Grief: A Sacred Space

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“Most of us on campus today don’t know any of these people. Most of us weren’t here. Most of us have no idea. But here we are, to remember together an event, a day, a world of emotion that most of us don’t know. It’s a painful, terrible, beautiful thing.”

I wrote those words in my journal yesterday, when I had the privilege of taking part in a memorial ceremony for the tenth anniversary of a van accident that took the lives of five at my university.

Recently my anthropology professor said that it takes only a generation to forget—and at a university, where generations pass every four years, forgetting is a rapid process. Events, traditions, and stories are lost in the flow of life, buried beneath the ongoing cycle of graduations and freshman orientations.

Ten years. Two and a half generations. And yesterday, we who have no memory of the tragedy joined with those whose lives were intrinsically caught up in it, and together we mourned.

That story—the story of death and loss that touched so many lives that were not mine—finally touched my life, ten years later, through the tears and words of those who lived it. Somehow, a decade after a loss I did not know, I was invited into a private, painful place and allowed to weep over a grief not mine.

And this, I think, is the most beautiful thing we as humans can do. To tell stories that are not ours, to feel emotions we should have no part in, to be united in another’s grief. It’s a humble position that we take, setting aside our own joys and sorrows to focus on someone else’s, laying aside our burdens, not to lift theirs, because we could never do that, but to join them beneath the weight.

This, I think, is the essence of love—that we who know nothing of their pain willingly step into a darkness we can never lighten, choosing simply to be present, and that they, who know nothing of us, allow us into that sacred space.

Yesterday, together, we told a story that was not ours to tell—because community has a responsibility to remember, to keep telling stories that are not ours but that are important. And today I have no solutions to offer. I have only this—this sense of awe at the terrible beauty of shared loss, this sense of wonder at the holy place I was allowed to enter, washed in the grief of strangers.

Editors, Writers, and Split Loyalties

I stare at the words on my computer screen. My next words will define my loyalties yet again in this delicate game.

“Yes, there are a lot of potential problems with the statement,” I type finally, “but that’s the author’s opinion. I think we need to leave it.”

I read over my comment twice, then smack enter. Loyalty to excellence and to my publication pitted against loyalty to my author—this time, I back my author.

This challenge arises every week, a regular part of my new adventure: editing the opinions page for The Echo.

title

The job seems simple enough. Opinions, the least restricting page in the paper, should have more submissions than I can handle. I should be sending rejection letters.

Instead, I’ve been scrambling. Since school started, any time I hear a strong opinion in conversation, I say, “Write me an article!” I pester people for pieces up ’til the last minute, accept articles hundreds of words over the limit, spend hours revising solid ideas badly written.

Why?

People are afraid.

Putting your position in writing—especially in a newspaper—makes it real, public, irrevocable. You may change your mind later, but that one article, archived somewhere, forever links you to that one opinion. People are afraid they’ll lack support, afraid they’ll offend, afraid they’ll fail. The more personal an opinion, the more frightened they are; the more you care, the greater the potential for pain.

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What if nobody agrees? Worse—what if nobody cares?

As an editor, I can’t force anyone to write. People have a right to hold their opinions in silence. And yet, I think, important convictions should be shared—not necessarily in the interests of convincing a reader, but in the interests of posing a question, making space for a challenge to your thinking, opening the door to bigger ideas and deeper considerations.

Unsolicited submissions arrive with false bravado phrases:
“I hope you see the importance of this topic.”
“I believe this is extremely relevant right now.”

Newspaper-thin shields hiding their fears:
This might not look important, but it is to me; please print it.
This might not seem relevant, but it is to me; please print it.

Solicited submissions arrive with apologies.
“I hope this is what you’re looking for; it probably needs editing.”
“It’s pretty bad; you can change it if you need to.”

Newspaper-thin shields hiding their hopes:
This scared me, but I searched for the words and voiced my convictions; please print it.
This stretched me, but I struggled through the writer’s block and research; please print it. 

And I accept them, reassure them, print them.

And on production night, with copyeditors’ comments popping up, filled with late-night snark and made-up words, I balance my loyalties. Yes, this grammatical concern is valid. You’re right; this sentence is redundant.

No. You cannot change this idea. 

Because my loyalty is to excellent writing, to the paper I work for. But ultimately, my loyalty is also to human beings.

Writer

To writers with minds and souls, worries and hopes. My job is not just to critique and copyedit, but to help people share their opinions genuinely and fearlessly.