Friday, 18 May 2018

Grief and Beauty

“Beauty will save the world”
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot)

In the practice of Meeting for Worship, we are challenged to ‘stand still in the Light’. In place of our habitual strategies of preoccupied busyness, we are confronted with what is. For many of us, that eventually means having to sit with our grief.

If we ‘stand still’ and allow this grief to reveal itself, we will feel the pain of our own losses and regrets, but also, perhaps, a deep grieving for the destruction of the beauty and diversity of life in the world. This grief, which is the natural response to our awareness of violence and ecological destruction, is usually unacknowledged and unspoken. When grief is denied it is driven underground, to become part of our society’s spiritual malaise; a widespread, uneasy sense of meaninglessness, sickness and despair.

Only those who are willing to acknowledge the reality of loss have the opportunity to grieve. It is common for people who awaken to the destructive frenzy of industrial civilisation to get stuck in one of the familiar moments of the grieving process; anger, depression or frantic bargaining - ‘if I just go to one more demonstration or meeting, somehow I can still avoid climate change, species extinction or war’. By contrast, the phase of grief that is often called 'acceptance' is not indifference or complacency, but finally allowing ourselves to feel the pain of loss. As anyone who has lost a close relative, friend or partner knows, loss is irreparable. The process of grieving means coming to accept our feelings of pain and loss, so that we can go on living with them.

Destruction is quick and easy compared to the laborious and fragile processes of growth and creation. In just a few decades industrial economies have devastated flourishing ecosystems that evolved through thousands of years. And yet, despite our civilisation’s unprecedented destructiveness, it cannot eliminate new life. When all that is left as evidence of our current society is a thin geological layer of compacted plastic and radioactive waste, the inexorable power of natural selection will have abundantly repopulated every possible ecological niche with an exuberant diversity of flourishing new species.

Compared to the brutal rapidity of bombing, fracking and pollution, the rebirth of beauty seems impossibly precarious and gradual. Every act of cruelty, violence and destruction is an irreparable loss, but nature is patient; the pressure of life is continuous and insistent. However much ugliness, waste and poison our self-destructive industrial growth produces, it can never outlive the enduring natural powers of regeneration and evolution. Industrial growth is inherently self-limiting, because it relies on accelerating exploitation of limited resources. But the power of creation is drawn from the endlessly renewed cycles of photosynthesis, birth and growth, the continual and irresistible cycling of carbon, water and energy. In our culture’s futile matricidal struggle to conquer nature, there can only ever be one winner.

This knowledge does nothing to diminish the pain of loss of the beauty and richness of the world as it is now, but it should remind us to stay open to the world's inherent capacities for rebirth. When we are tempted to despair, we can remain open to the continual possibility, the inevitability of new life. Hope acknowledges the reality and pain of loss, and is ready to welcome and celebrate new life wherever it appears. The creative powers of art, community, inquiry and spirituality are continual sources of potential for bringing new forms of beauty, caring, understanding and flourishing into the world. Let us sit with our grief and our hope. On the other side of every act of destruction is beauty.

No comments:

Post a Comment

"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)