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Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Arc of the Moral Universe – and How we Deal with Loss

President Obama was fond of quoting Martin Luther King’s hope-filled maxim: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. King himself was borrowing this - from the American Transcendentalist and Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker (1810-1860). Whatever its source – and we can hear within it an echo of traditional Judaic hopefulness – I have always had faith in this notion that over time societies on this planet are moving, can move, will move – with struggle, with regression, two steps forward, one step back – towards a more developed (i.e. more humane, more self-aware, more compassionate) relationship with each other. A faith that the pursuit of justice will lead collectively – over time - to more justice.  

Not that justice somehow arrives by itself, but that it is made out of all the moral, social, political actions of countless individuals, generation by generation. In spite of knowing that the 20th century saw something approaching 200,000,000 government-determined deaths in various wars, genocides, victimizations, internal oppressions and other conflicts, I never gave up on the faith, belief, hope that ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. But I am now beginning to think of this hope as a necessary illusion – a deep wish, rather than a clear-eyed appreciation of the destructiveness that always lurks in the human heart. A destructiveness with the toxic potential to overwhelm human creativity, compassion and millennia-old wishes for an end to injustice.  

It feels as if in recent months my self-delusion has begun to get ruthlessly exposed. After Brexit, and now Trump, and as I see the waves of anti-foreigner, populist aggression swirling through the UK and the rest of Europe, I am beginning to wonder at my own naivety. We seem to be spiralling back towards periods in history when the darker side of human nature expressed itself more forcefully then the generous, creative side. Has it always been this way, and I just didn’t want to see it? We will have to keep our eyes – and hearts – open in these next few years.  

These thoughts have led me to think - not for the first time of course, but this time round with an added seriousness - about loss. How do we manage loss in everyday life? Loss of a job, loss of a loved one or friend, loss of money or something we value, loss of a relationship, loss of a pet, loss of an opportunity, loss of one’s looks, loss of an election, loss of hope? Losses are all around us. They are part of the fabric of life.
All losses challenge us emotionally. How do we respond? Do we become angry or bitter? despairing? sad? do we feel resigned, or accepting? Do we express these feelings - or cover them up? Do we try and compensate for the loss, or do we spend time mourning what has now gone? These are the challenges that life brings us, for loss is a shared and universal human experience.
And all losses involve some loss of hope: hope for continuity, hope for love, hope for security, hope for a future brighter than the past. For hope is inbuilt into the human psyche – but the reality of loss can attack that hopefulness like  a kick in the stomach, like a thief in the night. Loss can make us suddenly feel very vulnerable. We realise that our fantasies of being in control, of controlling our lives, are just that – fantasies, wishes. Losses, of whatever kind, are painful and unwelcome reminders of how little control we have of our own lives and what might happen to us.
As with all the emotional realities that we face as human beings, the Hebrew Bible offers its own insights and perspectives. This week’s sedrahChayai Sara (Genesis 23 - 25:18) – begins with loss: the death of the matriarch Sara at the legendary age of 127. This is narrated matter-of-factly: ‘Sara died in Kiryat Arba – that is Hebron – in the land of Canaan’ (23:2). No other details are given. And this is always an opportunity for later commentators to add their own colour to the monochrome text.
Some linked Sara’s death to the Torah text that immediately precedes it: the trauma of Isaac’s near-sacrifice by his father Abraham. So she dies of shock at hearing the news – or of heartbreak. One midrash has her dying of shock on receiving a false report that Abraham had killed their son at God’s command. (Compare Facebook’s  notorious false anti-Clinton news reports planted by Trump supporters before the election).
One modern commentator, Aviva Zornberg, speculates psychologically about how Sara, although she knew that Isaac had survived, could not bear to live any longer in a world as unreliable, unpredictable – and threatening – as the world she found herself in, where questions of who will live and who will die seem to hang so fragilely in the balance. A world where one is confronted with how little control we have, as I suggested above, over what might happen to us, or to those we love.
Perhaps in recent times we too have got in touch with these deeper feelings -after a terrorist attack. Our vulnerability is exposed and there is a horror not only at the deaths and the suffering, but at the randomness of who will live and who will die.  It could be any of us. Sara’s death, in our mythological narrative following the near-murder of her son, opens us up to these disturbing, maybe unbearable, thoughts. And we recognise too that there is a long back-story to narratives about a God who commands murder. Or rather: there’s a long and bloody history of people who believe that their God commands them to kill others in the name of that God.  
So Sara dies and Abraham weeps for his loss (23:2). And then he gets on with life. He negotiates for a burial plot for Sara, and having bought a plot of land from the local inhabitants he proceeds to bury her (23: 3-20) and then sets out, through the servant in charge of his household, to find a wife for Isaac, their son (chapter 24). 
The long chapter that describes this search for a wife is a tour-de-force of Biblical storytelling – and it ends with this poignant sentence: ‘And Isaac brought her [Rebekkah] into the tent of his mother Sara and he took Rebekkah as his wife and he loved her and Isaac was comforted after his mother - acharei  imo’ (24:67). We might expect ‘after the death of his mother’. But no, the word ‘death’ is absent. We know this is what it means - but the narrator-artists who composed the text have chosen to suppress the word. Through the absence of this word ‘death’ in the text, the narrators provoke us into thinking about it. It is hidden in plain sight.
By looking away from it at the last moment, what does this missing word  - ‘death’ - reveal? Some people – was Isaac one of them? – wish to deny the reality of death. The fantasy is that if you don’t mention something it’s as if it hasn’t happened. After all, he’d been through his own near-death experience. Was the immediate loss of his mother too much to bear after his own trauma? So is the absence of the word ‘death’ pointing to a denial of reality?
Or is it the opposite - a way of speaking about how the loss was healed? Does the comfort he had received when Sara was alive metamorphose into the new comfort he found with Rebekkah? Is the pain of the death of his fiercely protective mother erased through the love of a good woman? Does giving and receiving love heal our losses?
There is no hint in the Torah of what Sara’s death meant to Isaac. But we sense from this concluding verse how present Sara was for him as he takes Rebekkah  into his mother’s intimate space, her tent. And through the intimacy with her – ‘and he loved her’ – he does find comfort for the loss he has suffered. More human connectedness, more closeness, more intimacy – this seems to be one way, the Torah intuits, of managing feelings of loss, dealing with the pain.
Perhaps we don’t have a good enough, rich enough, vocabulary to talk about what we do with the experience of loss. I just used the words ‘managing’ the loss, ‘dealing’ with the loss – but that is too business-like, too bureaucratic a language to evoke the powerful  and subtle stands of feeling that death and loss evoke in us. Some people want people around them, some people want to be left alone. We each will find what route is right for us.  
One thing I do know is that the modern jargon of talking about ‘closure’ after a death is quite unhelpful. This idea of ‘closure’ is now prevalent in the aftermath of any injustice or painful event. But it can be coercive to expect it for oneself - or to have others expect it of you. ‘Have you had closure yet?’ has become a modern mantra - but it promotes an illusion.
‘Closure’ came into contemporary thought from American social psychology. It originates in a 1993 paper from Arie Kruglanski about people’s desire for a clear and definite answer to their life questions - and their aversion to ambiguity. Kruglanski developed what became known as the ‘Need for Closure Scale’ - but this concept of ‘closure’ was gradually transformed from something descriptive of what people wished for into some kind of ideal about what they should have. Psychological health however is about being able to manage ambiguity, not-knowing, uncertainty – without collapsing into the straightjacket of false certainties.
What Kruglanski’s work spawned is a pseudo-solution to a universal problem. ‘Closure’ is a flawed belief that assimilating grief and losses and death into our lives is a process that can be closed, finished with. Jewish tradition however recognises that losses are real, and lasting: they will happen to you and me, they happen to all of us, and the work of mourning can last a lifetime. Isaac didn’t have ‘closure’ about his mother’s death when he and Rebekkah married. Like Abraham his father, he got on with life. We have to learn to live with our sadness, our regrets - or sometimes with our lack of sadness, or our relief, or whatever it is that emerges in the wake of a death. Our reaction to loss and death is always going to be particular to us. We are allowed to be idiosyncratic.  
Sigmund Freud once wrote a condolence letter in which he put his finger on something crucial. His own daughter Sophie had died in 1920 when she was 27, and nine years later, on what would have been her 36th birthday,  Freud wrote to a colleague, Ludwig Binswanger, whose son had just died:  ‘we will never find a substitute [after a loss]. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually, this is how it should be, it is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.’
Freud gives us permission to keep on loving what has been lost for as long as we need to. Someone else – or something else – may come along and take the place of what has been lost. But it will be something, or someone, different. And that is how it should be.
And I am left to ponder on what happens after one experiences the loss of hope contained in that inspirational text: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’? There can be no substitute – but what will take its place?


