Grief is often painful. When I think about my deceased sister, I cannot help but be struck by a deep sense of tragedy about her loss. She was relatively young — 43 years-old — and had a young son whom she loved greatly. She was a bright and effervescent person, rarely saying a bad word about anyone, and incredibly generous and charitable with her time. At her funeral, I was amazed at the number of her friends and work colleagues who shared these impressions. When I die, I doubt anyone will say the same about me. ‘Selfish’ and ‘introspective’ maybe. It pains me to think that she is gone and I am still here. When I first learned of her illness, I became quite depressed. I felt sapped of the energy needed to complete the ordinary business of life. I also felt considerable guilt and regret. Her death jolted me out of this, to some extent, but even now I am reluctant to pursue life with the same vigour I once had.
From what I have read, many people experience similar emotions as part of the process of grieving. This prompts an obvious question: is grief a good thing? If it causes so much mental anguish and pain, would we not be better off without it? There are some famous ‘sages’ who thought as much. Seneca, for example, in his sixty-third letter to Lucilius, advises Lucilius not to feel too much grief at the passing of his friend. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that Lucilius should look to replace the deceased with a new object of affection as soon as possible:
You have buried one whom you loved; look about for someone to love. It is better to replace your friend than to weep for him… the most shameful cure for sorrow, in the case of a sensible man, is to grow weary of sorrowing. I should prefer you to abandon grief, rather than have grief abandon you; and you should stop grieving as soon as possible, since, even if you wish to do so, it is impossible to keep it up for a long time.…Nothing becomes offensive so quickly as grief; when fresh, it finds someone to console it and attracts one or another to itself; but after becoming chronic, it is ridiculed, and rightly. For it is either assumed or foolish.
To many, this will sound like inhuman advice — we should simply forget about the deceased and move on? — but I will consider the merits of Seneca’s Stoic approach to grief in a subsequent post. Right now, I want to consider the antithetical point of view: that grief is, contrary to initial appearances, a good thing. It is something that is central to the well-lived life. I will consider two arguments in favour of this view. The first comes from the work of Michael Cholbi; the second from the work of Amy Olberding. I’ll spend most of my time looking at Cholbi’s argument partly because his article was the first thing I read on the topic and so I learned a lot from it, and partly because the issues raised by Olberding’s argument have been discussed before on the blog.
1. Cholbi on the Problem of Grief
Cholbi’s defence of grief can be found in his article ‘Finding Good in Grief: What Augustine Knew that Meursault Couldn’t’. One of the nice things about Cholbi’s defence of grief is that he is acutely aware of the challenges it faces. Anyone who wants to claim that grief is good must overcome the following, deceptively simple argument (note: this is my formulation not Cholbi’s):
- (1) Grief is painful.
- (2) Pain is bad.
- (3) Therefore, grief is bad.
We could add to this some subsequent argumentation to the effect that since we ought to avoid anything that is bad so too ought we avoid grief. Indeed, if I were being more pedantic I might insist upon adding that argumentation onto the end since, ultimately, Cholbi is concerned with our prudential attitude to grief not the intrinsic experience of grief per se, but I will stick with the simpler version for now because Cholbi talks primarily in terms of the goodness/badness of grief in his article, not about the wisdom of avoiding it.
Granting this, what can be said about the argument? Premise (1) seems unimpeachable. The experience of grief is undoubtedly painful. Sometimes this manifests in physical symptoms of pain, but even when it is primarily mental it is still painful. Memories of the deceased often trigger deep sadness and regret and this causes turmoil. Premise (2) also looks to be pretty unimpeachable. Most philosophers agree that pain is bad — indeed some might go so far as to say that it is the only thing that is intrinsically bad — but premise (2) is the weak link in the argument. There are some obvious grounds for appeal against it.
One ground for appeal would be to highlight the existence of masochists. These are people for whom pain does not appear to be bad. On the contrary, it appears to be good. It is something they actively seek out and from which they derive pleasure. But appealing to masochists isn’t going to provide much consolation for the defender of the goodness of grief. After all, not everyone is a masochist so even if the response was successful it would have limited appeal. Furthermore, masochism is a somewhat paradoxical phenomenon. For masochists, pain and pleasure are indelibly interlinked: that which is painful for the ordinary person is actually experienced as pleasurable for the masochist. Consequently, it may not even be right to say that for the masochist pain is good. It may be more correct to say that they are just wired to experience the world differently. This holds no comfort for the defender of the goodness of grief because the pain of grief seems to be pure — not some odd intermingling of pain and pleasure.
