The murderous: Lament

This essay draws on insight from  poet, priest, & rock & roller Malcolm Guite,  Fr. Emmanuel Katongole, and the Bright Human Spirit white papers on innovation

Seamus Heaney, in his Nobel prize acceptance speech, said that his poetry got better once he made room in his life for the “marvelous” as well as the “murderous.”  Reconciliation poetry draws on both the unsympathetic realities of life and makes room for the very real beautiful intimacy he calls “the marvelous.”

This essay focuses on the gift of the latter: the murderous. What does it mean to unsympathetically and without sentimentality face terrible facts? Can this be anything but painful?

“What just happened?” What are the facts? How do I interpret those facts spiritually, emotionally, financially, etc.?

At this point many things are true. Yes there may be hope that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” (Julian of Norwich).  That can be true for the long-term. But for the short term one’s heart may be completely broken and all is not well and one should have self-compassion for this reality.

Bad things come unbidden. Trust that you can heal eventually. But maybe not today or this month or this year. Have the self-compassion and honesty to realize that emotional healing is like growing new skin over a wound. Yelling at the skin graft will not make that skin grow faster. In fact, it could cause you to sink into a depression and then healing takes even longer.

Many things are true, and the need for lament is often one of these truths.

And lament can also be a gift.

Lament as a Gift?

Lament is a grieving process and often involves silence, frustration, and tears. Not all interruptions to cycles of violence are painful, but this one is. It’s a big time out. It is a process of re-establishing your identity in the face of a new future.

Fr. Emmanuel Katongole is a famous African professor at Notre Dame and its related Kroc Institute for Peace Studies. In his lectures he walks people through the Bible’s book of Lamentations, explaining each process of grief and how it’s all right to grieve. There are gifts that come from it. I’ve listened to the lecture twice and it’s riveting and grace-filled.

The below is my interpretation of lament in my own world: team-work, innovation in both corporation, with the social sector, and with faith-based groups. It comes from a white paper series called the BRIGHT HUMAN SPIRIT and is about how ancient practices help with modern day innovation. The series was co-authored with David Dodson and Paresh Shah.


In lament we become aware of the new situation, we name it, we grieve for what is lost, we remember what is profoundly right, and we identify what absolutely matters to us to move forward.

Here is a deeply personal, famous corporate example from Apple founder Steve Jobs about getting fired from Apple:

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life . . . I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did.

“Days of lament” are an old-fashioned practice where people name the problem, name the pain that it caused and they see where it takes them. To be clear, a day is often not enough. Figuring out what is most important to you may take weeks or months or years. And it can lead to breakthrough innovation as it did for Steve Jobs.

In the corporate space, consider lament as a way to regroup and learn lessons from a failed project. Rather than identifying scapegoats, have the team come together to assess the project from beginning to end, and identify the underlying reasons for the failure. Then take steps to address the underlying reasons to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Here are three meaning-making practices that allow for people to reflect from different parts of the world:

1. Medical culture: “Mortality and morbidity conferences” are held to discuss what people have learned from a particular case. There are many benefits to having a public case discussion to debrief “what went wrong,” including education, accountability, and error reduction.

2. In Japan: A “ba” is a space for creating new meaning in Japan used by companies like Honda. The ba allows executives to go to an offsite to discuss frustrations and have honest discussion. Teams often make an inductive leap, “overcoming their personal issues and arriving at a team-based view about how to solve a problem.”

3. In East Africa: In the wake of genocide, communities practice remembering rightly in public ceremonies, in a “bitter root” ceremony. After discussing what happened, one side drinks bitter water because their actions have caused pain. The other side drinks to acknowledge that they are giving up their anger and identity as a victim, and this is bitter and painful too.

The process looks like this:

1. Assemble affected community members.

2. Review and affirm shared goals. Without a shared goal that transcends individual interests, the situation can deteriorate quickly.

3. Remind the team to have self-compassion, and that pain is not a competition.

Self-compassion helps us notice our own suffering, offers self-care and self-comfort in the face of suffering, and helps us remembers that imperfection is part of the human experience.Self-compassion helps us create a calm environment where we can allow for the possibility that we can improve and provides the emotional basis for improvement.

