America's Magical Thinking
On Grief, the End of Democracy, and the Denial of Loss
I know a thing or two about grief.
When I was 35, one of my closest friends (who was the subject of the inaugural essay here two years ago) died of a brain aneurysm. One minute, Deb was unpacking her kitchen in a house she had just bought with her new husband in Pittsburgh. The next morning, she was gone.
Fourteen years later, a few months into the pandemic, I lost a dear friend and colleague to cancer. She was diagnosed in January 2020, and gone by mid-May.
In the former instance, there was a week– a full week– of grieving and ceremonies and community outpouring. Friends from all over the nation flew to Pittsburgh. I arrived the morning after my friend died, and stayed for eight brutal days.
In the latter, though, I couldn’t even see my friend before she died. Our last text messages to one another, in late April, were ones of apology and forgiveness and love and gratitude, but I never saw her face again, never had a memorial to attend, never got to hold her hand or say goodbye.
We’ve lost over 1 million people to Covid in America now. In the last two weeks, we’ve lost dozens of children, elders, teachers, church attendees to mass shootings.
One of the things I know about grief is that ritual allows for completion, and reflection allows for the sense that connection continues on even when someone isn’t here.
So what do we do with grief when there is no ritual and there is no reflection of what led to it?
What do we do with a nation that just forces us to carry so much violence and so much loss?
There’s a lot of discussion in the psychological literature about what happens if we don’t grieve. Spend any time on social media these days, and a lot of it will sound familiar.
Incomplete grief can cause irritability, anger, hypervigilance, overreaction, self-harm, addiction, and numbing out, among other responses. Look around America and, well, it’s everywhere.
Yes, where we find ourselves right now is due to the unrecognized, unredressed, unacknowledged loss of those we loved, and all the collective loss of those who have lost loved ones around us.
But it’s not just that about which we are in denial. It’s also about the death of American mythology.
We’ve been lied to so long in America it’s hard sometimes to know truth from fiction. I was born in 1971, and I was raised with history lessons in school that included things like Manifest Destiny (used to justify indigenous genocide, land theft, and the use of Chinese slave labor to build railroads), the “discovery” of America by Columbus (to justify violent colonialism), and the end of the enslavement of Black Americans as a distant historical event (as though the repercussions of it don’t live on to this day given that slavery was the foundation of American capitalism and white supremacy).
Even as recently as the past few years, many of us have fallen for the lie that this is a real democracy.
Democracy, though, requires real representation and rule by the people, under the theory that the people have the right to rule.
Democracy is supposed to be in direct opposition to autocracy, where power of the few (whether monarchs or oligarchs) is lorded over the many through extreme wealth disparity, abuse of power, and control of the many to benefit those in power.
I ask you: which one sounds like more like America today?
As but one example, over the past few days I’ve seen polling that indicates that more than 88% of Americans favor background checks on gun sales, and more than 67% favor an assault weapons ban.
The likelihood that any such legislation will pass, though, is literally nil absent reform of the filibuster, the end to which lies in the hands of a tiny, tiny number of people.
Some of us have known for a long time that America was a lie. Some of us are just waking up to it.
How do you grieve the promise of a nation that never was?
What I’ve learned about grief over time is that it never really leaves you. Just when you think you’re past it, a waft of a certain scent or a journey past a familiar place can bring it all back in an instant.
What we’re left with are memories and those reminders of what might have been.
Maybe this is the cruelest thing about grief, let alone grief for those lost so young and with so much promise: all that we had hoped and planned for is gone, along with those who sought to embody it.
Yes, we’ll go to the polls again in November. Here in California, I’m filling out my primary vote-by-mail ballot today.
Yes, we’ll continue to push ourselves through, as if the loss of our hoped-for democracy isn’t real and death hasn’t happened.
We’ll deny that nationwide democracy is already gone, and keep cosplaying at it as if voter suppression and gerrymandering haven’t already determined the outcome in so many states in this nation.
We’ll continue watching Bezos shoot himself into space while his employees are forced to pee in bottles in their delivery trucks, and we’ll joke about Musk trying to buy Twitter despite his company designating a part of their California factory “the slave ship” or “the plantation,” where Black workers were segregated, harassed and abused.
We’ll ignore that we’re already an oligarchy, and that we always have been.
We’ll pretend that the hope and the promise of democracy in America isn’t just a good story, and we’ll keep doing it even when the current president gaslights us that “McConnell is a rational republican” on gun control, rather than a white supremacist doing whatever it takes to stay in power.
There is a term for all of this in the literature on grief. It’s called magical thinking.
Three days a week, over on The Broadcast with ECM, I talk live to an audience about politics and the law and activism and organizing.
Lately, though, there’s been a trend in the surveys that folks have an option to fill out there: people are mad at me that I am not making them feel better, and bemoan the idea that I once gave them more hope for democracy when now, six years into that broadcast, we’re in a very different reality.
Nobody likes to grieve.
And every time I’ve lost someone I held dear, around which I had planned even just a small part of my life or my future, I longed for it to not be real, for someone to tell me it was not real, to wake up from the haze and the horror of the loss and find that it was all a bad dream.
That’s not how it works, though.
The only way out of grief is through it.
Only once we’ve integrated the reality of all that we’ve lost, all that we’d hoped for in America that isn’t possible now, all that might have been, can we figure out how to go on.
Only then can we figure out how to build something new– maybe not what we had hoped for, and not in the current form of this nation, but different, and perhaps better, perhaps more carefully constructed.
The lives of so many lost in this battle for democracy— this battle for a nation that loves its elders and its children and all of us equally and that values human life, this war that we’re already in and have been for a long, long time— deserve the honor of our recognition and the ceremony of our acknowledgement. They deserve better than our pretense that everything is fine, better than the claim that if we just vote, their deaths won’t be in vain, better than these lies we’re living through daily.
It hurts, I know. Believe me, I know.
So does the loss of the mythology of hope and democracy and decency, the story of a nation that never was.
But if we don’t grieve, we can’t go on.
The dead don’t rise.