Not-So-Good Grief (Over All We May Be Losing)

Published in several newspapers in January, 2020.


I’m not sure why I’ve always been very sensitive to loss. It doesn’t seem to be because I endured so much loss in my formative years. (The first truly major loss I suffered was the death of my father when I was 21.) My guess is that I absorbed it from my mother — a great storyteller who brought her own growing up years to life for my brother and me. And her early years included the death of her own father, in the Spanish Flu Pandemic, when she was a little girl—an event which left her family destitute starting a full decade before the Great Depression.

But whatever the origin of my being especially attuned to the pain of loss, these days have brought me to a kind of grief I’ve never known before: it looks to me like we all might truly lose everything.

Back in the days of the Cold War, there were times when the possibility seemed very real that a massive nuclear exchange between the superpowers might destroy human civilization and take the whole system of life on earth down with it. It was a very scary prospect, but it did not trigger grief in me because the world around me remained intact. That catastrophic loss was simply something that might happen, but was not actually unfolding, already destroying things of sacred value.

Now, as I look at what’s happening on the big stages of human affairs – which I do full-time – I see much that I love already being torn apart before our eyes:

  • The health of American democracy has already deteriorated to a degree I’d never have thought possible. And it seems genuinely possible — so manifestly powerful in America now are the forces hostile to our constitutional order — that within a generation our nation will be ruled by the kind of corrupt and dictatorial regime America has opposed since its founding.
  • Looking around the international scene, one sees the rise in global power by repressive and brutal political forces (like Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China) and the degradation of previously more democratic nations (like Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil, India, with rumblings even in Europe and Israel). The world has not seen dark forces gain in power like this, and humane political forces in such retreat, since the 1930s.
  • Meanwhile, another global development that’s even more menacing is happening in the biosphere. The news from Australia in recent weeks – the continent burning up, whole towns seeking refuge on the seashore, the forest of kelp in their seas completely killed off by rising ocean temperatures – is just one small vignette from an emergent and increasingly dramatic worldwide picture that reveals to all but the blind how our civilization’s ongoing destabilization of the earth’s climate is severely undermining the foundations on which life on earth, including human life, depends.

All these sacred things– not just maybe in serious danger of slip-sliding away, but already visibly moving in the wrong direction. And those forces fueled by the dimensions of brokenness in the human world – selfishness, fear and hatred and cruelty, ignorance and bigotry, and insatiable desire (for power and for wealth) – has lately gained such sway that, realistically, the ability of humankind to meet its challenges and to protect “the human project” is entirely questionable.

It is 50 years since I first realized how extraordinary that “human project” has been, what a departure in the context of the several billion years of life’s history on this planet. I.e. what a new experiment it has been for life-on-earth for the human creature to take the unprecedented step of developing a new, non-biologically-determined life-form: civilized societies.

I became aware then, also, of how far from assured it is how our species’ plunge into this terra incognita (unknown territory) would work out: we might, in time, get it together; or we might fail to such a degree to control the forces we’d unleashed that we would plunge ourselves into catastrophe.

But never, in these 50 years, have the betting odds on our navigating successfully into a healthy, humane, and sustainable future civilization on this planet seemed so worrisomely low. Not with all those three things – the political order of the world’s leading nation, the spirit governing the world’s other powerful nations, the balances in the flows of the biosphere – all sliding toward brokenness.

So for the first time, in these 50 years, I find myself moving from my usual worry into a most painful grief.

Not that I’ve lost hope. Not that I’ve ceased to exert myself fully to push things as best I can toward the wholeness I want for human and other life.

But for the first time, I find myself looking around at all the marvelous things around us – from the nobility of our Constitution, to the intricacies of the infrastructure that make our lives work, to the cultural treasures of our civilization, to the flourishing ecosystems of our planet – and feeling the grief that comes from the realization that all this might be lost. (Or at least: for civilization, new Dark Ages; for the biosphere, a major wave of extinctions.)

Like sitting at the bedside of a loved one, fearing it will prove a deathbed. Hoping, but grieving, too.

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