I don’t know much. I know a little bit about grief—as we all do, any of us who have faced loss. I know the smallest amount about injustice, having experienced a profound violation of my dignity when I was very young. I know what it’s like to feel as if someone has a grip on your life who is not you; like another person gets more of a say in your life than you do.
I’ve lived and breathed and moved as a female in a world where women are too often abused, degraded and treated as second-class citizens.
I know a tiny bit about hate—both because of the ways I have found it to spring up in my own heart at times, and also because I have been the target of it on a few very small occasions. But even then, when I think about the implications of systemic hate and senseless violence…
The only thing I really know is that I don’t know much.
I don’t know what it’s like to be judged or rejected or disrespected based on the color of my skin, something I did not select for myself, something I could not change even if I wanted to. I spent a summer living in South America, not speaking the language, trying to navigate my way around the public transit system, worrying at times for my safety because, let’s be honest, I stood out like a sore thumb.
But even that experience—which feels like it may be the only hand-hold I have for understanding here—was itself was a product of my privilege. Having your camera stolen is not the same as having your life stolen.
And besides, at the end of the summer, I got to come home.
All of this makes me feel so incredibly ill-prepared to say anything on this subject. I’ve thought of keeping my mouth shut. Actually, scratch that. I’ve kept my mouth shut, for fear of coming across as ignorant or uninformed and because I feel more like grieving than taking a political stand and because, while I am aware of my privilege, I’m not entirely certain I know what to do with it.
And yet, here I am, heavy with the weight of the past weeks.
Violence. Shootings. Hatred. Attacks. I have no real answers. But I cannot stay quiet.
How could I write about anything else?
Listening, talking and learning.
A few months ago I spoke at a writing retreat specifically for people of color. Trust me, the irony is not at all lost on me that I was asked to come present at this event at all. It’s safe to assume they brought me in for my writing expertise, because it certainly wasn’t for diversity. But after the event, I was talking to one of the female writers who had come to the event.
She was a black woman who grew up in the inner city of Chicago.
I mostly listened. I felt embarrassed, honestly, that I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation. I always have something to contribute to a conversation. As I sat there wishing I had more to say, it occurred to me that even my lack of understanding was a reflection of my privilege. I don’t know about these things because I don’t have to know.
That said, I asked a hundred questions—including where I could start if I wanted to learn more.
She was gracious. She said one thing I could do was to start conversations with people, just like I was doing with her. She suggested I make friends with people who looked different from me, people in my neighborhood, people I didn’t understand. She warned me not be surprised if not all of them jumped at the chance to be friends with me. There’s an inherent distrust there, she insisted, but just to keep reaching out, keep asking.
Okay, I thought. I can do that.
Before we parted ways, I admitted to her how embarrassed I felt that I hadn’t contributed more to the conversation. Again, her response was gracious. She said, “Honestly, sometimes it’s nice for me to be the one doing the talking.” She paused for a minute, “we learn more from listening than from talking.”
We learn more from listening than from talking. Yes, that’s so true, isn’t it? Truth be told, I do a lot of talking in my life. Mostly I talk, in fact. Even when I don’t have much to say, I have something to say.
Perhaps it is good for us, sometimes, to have nothing to say. (Tweet that)
Maybe that means it’s time to start listening.
Some places to listen.
In the spirit of listening, here are some resources that have been helpful to me as I’ve been navigating the past few weeks. Please, if you have other resources to share—anything you find helpful or informative—I’d love to have you do so in the comments.
Here are just a few I recommend.
- The Liturgist Podcast
- This song, called Same Side by my friends Jill and Kate
- Three Things we Need to Stop Doing in the Race Conversation by Jefferson Bethke
- The Secret to Nonviolent Resistance by Jamila Raquib
- Something More is Required of Us Now by Michelle Alexander
I’m sure there are more great resources out there. Again, if you have something constructive and helpful, please share in the comments.
We have more in common than we think.
