Following one train of leftster fashion, I typically don’t acknowledge Valentine’s Day, at least not publicly. But this morning’s show of Democracy Now, which featured a series of stories from StoryCorps Oral History Project, left me deeply touched. I was a bit surprised at my own reaction, as I heard stories from couples, one half of whom had passed since their recording their love story, or from a woman recounting her last conversation with her husband. He called her on September 11, 2001 from the 105th floor of the World Trade Center as he sat trapped and waiting to be consumed by smoke. They spent his last half-hour by talking about the happiest moments of their life together. She died in a plane crash 8 years later, as she flew to Buffalo, NY, to celebrate his birthday with his family.
I was moved by the abundance of love and joy that these storytellers expressed in the moment. As much, though, I was moved that Amy Goodman and her production team had offered such a gorgeous, uncensored show that celebrated so many varieties of love and affection and joy. In a way it spoke to a question that had been on my mind since Saturday’s news of Whitney Houston’s sudden death. On Facebook, there were so many expressions of sorrow and mourning of someone whose amazing talent would be deeply missed. And yet, while I am saddened, I find it difficult to mourn her or any of the other celebrities who have passed during my conscious lifetime. I will freely concede that it might be because I’m emotionally stunted. Still, it’s also because I find it difficult to mourn public figures whom I don’t know or don’t feel connected. I will also admit that I was very saddened by the loss of Keith Aoki, one of the world’s premiere Critical Race Theory legal scholars—but then again, I had spent some time with him years back, and his deeply generous spirit and our conversations had made a deep impression on me.
A friend with whom I discussed the phenomenon of public collective electronic mourning for Houston shared an answer offered by one of his students. She suggested that it was an occasion for us to emerge from our general numbness in the current world. I’m not sure what that “world” meant for that student, but I might imagine it was a world of dominating electronic communications, networking, and of the general vitriol and visceral responses that form public discourse about current events. I suppose it is a moment in which strangers and remote—FB—friends can come together to share in a collective grief that reminds us of our humanity. Perhaps.
Even though I find it difficult to mourn Houston, I have found joy and solace in her voice—and perhaps it is this that others call mourning: the loss of optimism, of the certainty that she will ever sing again, the loss of her talents. Yet, I am able to mourn the loss of millions of people that I have never met. If it is true that one can love and grieve others when one finds connection to them, then I wonder what connection I feel to the millions who’ve died untimely, unjust deaths. Perhaps it is that I grieve that they will never wake to follow through on their desires for their own lives, or for their familes. Perhaps it is that I believe that my own good life, my own good fortune, is just that–a coincident, a twist of fate that I am here, flourishing and unharmed rather than part of a population who is at the mercy of an American imperial state. I wonder what it requires to prompt a love of peoples that one doesn’t know. Is it too abstract to grieve the lives of children and women and men who live 10,000 miles away? Is it strange to love and mourn children who will never be able to grow up and lead lives far away from war?
As I write these words, I think of the story from this morning’s show about a woman who has come to love the man who murdered her son. She forgave him, and now loves that same man as her son. I must admit that their story, as moving as it is, is a difficult one for me. But from it, I am compelled by the kernel that love is intimately connected to forgiveness. As I think about the different stories that I heard this morning, I find another truth. As always in my thinking, this truth comes rather late in the game: grief is intimately connected to love; in order to grieve someone, one must have loved that someone as well. Is it too much to love someone that one has never met, let alone known to any degree? I suppose this is one facet of the work (yes, work) of loving the (abstract) Other that philosophers have considered for millennia, from (take your pick) Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Rousseau, Arendt, Beauvoir, Dr. King, and so many others. May I ask that we spend a minute today–on a day that memorializes love and care (regardless of the Hallmarkiness of it all)–trying to find a way to love the innocents (and perhaps some of the guilty) who have died? Can we find a way to love those who have died at the hands of strangers, lovers, spouses, parents—and yes, even due to an imperial state–in order to be able to grieve them as well? As well, I wonder if it is possible to spend a long moment today loving those who are alive and struggling for their freedom in Syria and Bahrain and Libya and Egypt and Palestine and elsewhere, on other continents, and in other states, and in nearby cities? It may be a ridiculous sentiment, but somehow, it gives me joy to think about loving utter strangers—children, women, and men whom I may never meet and yet who may in fact be amazing heroes and loving parents and bubbling people in their own right.
Happy Valentine’s Day, folks. May you find joy in loving someone you don’t know.