Another ground for appeal would be to emphasise pain’s contribution to a ‘greater good’. In other words, to say that something that is prima facie painful might be ultimately good because it is an essential precursor to something that is good. A vaccine injection is often said to be ultimately good, even if intrinsically painful, because the pain of the injection contributes to the greater good of inoculation against disease. Cholbi thinks there is some promise in this response, but it too faces challenges. For one thing, anyone who uses it must be able to come up with some plausible account of the greater good to which grief contributes. For another, they must address a concern with all ‘greater good’ theories: that they make the painful precursor an undesired side effect of a particular pathway to a greater good: something that should be avoided if possible; not something that is itself integral to the good. For example, if we could attain the greater good of inoculation without the pain of injection, then that would be all the better. Grief doesn’t seem to work in the same way. If grief is good, its painfulness seems like it must be an integral part of its goodness. Augustine put it well in his exploration of grief:
My heart was black with grief. Whatever I looked upon had the air of death. My native place was a prison house and my home a strange unhappiness…I had no delight but in tears, for tears had taken the place my friend had held in the love of my heart.
In this passage, Augustine is suggesting that the pain of grief — the tears he cried for his departed friend — is something he actively seeks out. I have experienced something similar in the aftermath of my sister’s death. I find that there are certain memories of her that I want to revisit in the hope that they will make me sad. So much so, in fact, that I’ve become frustrated by the extent to which I have become desensitised to their effect over time.
So Cholbi thinks the defender of grief faces a twofold challenge: (a) can they come up with an account of the greater goodness to which grief contributes? and (b) can this account still respect the seemingly central role that the painfulness of grief plays in this good? He thinks he can.
2. Cholbi’s Solution: Grief and the Good of Self-Understanding
Cholbi first tries to show how something that is intrinsically painful can, nevertheless, be an integral part of a greater good. He uses an analogy to make the case. Anyone who has engaged in long-distance running will be familiar with the trauma it induces on the body. It can cause severe pain and overwhelming fatigue. Sometimes there is a payoff — the famous ‘runner’s high’ that emerges as endorphins flood your system — but sometimes the pain is so overwhelming that you just want to give up and quit.
Cholbi tells us that he used to run a lot when he was younger and frequently experienced these runner’s ‘lows’. Despite the obvious unpleasantness of these feelings, Cholbi began to look forward to them. He found that painless runs were ‘ungratifying’. Why? Because he saw the pain as being an essential part of an activity that was overall good (because it made him fitter and pushed his body to its limits). In other words, the pains were situated within a broader context that caused him to reinterpret their axiological status. Cholbi is adamant that the pains he experienced were definitely pains. They were not, as might be the case for the masochist, some distorted form of pleasure. He did everything he could to minimise the painful sensations once his runs were completed. It was just that he did not judge them to be bad because of their context.
Cholbi argues that this phenomenon — a genuine pain that is not judged to be bad because it is situated in a context that is, overall, good — holds the key to the defence of grief. Grief may itself be painful, but it can be situated in a context that is, overall, good. The critical question is: what is that context? Cholbi’s answer is ‘self-understanding’. The loss of a loved one provides a significant motivation and grounding for self-understanding. The pain of the grief is integral to this process of self-understanding.
This is actually a common enough view. Many of the famous philosophical and literary discussions of grief fixate upon the idea that the death of a loved one is the loss of something that was integral to your identity. Someone who was part of the warp and weft of everyday life is now gone and you need to re-form yourself in order to go on. C.S. Lewis (who is not someone I would ordinarily cite) captures this idea rather beautifully when he describes his feelings after the death of his wife (referred to as ‘H’):
I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on, through habit, fitting an arrow to the string; then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead through H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontier-post across it. So many roads once; now so many culs-de-sac.
Cholbi uses the less poetic concept of an ‘identity-constituting relationship’ to flesh out the idea:
Identity-constituting Relationship: Is a relationship between yourself and another that features prominently in your autobiography and that shapes your ‘practical identity’, i.e your values, concerns and commitments.
The most important identity-constituting relationships in our lives are those between ourselves and our families and friends (though it possible to form them with others). These relationships play a significant role in our self-conception. Sometimes this role is underappreciated. We take so much for granted in our everyday lives. We form habits around our environments, our families, and our friends that go unquestioned. They are part of the furniture of life. The background scenery that is out of the spotlight. We don’t realise how fragile and contingent this background scenery is. It is only when it is gone that we realise how important it was.
That feeling is certainly something I have experienced in the aftermath of my sister’s death. It was so easy to take her for granted when she was alive; to assume that she would always be there; and to forget how she shaped my values, interests and dispositions. It’s this realisation — the importance of the deceased to one’s practical identity — that is captured so well by C.S. Lewis in the above-quoted passage.
