Tending Relationship After Despair
The climax of the 2018 Marvel film, Avengers: Infinity War, is jaw-dropping. If you haven’t seen the movie and plan to, then skip the next two paragraphs because I’m about to blow it for you:
The villain wins. At the end of the movie, Thanos, the warlord from planet Titan, snaps his fingers and half of the world’s population is wiped out in a split-second. Fully half of the heartbeats in the universe become dust in the wind. Driver-less cars run off the road, families disappear from their backyards, planes fall from the sky. Children and the elderly, rural and urban, rich and poor, Guardians, Avengers, and gods—no group is spared. It’s cruel and haunting to watch, and I didn’t see it coming.
I thought the Avengers, especially powerhouses Black Panther and Scarlet Witch were too good, too righteous, too badass to lose this most essential fight. I thought the arc of the Marvel universe bends toward the good guys, and evil can’t prevail if you have Spiderman on your side.
Infinity War crystalizes devastation in spectacular terms: It is an irrevocable loss. Grief. Injustice. Disbelief. All rolled into one.
It is just a movie, but still.
The year 2020, on the other hand, was breathtakingly, painfully real. It was a climax that was decades in the making, crystalizing a universe bending toward pandemic, racism, abuse of power, and violent individualism. There was a snap—or many snaps—and death.
By the end of the year, the U.S. lost more than 350,000 heartbeats, practically in the blink of an eye, to fallout from the Covid-19 virus: Family members and neighbors, old friends, artists, musicians, and anchors of our communities.
Their absence from our kitchen tables, bedrooms, houses of worship, and civic spaces is certainly felt on a personal level, but I’m still looking for a broader, more collective lamentation.
We must be radicalized by loss. We should be mourning together.
I keep listening for the rip of a curtain or the splintering of an altar. More haunting than masked-up communities are the empty chairs left behind by 350,000-plus souls. Where did they go? Our beloveds were here, and now they’re gone. Their quiet departure is so deafening that even the roar of a mob, storming the Capitol on the Feast of Epiphany, cannot wake us.
The events of the last year bring into sharp focus how tenuous our grip on democracy, and our humanity, really is. The state of our union is so frayed that even death, the universal truth of our lives, cannot pass a fact check, cannot bridge us. We cannot mourn together.
Perhaps we are too battle-weary to account for the present devastation. We can’t mourn together because we’ve never really done it before, even after universe-altering devastation: Slavery, lynching, mass incarceration. The displacement and deaths of Indigenous people. Structural and institutionalized racism, misogyny, religious bigotry.
The soul of the nation has been bound up in willful disbelief for so long. We’ve bypassed reckoning and grief in favor of a silver bullet, that thing that will get us out of the mess: a mask, a vaccine, a Presidential election, historical perspective, Twitter, policy change, superheroes.
But what if the silver bullet is meant to turn us toward the devastation instead of away from it? The opposite of devastation is restoration, which resides in a relationship, and tending is its currency. What if we started tending to the hurt instead of ignoring it?
A good friend of mine recently told me that she just wants to love her neighbor again. She’s wearied by division and vitriol and hate, as we all are. Where to begin feels overwhelming, but what if it was as simple as tending to the person right in front of you, the way we would a garden or a newborn? Trust lives there, because tending is a circular practice, a turning, and returning, with an entrance and an exit and another entrance. It is a relationship.
In the present moment, when death surrounds us and our institutions have failed us, the work of relationship has gotten a lot harder. Competing forces of time, energy, and most insidiously, ego, bar us from giving and receiving from one another. And yet, it’s what we most need. It’s what we are made to do.
I live in a small town in rural East Tennessee, where I’m a full-time advocate for rural people and places. I love how my life is bound up in the life of a small community. I love knowing the stories and extended family members of my neighbors. And yet, no matter where you live, it’s always a struggle to reconcile politics and behavior; to comprehend the gift of a casserole on one’s doorstep with a side of bigotry.
That’s the hardship of a relationship. But every time I choose Twitter over the rigor of tending to my neighbors, I miss an opportunity to be restored by joy. The casserole is an invitation to tend to one another’s wounds, and maybe, find joy in the tending.
I believe the work of now is about repairing the breach we’ve observed in our own communities. It looks like accepting the casserole and the challenge that comes with it. It is tending wounds in ways that acknowledge harm but don’t imprison us to bitterness. It is grieving without drowning, raging but also listening. It is holding each other accountable while honoring the dignity and divinity of one another.
We need not be superheroes or gods. We need not be held by any tribe or ideology. Our universal superpower is tapping into the knowledge that we are beloved by a great Source, and so is everybody else. Even when we feel disconnected and despairing, our pockets are still full of keys, like that Hafiz speaks of, opening doors to relationship and repair.
The arc of this universe bends towards a relationship. The only way the villain wins is if we attach ourselves to anything less than that.
Whitney Kimball Coe is the director of national programs at the Center for Rural Strategies.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.