I’ll never forget the moment I was sitting beside a mother in Kijabe, Kenya, who had just been told her seven-year-old daughter had not survived the spina bifida surgery. It was 2009, and I was volunteering as a cook in the Rift Valley hospital canteen. Daisy, a bright little girl, had captured the hearts of the physicians and nurses, her spirit a star in halls made heavy by stolen childhoods. I was taking a break from kneading chapati to play with the pediatric patients when I saw the back of a white coat lean down to deliver the news.
I walked to the bench and we sat together, Daisy’s mother and I, and of course I did not know what to say but to allow tears to fall freely. And then at one point she simply took my hands and, rocking back and forth, softly said, “The Lord gives and he takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Her benediction took my breath away. The American in me—however familiar I was with Job’s posture—didn’t know what to do with a passage applied so immediately after one of the worst tragedies that can befall a person. Her fluency with grief as a language of acceptance sent me into years of pondering the far-reaching implications of those societies more accustomed to death than ours. Implications of social and moral habit, of a culture’s capacity for spiritual intimacy. Pondering that endured, in some ways, until this year.
What do we do when death comes to our politics? Whose death matters to our politics? Do North Americans maintain any capacity to understand death and politics as inherently intertwined?
These are the questions Michael Wear asks in one of the week’s stirring essays, “A Politics Worse than Death.” We have of course been riveted by death this year, but has our politics met the moment? Has our civic heart been moved toward the tenacious solidarity such an indiscriminate enemy—you would think—should inspire?
“If physical death is not just inevitable but an imperative, perhaps our politics needs to plan for it, to consider it, to redirect it as long as possible.”