A Different Kind of Grief

Oct 24, 2020 | Op-Ed

Mourning the loss of an imaginary friend

Sometimes, we have to let go. Just as Facebook introduced us to “Friend” as a verb, we are learning to “Unfriend,” and even as it breaks our hearts to do it, it brings peace of mind. And freedom.

For years, we have agonized over cutting ties with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors over their problematic social media posts. It would be unloving, unkind, and overly harsh if we cut people out of our lives every time they make a mistake, or say something thoughtless or unkind. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone…

I don’t believe that social media makes monsters of “nice people,” though. It often reveals a side of us that we’ve not been taught to conceal, online, as if “online” were an imaginary country, populated by imaginary friends. Like Vegas, what happens online, stays online.

But that’s not true, is it?

Real People

I know people who claim they’ve received death threats over anti-racist and anti-misogynistic posts they’ve made on LinkedIn. I believe them.

I know people who can no longer suffer in polite silence at the dinner table, and who probably won’t be attending the annual family holiday gatherings, because they have come to realize that the people they thought loved them unconditionally really do believe that gay people — like them — are aberrant and ought to die.

I know people who sincerely believe that, when it comes to police brutality, it’s just “a few bad apples” on the police force, and we ought to show unquestioning support for the police. Yet these same people think all Black Lives Matter protesters are thugs, rioters, and looters. They cite that one Black friend who pretends to agree with them, for the sake of peace, as evidence that they are right.

I know people who think women are to be cherished — until they open their mouths to contradict a man or to have the audacity to tell him, “No.” Then it’s open season to condescend to them, to berate them, to make their lives hell on the job, online, or at home, or to beat them into submission.

I know people who believe strongly in freedom of religion. Unless you’re Muslim. Consistent with their view of Black Lives Matter protesters, these people are incapable or unwilling to distinguish between the faith and theology of Islam and the radical terrorist organizations springing out of theocratic, Islamist nations like Saudi Arabia or Iran. In truth, terrorism rarely springs out of something as simple as religious ideology, and it is never universally supported by the people of any nation. Phil Price, writing for Homeland Security Today, summarizes some of the findings in “Terrorism and Ideology: Cracking the Nut by Donald Holbrook and John Horgan”:

The authors argue that rather than being a direct, intellectual and theoretical basis for a terrorist’s commitment, ideology paints a bigger picture. It creates a climate and feeds a narrative where social and personal issues can be harnessed, such as anger at some perceived injustice, a sense of identification with a group — real or fantasy — and a belief that a particular organization can deliver results or salvation — political, collective, or personal.

It seems logical to assume that if people, and nations, felt heard and cared for by other people, and other nations — if they believed that anyone truly gave a damn about redressing their grievances — we would not have so much conflict and terrorism in the world.

I know people who are angry and belligerent when they are required to wear masks during a pandemic — despite the fact that their mask protects others from a potentially deadly disease, and others’ masks protect them. Many of these same people, though, think it’s their business — if not their God-given duty — to control women — in everything from how they dress to when and how they can obtain birth control or reproductive healthcare or abortions. Some of them blame women who seek abortions for engaging in “irresponsible sex” and would not lift a finger or agree to their tax dollars supporting her and her child(ren) after she gives birth.

What they may not realize (or conveniently choose to overlook) is that many of the women seeking abortions are married and have one or more children that they are struggling to support. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “Some 75% of abortion patients in 2014 were poor (having an income below the federal poverty level of $15,730 for a family of two in 2014) or low-income (having an income of 100–199% of the federal poverty level).” Still, few are willing to consider that the best route to decreasing the abortion rate is not to criminalize a woman’s reproductive choices, but to make changes in society that would make abortion seem unnecessary in all but the most dire medical circumstances.

Politics and Morality

“Let’s just agree to disagree.” That works — if what we’re disagreeing over is whether pineapple or anchovies belong on pizza. You eat pizza your way; I’ll enjoy mine my way. If we have to share the pizza, we ought to be able to compromise — perhaps to agree that, for now, we’ll skip the pineapple and the anchovies, and just enjoy a cheese pizza and good conversation. That’s resource allocation and diplomacy.

But the central issues of the day run deeper than a difference of opinion. They’re not about whether to paint the police station burnt umber or café au lait.

A good friend of mine once said that she believed politics was “religion manifest.” Politics speak to our core values. And no political party is perfection; each side speaks to the values of the like-minded, but 330,150,668 people will never sing in unison. The best we can hope for is harmony, and peace.

There is no “perfect” candidate. No candidate of ideological purity. No candidate that represents us, and our opinions, all the time. And if there were, we would never vote for them in sufficient numbers to elect them to the office of President.

We choose the best we can, with the information we have at hand. And we judge one another for that choice. Sometimes, too harshly. Sometimes, not harshly enough.

I would urge everyone to vote — but before voting, to research the proven track record, not just their pretty, ideological words or the mud-slinging accusations lobbed at their opponent. What have they done that is consistent with your core values? Does it reflect their own claims, their pretty words?

I would urge everyone to vote in accordance with their values, not with the “herd.” Ignore the polls, the statistics, the speculation on the odds. What does any of that matter when you mark your ballot? Just vote.

Loss of Our Imaginary Friends

I believe the sadness we feel over alienation from family, the loss of friends, and the severing of social media connections isn’t grief at losing the person. They haven’t died. What’s died is the notion that they were ever who we believed them to be. We see the layered veneer peeled back — we see the whole self they’ve not brought to the office. And it hurts, sometimes.

We feel grief at realizing they were fictional characters in our heads. That they were not “better than that.” And that those fictional characters, our “imaginary friends,” have died. We want to believe that we can rewrite them, fix the flaws we only just now realized they had. We can’t.

I fully believe that without the space to screw up, to apologize — sincerely, to make amends, to be forgiven, and be allowed to try again, people will not bother to grow and change for the better. We don’t kick our children to the curb every time we’re angry with them. We shouldn’t do it with people we care about, either. They’ll lick their wounds and find validation and acceptance within their echo chamber. But no one is owed unconditional acceptance of the unacceptable, just because we like and admire other things about them.

Sometimes, we have to cut each other loose, and mourn what never was.

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