Mourn with those who mourn
Today on November 11 we will mark Veteran’s day in the United States. Other countries observe the same event as Remembrance Day or Armistice day. November 11 is significant because it was the day that the armistice ending hostilities on the Western Front in World War I was signed. This year it is particularly significant because, of course, it marks one hundred years since the end of what was then known as the Great War, or the War to End all Wars.
The Great War resulted in unimaginable suffering. There were over 16 million people who died as a direct result of the fighting. If you include civilian casualties caused by dearth, disease and the Armenian Genocide the death toll reaches nearly 37 million people. Millions of the dead were so destroyed they could not be identified, which gave rise to the movement to establish a single Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, containing one unidentified body as a monument of remembrance for the millions of families who had no site to visit.
The devastation of an entire generation of young men in Europe was such that mourning and bereavement was an all but universal experience. Remembering and honoring the centenary of the end of World War I has brought to my mind the qualifications that Alma gave for those who are “desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people.” If we want to be the people of God, we are to “bear one another’s burdens that they may be light; … and mourn with those that mourn . . . and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.”
When we mourn with someone, we take their perspective and recognize it as truth. When Jesus came to Mary and Martha after Lazarus died, he mourned with them: “Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.” The Savior knew that he would raise Lazarus. He knew that their deep grief was not necessary and would shortly disappear. But he didn’t say that to them. He didn’t deny the validity of their sorrow or brush it aside as misplaced. Instead “he groaned in spirit and was troubled.”
It can be difficult to be willing to access our own pain to truly empathize with someone else. It is all the more difficult when we fundamentally don’t agree with the other person. This can be especially difficult within the church when we encounter someone who is suffering because of the Church. Some disagree with church teachings or leaders. Others feel they can’t measure up to church teachings or standards. Sometimes people have felt wounded by other church members.
Our baptismal covenants tell us that we must mourn with those who mourn, but also that we must stand for truth and righteousness. How do you reconcile those two? Recently, a friend asked me for advice. She had a friend who had posted something angry about a speaker in General Conference on social media. She wondered what I thought about how she should respond. She felt like she had to choose between mourning and standing for truth, because she did not agree with the Facebook post, but she also don’t want to reject her friend’s suffering.
I told my friend that the scriptures do not call upon us to agree with those who mourn and stand in need of comfort. You can validate someone’s pain without saying “you’re absolutely right.” When someone says they’re unhappy with the church, you can say one of the following: “You’re hurting, and I hate to see you in pain.” “I can tell that this bothers you, and I’m here to support you.” “I’m sorry that Conference was such a hard experience for you. Do you want to talk about it?” “I’m so glad you felt like you could talk to me. I appreciate your trust and I love you.” The spirit may prompt you to testify, but often in such moments trying to convince someone that they are wrong is not an effective way to heal their broken heart.
The physical conditions of the Western Front in the First World War were notoriously horrific. It was not the glorious battle filled with heroic charges on prancing stallions that many had imagined. It demanded a different kind of courage – the will to endure inhumane living conditions under constant fear of death from machine guns, artillery fire and poison gas.
C.S. Lewis had this to say about courage: “[Conflict] is probably one of [God’s] motives for creating a dangerous world – a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as [Satan] does that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”
Most of us are not called to face physical privation and danger in this life as soldiers in the First World War had to. But all of us are expected to have the courage to be charitable, and merciful and compassionate even when the temptation to hatred, bigotry and fear is very strong. Embracing empathy for your friends requires sacrifice and can be challenging, but the higher law requires us to mourn with and comfort our enemies, and strangers. Can we seek to empathize with and care about the fears of those who don’t share our political opinions? Do we care about the plight of the immigrant? Do black lives matter? Is there a link between anti-Semitic words and hateful deeds? In such times, there should be no conflict between compassion and standing for truth and righteousness. They are one and the same.
I want to close by returning to my reflections on the First World War. Käthe Kollwitz was a German artist whose younger son Peter was killed in battle in October 1914, at the beginning of the war. She became deeply depressed and spent the war sketching drawings for a monument to Peter and his fallen comrades. She wrote in her diary, addressing her dead son, “I want to honor the death of all of you young war-time volunteers embodied in yourform. It will be cast in iron or bronze and stand for centuries.” The monument, as it was then conceived, was a monument to German rightness – to the goodness and bravery of Germany’s youth flocking to volunteer, as her son did, to fight for the cause. Doubtless at the time they would have seen their actions as fitting with the injunction to “stand for truth and righteousness.”
But that is not the monument that Kathe ultimately made. She did not complete her sculpture until the mid-1920s, nine years after her son had died. She tore up her original drawings and started fresh. The sculpture does not depict a soldier at all – it is called The Grieving Parentsand it consists of a mother and father, each on a separate plinth with a space between them. Both figures are kneeling, eyes downward, hugging themselves. It was placed in the Belgian cemetery where her son’s remains were – on what had been the enemy’s land, with a cemetery now filled with boys from both sides of the conflict. When it rained, the drops poured down the cheeks of the grieving parents like tears, and visitors could stand between the two figures – quite literally mourning with those who mourn. It stands as one of the most beautiful and enduring monuments to the suffering of the war, and it exists because ultimately Kathe Kollwitz focused not on the glorious sacrifice of her cause and how right the Germans had been, but on the universality of suffering and loss.