If there is one thing I have learned in my 33 years on this planet is that we have more in common than we think we do, and that what we are all ultimately craving is human connection. It’s really just that simple. It’s what sends us to our phones, like little addicts, refreshing and updating and clicking and waiting and typing.
We’re just so desperate to not be alone.
Most of us are numbing and protecting and defending against this feeling.
It’s perhaps one of the more uncomfortable feelings of the human experience—loneliness, isolation, the sense that we are “different” than the people around us. It’s part of why we rally together in tribes and groups and church denominations and sports teams and differentiate ourselves with logos and colors and language. It’s why we tell ourselves stories about how we are “different” from “them”.
It is a protection. A defense. But at the end of the day, it is holding us back from the one thing we truly crave, which is to belong to one another.
We belong to each other.
We’re made from the same stuff. We eat, drink, get cold, hungry, thirsty, suffer, cry, laugh, hug and are desperate to be seen, to be heard, to matter, to be truly loved for who we are, to belong, to connect. When we strip away all the excess, this is what is left.
This is who we are.
We refuse to be enemies.
Last March I visited Israel-Palestine with a group of women I respect so deeply, and while I was there, I met a woman named Robi. Robi is an Israeli Jew who’s son was killed a few years ago by a Palestinian Sniper. Her grief has been as profound as you would expect a mother’s grief to be who has buried her own son. But perhaps the most profound part of Robi’s story, for me, is her response to that grief.
Rather than fighting back in anger or retaliation, Robi has taken her pain and turned it into a point of connection.
In fact, she’s begun to meet regularly with a group of people—from both sides of the conflict—who have also lost children. Starting with her friend Basham, who’s young daughter was killed by an Israeli soldier, Robi began to connect with other parents and family members through their grief. What these two friends found is that even though they were on opposite sides of the conflict, so to speak, they were not enemies.
They could bond together over their shared grief.
I suppose the question I have for all of us in light of recent events is this: who would we bond with if we were able to bond over our shared grief?
What if, through our shared grief, we were able to connect?
Grief is collective.
The truth about grief is it is collective—whether we admit it is or not. To say that one person can grieve or fight or die and not have it impact the rest of humanity is like saying one wave from the ocean could sweep up onto the shore without the entire rest of it moving. When one of us moves, the rest of us move.
What one of us feels, we all feel.
We have to stop acting like we are not connected, like what happens to one of us does not affect the sum total of us. We have to stop pretending like we are our own little islands.
Grief is collective.
This is why we are all feeling the collective weight of grief moving through the world right now. Some are more awake to it than others. Some are more aware. Some of us are closer and some of us are further away. Many of us are coping, numbing, because the pain is too great and we have not yet learned how to deal with a pain that feels to big for us to feel. But no matter what, the grief is there. For all of us.
There is no denying it.
And perhaps one of the most helpful things we can do to honor our collective grief is just to allow it to be what it is. To stop trying to talk people out of it or suggest they should do it differently or try to offer up trite solutions, but just to allow it to be what it is and to be kind to ourselves and others and to offer extra compassion and empathy and grace.
I know it doesn’t seem like much, but what if it is more than we think?
Grief needs a witness
One of the most healing things that friends and family did when I was walking through my own season of grief was just to be there. They showed up. They dropped everything and drove to my house when I was feeling afraid. They called or texted daily to check in. They came to court appointments with me and sat on the couch while I cried or just waited with me until I fell asleep.
Grief is desperate for a witness. It needs space to breathe and to be and to exist. Eventually, it does dissipate.
But it doesn’t do so because we force it out.
Are you willing to be a witness to the grief of someone else? Can you hold the space for that? Or, are you so focused on finding solutions, fixing things, coming up with a ten-step program, politicizing everything, voicing your opinions, getting your way, keeping the power you have, protecting yourself, that you have forgotten to look into the faces of people who are hurting?
Are you doing more talking than listening?
When we can stop trying to fix people, or change them, or control them, we can finally begin to love them. And love changes everything. I stumbled across this quote by Maya Angelou the other day and it seemed so fitting:
In the flush of love’s light we dare be brave. And suddenly we see that love costs all we are and will ever be. Yet it is only love which sets us free.
