Someone I know recently lost a loved one. This person is a hard personality for me. I virtually always disagree with him and find him to generally be abrasive, passive aggressive, and narcissistic.
It’s humbling the effect of another’s suffering can have on you. All of that animosity fell away upon hearing news of his loss. He doesn’t know it, but the parts of my heart that have been broken by my own sufferings reached out to his broken heart, and silently and invisibly they wept together. I felt, as Joseph Smith was reported to have said once said, the desire to take his cares and sorrows upon my own shoulders, and cast his (supposed) sins behind my back.
It’s even more humbling to realize that others’ sufferings don’t always have this effect. In those times when our hearts soften toward other because of their grief or loss, we can scarcely believe that this experience is not inevitable. But it’s not. There is nothing that guarantees our empathy, compassion, and mercy. Sometimes the conditions for these virtues align themselves in just such a way that that we feel compelled, against our natural, unthinking wills, to put aside our antagonisms. Other times, though, no matter the favorable conditions for forgiveness and compassion, we choose to bury these virtues, and reserve them for more worthy persons. Interesting that at times we feel irresistibly drawn to compassion, but at other times such events present themselves as a choice. And we often choose hardness.
Yet the work of mourning is such a poignant, deeply meaningful act. It’s a knife that efficiently cuts away the outer protective shells that we have carefully built to keep others at arms’ or football fields’ length, obscuring our view of one another–extreme intellectuality, an overbearing sense of humor, insensitivity to other viewpoints, offensive remarks, irritating personality traits, etcetera. But what really changes here? These traits we formerly found so difficult or impossible to reconcile have not magically disappeared. Instead, our eyes have changed, if just for a while. These things have faded into the posturing background noise of a lived life, where they were always most at home. Now we see our enemy truly, and as we mourn with them, they become a person we can actually love. Mourning elides space-time in this way, and takes what would have been years (if ever) of bitterly hard work and condenses it into a shared moment where time stands still and we are left with only each other. Mourning makes us real to one another, and in the case of the enemy, real for the first time. It counteracts the more usual human work of cutting out caricatures of people in order for them to better serve our needs. Such caricatures are much easier to use, dismiss, or even kill, than real persons.
I wonder, in the seemingly eternal war of conflicts like Israel and Palestine, what kind of effect a sustained effort of mourning might have. Israelites and Palestinians each setting aside special days of mourning for one another’s dead, particularly the children. What might it mean for Palestinians to see Israelis weep over Palestinian children? For Israelis to see Palestinians light candles and sing in honor of Israeli fallen? The discourse of caricature would label this an absurd act, even blasphemous, unworthy of consideration. Yet, there is an overwhelming, though latent power in mourning, waiting to strip us of our fantasies and reveal us to one another as the real persons we are.
It’s a shame that we so often need suffering and tragedy to do this work for us.