  1. I once interviewed Rabbi Louis Jacobs on this point - the article is published in Manna. I asked if the messianic hope in progress could be maintained after the experiences of the holocaust. He responded slowly and thoughtfully but with resolute conviction: 'Yes. The journey moves forward, even despite such terrible times. Humankind,' I think he said, 'does show a continual moral forward movement.'

  2. Excellent piece Howard. I was thinking when this arrived in my emails that it has been ages since I responded to one of your blogs and wondered, before I read it, if I would engage with the latest.
    As it happens, last week there was a celebration of the life of Mark Blanco. It is 10 years since he died after being punched unconscious and thrown over a balcony outside the flat where Pete Doherty and his low-life friends had earlier confronted him. There is no immediate prospect of anyone standing trial for his unlawful killing. Ever since the crime I have worked for his mother, Sheila, to fight for justice and without a breakthrough I wondered what I could say on the occasion as she invited me to address the people there.
    I followed some truly beautiful music played by, among others, Mark's sister Emma, an internationally acclaimed violinist.
    I told the audience my words would, unlike the music, not be beautiful. I spoke about 2 qualities, so often discussed, in these situations - "dignity" and "closure". Dignity is the Establishment's favourite compliment. It usually means that the bereaved is not making too many waves, not criticising too loudly those who might be responsible and those in authority who have handled the events badly, here disastrously. And the pure definition of dignity is a quality worthy of respect. Sheila is dignified, worthy of massive respect, because she is still angry and still fighting.
    I am cautious about the word "closure". I am cautious about advising a bereaved person about closure. I want Sheila to have as much peace as the outrage allows her. I know that's not much of a comment, a self-defining measure. That Howard ends his blog with a question comforts me that I didn't miss an obvious answer about closure.
    I am happy the arc bends towards Justice, I will restrain from applying so much pressure that it breaks.