Love really does set us free. The problem is most of us don’t know who to do it.
Grief will teach us to love, if we let it.
Grieve changes everything.
I wrote a poem (below) that talks about how grief changes everything. We cannot touch toes with grief and come out the same on the other side.
It doesn’t work that way. Not if we’re really feeling it.
The poem is called This Is Grief and it goes like this:
Grief is a river
We wade through it,
up to our neck if we must,
or work to shimmy over it
on the log that has fallen from
end to end.
We look for ways to hop
from rock to rock—
like the day we got lost
in the woods, you and me,
and you said we had three choices:
to swim like hell
or to wait for rescue.
This is grief.
Grief is an ocean,
unpredictable and swirling,
the waves they come and go
as they please, without
rhyme or reason—
with only the moon,
who draws them out
and back in and back out
without their permission.
They say “it comes in waves”
and that’s true
except they forget to say
that sometimes the tide is high
over our heads and the
current is strong and
the waves have this way
of tucking us into their spiral.
They forget to say that the sand
almost always erodes
under our toes.
The ground is shaky and dissolving.
This is grief.
Grief is a monarch
wrapped in a cocoon.
You think she transforms, but really
she liquifies, disintegrates.
She ceases to be
and then, suddenly, one day
returns as something new.
This is grief.
Grief is a tributary,
rushing itself toward the sea,
where eventually the two become
Here, they no longer
wait for the pull of the moon
but instead, the two of them
allow what is to
This is grief,
in swimsuits and sandals
with sweatshirts and sandy toes—
lover’s hands tucked
firmly into one another—
one by one
as the blazing sun
sinks into the sea.
This is great news, by the way—that grief changes us.
This is what our country needs more than anything right now, what our world needs— to change irrevocably, to never be the same.
A friends said to me the other day, “you can get into a head-on collision with a semi-truck and survive. You’ll just never be the same again.” And maybe this is a is what all of this is—this terror and devastation and violence. Maybe, as tragic as it is, it is the wake-up call we have all needed. We cannot go on like this. We cannot keep ignoring the suffering of humanity.
If we want peace, we must begin to speak up.
We cannot stay the same.
We cannot stay silent.
27 thoughts on “Violence, Peace and What to Do for a World That’s Grieving.”
As a Black-multiethnic woman, I’m happy to have come here to listen to YOU. Thank you for being transparent in your privilege (we all have degrees of privilege!), your uncertainty of what to do our say, and then offering up gracious solutions.
If I may, I’d add to your list of resources, Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. It is a required read. Coates, in an essay to his son, talks about what it means to possess a Black body in America and how white supremacy – as an institution – continues to view the Black body as plunder. It is powerful. It is gripping. It will change us.
Sending my love,
Shakirah, I’m so glad you mentioned this book. I bought both his books when they came out to help me better understand. I like that you said it is required reading. It really is.
Thank you Shakira. Appreciate you sharing your thoughts, and your encouragement, and that book recommendation. I’m adding it to my Amazon list now. Sending love right back!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I also lost a family member to violence a few years ago, and it’s true that you don’t understand that kind of suffering until you have been through it. Listening to someone who is suffering is often more helpful than anything you can say, even if you have been through something similar.
I think, though, that it is a mistake to talk about suffering and grief without talking about what God has to do with it. He is involved in the events that caused the suffering, yet He is able and willing to meet the needs of that time. If we consider only our visible circumstances and our relationship with other people, we will miss the answers that matter most. We will miss the ultimate cause and cure of suffering, and we will have at best an obscure view of what to do with our suffering now.
Maybe the biggest thing we lose is hope. Sure, we can support others who are also suffering. We may be able to help prevent some further tragedies. But we miss the solution to suffering, because we miss the truth about man’s nature and man’s eternal destiny. We see no purpose in suffering, and we are left to invent purpose or to despair.
“Healing” and “growth” without the truth of God’s word are at best damage control before everything comes crashing down. That is the difference between those who sorrow in hope and those who sorrow without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
This is good, Owen. Thank you for this reminder and pointing us to the source of true healing, and hope.
