Surviving into adulthood in this destructive culture comes with a deep familiarity with loss.
We lose loved ones to environmentally-induced diseases like most forms of cancer, to the diseases of civilization like diabetes, and to actions previously almost unheard of in our original communities like suicide and patriarchal violence. We lose the grasslands, forests, beaches, and riverbeds – words once synonymous with the homes our ancestors dwelled in so comfortably – to the murderous march of progress. We lose our memories, our stories, and thus, our identities, to the culturally homogenizing processes of colonization. We lose our sense of safety while men at staggering rates rape women and people of color are gunned down by police in the streets and bombed by soldiers in their homes.
Losing so much, we live in a perpetual state of grief. In my first two installments of this Do-It-Yourself: Resistance series, I wrote that resistance begins with love and empathy. Falling in love and opening to the channels of empathy makes you vulnerable to the excruciating grief following loss. Grief is painful as resistance is painful.
Much of what I’ve read about grief focuses on the way grief comes from a single incident of loss. Common events leading to grief include the death of a loved one, divorce, or the loss of financial stability. By now, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief are well known. Kubler-Ross studied patients facing the singular event of a terminal illness diagnosis and generalized grief into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Many have found this explanation helpful in working through a single incident of grief.
But, the deeper you become involved in resistance, the deeper you fall in love, the deeper you allow empathy to seep into your heart, the more you will be exposed to event after event after traumatizing event leading to grief. The question becomes: How do we learn to live with perpetual grief? Once tired and bloodied, how do we withstand the body blows this culture will continue to deliver?
As a child, I had one dream for my future: I wanted to play linebacker for the University of Notre Dame football team. In many ways, I couldn’t help it. My father went to Notre Dame and walked-on the football team his freshman year for the legendary coach, Ara Parseghian, before leaving the team to focus on his academics. I was born almost a month prematurely and was a tiny baby weighing in at 5 pounds, 5 ounces. The first pictures of me are in Notre Dame pajamas. I was so small that my dad could hold my head in his palm, drape my legs over his forearm, and rock me to sleep in the exact same way a football player tucks away the ball.
I was – and still am – a sensitive child, often being swept away in the sadness I feel around me. I was – and still am – reckless with my body. I climbed trees, jumped off staircases, ran radio flyer wagons down steep hills, and routinely experienced the need to fearlessly examine every square inch of poison ivy patches. Often, when I was hurt – emotionally or physically – my dad would patiently let me shed some tears before he asked me, “Would linebackers at Notre Dame cry?”
Hearing this, I would stick out my chin, wipe the tears off my cheeks with the back of my hand, and try to grin.
As it turns out, I was not good enough to play linebacker at Notre Dame. Notre Dame, of course, is one of the premier college football programs in the nation. I did, however, end up playing linebacker at a smaller college – the University of Dayton. In American football, linebackers exist to for one purpose, and one purpose only, to find who is carrying the ball for the other team, and to tackle that player. Linebackers have a reputation for both physical and mental toughness. Physically, they must throw their bodies in the way of blockers much heavier than them. Mentally, they must possess a desire to hunt down the opposing ball carrier.
Reflecting on my college football career a few years ago with my dad, resulted in one of the proudest moments of my life and also taught me an important lesson in my path to engaging in active resistance of the dominant culture. My dad was asking what some of my old teammates were up to and we were talking about Paddy McCormick, an academic All-American guard, my old roommate, med-school graduate, now doctor, and a dear friend. I told him about the time a group of my teammates and I were discussing who they hated hitting with on the team, and Paddy – to my and most everyone’s surprise – said, “Falk. Hands down. The kid always hits you squarely in the face with his head and you get that shaky feeling for a few plays afterwards. And he just keeps doing it.”
I was laughing, but my dad got quiet and with tears in his eyes – my dad never cries – said, “I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time, Will, you’re much tougher than I ever could be. You played football with a single-minded focus I’ve never seen before.”
I was neither particularly fast, nor particularly strong especially compared to most Division 1 college linebackers. I was certainly not the best linebacker to ever don the red helmet for the Dayton Flyers, I wasn’t even one of the best linebackers on our team. But, I was known for my dogged recklessness. I had to do something better than most players, so I became really good at leading with my helmet, throwing my body into the path of blockers, and then getting up and doing it all over again for the next play.
No one believes me, but some of the most serene moments I’ve ever experienced have come on the football field in the middle of a game with thousands of screaming fans. Lining up four yards from five three-hundred pound men coming to take my head off in the seconds before the ball was snapped signaling the start of a football play produced profound stillness for me.
In my memory, I study the knuckles of the man in his stance in front of me. White knuckles with his weight pressing forward means the next is a running play. Red knuckles with weight leaning backwards means the next is a passing play. I peer into the eyes of the quarterback. A glance at the end to my left forecasts where the ball is going.
The ball is snapped. The man in front of me steps with his left foot; I step to mirror him with my right. I see the flash of brown leather as the quarterback hands the ball off. I see a hole open in front of me. I accelerate to the hole as a blocker steps in front of me. I dip my shoulder, raise my head, and our helmets crack together. My ears ring, but I keep my feet going. I force my way past as the ball carrier arrives. He jukes right, but I don’t buy it. He decides to go with power trying to run me over. The crown of my helmet lifts up under his chinstrap. I run my hips into the air and in a moment we’re rolling over each other on the turf.
For a moment, I feel the scream in my neck and shoulders, the gash on my shin where I get stepped on in the pile of bodies, and my arms are bleeding from rubbing on the artificial turf. My head vibrates from the latest in a long list of collisions. Everything hurts. I want to crawl to the sideline, soak in an ice bath, and take copious amounts of painkillers. But, the whistle blows, the crowd has exploded, and I pop up to do it all again. I have a job to do for my coaches and for my teammates. I have to tackle the ball carrier.
A single-minded focus pushes me through the pain and I continue to do this until the game is over and we’ve won.
One way I’ve come to understand my suicide attempts is through understanding my own grief. In those moments of despair leading me to attempt to kill myself, part of what I felt was a profound sense of loss. As a young man facing a future dominated by student loan debt and countless hours chained to a desk in an office trying to dig myself out, I lost the possibility of a happy future. As a young public defender, watching client after client dragged away to prison, I lost a belief in justice. As a member of natural communities, I lost friends to the long night of species extinction. As a being defined by my relationships to every thing around me, I lost myself in the perpetual poisoning of water, the perversion of sunshine through the deterioration of the ozone layer, and the eradication of inch by precious inch of life giving topsoil.
In those moments where suicide seemed my only option, grief was drowning me. If you’re in love with life and you allow yourself to feel the emotions of others, it is impossible to avoid grief. Every living thing is under attack. More and more of the world burns with each passing second. Denying it only works for a short time. Giving into the grief completely might lead you down the same suicidal paths I tread.
Do not walk those paths. Resist. We are strong enough – you and I. Resist. It will be difficult. We will lose brothers and sisters on the way. Grief will grab our hearts so strongly sometimes we may feel like slipping away into that comfortable slumber of death. But, we must resist. If we develop a single-minded focus – the single-minded focus on defending life – we will shake off the grief. We will pull ourselves up off the turf and we will win.