An Apprenticeship with Sorrow
This night will pass, then we have work to do.
Grief and loss touch us all, arriving at our door in many ways. It comes swirling on the winds of divorce, the death of someone dear, as an illness that alters the course of a life. For many of us, grief is tied intimately to the ravages we witness daily to watersheds and forests, the extinction of species, the collapse of democracy, and the fading of civilization. Left unattended, these sorrows can seep underground, darkening our days. It is our unexpressed sorrows, the congested stories of loss that, when left untouched, block our access to the vitality of the soul. To be able to freely move in and out of the soul’s inner chambers, we must first clear the way. This requires finding meaningful ways to speak of sorrow. It requires that we take up an apprenticeship with sorrow. Learning to welcome, hold and metabolize sorrow is the work of a lifetime.
Our apprenticeship begins when we come to understand that grief is ever-present in our lives. This is a difficult realization, but one that has the opportunity of opening our heart to a deeper love for our singular life and for the wind-swept world of which we are a part. We begin with the simple gesture of picking up the shards of grief that lie littered on the floor of our house. Nothing special. Nothing heroic. Not unlike the young novices entering their apprenticeship with the master teacher, we begin humbly—sweeping the shavings, mixing the pigments, cleaning the brushes, tending the fires. We begin the process by building our capacity to hold sorrow in the womb of the heart. Through this practice, we become able to welcome the pervasive and encompassing presence of grief.
Grief works us in profound ways, reshaping us moment by moment in the heat of loss.
We are also asked to work grief and to take up our apprenticeship with fidelity and love.
It takes tremendous psychic strength to engage the wild images, searing emotions, chaotic dreams, grief-stained memories, and visceral sensations that arise in times of deep grief. We must build soul muscle to meet these times with anything resembling affection. The apprenticeship is long.
Grief is more than an emotion, it is also a faculty of being human. It is a skill that must be developed or we will find ourselves migrating to the margins of our lives in hopes of avoiding the inevitable entanglements with loss. It is through the rites of grief that we are ripened as human beings. Grief invites gravity and depth into our world. We possess the profound capacity to metabolize sorrow into something medicinal for our soul and the soul of the community. The skill of grieving well enables us to become current—to live in the present moment and be available to the electricity of life. We gradually turn our attention to what is here, now, and less on our need to repair history. We remember we are more verb than noun, more a jumpy rhythm, a wild song, a fluid leap than a fixed thing in space. As Spanish poet Jaime Gil de Biedma said, “I believed I wanted to be a poet, but deep down I just wanted to be a poem.”
This apprenticeship is, at heart, about the shaping of elders; the ones capable of meeting
the pain and suffering of the world with a dignified and robust bearing.
After years of walking alongside grief, working with its difficult cargo, we gradually come to see how we have been reshaped by this companionship. We see how we have cultivated a greater interior space to hold more of what life brings to us. What slowly emerges from this long apprenticeship, this vigil with sorrow, is a spaciousness capable of holding it all—the beauty and the loss, the despair and the yearning, the fear and the love. We become immense: The apprenticeship patiently crafting an elder.
After years of holding steady with sorrow, a distillation of wisdom occurs. We develop a capacity to see in the darkness and find there, in the depths of it all, something holy, something eternal. We touch the indwelling sacredness of the life we inhabit, digesting bitterness and returning with a determination to feed the community. We become a hive of imagination, dispensing what we have gathered over this extended education of the heart. What was learned was not meant for us alone, but was meant to be tossed like a seed into a fertile mind, awaiting community, a hungry culture.
Elders are a composite of contradictions: fierce and forgiving, joyful and melancholy, intense and spacious, solitary and communal. They have been seasoned by a long fidelity to love and loss. We become elders by accepting life on life’s terms, gradually relinquishing the fight to have it fit our expectations. An elder has no quarrel with the ways of the world. Initiated through many years of loss, they have come to know that life is hard, riddled with failures, betrayals, and deaths. They have made peace with the imperfections that are inherent in life. The wounds and losses they encounter, become the material with which to shape a life of meaning, humor, joy, depth, and beauty. They do not push away suffering, nor wish to be exempt from the inevitable losses that come. They know the futility of such a wish. This acceptance, in turn, frees them to radically receive the stunning elegance of the world.
Ultimately, an elder is a storehouse of living memory, a carrier of wisdom. They are the voice that rises on behalf of the commons, at times fiery, at times beseeching. They live, at once outside culture and are its greatest protectors, becoming wily dispensers of love and blessings. They offer a resounding “yes” to the generations that follow them. That is their legacy and gift.
When the season is right, when we have been tempered sufficiently by the heat of life, we are asked to take up the mantle of elderhood as the most ordinary of things. Nothing special about it. It is ordinary to know loss and sorrow, to be taken below the surface of life and be reshaped by the currents of grief. It is ordinary to be deepened by the draw of sorrow and its intense wash, clearing away old debris and outdated strategies. It is ordinary to feel the aperture of the heart open because of our intimacy with grief. No longer compelled by the allure of being special, we are free to take our place in the world, casting blessings by the simple offer of our presence, seasoned by sorrow.
This is how elders are crafted: tempered between the heat of loss and the weight of loving this world.
We are all preparing for our own disappearance, our one last breath. It is difficult to pick up this thread and hold it in our hands. Each of us is fated to leave this shining world, to slip off this elegant coat of skin, to release our stories to the wind and return our bones to the earth. Saying goodbye, however, is not easy or something we give much thought to in our daily lives.
How do we say goodbye? How do we acknowledge all that has held beauty and value in our lives—those we love, those who touched our lives with kindness, those whose shelter allowed us to extend ourselves into the world? How do we let go of sunsets and making love, pomegranates, and walks on the bluff? And yet, we must. We must release the entire fantastic world with one last breath. We will all fall into the mystery. We are most alive at the threshold of loss and revelation.
© Francis Weller 2018
Header image by Rachel CC BY-NC 2.0