Thank you Owen for sharing your thoughts. I think I hear what you’re saying about the role of hope and that feels important. Thanks for bringing that up.
To be honest, talking about God’s “role” in all of this feels like a major trigger point for me, mostly because none of us truly KNOW God’s role in all of this. We could argue about how involved He is all day (people have been arguing this question for centuries) but the arguing gives me hives when what I really need, personally, is to acknowledge the devastation, and to experience his Love—which I do believe is all around us, and is the great hope for all of humanity.
I’m not refuting what you said but adding to it, hopefully. That’s my two cents.
Thanks for your response. In regard to what you said about God’s role in tragedy and in wrongs done by man to man, the Scripture is very clear on two things: God ordains all things, yet He is not involved in such a way as to be morally culpable for men’s evil deeds. All of us are tools in His hands. Evil men are tools that do evil because they are evil, not because God is.
Some discussions (not all) about this actually result from someone trying to ignore or deny what the Bible says. Either they condemn God as a moral monster, insisting that He give an account of His ways to them, or they try to get away from the plain teaching of Scripture by saying that it is unclear. It was for the latter fault that Luther criticized Erasmus in Luther’s “Bondage of the Will.” Luther responded that what God has revealed (His moral will for us and His hidden control of all things) is for us to receive with reverence. What God has not revealed (i.e. how it is that God is not morally culpable for evil deeds done by His instruments under His control but they are) is not necessary for us to know. Luther said, “What is above us does not concern us.”
The most striking example of God’s using the wicked deeds of wicked men for His good purposes is the death of Christ. Peter, speaking to some of those very men, said “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it” (Acts 2:23-24). So Christ’s death was “by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God”, yet it was by the “wicked hands” of men. Though it was God’s design, He held the wicked men accountable for their disobedience. They must repent or be punished for their sin. No matter which they did, God’s good purposes would prevail.
Christ’s death was the ultimate example of human injustice, yet it was for our salvation. In the same way, God has a morally sufficient reason for everything that happens in His world, including the worst actions of men. It is all for His glory and the good of those whom He has called to be His own (Rom. 8:28).
Men’s theories and arguments about God’s sovereignty and His role in the events of our world may indeed be unhelpful and unedifying. What has been revealed, though, is necessary for us. It can not be unhelpful or unedifying. We do not gain by ignoring or denying it. It is a comfort for our grief, and it gives us reason to praise our God at all times.
When we hear these things as we are going through the depth of great suffering, it is not always possible for us to understand them. If we understand them already, we may not be able to hold onto them firmly. Yet in understanding them, we have an anchor for our souls. Our faith may be shaken, but it is not destroyed.
As you say, you need to “acknowledge the devastation, and to experience his Love.” Yet you can not fully rest in His Love and rely on His power in the aftermath of a tragedy without also seeing His hand in the tragedy itself. If He was in control and on our side then, He is not now. If He was in control and on our side then, He surely is now, and He will bring us through.
You said you were not refuting what I said, but it seemed you were doing more than adding to it. It seemed you were interested in talking about God’s love, but not about God’s sovereignty when bad things happen. What I hope you and others will see is that we need to understand both, and that we need to understand that they go together. This may be a difficult pill to swallow, especially for those who do not already accept the Bible as God’s Word. Those who are able to receive it will.
I don’t think it’s a problem to talk to grieving people without going into what God had to do with what happened. That isn’t always the best time to talk about it. My concern is that by talking about grief as though humans could survive and thrive without God, we miss out on what we very much need to gain through these experiences. Grief does not automatically make things better. Trying to handle grief without turning to God will not go well. We need to turn to the only One who can help, and we need to point others to Him, as well.
