Transformation and Embodied Grief (Part 2)

transformation

In my last post I mentioned the predicament I felt I was in after this election. On the one hand, I want to value my family and loved ones who voted for Trump. If one of the many reasons the white working class voted for Trump is because they felt that their voice, their very being, was not valued in our society, then I must show them that they are loved and valued. On the other hand, how do I do that when I cannot agree with or justify their vote for a racist, sexist, and xenophobe?

The issue is complicated further because though they feel like they are the poorest and the most oppressed, reality is often much different than that. But simply telling people who feel devalued and ignored that they are not only not as bad off as they could be, but that they are also racist is probably not a good path to take, for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it simply continues on the path that led to the very predicament I am describing.

While I can understand and sympathize with those who would wash their hands of anyone who supported Trump and everything he stands for, I do not believe that this is enough. But just as I do not believe that it is enough to simply understand the motivations behind someone who would vote for Trump, I do not believe it is enough to simply disregard them altogether.

Why?

For one, a lot of these people are my family, people I love, and because of that I cannot and will not cut all ties to them. I also believe the only hope we have of transforming our reality involves everyone, on both sides. Otherwise, history will not only repeat itself, but spiral further and further into the immanent, cutting itself off from the transcendent.


Reality amid Ideology

The vocation of the prophets, in the face of such an enthralling ideology, is to penetrate and expose that ideology by appeal to the reality of the lived world, a reality that steadfastly refused to conform to the claims of that ideology.
– Walter Bruggemann

In Reality, Grief, Hope, Walter Brueggemann offers a path to responding to our current cultural crisis through the lens of the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Bible, specifically, the prophetic response to the destruction of Jerusalem.

To what ideology is Brueggemann referring? Execptionalism. For both Jerusalem and the United States, the chosenness of each is a deeply held belief. For the US in particular, the connection between politics and religion goes back to the very beginning. It doesn’t take much research to find an indelible connection between the belief that the US was a chosen by God, and its imperialist, racist, etc. tendencies.

One can only conclude that exceptionalism eventually morphs into a self-serving policy of brutality that is justified with religious fervor, for chosenness becomes an excuse for self-assertion that in the end nourished a violent society.
– Walter Brueggemann

Not only does this ideology of exceptionalism function on the level of government and institutions, it provides the backdrop for an individual exceptionalism.

Charles Taylor’s description of the modern self, what he calls the buffered self, would be helpful at this point. As I mentioned in a previous post, “the buffered self is not only able to disengage from the transcendent but is also invulnerable to it. The porous self, which was characteristic of the pre-modern era, was essentially open (hence porous) to the transcendent, vulnerable to attack and healing. The porous self was a social self, while the buffered self is an individual self.”

One element relevant to this discussion is the location and source of authority for the buffered self. The authority of the buffered self is the inner life of the individual – the mind – rather than the external, transcendent other, e.g., God. The buffered self presumes that the answers to all our problems are found within the immanent and does not include the transcendent: in this perspective, the individual is exceptional.

Why is this a problem?

For one, this understanding of ourselves bleeds over into our understanding of others. When our interpersonal relationships operate solely in a closed, immanent framework, such as I’ve been describing, then the solutions for the problems we face can only be found within that immanent framework. This is problematic because the proposed solutions can never attain that to which they aspire. There is only a horizontal dimension to the proposed solutions. This undermines any attempt to actually solve the problems, and instead perpetuates the conditions that brought it about.

The goodness which inhabits our goal, or our vision of order, is somehow undone when it comes to struggling to realize it.
– Charles Taylor

However, by opening up the vertical dimension, by appealing to the transcendent, something new can be achieved that wasn’t part of the horizontal, immanent solution.

The vertical space opens the possibility that by rising higher, you’ll accede to a new horizontal space where the resolution will be less painful/damaging for both parties.
– Charles Taylor

In other words: the vertical dimension allows for transformation.

