social justice

Feel, think, act: on grief over Ferguson

In grappling with the Ferguson grand jury decision -- and with the violent, racist and unjust system that it indicates -- my overwhelming response is grief. I have been searching inwardly and outwardly for spiritual guidance to help make sense of his heartbreaking moment. I listened to an On Being interview with Joanna Macy yesterday. Macy is an environmental activist, poet, translator, and Buddhist teacher. She was talking about the great sadness that we feel when we understand that the Earth is being destroyed. But this is the very same sadness we feel when we understand that our justice system has trampled on the humanity of an entire group of people. This was the quote that landed with me most:

“I teach people to not be afraid of [their grief]. Because that grief -- if you are afraid of it, pave it over, clamp down -- you shut down. Our difficulty in looking at what we’re doing to our world stems not from callous indifference or ignorance so much as it stems from fear of pain. That was a big learning for me as I was organizing around nuclear power, and at the time, the Three-Mile Island catastrophe and Chernobyl. It relates to everything: what’s in our food, the clear-cuts of our forest, the contamination of our rivers and oceans. So that became, actually, perhaps the most pivotal point in the landscape of my life: that dance with despair. To see how we are called to not run from the discomfort, not run from the grief or the feelings of outrage, or even fear. If we can be fearless, and be with our pain, it turns. It doesn’t stay static. It only refuses to change when we refuse to look at it. When we can take it in our hands, when we can be with it and keep breathing, it turns. It turns to reveal its other face. And its other face is our love for the world: our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.”

When I worked as a labor activist in college, I once sat with my fellow organizers and did a little exercise. We took three words -- act, think, feel -- and asked ourselves what order we did those things in when approaching a problem of injustice. Without a question, mine is feel, think, act. It hits me in the heart first. I'm glad to have these words from Joanna Macy, because they let me know it's a perfectly fine place to start.

Indeed, I can see how so many of the frustrating responses to Ferguson -- the racism, the ignorance, the callousness, the lack of compassion -- serve as protective responses against heartbreak. If poor black people in Missouri are not our brothers and sisters, we don't have to feel their excruciating pain. If Michael Brown "deserved" to be shot, we don't have to grapple with the senseless tragedy of his death. If we numb ourselves with the legal "facts" about grand juries, we don't have to feel the profound disappointment in a legal system that does not serve us all equally. I can see how it would be easier that way. But personally, I'm sticking with the grief and the rage, and seeing where they lead me.