Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Headhunting Grief

I read an interesting essay last night by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, "Grief and a Headhunter's Rage" (1984).

Rosaldo begins the essay by relating an Ilongot man's response to the question of "why he cuts off human heads":
He says that rage, born of grief, impels him to kill his fellow human beings. He claims that he needs a place ‘‘to carry his anger.’’ The act of severing and tossing away the victim’s head enables him, he says, to vent and, he hopes, throw away the anger of his bereavement. (167)
Not surprisingly, Rosaldo is baffled by this answer.  "To him, grief, rage, and headhunting go together in a self-evident manner. Either you understand it or you don’t. And, in fact, for the longest time I simply did not" (167).

Initially Rosaldo tries to make sense of the man's explanation by considering the possibility that headhunting enacts a kind of existential exchange:
One day in 1974, I explained the anthropologist’s exchange model to an older Ilongot man named Insan. What did he think, I asked, of the idea that headhunting resulted from the way that one death (the beheaded victim’s) canceled another (the next of kin). He looked puzzled, so I went on to say that the victim of a beheading was exchanged for the death of one’s own kin, thereby balancing the books, so to speak. Insan reflected a moment and replied that he imagined somebody could think such a thing (a safe bet, since I just had), but that he and other Ilongots did not think any such thing. (168)
Rosaldo is therefore left to wonder what exactly the connection between grief, rage and headhunting is, until the sudden, accidental death of his own wife in 1981.

While Rosaldo is careful to note that a complicated emotional state like "bereavement should not be reduced to anger," he also believes that "[a]lthough grief therapists routinely encourage awareness of anger among the bereaved, upper-middle-class Anglo-American culture tends to ignore the rage devastating losses can bring" (171).

This creates a paradoxical tension for anyone experiencing grief: while therapists note the presence of anger in a state of bereavement,  the "conventional wisdom" of Anglo-American culture at large simultaneously denies its existence.

While Rosaldo's essay looks specifically at the function of ritual headhunting in Ilongot culture from an anthropological point of view, I want to think a bit more about this denial (or suppression) of the role of rage in grief.  

In my own experience, I remember that, on the few occasions when I tried to broach the subject of my feelings of anger (rage, actually) at my various losses (my parents, my godson), the people I spoke to would typically invoke Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's "stages of grief," remind me that "anger" was one of the stages, and then point out, "next comes bargaining."

To me, this seemed to imply that I should spend my pointless "angry-time" considering what I'd  be willing to trade to have the person back, all the while knowing in advance that bargaining was also pointless, and that, in the end, I would simply have to reach a state of "acceptance."

Looking back on it all now, I think that there is a tendency to hurry people through the stages of grief--perhaps because of an overwhelming discomfort with the presence of the grief itself.

In short, I would agree that, as Rosaldo argues, "Anglo-American culture tends to ignore the rage devastating losses can bring."

Ignore, I would say, or perhaps even dismiss as somehow a bit inappropriate.  I think the bereaved are often forced to try to hide their rage.

But in the end, the rage is always there, and eventually, it emerges in other, thinly-disguised ways.

Several years ago, I remember talking to a newfound friend who had experienced similar losses: both of her parents died and her home was destroyed in a fire at precisely the same time that my own losses had occurred.  (She said, "Sounds like you and I have been leading parallel lives for a while here.")  

Needless to say, she understood the connection between rage and grief.

When I commented to her that I felt I had "very little patience, sometimes" with "other people's petty and stupid problems and their bullshit, really" (see what I mean about the rage coming out in other ways?), she told the story of how, one evening, she was forced to read a "never-ending" series of heated email exchanges in which her co-workers debated the decision to switch to a new brand of ground coffee in the office break-room.

She said that as she read the emails, she began to type a response of her own.

She said, "I was about to hit 'send' when my husband happened to walk into the room.  I said, 'Can you believe this?  They're so ridiculous--they have NO CLUE.  COFFEE?  Are you kidding me?  Well, I'm not going to sit here and read this all night--they need to WAKE. UP.   It's time someone reminded them of just how effing GOOD they have it."

Her husband simply said, "Log off and shut down the computer.  Tell me what you want to say instead.  They won't understand.   They'll think you're the one who's being ridiculous, because they're only thinking about coffee."

I think my friend has a very wise husband.

The rage of the bereaved is often inexplicable to those who haven't experienced it.  It comes from a place all its own.  The words come pouring out in ways that they don't when you're simply "angry."

It's unstoppable.  At times, it feels like what is coming out it isn't even the product of your own brain.  It feels like a freight train of unstoppable verbiage accompanied by one, overwhelming thought:

"I. DON'T. CARE."

Except that, ironically, the onslaught and the tirade comes from a place of deep, terrible caring.  In the end, if you were an animal, you would simply howl and be done with it.   

The end of July will mark the 9th anniversary of my dad's death, an event that I tend to see as the inaugural event in what would (unfortunately) become a span of my life marked by the illness and death of several people I cared about.

I have only recently come to recognize the extent to which rage--not anger, not "bitterness," but sheer, unadulterated rage--marked a significant part of my bereavement process during this time.

At the time, I simply thought that I was angry about events that had occurred in my day-to-day life.  Because yes, life goes on, and yes, people get annoying and things get frustrating, and yes, problems will arise and when they do, we feel how we feel.

I've come to realize that the cultural denial of rage in grief led me to misperceive a great deal of my experience over the course of those years.

When I look back now, I'm often ashamed of how angry I was and how explosively I reacted, time and time again.  I look at the things that occurred at the time and wonder, "Why couldn't I just say 'Screw it' and walk away?  It definitely wasn't worth all the energy and the venom...".  

Looking back, I'm very aware of the extent to which I was unable to step away from it all and just... breathe.

When the life-events of the time offered a pretext for the rage of grief, I went headhunting.

I needed a place to carry my anger, so I carried it into my day-to-day life and (metaphorically, of course) decapitated a victim, whenever one presented itself.  And then I flung the head away, hoping to throw away the anger of my own bereavement with it.

Lately, I've come to realize that I have to make my peace with the sense of shame that I feel about some of those expressions of rage because, in the end, what's done is done.  I've decided that, rather than victimizing myself for things that are in the past, I need to see this as an opportunity to move forward with a better understanding of the many complexities of grief.

Oddly enough, it was only when I came to see the true source of my rage--my ongoing grief--that I was truly able to throw away the anger of bereavement.  (I seem to have ended up skipping the "bargaining" stage entirely, by the way.  I suspect I was busy yelling at someone instead.)

My awareness has not been without its humorous moments.  The other day, I decided to try to repair  a portion of my lawn, so I decided to aerate it first.

I hadn't used my two-pronged soil aerator in several years.  Not since I was smack dab in the midst of my grief, in fact.

So I got it out of the basement and went to work.  After aerating a patch of lawn that was about 3 feet long by 3 feet wide, I thought, "Wow, talk about boring.  I'm not doing this again anytime soon."

As I looked up, it suddenly dawned on me that, in 2011, I had aerated the entire lawn.  By hand.  Two prongs at a time.  I did the front yard, and then I did the back yard.

In effect, I had spent an entire weekend... stabbing the lawn.

At the time, I remember feeling a deep sense of satisfaction as I plunged the aerator into the ground and watched perfectly shaped cores of soil emerge.  I would dump them on the ground, move a step, and then do it again.  And again and again.  For hours at a time.

Grief-stricken, I was headhunting my way across the earth.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."