cost them their lives in Birmingham, in Mississippi, at Kent State, across the nation. There was intense turmoil then, a feeling that the world was coming apart, and there was fierce effort to fix it.
The experience of the 60's and 70's is one reason why so many adults of my generation are deeply discouraged to see how much seems (still) and (again) broken in our world. In the years since then, there were important successes; progress was made, no question. But looking back now, it is clear that some advances were superficial, and some others were being simultaneously undermined by powerful resisting forces that are again resurgent. By virtue of living into my elder years, I more deeply understand that these are struggles measured in decades, centuries. Sadly, every generation will face its own forms of racism, war, violence, and the economic and physical exploitation of the vulnerable, the poor, the Earth. The arc of history is long indeed, well beyond our individual lifetimes.
Since "success" is nigh impossible, I know that I and probably others have felt the strong temptations to despair, cynicism, passivity. When I look at the injustice, heartbreak, and cruelty so evident in so many parts of today's world, it's hard to be in touch with hope.
How do we recover freedom, initiative, and the commitment to action? I am helped in answering that question by a perspective that is at one and the same time psychological, and spiritual.
A psychological perspective I appreciate is what I find in the writing of Laurent Lapierre of HEC Montreal on the topic of "Mourning, Power, and Potency". He suggests that psychologically mature persons with the capacity to mourn their inadequacies can walk a path between impotence (despair) and omnipotence (grandiosity). On this path, we acknowledge both our responsibility to be prudent and realistic, as well as our freedom to use what power we may have constructively and creatively. Mourning requires that we be willing to live in the gap between the illusion of perfection and the surrender to helplessness. In his words:
"Leaders cannot link their capacity for imagination with their willingness to be vigilant unless they can mourn their failures and losses...... mourning represents an ability to accept one's faults and limitations and to integrate them with one's strengths and assets in practice....... we recognize the need to accept a human reality that is inevitably imperfect and blemished....... in so doing, we finally develop the ability to accept ourselves, to abandon ourselves to what we truly are....... the ability to mourn omnipotence and magic thinking forms the basis of realistic action... courage... knowledge... love." *
These words from a social scientist give us the secular analogue to an important spiritual insight from the lives of many holy persons. I most often think of St. Therese of Lisieux, who learned through prayerful reflection on her own life that the path of love encompasses the willingness to "bear serenely" the pain of our imperfections, our actual "littleness" -- unacceptable as that idea might be to our egos. She deeply grasped the importance of being honest and compassionate with oneself and others, and she experienced the freedom and courage that such trustful love of God made possible in her. She lived the core belief of the Christian faith that the path to new life cannot be separated from suffering, that evil does not and will not have the last word, that we are never alone or unloved in the journey. ** I'd love to have had her as a friend - such practical wisdom, delivered with gentleness and wit.
I have studied both psychology and spirituality over the years -- from both, I take the hope that accepting ourselves as we are, with our true power and our true limits, frees us to use the gifts we have in fact been given to contribute our part to a more loving world. That gift will vary from one to another and at our different life stages, and it is uniquely ours to give. This can lead us to a way of living that perhaps is best expressed in a much-quoted prayer:
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.***
I'm 65, and these reflections are born of the ups and downs of my own journey. But the inner work that moves us to contribute to our world need not come only with many years of living; after all, Therese of Lisieux died at the age of 25. Sadly, grief can come suddenly. The need to mourn the illusion of omnipotence, the shock of their utter vulnerability, may well be what has been so violently imposed upon the teens in Parkland, Florida. Indeed, such pain has been visited on all those whose friends or family have been taken from them by gun violence, no matter their age, race, gender identity or social standing. At least in this country, the tragedy is seemingly endless, and the path through mourning to compassion is not guaranteed. Violence often begets further violence and suffering in the wounded heart.
I'm glad that today's youth are not as isolated from the adults in their lives as we were 50 years ago. Their heartbreak and their anger are shared by the grown-ups who care for them, and they are finding that very many of us are willing to support them, protect them, help them to heal, and follow their leadership. In their passion for fixing what is wrong with the world as they find it in their generation, these youthful leaders are moving the needle on our numbed society's narrative about guns. They inspire me, and I am moved.
I hope and pray that these young people will come through the pain to a place of greater self-knowledge, healing, integration. And for myself, I hope and pray that I will both accept my realistic limits and own my power to take action that matters. I hope I will walk with others as we do our part to make tomorrow less violent and more just than today.
It isn't every 50 years...it's every day.
*Laurent Lapierre, “Mourning, Potency, and Power” pp. 28-31, in The Psychodynamics of Organizations, Edited by L. Hirschhorn and C. Barnett, 1993, Temple University Press.
** Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, Walking the Little Way of Therese of Lisieux: Discovering the Path of Love, 2012, Word Among Us Press.