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OPINION

The gift of anger and brokenheartedness

As a chaplain to atheists and agnostics, watching our various tribal affiliations seemingly tearing us apart, I long for values that can meet this moment by transcending sectarianism.

A June 2 protest in Boston against police brutality and systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd's death.
A June 2 protest in Boston against police brutality and systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd's death.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“We’ve come this far by faith,” exclaimed the Rev. Al Sharpton last Thursday at the crescendo of his moving eulogy for George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May.

Which emphasized to me that it’s been a difficult time to have faith — not just in divinity, but in anything.

Religions have always preached hope. But from my perspective as a chaplain to atheists and agnostics — and simply as a human being watching our various tribal affiliations seemingly tearing us apart — I’m longing for values that can meet this moment by transcending sectarianism.

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I was encouraged, then, when former vice president Joe Biden tweeted, “We need a President who believes in science.” Biden’s word choice, as usual, was awkward: Science is a process, not a doctrine. But with the basic decency of our government in doubt, and in a pandemic that is also a perfect storm of despair and polarization, it reassures me when politicians believe in anything unimpeachably positive.

Let us not, however, mistake technocracy, centrist neoliberalism, or naive platitudes for true unity. We need a common faith now, but not simply the lowest common denominator of belief.

I propose a revival of 20th-century philosopher John Dewey’s vision, from his landmark work of American political philosophy, “A Common Faith”: faith in humanity, uniting diverse believers and secularists.

What would such a faith look like today?

Perhaps the answer begins with a lesson learned by my Harvard chaplain colleagues Tammy and Pat McLeod, who were “Hit Hard,” as their book title says, by severe brain damage their teenage son suffered playing football in 2008. Zach survived, but forever changed; his new normal made the McLeods experts on “ambiguous loss.” Called the most stressful kind of loss by Pauline Boss, a therapist and researcher who coined the term, ambiguous loss refers to any painful loss for which there can be no linear process of letting go.

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The McLeods’ experience with their son, then, might give us insight into our own as we struggle to mourn families, jobs, cities, or colleges as they were before COVID-19. Unlike the McLeods, perhaps we will someday achieve closure. Meanwhile, we need faith in our ability to live meaningfully despite ongoing grief. And that’s nothing new: Even before this crisis, we each suffered from a fatal disease called mortality. Otherwise known as humanness.

Pat and Tammy are passionate Christians. Jesus inspires their trust, despite woundedness. I am an equally passionate atheist. For me, humanness itself is enough. Still, I celebrate their courage to love life and each other amid ambiguity.

Grief, however, isn’t the only emotion depleting our faith in humanity. Sometimes we burn with rage — the same rage exploding onto streets nationwide lately. But as my friend Lama Rod Owens — the first openly Black, queer, accepted Tantric Buddhist lama — explains, anger can be a gift if we see it, more deeply, as brokenheartedness.

For Owens, love and rage are fundamentally interconnected. So when our anger blazes — whether at police brutality, government incompetence, or loved ones with whom we’re sheltering in place — fury is there, psychologically speaking, to reveal our heart’s vulnerability. We’re crushed by disappointment because, like everyone, we long for safety and caring.

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There are no easy solutions to hateful bigotry, but we can’t even begin believing in others before recognizing, on some level, our own pain. Such insight animated Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. — leaders in reconciliation not in spite of, but because of, their rage at injustice. While we may never equal their character, we honor their example by trusting authentic anger, informed by love, to create connection and good faith.

Still, it’s so hard to connect while cooped inside socially distanced pods, glued to Zoom. Or risking our lives on masked front lines of protests or “essential” work. Which is why I was among many who expressed profound gratitude for a simple suggestion from Harvard chaplain Rabbi Jonah Steinberg in an interfaith webinar I moderated on staying human during the coronavirus pandemic.

Upon his turn to speak, Steinberg asked everyone to take 20 seconds to silently look at the diverse faces on the call. As Jewish philosopher Martin Buber noted, extraordinary things happen when we truly see one another. Again: Moral insights, rooted in theology, can be universally human.

John Dewey “never took [race] up as a fundamental challenge to democracy,” cautions Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr. Dewey’s faith must be updated to explicitly reject white supremacy, to affirm that Black lives matter, and recognize the full equality of all people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or class.

The heart of “A Common Faith,” however, remains: In ambiguous and unstable times, we need fewer visions of perfect heaven, and more actions to improve flawed but beautiful human projects like democracy, jurisprudence, and science. Faith in such secular institutions means believing in the work people do for one another: facing problems compassionately and intelligently; pursuing truth, without prejudice; creating solutions that work. These are the tasks we must undertake to believe in one another again.

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Greg M. Epstein is the humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT and author of “Good Without God.” Follow him on Twitter @gregmepstein.