A secure and comfortable retirement is not likely or even possible for some people. What a sad thing to acknowledge. Many women and men in our city look at aging with dread because they may not have enough to live on.
Two weeks ago, the College of Charleston’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, with the Avery Research Institute, published their tough, thorough, data-driven report entitled “The State of Racial Disparities in Charleston County, SC, 2000-2015.” (Google the title and read it!)
Looking at the racial factor in local housing and gentrification, educational disparities, unemployment statistics, median incomes, health care coverage, policing/racial profiling and racialized violence, the report found that “black residents increasingly can’t afford to live in Charleston at all," according to an editorial published in The Post and Courier.
Every one of the parameters addressed by the report points to a measure of security we all need for living a reasonably secure old age free of worry about basic needs and safety.
The Race and Social Justice report presents an alarming portrait of a divided community, one in which many people are highly vulnerable to the risks and uncertainties we all face as we grow older.
There is a lot we can do to work actively for a community with less life-diminishing inequality. We know many elders whose concern about inequality has led them into significant volunteer service and social justice advocacy. That is the response that many of us who are privileged have made when the truth about our “upstairs-downstairs” society comes home to us. The report makes explicit recommendations about what we need to do in Charleston for remedial change.
But something else needs to happen first. It is something personal. Here’s what it is: We have to open our hearts to the sad history of racial inequality and discrimination, to deeply feel that sadness and then grieve the losses, losses to ourselves and to the whole community.
There is a deep cache of sorrow, a profound sadness, when we become aware of the degrading effects of generational poverty, lack of access to health care and educational opportunities, the hopelessness of black citizens being four times more likely to be jailed than whites, the heartbreak of raising children next to a toxic waste site, all of which many of our neighbors do.
There is a flaw in our community that affects us all, especially those who suffer from sharp inequalities. But what about the rest of us? Maybe we are not even aware of it, but we suffer the loss of each other: the loss of daily encounters with people who live differently, even the ability to see through others’ eyes and feel through others’ experience of life.
We must grieve the loss of enriching relationships we do not have. We grieve the diminishment of the qualities of mercy, dignity and fairness in the community we live in. We grieve the wound in the world we share.
There is another doorway to the house of grieving opened by the Racial Disparities report. That portal to sorrow, in the words of Francis Waller in his book, "The Wild Edge of Sorrow," is grief for “what we expected and did not receive.”
At the core of this grief is our longing to belong, he says, wired into us by necessity: We need community, a “village," to assure our safety and ability to flourish. This expectation is rooted in our deep-time ancestors’ containment in a village or extended family where every member was included and valued. It is our human birthright to be treated fairly and with respect in real community.
Today, says Weller,“our profound feelings of lacking something are not a reflection of personal failure, but the reflection of a society that has failed to offer us what we were designed to expect.”
When we as a community fail to allow all of us — black and white, first families and refugees — to realize our worth and our welcome, that is a failure we have to grieve. If we don’t feel the deep sorrow in our hearts, we will never be moved to take the necessary and hard action to mend the flaw.
Elders in our society, of course, are not the only ones familiar with the inside of the house of grieving. But we may know it best, because we have, in our years, suffered the most loss. We have learned that sorrow allows our heart to open and frees us to feel our kinship with others whose tears and depletions we share. Grief does that. As Weller says, “Grief keeps the heart flexible, fluid and open to others. As such it becomes a potent support for any other form of activism we may intend to take.”
Elders know intuitively that this is true.
Opening our hearts to grieve the unfairness that is robbing our neighbors (ourselves) of the safety and security and hope we need to age well: This has to be the place we begin for the mending of our flawed but very dear community.
A congested heart, one burdened with unexpressed sorrow, Weller observes, is not capable of being fully available for the healing work urgently needed at this time. Elders know how to grieve, and thus feel. When we feel injustice as our own, how can we not act for equality?