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  • Harry Jensen

May 28, 2020

Portland was lovely albeit blistering this afternoon, so I took a walk with Maude through Laurelhurst Park. Laurelhurst was serene, and people seemed to be enjoying themselves under the towering sequoias, half-nude and sprinkled in little clumps on the grass like brown polka-dots. I ran into some friends from college there — though I did not let them penetrate my quaranbubble — and I was even lucky enough to see an osprey scoop a fish out of the pond. What could be more peaceful?

Outside of my personal pleasures at the park, though, today has been mournsome and sorrowful, and the world has rendered itself in the news and message from friends as a cauldron of immense suffering. Minneapolis, my home for generations, is in the news this week following the murder of George Floyd, the most recent victim of police brutality to make international headlines. The killers from the videotape have not been arrested; demonstrations, protests, and vigils have boiled into serious mayhem and the loss of another life last night, a person whose identity I have not yet been able to ascertain. It could be anyone.

I have been pressing myself on what I have to offer the world in midst of such tragedy. In the wake of all this unfolding terror and injustice, a shame arises in me, a paranoid inadequacy colored in ignorance and helplessness. Being far away from home during calamity forces me to cast a nervous eye on the privileges that allow me to be far away and divorced from the trials and terrors unfolding on one’s original doorstep. Also arises the shame of the shock itself, how jarring a nationwide reality is when it’s delivered to — or, rather, illuminated — in one’s front yard. To realize that one only catches diluted glimpse of that struggle, which is borne by millions, in rare moments of extreme tragedy, is to bare the face of one’s intolerable ignorance. It is hard to be far away from home when home is hurting. What is there to do?

James Baldwin writes that one can only help where they have been hurt. It’s a very human paradox that the pain we bear finds healing in the pain of others, and that there is relief in seeing in others the suffering that you would wish upon no one.

In grief groups, people join to commiserate about losses of many shades and horrible circumstances. We lost a father or a sister or a boyfriend, dead by cancer, heart attack, alcoholism, opiates, accident, suicide, or murder.

When I finally joined, I was desperate for healing, and I came to tell people my woes and have them say that they knew them. And this was so: I felt heard when I said I regretted leaving home right before my father’s death, I felt heard when I said I felt unworthy of my suffering, I felt heard when I said that I promised him I’d be okay but I don’t know how.

Being known in your suffering is invaluable. Healing unfurls here. But even more so, the healing from groups came out of realizing that my experience was not something I needed to clean and wring out: it in turn provided comfort for others. I could not have felt heard without people like them, nor could they without people like me. In the agony of my father’s death I harbored something which people needed.

Greater souls have said that we’re more alike than we are different, and that in our pain and confusion and our agony we can still help. I think we really are alike. It is difficult in times of massive heartbreak and distress to know how to actually help, how to lend one’s experience to the benefit of those in unjustifiable and cruelly dealt pain, especially when squinting from a vast distance of miles or skewered perspective, time or privilege. If you’re feeling lost, you’re not alone, and, I assure you, you do have something that matters.

I have felt more than ever the commitment to go home, and do something, but I’m really not sure yet what that is, what experience and work there is to offer a bleeding nation. But I believe everyone has a piece to give, and that includes a lost me and a lost you and a lost everyone. You matter because we matter, and we all matter because you do. Now, this is as much self-serious sincerity as I can muster without feeling a fool, but I wrote this for you, and I hope you know it.


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