That was beautiful Allison. The part I really like is the advice to get to know people. If I raise my children in mostly white circles they will be disadvantaged and ill prepared. We must stop segregating ourselves and staying comfortable. We need to get to know people and let our children play together. The segregation happens over and over because we aren’t paying attention to it. We are the only white family in an otherwise black church. These are my sisters and brothers and my daughter is familiar and at home with other children who look different but really are the same. Sometimes people look at me in a wondering way but the core group of people in the church accept me as their own. I am humbled and honored to worship with these people, and am learning what true worship is.
Yes, Hannah. You’re so right. We do need more diversity in our communities, our churches, our neighborhoods, our lives. The problem is diversity is messy. It’s unpredictable. When we bring people together who look different, act different, and have a different way of seeing the world, there will be tension. There must be humility on all of our parts. It’s not easy, which is why more people aren’t doing it, I think. But you’re so right. We need more of this. And it really starts one person at a time.
Thanks for sharing.
Such a relatable post. One quote that I was reminded of while reading this comes from Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, Americanah: “If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you’re uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.” No, we cannot stay the same and we cannot stand silent; thank you for speaking up, Allison.
Thanks Anna. Love that quote! So true.
Thank you so much for speaking up. I understand how awkward it is because I am a white person who doesn’t even know the first thing about racial tension. I think your post is written beautifully & I was inspired when I listened to Jefferson B.’s YouTube video. Another really great one that I just listened to is a podcast called Chrystal’s Chronicles episode 68: What I want My White Friends to Know. It was incredibly helpful to hear from an African American woman and all of her thoughts about what is going on, what we can do, the struggle and how it affects all of our hearts. She said that when she sees the racial violence on TV & the murders of the African American men, she immediately thinks of her own son & family, realizing they have to have serious talks about what to do when you are pulled over by the cops, etc. I had never even considered this! That makes total sense and my heart goes out to her. She has to have conversations with her kids that I won’t ever have to worry about. That makes me sad. This thing is real and has very far reaching effects that we may not even consider.
Julie—that’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that resource. I’m adding it to my list.
You are one of my favorite writers and I faithfully read. I love that you write from your heart and I can sense, feel and appreicate your authenticity. I love the part that says we have so much in common than we know and I’ll be posting that on my facebook wall. Like a friend of mine often jokes – We are all pink inside! I am originally from Nigeria and came to the US 4 years for graduate studies. My campus was mostly exclusively white. While I have never been part of the racial history or issues in the US, I found myself reaping its results like; fellow white classmates ignoring me in group settings, giving excuses as to why they can’t be “study buddy”, being looked down upon because I took the bus and didn’t have a car (meanwhile I was paying for this expensive education out of pocket! I doubt any of them did that yet they looked down on me like I was poor). Cynical remarks made towards me, A professor once told me to put my hands down in class when I wanted to answer a question saying “You are not from here” publicly. I cried a lot in my first semester, often in the middle of class, I’ll run to the bathroom and ball my eyes out. It was very hostile.I was traumatized and was MUTE for 1 year! I had never been aware of the color of my own skin until then. Though they are many foreigners in my country, we never ask them when they are going back. We are hospitable and love to have people who are different around us. I was raised to listen much before speaking and most of my american colleagues just “yapped” a lot and I wondered why and they often thought because I hardly spoke I was dumb. That was the thing; not speaking=being dumb. They didn’t know I had a doctorate degree already and highly accomplished. This was just an additional education. I felt small, unwanted and ostracized but I stayed. I used my own deep pain and rejection to lobby till I birthed the first international student’s group on that campus. Now I deal with people individually on a personal note and even though that was my first exposure to “white america” as a pure blooded African woman, I didn’t close my heart. Some of my coolest friends today are white! I love them and they love me. They have literally saved my life with their love, friendship and prayers. But that’s rare as it’s a gift! On a general, routine note, it’s not so sadly! But yes, I still have encounters of those who still treat me differently. So it is fascinating how you can “inherit” or “acquire” a deficit when you have nothing to do with it or understand its origin. And it is learned, if you put babies of all race, socio class together. They all coo, cry, poop, eat, sleep. They don’t think in their mind- “I am white or I am Asian or I am Jewish”. They just love! How I pray we can all have such innocent hearts!!!
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