Tradition(ed): The Lament of the Dead

I originally framed my reasons for undertaking this series on tradition in primarily external terms: tradition is an inescapable force in culture and yet the only people who seem to be talking about it are either reactionaries, who insist we need to return to the past (or at least their imagined version of it), or revolutionaries, who think the past has nothing to teach us. But as much as I wanted to do my small bit to correct this situation, I’ve realized that I also had some internal motivations for this project. Lately, I’ve become increasingly aware that we live in a haunted world. The present, on both personal and societal levels, is shaped by and in some ways governed by the dead. And we need to find better ways of addressing this if we want to have any sort of freedom and not just passively allow the dead to live through us.

I’ve been feeling this for a while — my series this past June, ‘Setting our Stories Straight’, was essentially all about this sort of process of addressing the voices of the dead to gain freedom for today — but I didn’t have the language for it until recently, when in short succession I came across three separate quotes that articulated what I was feeling:

  • “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.” (W.H Auden)
  • “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them” (James Baldwin)
  • “[W]e are adding a new [law]: accepting the lament of the dead.” (C.G. Jung)

This may sound pretty ‘out there’, but hear me out. What this is saying is that the past matters — the dead matter. The dreams, dramas, disappointments, virtues, values, prejudices, crimes, and traumas of those who have gone before us continue to ripple out through the generations and shape both our individual lives and public discourse and politics. In explaining Jung’s phrase “the lament of the dead,” Sonu Shamdasani (in conversation with James Hillman) noted:

What he grapples with is the weight of human history and ancestry. He realizes that he can’t move forward without going back, without understanding the implications that the past weighs on him, and this is not purely in a personal sense, which has been the main preoccupation in psychology, but with history as such, and in particular with taking up unfinished business, taking up unanswered questions. (The Lament of the Dead, 38)

And this means that the “present is then animated by the past” (85), and “the problems one takes up and is confronted with are not one’s own” (163). We are, in a sense, working through the unfinished business of the dead.

This is a visceral way of talking about the power of the past, and it’s been resonating strongly with me lately. We can talk about ‘family patterns’ and ‘generational sins’ all we want, but these aren’t impersonal or abstract things; they are about deeply held beliefs, hopes and dreams, and behaviours and adaptations — good and bad — acted out between fathers and sons, among siblings, and in response to specific social and political dynamics. It’s one thing to talk about a harsh and unforgiving family complex; it’s quite another to talk about it in terms of the hard lessons learned during hard lives where hard labour was poorly rewarded, in rough neighborhoods where might equaled right and any sign of weakness or sensitivity was dangerous. Or on the societal level, conversations today about how to deal with the ecological crisis are as much about our ancestors’ attitudes towards land and natural resources — and the hopes and desires associated with them — as they are about the economy and science.

One reason I find this perspective interesting is that our contemporary Western culture, pretty much uniquely among cultures of the world, does everything it can to erase the dead. We have no mourning rituals, no formal expressions of memorializing the dead, and expect life for those left behind to return to some semblance of normality in a matter of weeks, if not days. We treat grief like a mental illness rather than as an expression of love. But by erasing the dead, denying loss, and preventing grief from doing its work, we we only push them into the realm of shadow, where they will continue to influence us, but where we aren’t aware that they’re doing it.

And this is where tradition feels important to me. As someone intentionally formed within the Christian tradition, I have read a lot of books written by the dead. It’s a fascinating exercise, for it tells us so much about their world: their presuppositions, their concerns, the questions of their day, their prejudices, the metaphors that were closest to hand. And, by acting as a foil, it also tells us so much about our own world. I’m often reminded of what C.S. Lewis wrote about ‘old books’:

People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. (”On The Reading of Old Books,” Introduction to On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius)

Tradition is a way we can keep the past — its successes and failures, its epiphanies and blind spots — where we can see it. The ideas and actions of the dead have sent us on a certain trajectory with a certain momentum, which we inherit as our default setting. If we don’t understand where they were trying to go and what they were hoping to accomplish through those ideas and actions, we are in a poor position to understand the status quo, let alone how we might create something new out of it. By understanding the unfinished business of the dead, we can do our part to finish it responsibly, whether that’s by celebrating dreams that have been achieved, working towards beautiful hopes that have yet to be fulfilled, or putting old prejudices and destructive beliefs to bed. And by doing this, we can be freed to tackle today’s concerns and crises unfettered by the ghosts of the dead. To quote Shamdasani once more, “it’s only through recognizing their demands that one is actually able to separate out from them at the same time and regain one’s independence;” “We have to find a place for the dead in order to enable our own living” (The Lament of the Dead, 26; 173).

This may just sound like shadow work, but as important a part of this as that is, it’s more than just shadow work. I think of it as the flip side of the communion of saints. We are surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses, as the Book of Hebrews tells us. Their old dreams and disappointments deserve to be heard and not forgotten, not because they were giants or perfect exemplars, but because they weren’t. They were finite and conflicted, just like us, and yet pressed on, doing the best they could with what they’d been given.

Because our cultural moment of erasing the dead is relatively new, tradition can also help us to overcome this situation. I don’t mean restoring over-the-top Victorian mourning rituals, but recognizing the wisdom in our forebears’ practices such as memorial days, local traditions around All Saints and All Souls Days, and remembering the dead in their prayers.

Even in their imperfection, the dead were precious to God. The impact of their lives continues to be felt today. And so we would do well to honour them, love them, and hear them, but not to let them live through us. And to my mind, that’s beautiful.

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