By opening ourselves up to the vertical, transcendent dimension we can begin the work of combating the ideology of individual exceptionalism, and the closed immanent structure it both generates and sustains. The transcendent dimension can rupture the ideology of chosenness, whether understood corporately or individually. The vertical dimension offers the possibility of transformation, not just that something beyond the current predicament can be achieved, but that the solution is greater than that which can be conceived solely within the horizontal.


Grief amid Denial

The prophetic counter to denial rooted in the ideology of exceptionalism is the practice of grief that acknowledges loss – an acknowledgement that summons the city to be fully, deeply, and knowingly engaged in its actual life experience.

 

The urban elite, of course, do not weep. Their ideology requires that they ‘suck it up’ and move on. But their sense of loss lingers beneath what is acknowledged; it has, however, no compelling power to transform as long as it remains unacknowledged. For that reason, the prophetic counter of grief expressed may be an antidote to denial.
– Walter Bruggemann

As I mentioned in the last post, the elite were determined to reform ordinary people. This means that as a result, ordinary people have inherited the tendency among the elite to ignore this sense of loss mentioned above. This disengagement, which is characteristic of the buffered self, is now available to all – ordinary and elite alike.

Just as transformation is not possible by operating in the horizontal dimension of the immanent, so to is it denied when reality is denied. Brueggemann suggests that through the prophetic grief expressed in the psalms of lament we can come to terms with reality, that is, to let those things which have failed to die and grieve over their loss.

The task in death is to let go of what is finished, dead, and failed. The ideology of exceptionalism, with its favorite modifier “forever,” insisted that such an ending could not come.
– Walter Brueggemann

The paradigmatic example of prophetic grief for Brueggemann is Jeremiah.

My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
I cannot keep silent;
for I hear the sound of the trumpet,
the alarm of war.
Disaster overtakes disaster,
the whole land is laid waste.
Suddenly my tents are destroyed,
my curtains in a moment. (4:19-20)

 

For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
anguish as one of bringing forth her first child,
the cry of daughter Zion gasping for breath,
stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting before killers!” (v. 31)

There is a notable physicality to Jeremiah’s grief – it is an embodied grief. This is very different from the way we, as buffered selves, experience grief today. Taylor calls the movement or transfer of ritual religious practices from our bodies to our heads excarnation. Excarnation, which, again, is characteristic of the buffered self, involves a distancing from our bodies through reason, for the purpose of better understanding our bodily desires.

Any ideology, whether exceptionalism or otherwise, is both the result of, and that which sustains, excarnation. The disengaged, disenchanted, buffered self is coterminous with this type of excarnated ideology of denial. This is why not just grief, but embodied grief is an important aspect of transformation.

By returning to our bodily experience, grief being one avenue, we can not only reveal the bankruptcy of the ideologies we live under, but open ourselves to the vertical dimension of transcendence.

We are… alienated from our anchoring in the world, in real fleshly reality; which we can only recover access to through the lived body…
– Charles Taylor

A first step in breaking out of a closed immanent framework involves embodied grief. This not only roots us in our bodies, but by doing so it also directly opposes the ideologies of denial. This, in turn, allows for the possibility of transformation by opening us up to the transcendent dimension, rather than merely searching for solutions within the immanent. Transformation is thus only possible when we fully inhabit our bodies.


While this was originally intended to be a reflection on the election and my response to some of the explanations given, it has quickly turned into something a bit more involved than that. In the first part, I described what I felt was missing in all the post-election analyses, namely, that the white working class vote for Trump was a response to a sense that their being has been devalued, not just by certain groups of people within the government, but in the very worldview they’ve inherited. I also mentioned the predicament I, and many others, find ourselves in. This part has been an attempt to address that predicament, to find a way forward. By acknowledging the forces behind our current political situation and grieving over them, we can hopefully open up the possibility for change and transformation. But this cannot be just an intellectual pursuit, it must be an embodied one. Only then can we open up the possibility of real transformation, not just a recycling of old ideologies.

In the last part I will, hopefully, describe a model or paradigm for that transformation.

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