We have a way of talking about beauty as
though beauty were only skin-deep. But
real beauty is so deep you have to move
into darkness in order to understand what
In Praise of Manners
Grieving opens the aperture of the heart to a wider sense of identity. Rather than attending solely to the “relentless industry of self,” grief initiates us into the more inclusive conversation between our singular lives and the extended self of the world. We begin to understand that there is no isolated self stranded in the cosmos, but rather an entwined and entangled net of connections reminding us that we are in a continuous exchange with light, air, gravity, thought, color, sound, all coalescing in an elegant dance that is our shared life. It is holy.
In preparation for a recent interview, I was sent a series of questions to ponder prior to the show. The list included perhaps the most challenging question that has ever been posed to me. Contained in this difficult question were a set of premises concerning the current state of the planet which included the likelihood of a global economic meltdown, the California drought and worldwide water shortages, unfolding catastrophic climate change, and the possibility of near-term extinction for the human species. All of this led to the heart of the question which asked:
In light of this, some people would ask: What good does it do to grieve? We’re screwed; we’ve killed the planet; why not just leave the planet a little earlier than planned? Why not just do a lot of mind-altering substances or commit suicide right now? Really, truly Francis, why is grief important now?
I printed out the questions on Friday night and read them over a number of times. I had no idea how to answer this one particular question. I took it with me to bed and let it work on me. In the morning, on our way to give a talk on grief at Sonoma State University, I said to my wife, “I have an answer for that question. It is all about good manners.” I watched as she thought about the idea and I saw her body relax. She said, “That feels so right. It rings true.”
Good manners is not something we pay much attention to in these times. It almost feels antiquated and yet, here it was coming to the foreground as a reply to this question. It got me thinking about the place of manners in culture, in relationships, and the broader arc of bioregions.
What became clear rather quickly is that manners, when they are expressed, are typically reserved only for other humans. The wider relations of watersheds, migratory estuaries, soil colonies, and ecotones, are rarely included in what it is we approach with an attitude of mannerliness. This was not always so as evidenced by the practices of traditional cultures across the continent. To the Native peoples, ethics and manners, as they related to nature, governed a good deal of their behavior. Manners were essential in maintaining right relations with the world that supplied everything for them. A breach in manners or etiquette could result in the deer, elk, bison, or salmon feeling offended and disappearing for a time, placing the survival of the people at great risk.
Ritual life and practices associated with hunting and the gathering of plants, berries, and seeds, all carried serious weight to the indigenous people of this land. They intuitively knew that the greater rhythm of relations hinged upon respect, reciprocity and restraint, i.e., good manners.
We too, are called to recover a more well-mannered life as it pertains to the living systems that enfold us. Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild, noted that,
“An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly, and has style. Of all moral failings and flaws of character, the worst is stinginess of thought, which includes meanness in all its forms. Rudeness in thought or deed toward others, toward nature, reduces the chances of conviviality and interspecies communication, which are essential to our physical and spiritual survival.”
This passage reminds us of the tangible connection between our ethical life and our felt sense of connection with the wider surround of hoof and talon, wing and branch. To lose the chance for conviviality with the “beautiful and strange otherness,” is to diminish our inner lives and the outer world. We die a little every time we close off the heart and shut out the living world from our attention.
This is where we return to the question of “what good does it do to grieve?” given all the givens. Beyond the social manners that we should extend to one another, there arise deeper, more Eros-based manners that emerge from the nest of the heart when we feel our kinship with what surrounds us. As the title of a lovely essay by Wendell Berry says, “It All Turns on Affection.” How we nourish this affection is at the core of our concerns. As Snyder alludes, our physical and spiritual survival is in question.
Grieving opens the aperture of the heart to a wider sense of identity. Rather than attending solely to the “relentless industry of self,” grief initiates us into the more inclusive conversation between our singular lives and the extended self of the world. We begin to understand that there is no isolated self stranded in the cosmos, but rather an entwined and entangled net of connections reminding us that we are in a continuous exchange with light, air, gravity, thought, color, and sound; all coalescing in an elegant dance that is our shared life. It is holy.
For example, when we drive up the coast of Northern California, we inevitably come across vestiges of clear-cuts, those bleeding and scarred lands that look so desolate and violated. These places announce themselves as a wound, a rupture where life once moved and breathed. As Wendell Berry notes,
“There are no unsacred places, there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”
My heart sinks into a deep grief in these times. Western Psychology would most likely suggest that the grief I am feeling is related to my own experience of being diminished as a child, by metaphoric clear-cuts, as it were. In that moment, I would be left alone with my feelings of grief, wondering about how to heal this wound.
What if, however, the feelings we have when we pass through these zones of destruction, are actually arising from the land itself? What if it is the grief of the forest registering in our bodies and psyches, arising in us as a receptor site for the sorrow of the Redwoods, voles, sorrel, ferns, owls, and deer; all those who lost their homes as a result of this mass plunder of living beings? What if we are not separate from this at all and that it is our spiritual responsibility to register these losses? What if it is good manners to pause, acknowledge and respond with sorrow, outrage, and apology at these places touched by so much loss?
Barry Lopez practiced this ritually by stopping along the roadsides to acknowledge all those creatures caught in the carnage of our machines. His book, Apologia, is a grief prayer to the roadkill he encountered over a period of time while driving cross country. It is a haunting collection of woodcuts by Robin Eschner and prose by Lopez, offering a moment of acknowledgement for lives cut short.
All of these thoughts are rippling through me as we come to Sunday night and time for the interview. I was still uncertain how I was going to flesh out the answer to her question. When she posed it, I found myself pausing, taking a deep breath and saying,
That is a huge question, isn’t it? I find myself somewhere between the idea that Joanna Macy advances that we are in The Great Turning−and writing our obituary. I’m not exactly sure where we are in the process. If we are in the throes of our own species disappearance, then what it really comes down to is good manners.
If we are leaving, then we owe it, as an act of respect and manners, to try to do whatever we can to mitigate against further damage. If our species is leaving, there will be others that remain. And if the salmon are returning, we should do whatever we can to make their waters clean and take down the obstacles that interfere with their ability to spawn. We should do whatever we can to make sure the forest can go back to being a full climax forest where all species are able to return. We should do whatever we can and I think that is an act of deep manners. And again we come back to the heart, don’t we?
My ability to feel this puts me back in a profound state of relatedness to where I live, to the watersheds, to my home. And so you say, “Why grieve if this is the condition?” Because we have to keep some sense of our deep soul obligation to the planet alive, no matter if we are leaving. I feel it is an imperative that I do whatever I can to register the sorrows of the planet. We have to remember that much of the grief that we are feeling isn’t ours. It isn’t personal. We are literally feeling the sorrows of the watersheds.
Why do grief work? So that we can register the sorrows of the planet and we do whatever we can, whatever we are obligated to do morally and spiritually, to try to prepare for whatever is coming, so that they have a better chance to survive and continue. They have a right to that.
Everything has a right to continue, to reach forward into untold generations, keeping the dreams of Salmon alive, of Pronghorn and Prairie Dog, Manzanita and Humpback Whale. Doing whatever we can to ensure the continuation of all beings is not only the right thing to do, it is good manners.
by Francis Weller
Entering The Healing Ground
Gary Snyder / The Practice of the Wild
Wendell Berry / It All Turns on Affection
Barry Lopez / Apologia
Joanna Macy / The Great Turning