Regarding pain, we often think at these sessions, “Well, I didn’t have it as bad as you, so I shouldn’t be impacted by my pain.”

I talked with one of the most famous former child slaves in Africa after she testified before the United Nations on the horrors of international trafficking of children that she herself experienced. (She had been kidnapped and had experienced untold horrors for eight years as she was force-marched barefoot through the jungle and bush between Uganda and South Sudan.) This child, who had borne more than most in the world, said, “Pain is not a competition. You will learn from yours as I did from mine.” We must all learn from our situations, even when we do not face the same struggles others do.

4. Ask people to privately contemplate what went wrong.

Here are questions modified from work with great reconciliation leaders in the U.S., Africa, Europe, and Asia by the Duke Center for Reconciliation:

  •  Why did the project fail?
  • What mistakes did I make?
  • Where could I have asked for more information?
  • What else could I have done?
  • What stories of violence (emotional or physical) have you have experienced, especially by those of your own “tribe?”
  • What healed you the most? What was your point of greatest pain?
  • Is your pain part of a wider story? Give concrete, factual examples.
  • What sacred or secular texts connect you with a larger, more ancient story of similar madness, sadness, or brokenness?
  • What songs, dances, or art address this real, named issue?
  • How did you get into this place?
  • When were you able to see the problems? When were you blind to them? When were you a victim? When were you a perpetrator?
  • Where do you see pain today?
  • Where do you see hope?
  • Who embodies this hope?
  • What experiments can interrupt cycles of violence with cycles of peace? What can you do every day to give a new cycle of peace “oxygen”?  In all things be concrete and realistic.

5. Let each side speak for a period of time. It takes time.

6. Complete a culturally accepted ritual of cleansing and restoration. This could be a project wake where you literally bury the project, give it a eulogy, and then have a drink; executives shake hands; writing and reciting a comic poem about what just happened to be recited at a local bar; karaoke; or something that is native to that group.

When we remember clearly and complete our grieving, we have energy to see the new data in ways that reflect more reality, and pursue these solutions with more professional distance, clarity and greater possibility. In our own experience we have seen the practice of lament powerfully transform a riot-torn Kenya in 2008, where the practice helped preserved the country from spiraling into genocide. The process has similarly impacted the immigration reform landscape in Houston.

Lament leads to awareness because it is a sometimes somber, often more realistic analysis of why something failed with accuracy. Pinpointing the source of failure correctly and accurately helps ensure those mistakes will not be made again. Further the energy, focus, and passion that emerge from lament can have lasting impact in a way that little else can. And this is why we believe in innovation done rightly. It fails a lot of times. Most people don’t care enough to do this tough emotional work. But when we respond to lament honestly, and nakedly, the world can be made new in ways we thought impossible.

Finally a note about your actual health.

None of us is wholly free from the past that has helped form us. Remembering this past correctly requires great care, and can lead to important innovation. The ramifications of “remembering correctly” and completing the grieving process have re-shaped our world since 1995, when South African leaders formed their Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Its purpose: “a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.” The cultural impact of this social tsunami has been felt around the world.

We would like to focus on the health aspect of memory. Our minds are not the only sources of memory. Our bodies retain stress caused by work decisions. “An enormous body of epidemiological research shows that management’s decisions contribute to mortality and morbidity at least as much as, if not more than, an employees’ own actions,” writes Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in a 2011 Harvard Business Review. Having been on a team that conducted interviews across four continents, I have heard privately about young executives seeing cardiologists to deal with the hidden stress of work. These heart health reports lay bare the fact that many executives suffer in silence from the pace of change and poor management decisions. If not properly addressed, this suffering will limit what excellent and talented people can contribute to a team.

Remembering “rightly” (without creating stories of catastrophes, villains, or minimizing the impact of what happened) allows us to properly finish a grieving process. Physically, the process can lead to lowered blood pressure and heart rate, reduced depression, anxiety, and anger. Emotionally and spiritually it can lead to a new and healthier sense of who you are and where you are going.

Citations for the section above on the Gift of Lament can be found in the Bright Human Spirit white paper series, pp. 12-17.