Haunted Houses and the Ability to Mourn

Haunted Houses and the Ability to Mourn June 14, 2016

The irony of the Orlando massacre is that it was done only a mile away from the happiest place on earth—Disney World. Americans, most of the time, live in this world—a world where we can be happy, or that we can hope to be happy. And yet, in the midst of this dream comes nightmares. The irony, of course, is that on the face of it, Ameriimgresca seems like a place of dreams—you can do anything if you just work hard enough, if you apply yourself, if you believe enough in your dreams. And it’s true, America has been for many a cradle of opportunity, helping many to get ahead. And yet, this dream, this hope hides much more than it reveals. There is among us a walking wounded that are not easily discerned, but are there if we have eyes to see.

This hit in me hard in a course I taught this quarter. It’s called Cultural Interactions in an Interdependent World. At one point I had the class, which is a broad mix of Americans, international students and minorities from all across the globe—write up their experiences of social oppression. I told them I would be the only one to read them. I invited them, if they wanted to, to volunteer to read their papers to the class. I read through all 221 papers over that weekend. To put it mildly it was heart wrenching. The pain, dislocation, shock, grief, and utter devastation of so many rendered me dumbstruck in my own grief and helplessness. I thought, “No one has any idea of how much pain there is in our classrooms. If we only knew.” That Monday I had the students who volunteered read from their testimonials. Needless to say, there were many tears, tears of recognition that yes, no one is immune from oppression; we are all walking with a limp, walking with ghosts from our past, ghosts of the dead, of pain that can’t quite be expressed. We simply sat and listened; we became witnesses.

I didn’t use this verse in the class; it isn’t a class on religion, but Jesus’ promise rang through my soul: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” And to get at this idea, I lectured on the idea of the ability to mourn. Freud spoke of the importance of mourning. In fact, I suggested, based in part on a b51EB09SWMWL._AC_US160_ook by my Chicago mentor, Peter Homans, called The Ability to Mourn, that mourning is pivotal in our ability to move forward in life in a way that is creative and joyful. Without mourning, I argued, we become stale in our indifference; we become unmoved by our feelings; we get angry and resentful; we clutch at our own grievances, and wallow in self-pity. We strike out and blame; we seek to scapegoat others; we stuff our own ghosts, and, as Peter Rollins has said so brilliantly, we become “haunted houses.”

It strikes me, following the Orlando massacre that our nation is haunted. Almost immediately, instead of mourning, instead of crying and grieving we search to blame someone–Obama, Muslims, Republicans, Trump, guns, immigrants, people of color, ISIS, the GLBTQ community—anyone and everyone that we can possibly think of—someone must be to blame. And we wallow in accusation, marinate in resentment, suffocate in conspiracy theories, plan our next line of attack, and seek an edge in the endless, pathetic debates. It is sick, my friends; we are sick, and we are haunted and it’s getting us nowhere.

imgres-1And so, some might ask, “What is your solution?” Grieve. Grieve for those who have been lost; grieve for the GLBTQ community; grieve for the Muslims in our country who are now under constant suspicion; grieve for the politicians, who know what can be done but are tied up in party feuds; grieve for the police and medical workers who must face the carnage; grieve for the families who must confront a lifetime without the apple of their eyes; grieve for the mothers, the fathers, the brothers and sisters; grieve for the lovers of these dead; grieve for a country that is paralyzed on gun control; grieve for politicians who only know how to make accusations; grieve that the happiest place on earth is now the saddest place; grieve that we will forget about this event in a week; grieve that next month we will continue to scapegoat any and all who want to move us forward.

Yes, grieving is our only way out. Otherwise, we simply walk around like haunted houses, trapped by our resentments, suffocated in our own sorrows, torn up by jealousy and rage, drowning in political one-upmanship.

Yes, our country is sick. But the answer is not one more round of accusation and hatred. It is to grieve.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”


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