On silence, states of exception and grace

-a postscript dispatch from the grief process

[I am completing this post, started weeks ago, as my elderly mother is in hospital via the emergency room more than a thousand kilometers away. We, that is family, and the doctors, at the moment, don’t know why, other than her intense pain, or what will happen. I am writing in a state of suspension and insomnia.]



There is no silence in the world.
Monks have created it
to hear the horses every day
and feathers falling from wings.

~Nikola Madzirov quoted in World Poetry Portfolio #53: Nikola Madzirov

At a certain point last year I stopped writing the grief dispatches that I had been doing here after Manoj suddenly died in January. Part of it was because less than 3 months later, in April 2014, I lost someone else who had been very close to me especially when I was younger. She was my best friend when we were in our late teens and throughout our 20s. It was also very sudden and hard to believe.

There were no words for that portion of the grief process when it got REALLY REAL. Initially it had felt like being thrown of a cliff—a sense of everything falling away, nothing there. It was unreal like a strong breeze from a fan on your body. What is that feeling? You’re not floating. You’re not flying. Yet something is passing over, and later I discovered, through you.

I tried in various ways to make sense of it. I wrote blog posts here about some of that process. But at a certain point I gave up and started to resign myself to being unresolved in that empty valley of winds and shadows.

But I found I could not rest in that. Pain, even if you’re quite disconnected from it and not consciously feeling it, tends to shuffle the deck of one’s motivations, desires, habits, thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Something had to be done so I decided to retreat in a lot of ways to deal with myself. [Sorry for all the Facebook unfriending, emails that went unanswered, visits cancelled, and all the rest. This is what it was about. “It’s not you it’s me.” Really.]

One reason I retreated in that way was because it was happening anyways. When you are in a state of exception, that is for whatever reason outside the flow of the everyday or the status quo or “normal” life, be it illness, death, divorce, or other disruptive situation, people tend to pull away from you. Initially they express sympathies, condolences or whatnot, but at a certain point the state of exception becomes more clearly demarcated. This demarcation can become what is termed social death. That is when a person is somehow viewed by others and even at times by themselves, as somehow less than a fully human participant in society. The term is used often to describe the circumstances of racism and slavery where people are assigned to a category in which their life is of little value in social terms when such value defaults to the oppressor’s definitions. It is also used where people are shunned from a circumstance with words like, “You are dead to me”. Those are very deliberate situations practiced consciously.

Where social death is not circumscribed so clearly but evidences itself nonetheless there is social invisibility. You see this as people step around homeless people or as people talk over the excluded person in a conversation as if they are not even there.

In more amorphous circumstances still, social death signifies some kind of change of status or becoming marked in some way, often by being seen in terms of lack. If you lose your job, get divorced, or are diagnosed with an illness for example, people step away. Sometimes they run, but usually they try to be discrete about it and inch towards the door instead.

You become awkward for people to deal with. You are “problematic”. You have slipped from the position that social consciousness once recognized into some grey area that is difficult to categorize and handle with the ease of the usual social scripts. People may just become distant and call it “giving you your space”—even when space is all you’ve got and you don’t really need any more of it–or they may in worse cases resort to sarcasm, callousness and so on as a way of keeping emotional distance from someone.

The effects are internalized too. You can’t relate to them, whoever “they” may be, the way you used to because your circumstances have changed such that you may not even know what to do in a situation that depended on your previous circumstances. There might be embarrassment for you or for them. There might be fear of even further marginalization.  Even if you tried to relate, their responses would likely be altered until, and if, both you and they came to terms with such changes.

Grief by Raymond Carver

Woke up early this morning and from my bed
looked far across the Strait to see
a small boat moving through the choppy water,
a single running light on. Remembered
my friend who used to shout
his dead wife’s name from hilltops
around Perugia. Who set a plate
for her at his simple table long after
she was gone. And opened the windows
so she could have fresh air. Such display
I found embarrassing. So did his other
friends. I couldn’t see it.
Not until this morning.

Another reason I withdrew was because it was clear that I was using a lot of things to try to stuff more stuff into the vacant spaces in my life.  Like anything one uses to try to fill up a nihilistic or uncomfortable sense of lack, that works until it doesn’t any more. Then one is left with that space still along with the fallout of attempts to alleviate the situation. That space beckons to be filled, with something, with anything.

Some people’s biggest accomplishment is their misery in such circumstances. You seem to find a state that’s just bad enough to dwell in and not so bad that you go under. That’s the state I reached. I wrote a post about the initial contact with that nihilistic state here, This is Not the Emptiness You’re Looking For. It really grabbed me for a while. You don’t thrive there, you simply exist in a diminished way while you lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling with your hand in a bag of Cheetos, or on a bottle, or with a hand full of pills or what have you. It was arid and empty and I felt nothing of any consequence whatsoever. But I wanted to feel something, anything even if it was just my own damage.

