Living in a Land of Loss
Greg M. Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard
How do you live in a land of loss?
That is the question to which tens of millions of Americans awoke the morning after the 2016 election.
Many of us woke up feeling that our country was no longer familiar to us: that it was not the place we’d long thought it was. How do you live in a virtual reality of exile, where you fear you can no longer trust the place in which you live?
My grandparents, Irene and Max, were beautiful young adults with modern hopes and expectations when they fled the Nazi invasion of Poland. They and their families were lucky enough to flee to Cuba in the 1920’s and 30’s as things worsened. Because in the desperate year of 1939, 908 members of their generation piled their hopes onto a luxurious boat called the St. Louis, destined for the brighter shores of America. Both the United States and Cuba refused that ship safe passage, for fear of needy outsiders. Many of the St. Louis’s passengers perished. So Irene and Max were grateful to have been able to meet and fall in love in Cuba, an Island paradise where they set up a shop selling porcelain dolls in a small town called Matanzas. There they raised my mother, who learned Spanish as her native tongue and felt comfortably Cuban in her Catholic school uniform.
Then Castro took power and Irene and Max had to send my mother away, one of 14,000 unaccompanied minors who fled Cuba on a mission called Operation Peter Pan. With just days’ notice, my mother flew to the United States in January 1961 with nothing but three silk dresses that held no value for a 13 year-old refugee girl in her new country. Irene and Max finally arrived here as middle aged strangers in this land, and attempted to resettle their now fractured family in the city of St. Louis. Soon after they arrived, President Kennedy was shot and their new land set ablaze for over a decade.
My grandparents had to learn how to live in a world of constant loss. Their fondest hope, as far as I could tell or imagine, was that my generation and I would experience someplace better. Today, instead, it feels like we have joined them.
So let us do as they did: look around and see the land of loss for what it is, because life depends on understanding with sobriety. This is not a fairy tale kingdom where we never grow old. Let us learn its new language, and make sense of its customs.
In a land of loss people grieve, and that is normal, okay. You don’t try to talk each other out of it. You embrace and softly remind one another that one can work and love and save up and plan for a better future, even while suffering. Some days, the best pain relief is laughter at the absurdity of it all.
Loss makes people feel vulnerable. In a land of loss people walk the streets eyeing groups of people who look differently, because difference means fear, because fear can mean violence. You walk faster, just to get out of harm’s way. But slowly you remember the way to live is to look out for others along the road, to care for them, even if they don’t look like you or come from your demographic. This gets better through love. We get to safety through love. Please remember that.
In a land of loss, even the victors will lose. You might think religion will reign supreme, particularly Christianity. But don’t be surprised when the coming years bring a continued decline in the kind of conservative, muscular Christianity that was victorious in this election. It’s not just that resurrection is in short supply these days. It’s that loss breeds skepticism. The good news is it can be a surprisingly healthy skepticism that motivates action in the here and now. Elie Wiesel wrote that God died at Auschwitz, and indeed many of the Holocaust survivor generation became atheists and freethinkers. Realism prepared them to rebuild, and they rebuilt with extraordinary zest.
What they and especially their children and grandchildren did not build enough of, however, was community. Too many of the institutions of the last land of loss were based on isolation. We were alone in our houses and cars, TV and radio voices helping us to ignore the threat of nuclear war in the absent-minded company of our nuclear families. This is how we became demographics to one another. Do not make this mistake again. You must reach beyond living as isolated interest groups and learn to be flawed people who know one another and care about one another. You can be vulnerable enough to do this.
So learn to steady yourself. Follow your breath when it is hard. In the old country you went to sleep in last night, you could afford the luxury of avoiding bad feelings. There, many temptations could be sensuously indulged. You could drink away pain. Netflix worked, too. In this new land, you cannot allow yourself many moments of blissful distraction.
Remember this is different from saying you should never relax. You must make time to relax. You must take care of yourself. In the land of loss, cabin pressure will destabilize more often and children will need you– this will not be a drill– to commit the terrifying act of putting on your own oxygen mask first. How will you do it? Come back to the breath, don’t fight it.
And don’t put yourself in a bad situation. Yes, use the internet to connect and inform and inspire. Then use the internet blocker (Blessed be thy Freedom, and SelfControl) when you know you need to meditate. When you know you need to write down your pain so you can see it storm in front of you like condensing breath. When you know you need to see real people tonight, not just captured images projected onto a black mirror. Call us, please. We will be there too.
I don’t remember much about Irene and Max now, but I can still see her careful perm and his striking widow’s peak, as they sat, dignified but slightly bent, in their modest Miami apartment. They played cautiously with me, their American grandson, wincing if I spilled orange juice on the plastic they wrapped around their furniture so their fragile investment in their second land of loss would not be damaged. Irene would shake with desperation some days, because they were not prepared to emigrate once more.
But you cannot really emigrate from the land of loss. You cannot avoid the question of how to live in it. What you must do is reframe the question: not how do you, but how do we live?
The only answer is to live with love. My wife and I will raise our newborn son with joy, not because we will pretend his world isn’t filled with sadness but because we will remember that when we try to suppress our sadness, we also wipe away the possibility of real joy. We will weep and we will do so together with many of you, and we will build community, always community. Love is not easy in the land of loss, but it is possible and enough and it can begin with a simple hug and the willingness to begin again.
Greg M. Epstein serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Good Without God. He is the executive director of the Humanist Hub, a nonreligious congregation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is on Twitter at @gregmepstein and on Facebook.com/gepstein.