Cholbi’s argument is that there is some value in this realisation. Self-knowledge is an important human good. It is important that we know something of our values, commitments and beliefs — that we know what is important to us. The emotional complexity of grief makes it a rich source of self-knowledge. Grief is a process; not a moment. It involves oscillations between despair (at the loss) and longing (at the remembrance), and multiple awakenings and insights. It jolts us out of the auto-pilot of everyday life and forces us to reconsider who we are. As Cholbi puts it:
Grief thus looks like our psyche’s way of instigating an emotional data dump. We would be wise to seize the opportunity to make sense of that data and thereby attain deeper levels of self-knowledge.
What are we to make of this argument? I think Cholbi is certainly onto something with the suggestion that grief jolts us out of the auto-pilot of everyday life, and that one of its distinctive qualities is to reveal how contingent much of what we rely upon on a daily basis is. I also think he is correct to argue that something that is intrinsically painful can, nevertheless, be good if it is situated in the right context.
I’m less convinced by the claim that self-knowledge is the ‘greater good’ that is at stake in the debate about grief. For starters, I’m not sure that self-knowledge, as defined, is a robust enough good to justify the pain of grief. Indeed, I find it disheartening to think that the value of grief lies in some good that it does for me (i.e. the person who is grieving). That seems so self-centred and egotistical. Surely the value of grief should be grounded in the person who is deceased, i.e. in the recognition of how important and special they were? It feels grubby to view my sister’s death as an opportunity for self-knowledge. It’s like something a self-help guru would say. I’m also not entirely convinced that there is such a thing as ‘self-knowledge’, i.e. that there is a ‘self’ about whom we can make epistemic discoveries. I carry a lot of philosophical baggage here, and I’m not going to unpack it all, but I tend to think of the self as something that is largely constructed. So I would probably like to reformulate Cholbi’s argument and say that grief provides an opportunity for significant self-reconstruction. That probably wouldn’t change much about the argument as whole; it would be more a difference of metaphysical emphasis. That said, there is one other problem I have with the argument. Cholbi is clear in the article that he is not claiming that grief is necessarily good. He thinks it can be destructive in some cases and may fail to result in self-knowledge. That sounds right but seems like a significant admission. One of the objections to the typical ‘greater good’ theory is that it makes the lesser pain an unwelcome side effect of the greater good — something that it would be better to avoid if at all possible. Is there not a danger that the same is true in the case of the relationship between grief and self-knowledge? Surely there are other opportunities for self-knowledge, and if grief isn’t always a reliable pathway to self-knowledge, perhaps we would be better off avoiding it?
3. Olberding on Grief and the Value of Life
I want to turn now to another argument in defence of the goodness of grief. This argument comes from Amy Olberding’s article ‘Sorrow and the Sage: Grief in the Zhuangzi’. As you might surmise from the title, Olberding’s article is largely interpretive in nature, focusing on the key text from the philosophy of Daoism. It tries to come up with the best interpretation of the behaviour of the sage ‘Zhuangzi’ who is the central character in the text called the Zhuangzi (and the name that Olberding uses although she is aware that the text is probably not the work of one author), and who, like Seneca, seems to counsel against grief at times and yet experiences grief at the death of his wife.
I’m not going to follow Olberding down her particular hermeneutical rabbit-hole. I’m just going to focus on what I take to be the core argument she presents in the paper. Her thesis is that Zhuangzi’s grief at his wife’s death is more consistent with his philosophy of ‘robust joy’ and human flourishing, than is the behaviour evinced elsewhere in the text suggesting that grief is to be avoided. To set this up, she contrasts Zhuangzi’s experience of grief with the lives of other sages described in the text of the Zhuangzi. These other sages seemed to ‘laugh and play’ in the face of death:
Death appears to them not as a horror or tragedy but as an embarkation point from which additional transformations become possible…They find joy in shared accord with what nature provides. Notably, in this accord, grief has no place. Indeed, it features as an impediment to the free exercise and pleasure of shared understanding.
I’ll discuss what is meant by the ‘accord with nature’ in a later post. For now, I want to focus on Olberding’s claim that there is something deficient in this approach to life and death. She makes her case in an interesting way. She first looks at arguments that philosophers have offered against the desirability of immortality. There are several such arguments, but the most famous probably come from Bernard Williams and Martha Nussbaum (although, strictly speaking, Nussbaum doesn’t say that immortality is undesirable; just that it comes at a cost). I’ve covered these arguments in detail before so I’ll limit myself to a brief summary here.
