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Faraway Brussels: How We Do And Don't Grieve For Others

Candles lit in memory of the Brussels terrorist attacks victims
Candles lit in memory of the Brussels terrorist attacks victims
Alidad Vassigh*

MEXICO CITY — Should we grieve? How should we react to calamities, death and pain? I mean other people's pain, because your own pain is your business, and you can handle it as you please. But to others struck by life's arbitrary monstrousness, it seems we owe what we might call a "decent" amount of concern or grief. Short of some sort of visible or audible sign toward those suffering, we risk sliding deeper into the isolation and cynicism that poses the question in the first place.

I thought this while eating a cheese sandwich (with wine to calm my nerves) in a rented flat in Mexico City. When I woke up Tuesday morning, I read online about both the terrorist attacks in Brussels and the severe illness of a friend's mother back in Madrid, where I live most of the year. Needless to say, the latter requires more of me. When I arrive back home after Easter, I will have to offer real support, and it's already causing a little maelstrom inside. And so, to be honest, I've flushed Brussels out of my mind for now.

Right now I'm in a "spring revolt" against melancholic states of mind as surely as the Arabs rose against their dictators. The results remain unclear, of course, and I too, like the Middle East, could slide back into chaos.

When you think of all the stress and melancholy that fills the lives of so many people, you might plausibly ask how much sympathy or capacity for grief can we expect of others? On the same computer where I read about Brussels and my friend's mother, I have been searching for answers for my recurring despondency on YouTube, which has become my Alexandrian library — and for once, I don't mind my searches being tracked to make suggestions.

Yes, for life's problems your first stop may be the psychology supermarket available online. But in time, you may move on toward spiritual guidance, and if I may use the word, religion (as Francois Mitterrand once said, "let us not fear words").

Ultimately, I find that the solutions to life's turmoil lie in the wide and surprisingly flexible sphere of religion, or religiosity, not in therapy or coaching.

Who is it for?

The Buddha left his life of ease not to seek therapy but to understand suffering. The 20th-century writer and lecturer Jiddu Krishnamurti began to think hard about his life, and later when his brother Nitya died, about our dissatisfaction and its roots in inherited thinking processes. He cherished his brother, who died young of illness despite assurances Krishnamurti was given by the sect that venerated the brothers. I suspect he would reject standard expressions of grief as "imposed" by our societies. But he wouldn't tell you what to think, as he rejected set solutions and thinking systems, including anything he might mention.

The ecumenical teacher and former Jesuit Anthony de Mello also challenged standardized sentiments. Where there is grief, he said once, there is no love (and yet we view grief as a sign of love). Who are we really grieving for, he asked? There is a big trade in emotions in our relations ("You be good to me, I'll be good to you, and they call that love," to quote de Mello).

Another with little time for "organized" feelings was the 17th-century thinker François de la Rochefoucauld. But as a sensible, sensitive and proud man, he preferred to write open-ended maxims rather than counsel us like a two-bit peddler of cheap words. De la Rochefoucauld invites his readers not to panic but to reflect on a maxim like, "we shall never lack the strength to bear other people's misfortunes." Is he also telling us not to beat ourselves up because none of us is as kind as we imagine?

Grieving is not a moral duty. (In the Koran, God seemingly absolves those with faith of worldly grief and fear). As the Prophet Muhammad suggested, die (to the worldly life) before you (physically) die. I am preparing my own departure and would rather not grieve in the process. My mother might add, "that's because you're so selfish."

And yet, even for someone as selfish as I am, it just seems cruel to simply ignore the expectations of others. I have read about how the ancient Greeks punished objects, such as a stick, that had been instrumental in hurting someone. It was a symbolic gesture to right a wrong.

So whether in Madrid or in Brussels, it may just simply be a question of doing something, anything — a physical gesture, a kind word or even a moment's private gratitude — to acknowledge someone else's pain that ultimately leaves you helpless. It is symbolic, but also involves a little rectification of the world, and of the heart.


*Alidad Vassigh is a Madrid-based writer and translator. He was born in Tehran, educated in France and England, and moves about frequently between Madrid, Mexico City and Bogotá until he decides where to settle.

This is Worldcrunch"s uniquely international collection of essays, both original pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble street in eastern Paris that we call home. Send ideas and suggestions to rueamelot@worldcrunch.com.

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