To say someone was “a good man” inevitably reduces them in their humanity. We hear this so often in times of grieving the death of a loved one. “He was a good man,” we say to the spouses, children, siblings. That’s a conclusion, a nice thing to say, and a phrase that means next to nothing.
This weekend I walked among the grieving. I nervously scrolled through Instagram in the ICU waiting room. Several huge families chattered loudly around me, telling stories and laughing. Remember when…Their presence soothed me. Indeed it is in times of great anxiety and subsequent loss when we bend the rules of life and duty to come together. I sat in a plastic chair in the hospital room with two longtime friends, carefully watching them as they gave their life updates (one, working at the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles, the other sharing progress on his girlfriend’s first storefront bakery). As they shared and listened, their eyes twitched frequently to the bed, looking for signs of change, movement, anything. I waited while my partner showered, letting the steaming water run down his face for the slightest relief, just in that moment. And I reminded him to breathe, in, out, every few minutes.
Today we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. A few of my friends on social media remind us that when Dr. King died, he was not deemed a national hero, he was in fact an enemy of the state. Mugshots. Questions surrounding his doctoral dissertation (did he plagiarize?), his fidelity (affairs?) and even tactics to make change and rise to fame have previously made me uncomfortable. How dare we challenge the greatness of a man whom today we consider one of the most important figures in United States and global history? And yet, how dare we not. How dare we write off Dr. King as a great man with a dream who never made mistakes or misjudged a moral compass. “He was a great man” stops us from recognizing how deeply complicated a human being he was, how deeply complicated we all are. Further, how complicated our relationships are.
In grieving we tend toward the absolute. It is soothing to feel appropriate sadness upon clutching the memories that highlight “the good.” Memories of laughter, of kindness, of pride the deceased felt at our accomplishments. Yet below these scenes rests the complexities of the person that truly defined their humanity, and that now defines our own. These past three days, I listened to many joyous memories of a person who by every means is honored and will continue to be so through the lives he touched. Alone with my partner, I listened to his discomfort about the rising memories that weren’t so joyous. He remembered feeling confusion, anger, even resentment. It was not easy to admit these feelings that still ruminate within, as if he were committing a crime by naming them.
Dr. King was a father, among so many other roles. His youngest daughter Bernice King was only five years old when her father was assassinated. I can’t comment on what kind of father Dr. King was, but I can wonder if he found fatherhood to be one of the most complicated journeys of his life. And I can wonder if his children feel the same about the life of their father- one worthy of timeless honor and full of complexity. When we embrace that discomfort, we truly honor a person, for we honor ourselves as flawed and yet capable. We are not just “great” people, we are all miracles because of the fact that we are people.
I witnessed so much Revolutionary Love this weekend- not without tears and tension. Metta for the grieving, and for those who have and will continue to show up.