Compassionate Action as a Form of Healthy Grief

by Steve Sunderland

“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there  was no one left to speak out for me.”

These famous words were spoken by Pastor Martin Niemoller in relationship to the spreading reality of the World War II. When I read them, I think of the long-term unemployed in our country. Their voices are getting weaker. The dreams of young and old without work or the prospect of work are fading and being replaced by an anger, despair, and hopelessness.

Helping to sort food at the FreeStore Food Bank and participating in the FreeStore Memorial Day Hunger Walk has reminded me that many are trying to speak out in support. There is a surreal element in working at the FreeStore and participating in the “hunger walk.” The faces of those engaged are largely happy ones, either students completing a service activity or citizens helping to support their local pantries by taking part in an early stroll along the Ohio.

Perhaps tragedy needs a happy face at times. The stories ofthe unemployed, hungry, and confused may be too difficult to hear, to see, and to bear. When psychological depression is the healthy response to an economic depression, can we keep a “happy face?” Or, perhaps our faces are a defiance of the expected resignation into depression and other distractions. Happily, we are called to make a difference, one issue at a time. The more I see the young people coming to help at the FreeStore, the more I see future politicians, judges, teachers, and parents who have had the experience of sustaining a feeling of hope.

Resignation, anger, and bitterness are healthy responses to the grief of being unemployed or threatened with the loss of a house, or being on edge about losing a job. Withdrawal into deep grief is a regular way of coping with the barrage of bad news from our media or from the daily experience of hearing about another firing, lay off, or closing that shuts out people. Recognizing that there are times when protest feels too difficult does not mean that this is a permanent condition.

Recently, a long-term jobless elder expressed her frustration when she said: “I am just tired of waking up to no work. I have worked at any one of a number of part time jobs for almost no pay and with no benefits. I cannot go on with this constant uncertainty.”

I respect her pain and do not try and talk her out of her feelings. Before the end of the discussion, she also says: “I am ready to volunteer to repeal Senate Bill 5. Is there a place for me?” We smile at our desire to activate her citizenship as a way of building the kind of society that is good for the general public.

The public’s desire to improve our society goes beyond students and into many citizens in our community. A tornado happens in a way that cannot be ignored and groups and individuals step up for participation in the helping process. No pay or recognition need be given. A child is missing in a community for a day and a half and hundreds of “strangers” show up to work together to find the lost one. Simple acts of compassion make up the lives of many people, even people in a crisis themselves.

For the past 60 years that I have been in the peace movement I have witnessed direct and compassionate action to change segregated schools, and, to end wars, and to feed our hungry in our neighborhoods, and to provide jobs to those who are one step away from complete desperation. The compassionate soul of citizens acts without full knowledge and without any need for applause. Instead, the soul of the compassionate servant is rewarded by the smile of child getting a can of food and a toy; or, the hug of an elder on a food line at a pantry; or, in gathering together to search through the wake of destruction in order to find a person alive. The journey of compassionate action is bolted to the acts of service.

Together, in ways that seem magical, the spirit of everyday citizens rises and removes whatever seemed to be causing apathy. We will need to applaud this spirit in our coming days and find ways of continuing to work together for the common good.