When there’s the feeling of emptiness in the nihilistic sense or in the sense of lack or neediness, there is not enough of anything to fill it. Sometimes we might even fill it with pain just to have something there, something familiar even if, from a less subjective viewpoint, it might complicate things further if not make them worse. Sometimes we might even think about suicide, which I wrote about here, Ghosts and Imagination (also stuff there about Walter Benjamin and equanimity which briefly is neither accepting or rejecting, just engaging)

Pain is easy to grab on to. There’s plenty of it around and plenty of ways to inflict it on each other and on ourselves. Humans are really good at manufacturing and distributing pain and even simulations of pain. There are whole industries devoted to pain distribution now-arms dealers, military contractors, prison systems. That’s besides the pain related epiphenomenon that occurs in commercial enterprises, entertainment, schools and families.

Pain and suffering is sometimes glorified in Christian influenced societies. Some who have suffered harder than others are even made saints by the Catholic church. That’s not to say that pain isn’t glorified in the secular arena as well by those who “play through their injuries” or stood up to a beating “like a man”, the US gives purple heart medals to wounded soldiers, and so on. One is expected to not only embody their pain but embrace it even harder.

This “lean-in” approach is extremist. It doesn’t deal with what is but creates a more intense and artificial situation. It manufactures a false circumstance that can easily bring about a false sense of victory. [Hope some of my Zen friends are hearing that.]

That lean-in type of catharsis is not a road I wanted to go down when I decided to retreat and deal with what was happening. The point was to remove obstacles, or let them fall away, not build a higher artificial wall around them to be cleared first.


“If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.”    ― Simone Weil

Everyone has their own way of introspecting. I’ve meditated for more than 25 years and practiced some cognitive-behavioural techniques so was pretty familiar with my subjective landscape. This, however was all new territory.

Grief is like a strange doppelganger that you carry around inside of you, that sometimes trades places with you and you try to hide from, until one day it slips out and sits across from you and you look into it’s eyes. I’m using (very mixed) metaphors of course but at a certain tipping point emotional baggage can shift in pretty sudden and unexpected ways. This can feel like panic and a loss of control. That loss of control is necessary to some degree in order to resolve the inner dilemma.

Self-examination, particularly when it turns to self-critique, can become a rigid, disciplinary exercise wherein one becomes an ideologue parroting acceptable phrases, rather than undertaking a useful process of learning and growth. That generally happens when the processing is all done on an intellectual level, that is, in the head. Emotion is disciplined into a corner and ideas take over. Intellectualization of this type is a psychological defense mechanism with the purpose of protecting one’s sense of self, esteem and to rationalize behaviour. It can also become rather cold and heartless.  It was somewhat useful to intellectualize as I had to close up our apartment and deal with the practical matters of death along with his family members. But it becomes all empty again, as all psychological defense mechanisms ultimately do if the situations they are invoked to mask is not dealt with.

So I had to abandon that approach, which I’ll admit is my favourite because I’m really good at it, if I wanted to deal with myself. That left me kind of lost and I went into depression off and on for a few months. Eh, it was something.

In that kind of state dissatisfaction is rife, as is anger and a lot of other stuff, but it’s still pretty much under the surface. You still can’t feel it really except during brief and often unintentional flare ups. Once more something had to be done because that felt like a deep hole too.

Finally I said “I really need to contact somebody who understands”.  Finally I decided to contact Manoj’s friends, who were/are also my friends. We were now on different continents and hadn’t spoken much after the initial couple of months.  One of them said, “You are welcome to come home any time, we have been waiting for you.” That broke me. Totally. An unqualified, unconditional statement of care. No amount of thinking could have brought me to that solution. It was the pure need for human connection. It wasn’t just for me either..people had been waiting.

One thing I have learned is that there is no silence no matter how silently one retreats. Not even in emptiness–of any variety. Life is very full—it is blossoming, withering, exploding, expanding, coagulating, entwining, decaying, convulsing–fecund and noisy in other words.


“The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it.”
― Simone Weil, Waiting for God

When people talk of grace they usually mean divine grace, that is some sort of blessing from a deity that frees someone from suffering and torment. I have no God of any kind to which I might direct such an appeal.

I would not have been able to write this post without the presence of friends. I call it friends because there’s not a better word I can think of. It’s the place where the possibilities of human connection and love really begin. It is the place where one says, maybe in not so many words, “I am prepared to hurt for you, and with you.”

So no possibilities without those friends of the past, those who I am bound to in the present, and those I hope will be friends in the future. Without them I would not have realized much of this. Mostly though it is because of Manoj and Marina, two people who were willing to dive deep with me, laugh with me and hurt with me and I with them, that let me know I was nothing to be scared of, and that nor were other people, in themselves, scary.

What I have found, through them all, is grace. I realize that it has been there all along.

Our planet is poorly equipped for delight.
One must snatch gladness from the days that are.
In this life
it’s not difficult to die.
To make life
is more difficult by far.

~Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, from To Sergei Esenin





Photograph by T. Enami (江南 信國, Enami Nobukuni, 1859 – 1929)



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