Williams argued that immortality would be tedious. He said that part of what makes life good is that we have certain ‘categorical desires’ (projects, ambitions etc) that we try to satisfy. These desires are integral to who we are. If we lived forever, we would run out of categorical desires or have to constantly find new ones. We would lose all sense of who we are and become fed-up with the repetitive nature of life. Nussbaum makes some similar observations. She claims that much of the value attached to our activities comes from the fact that we have limited options and limited time. There is, consequently, great normative weight attached to our choices: it is important to choose wisely and cherish the friendships and attachments that we have. Finitude is, as she puts it, ‘a constitutive factor in all valuable things’. If we had infinite time, nothing would really matter. We could constantly revisit and correct our past mistakes.
Olberding runs with this idea. If we lived as immortals, we would have a remarkably frozen emotional life. Nothing would perturb us, but neither would it entertain, uplift or overjoy us. There would just be an endless sequence of, more or less neutral, events. Although they are not immortal, Olberding criticises the sages from the Zhuangzi for having a similar attitude to life. They have lost the ability to truly engage with the highs and lows of lived experience. The suggestion then is that it is better if we don’t develop this emotionally frozen attitude, if we have hopes and aspirations for the future, and if we become attached to and engaged with the people around us. If we do this we will appreciate the pleasures that are alien to the sages, but also, naturally, experience grief at the departure of a loved one.
Is this a strong argument? To answer that I think we need to make a distinction. It is clear from their depiction in the text that the four sages that Olberding criticises are not completely apathetic characters. They have some ability to enjoy the world: they laugh and joke in the face of death, after all. They have only lost the ability to experience some of the good things. To explain, I’m going to distinguish between two kinds of pleasures in life:
Ludic pleasures: These are pleasures that arise from in-the-moment game-like enjoyment of the world. They are often ‘repetitive’ in nature (i.e. can be enjoyed over and over again) and disconnected from some larger mission or purpose. They are also ‘light’ and ‘frivolous’, not requiring deep engagement or attachment to what one is doing, and accompanied by a degree of flexibility and adaptiveness. Examples could include joke-telling, singing, eating and, of course, playing games.
Achievement/attachment pleasures: These are pleasures that arise from the achievement of some goal or purpose, or from some deep attachment to objects or persons in the world. They are often ‘once offs’ and require patience, endurance and skill. Examples could include writing a book, building a business, and raising a family.
The way I see it, Olberding is arguing that if we adopt the attitude of the sages, we will be cut off from the achievement/attachment pleasures, but not necessarily from the ludic pleasures. The implication then is that: (a) a life without achievement/attachment pleasures would be somehow impoverished and (b) that such a life also brings with it, of necessity, the capacity to feel grief. We can distill this reasoning into the following:
- (4) The capacity to experience achievement/attachment pleasures makes for a better life.
- (5) If we are to have the capacity to experience achievement/attachment pleasures we must also, by necessity, have the capacity to experience grief.
- (6) Therefore, if we are to live a better life, we must have the capacity to experience grief.
I think this argument can be challenged. For one thing, it is not obvious to me that a life of achievement/attachment pleasures is necessarily better than one of merely ludic pleasures. There would seem to be two problems with that claim. First, on what basis do we assign more weight to achievement/attachment pleasures? Why do we think they are more important? Second, if achievement/attachment pleasures necessarily have a dark side (frustration, failure, loss etc.) it is possible that someone’s life could be filled with more of the dark side than the light. They might, consequently, be much better off if their life was filled with merely ludic pleasures.
Another problem with this argument is that it is not obvious to me why we must have the capacity to experience grief in order to enjoy achievement/attachment pleasures. I understand the reasoning, but I’m not sure that the capacity for grief itself is physically/logically necessary for such enjoyment. Furthermore, I have a suspicion that there are similar emotional states/processes that could substitute for grief in this context. Celebrating and enjoying memories of the deceased, for example, could show just as much recognition of their importance to your life as would endlessly crying over their absence.
Finally, as Olberding herself acknowledges, the argument does not entail a strong endorsement of grief. It does not suggest that we should marinate in grief for months on end. It merely says that some capacity to experience grief, however brief the experience may be, is important. Indeed, Zhuangzi’s own experience of grief was short-lived, suggesting that if we are to follow his lead we won’t be using grief as a major tool in some journey of self-discovery.
I have come to the end of this post. I am not sure that I have reached any firm conclusions. I think there is something in what Cholbi and Olberding argue: that the experience of grief has some value, provided it is not pushed to extremes, particularly in the recognition of the importance of the deceased in one’s lifeworld. At the same time, I think there are weak points in their arguments. Perhaps my own prejudices and predilections are affecting my interpretation of what they have to say. I’m not a strong believer in the power of emotions; I’m much more naturally inclined to the Stoic point of view outlined earlier in this post. I will examine that view in the next post.