Friday, October 6.
I arrived at the shelter where I stay at 14:32. There was no line of people waiting admission. They nominally open the gate at 14:30, but in fact sometimes do at 14:15, 14:00 or even 13:00. When I later asked what time they’d opened today, I was told 14:30. That can’t be factual, though: given current intake procedures, they can’t possibly have processed 30+ persons in two minutes.
Marvin arrived at the same time. I stayed outside to finish a cigarette, and he slipped in in front of me. He got assigned #41, “my” bunk, a bottom bunk. I got assigned the only available remaining bunk, #40, a top bunk and thus much less desirable.
If I had arrived only 30 seconds earlier, I would have been assigned “my” bunk, a bottom bunk, the one much more desirable. I found myself scouring my memory as to anything I could have done to have left church even 30 seconds earlier. I would recognize the mistake of looking only at my last activities before leaving; whereas 30 seconds at any point during the day would have made the difference.
I would recognize that I was “bargaining.”
In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross published the book On Death and Dying. Based on her observations of hundreds of terminally ill people, she set forth “five stages of grief” that such a person normally goes through in coming to grips — or not — with the prospect of dying. These are:
In “Denial,” the person flat-out refuses to believe that the loss has occurred or is about to occur. We similarly hear the term used often of a problem drinker who flat out refuses to admit that her or his drinking is a problem.
“Anger” needs no explanation.
In “Bargaining,” the person constantly seeks to figure out what someone could, should or would have done to avoid the present situation, or what someone still can, should or will do that will permit the person to escape it.
“Depression” likewise needs no explanation.
In “Acceptance,” the person has come to be at peace with What Is.
The book generated tremendous interest. The author was an instant global celebrity. Suddenly hundreds of professionals and professionals-wannabes, all over the country, sought to declare themselves “death experts,” too, and hold seminars and teach classes on these subjects.
As time went on, Kübler-Ross’s model came increasingly into doubt. On the one hand, whereas the initial work seemed to portray the transition through these stages as inevitably straightforward and linear, it came to appear that some patients sometimes skip or go back and forth between stages.
Also controversial were certain passages in the text that could be construed as suggesting the possibility of life after death.
On the other hand, it came to appear that these five stages apply more broadly — not just to terminal patients, but to any situation of loss or grief — the death of a family member, the breaking up of a marriage or romance, the loss of a job — or, I would say, to any instance of disappointment whatsoever. And that is what has moved me to write the present post.
Two crucial points. (1) Kübler-Ross indicated that it’s futile for a care-giver or loved one to seek to reason with the grieving person or to dictate that she or he ought to feel otherwise than he or she does. One needs to accept and affirm, at each stage, that the grieving person’s feelings are what they are. (2) I have found no information as to how a person transitions from one stage to the next, and the same remains a sheer mystery to me. I will set forth below that certain worldviews can definitely hinder a progression toward acceptance. And it is equally clear that some folk somehow stay stuck or frozen in grievance, perhaps by choice, apparently forever.
(3) As to my thesis: It appears to me, on the one hand, that the desire to avoid disappointment, to avoid feeling these negative feelings (anger and depression), is among the strongest of human motivations. M. Scott Peck indicated that practically all emotional dysfunction, a.k.a. mental illness, boils down to a seeking to avoid legitimate suffering. Which leads to the other hand: one may as well accept these feelings, as they’re inevitable.
We bond emotionally to many things: loved ones, aspirations, goals, things sought for; life, health, one’s own well-being. Emotional energies get caught up, or invested, in these bonds.
If you loop a rubber band over your two index fingers, and pull them apart gradually until the rubber band snaps; there is a chaotic release of energies.
The breaking of any emotional bond likewise involves a chaotic release of emotional energies, and it’s inevitable that some will take the forms of the emotions of grief.
It’s also inevitable that bonds sometimes break.
As mentioned in a recent post:
Things will happen you won’t like; things have happened you don’t like.
Growing up, I taught myself a posture toward justice and injustice that, I’m surprised to recall, I clung to until even less than a decade ago. It seemed to me that justice requires that every error be corrected, every wrong made right, every broken thing repaired. Then this happened.
I had my own place at the time. I made the practice of keeping old, used glass jars to use for various purposes, as food storage containers, and so on. I often cooked or warmed things in them; so they went through heating and cooling many times. On this one occasion, I was working at the kitchen counter, and such a — quart mayonnaise jar — was sitting nearby; and I bumped it with my elbow, and it fell.
It hit the floor once and bounced.
It hit the floor again and shattered.
It was broken beyond repair.
What had been a good thing, was now trash.
There are similar events with broken dreams, frustrated ambitions, and so on, on and on. The positive feelings that bind one to this or that prospect, when the bond breaks, become trash. We experience them as the emotions of grief. We need to let them go.
We need to sacrifice the broken thing.
I go into that in some detail in this post: Some more prayer exercises.
Worldviews that frustrate the grieving process
1. “God’s will;” “God’s plan”
There are those who believe “God’s will” or “God’s plan” consists of a definite series of intentions that God has toward the specific concrete events that are to occur in history. In my years as a “born again,” this concept was taught to us in such a way as to equate obedience to “God’s plan” with righteousness, and deviation from “God’s plan” as sin. The former was sure to result in a life free from difficulties, and the latter in — difficulty.
From that perspective, certainly, to be so late as to miss getting a bottom bunk, this way, was sin. I must have sinned somehow. And in the past, I used to direct my anger at such events, against myself: beating myself up, self-flagellation.
All for naught. As I believe now, God has no such “plan.” Instead, “God’s will” consists of nor more nor less than what we know as natural law.
Related: A short route to agony
2. Identity politics
This happens to say a lot about the current moment in America.
One can avoid the risk of emotional pain inherent in uncertainties, the risk of disappointment, by choosing an ideology that guarantees one’s pain will never, ever go away.
Feelings com; feelings go, if we let them.
In college, I was a non-fundamentalist evangelical Christian. I believed, on the one hand, that the only thing a Christian needed to take on faith was Jesus’ resurrection. On the other hand, it did not need faith, as I saw so many resurrections happening around me every day.
Every time two unhappy people reconcile, it’s a resurrection.
Every time someone finds new hope in the face of shattered dreams, it’s a resurrection.
Every time I smile at a social outcast and he or she smiles back, it’s a resurrection.
There is life after death.