The Wild Edge of Sorrow

“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.” -Francis Ward Weller

In his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Francis Weller expands our understanding of grief, and provides a path to transmute suffering into fertile ground. To help us open to our grief, he outlines the following five gates.

THE FIRST GATE: EVERYTHING WE LOVE, WE WILL LOSE. For Weller, the first gate is the gate most popularly acknowledged–it is the grief of when we lose something or someone we love. That something can be a tangible thing or an idea about ourselves in the past, how things used to be. Whatever it was, it meant something to us. Loss of a way things once were may describe an experience of illness. It is change that is most reliable because nothing and no one lasts forever.

THE SECOND GATE: THE PLACES THAT HAVE NOT KNOWN LOVE. Grief at the second gate is about the parts of us who “have been wrapped in shame and banished to the farthest shores of our lives (31).” We enter this gate by designating parts of us as despicable and unloveable. Much of the time, the exiled parts of us are those who have suffered the loss of tender touch or soothing embraces. These parts are the young ones who made sense of harsh words or persistent betrayals by blaming themselves. These are the ruptures in our sense of self, in the way we understand the world and who we can count on to protect us.

THE THIRD GATE: THE SORROWS OF THE WORLD. It is at the third gate that we acknowledge losses on a planetary scale. Weller asserts that “Whether or not we consciously recognize it, the daily diminishment of species, habitats, and cultures is noted in our psyches. Much of the grief we carry is not personal, but shared, communal (46).”

THE FOURTH GATE: WHAT WE EXPECTED AND DID NOT RECEIVE. This gate speaks to our felt sense of emptiness, of isolation embodied in the fractured relationships with all life and the instability of societies prioritizing profit over collective well-being. “Our profound feelings of lacking something are not a reflection of a personal failure, but the reflection of a society that has failed to offer us what we were designed to expect (Weller, 53).”

THE FIFTH GATE: ANCESTRAL GRIEF. At the fifth gate we acknowledge the grief of our ancestors, an acknowledgment of the ways we have taken on their suffering. It is also where we face the monumental injustices of our past, the violence and systematic assaults of war, colonialism, slavery and genocide. “The long shadow of this violence persists in our psyches, and we need to address it and work with it until there is some genuine atonement for these wrongs (Weller, 68).”

OUR GRIEF IS WORTHY OF ATTENTION. The gates offer structure to the shared woundedness in our human experiences, pointing us to healing in ways that are both profoundly unique and exquisitely collective.

The Wild Edge of Sorrow is available through the VIRL.

Summarized by Margaret Verschuur from an on-line post by Ashley Gregory.