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Real grief looks inside

But for most Brits, Diana's death was just a quick diversion

Issue: "Building a better boycott," Oct. 4, 1997

From London, just a couple of weeks after the most public funeral the world has ever witnessed, I want to report that the British people are not grieving. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, certainly produced its share of morbid fascination. The crowds were real (although reports now say probably fewer than a million-not the six million some wildly predicted-lined the streets here); the piles of flowers were deep (they're being ground up now for compost for the royal gardens); thousands of teddy bears have been passed on to sick and poor children; and tens of thousands of cards and letters of condolence (80 percent from women) are being read by the proper officials. But there's a big difference between fascination-even dutiful fascination-and genuine grief. Britain isn't grieving. Instead, Britain goes on. In the church service I attended yesterday, fervent prayer was offered for the queen "and the rest of the royal family at this time of such unusual circumstances," and for the rest of the government, "including some who have a background of biblical faith and others who seem to know nothing of it." Indeed, foreigners may think and talk more about Diana than do the people of her own country. It's as if the farther people were from the reality, the more mythically the perceptions could grow. The closer people were, the more they realized that here was no grand nor high tragedy; it was instead a fairly simple-and even ugly-story proving again that sin bears bitter fruit. So yes, there were regrets. But grief is a different matter. Britain (just like the United States and so many other secularly modern, post-Christian societies-but especially right now Britain) goes right on with life, acting as if it had not a single profound need in the world. When you have no needs, you experience no loss. When you experience no loss, you forget how to grieve. Britain, for example, has just gone through a transition from nearly two decades under a Conservative government to who-knows-how-long under a popular new Labor government. But in the process, the Conservatives' critics look in vain for anything substantial to criticize in Prime Minister Tony Blair's "liberal" program. On economic policy, welfare reform, education, pension reform, and prison reform, the Blair government is often acting at least as conservatively as the recent John Major government did over the last half dozen years. It makes you wonder if the people, or their leaders, believe anything at all. Like in the United States, they are philosophical and ideological wanderers. It's hard to decide whether that wandering and purposeless spirit is better symbolized by the churches of England, on the one hand, or the terribly confused attitude toward the monarchy, on the other. The Brits like to remind you that both go back now for nearly a millennium. But both seem all for show, with little to persuade you there is any substance. Hundreds of churches are empty, at least of worshipers. Art shows, handcraft and produce sales, and other fundraisers are the only activities justifying a few miscellaneous repairs to the brickwork, the windows, and the sagging rooflines. Meanwhile, it's only media-hyped hope, with nothing of substance to back it up, to argue that 15-year-old Prince William will single-handedly one day restore the glory of the British monarchy. But you cannot lose something you no longer have. All the power, tradition, and history of a people who have been the world's most stable and long-lasting society cannot now cover the fact: The empire on which the sun never used to set is now faded and continuing to fade. The bootstraps by which it keeps trying to pull itself up are wearing out. The great rallying cry, of course, is that "the common people" are Britain's last, best hope. Princess Diana, the commentators told us, had it right in relating to regular folks. OK. So get on the Underground with me, ride for a couple of hours, and watch carefully. Then decide: Are these the people you want to be deciding the big issues of life and the future wellbeing of the kingdom? I watched those people and I tried to decide as we took the Underground to Leicester Square to buy tickets for the matinee of Les Miserables. It's also the story of common but pitiable people trying to pull themselves up--partly through kindness, partly through relationships, partly through persuasion, partly through politics, and even through revolution. But their best efforts are always flawed and futile. Jean Valjean, the hero, gets closest to the message of the need for supernatural grace; yet the message remains little more than a hint, never getting past a beautifully sung but still nostalgic whisper. The "Great"ness of Britain is gone, going fast, or maybe even always wrongly based. Like people everywhere, Brits tend to be fascinated with their problems. But there's a big difference between mere fascination and genuine grief.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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