Thursday, October 1, 2009
Solitary and a Song
In the criminal justice world, solitary confinement is used as a punishment to avert future unwanted behaviors. It's effects are powerful. This type of draconian measure often drives prisoners to near madness. While some believe solitary confinement is more humane than harsh punitive interventions, I imagine the psychological flagellation and sociosensory deprivation to be nearly intolerable for most human beings.
I am reminded, however, that many bereaved- particularly those marginalized by stigmatic losses- are, in a sense, sentenced to a period of unsolicited solitary confinement. It's a period of incredible loneliness, even when surrounded by many others, particularly when one's loss goes unrecognized or unsanctioned by societal norms and values. Here, I am reminded of feminist Adrienne Rich's words: Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language -- this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable. And for the human being who is having the "unspeakable" experience, the sense of aloneness contributes to their invisibility, to their ushering into the shadows, to their solitude and pain.
This is a problem in the death studies field particularly in Western culture where the sense of the collective unification has been hijacked in order to stave off fears over feuding political ideologies (wherein the term "collective" is viewed as a pejorative by anti-socialists). But emotional collectivism and the rituals that are a natural accoutrement to those processes- truly help the individual in society. Unity in mourning or during crisis can unburden, sharing the bereavement experience and connecting humans to one another. Unity during times of joy and celebration can enrich, strengthen, and prolong the euphoria. I think of it as shared joy multiplying the joy and shared sorrow dividing the sorrow.
Thomas Verny, M.D. talks about one such collective lifespan ritual in his book Birth & Violence: There is a tribe in East Africa in which the art of true intimacy (I would call it bonding) is fostered even before birth. In this tribe, the birth date of a child is not counted from the day of its physical birth nor even the day of conception, as in other village cultures. For this tribe the birth date comes the first time the child is a thought in its mother's mind. Aware of her intention to conceive a child with a particular father, the mother then goes off to sit alone under a tree. There she sits and listens until she can hear the song of the child that she hopes to conceive. Once she has heard it, she returns to her village and teaches it to the father so that they can sing it together as they make love, inviting the child to join them. After the child is conceived, she sings it to the baby in her womb. Then she teaches it to the old women and midwives of the village, so that throughout the labor and at the miraculous moment of birth itself, the child is greeted with its song. After the birth, all the villagers learn the song of their new member and sing it to the child when it falls or hurts itself. It is sung in times of triumph, or in rituals and initiations. The song becomes a part of the marriage ceremony when the child is grown, and at the end of life, his or her loved ones will gather around the deathbed and sing this song for the last time.
There is no solitary confinement there. No psychological violence or emotional torture. From the cradle to the grave, they are upheld, united by love, song, and death. No, there is no solitary confinement there.
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.
--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul
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