Celebrating as We Grieve

I feel a little discombobulated. On the one hand, it’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and a time for celebrating. I am celebrating – I’m celebrating that the sky has cleared, I can see the sun again. I’m grateful for my friends, family, and community. I’m taken aback but also profoundly grateful that my business is thriving. There’s a lot to be grateful for.

On the other hand, I’m deeply troubled by what’s happening in the world: the rise in fascism, environmental catastrophes, and oh yeah, a global pandemic, which has not only killed numerous people, but has also led to unemployment and food insecurity. There’s a lot to be concerned about.

I’m reminded here this is always how life has been. Joy is frequently mixed with sorrow and we see that even in Rosh Hashanah services. There’s a part called the Mourner’s Kaddish where the entire congregation holds space for those who have lost loved ones during the past year. People call out the names of loved ones who have died so everyone can bear witness to their grief.

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There can be beauty even amidst desolation. Photo by Nikola Johnny Mirkovic on Unsplash

As someone who is prone to black and white thinking, I presume my emotions will operate the same way: I’ll feel ecstatically joyful without any hint of sorrow. But again, that’s not true. This year as all of us are bombarded with one terrible piece of news after another, I continue to pursue joy and cling to it like a buoy in the sea.

I’m reminded here of a poem by Jack Gilbert titled “A Brief For The Defense” that seems especially relevant:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

As we are all grappling with all the injustice in the world, all the destruction, all the grief, I encourage you to also have the stubbornness to accept your gladness. To find joy when and where you can because the world isn’t one way or another – it’s both, it’s all of it, it’s everything. I’m not advocating spiritual bypassing or whitewashing the horrors in the world. No. Instead I’m advocating feeling your feelings, recognizing it’s true life can be terrible, but also recognizing it’s true that there are babies laughing, flowers blooming, and lovers dancing. That life can also be joyful even in the most horrendous of circumstances. Life, and people, are complicated like that.

I dream of a world where we embrace delight. A world where we recognize joy can be mixed with sorrow. A world where we find the beauty in the world as a tonic to our hearts, reminding us there’s more to life than tragedy. A world where we celebrate as we grieve.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

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