Three responses to mourning in the philosophy of Kierkegaard, H …
(MENAFN- SomTribune) How we deal with grief depends in large part on our worldview. Here’s how three famous philosophers handled the certainty of grief and despair.
Each of us will experience something in life that will transform who we are. A human life is a life of adventure and temperament. Many people today tend to use the language of “formative experiences”, but the idea of ââsome awakening or initiation is as central to the human condition as sleeping or falling in love. Those who study the stories and myths we tell point out that they often share remarkable similarities. For example, they involve a separation from home, a character test, and then a return home with new wisdom or strength.
One of those transformative trials occurs when we lose someone we truly and deeply love. Those who have experienced grief understand life better. When we suffer the loss of someone we love, we know what it means to be left alone and behind. Intellectually, we know that all things must die. We can rationally appreciate the transience of life, the collapse of biology, and the entropy in the universe. But knowing death, feeling and enduring loss, gives someone an understanding that no poem, movie, or book could convey.
Many philosophers have explored the idea of ââmourning and death, and for many it is the most important thing to be alive.
For many people, like the young or the lucky, there is no need to deal with mortality. They can go through their days without thinking for a moment about the big questions about eternity. It will not occur to them to think about their own death or that of those around them. They will probably never think that the people they have in their life will someday be gone forever.
They never appreciate that there comes a time when we each have our last meal, laughing and breathing. That there will be one last hug with someone you love, and no more.
Of course, they know it in a distant part of their comprehension, but they don’t feel it. It is intellectually “objective” but lacks emotional subjectivity. They miss the deepening that occurs for those who have held the hand of a dying relative, cried at a sibling’s funeral, or sat looking at photos of a now missing friend. For those who do not know mourning, it is as if it comes from outside. In reality, the desperation of true grief is something that comes from within. It hurts and pulsates inside your very being.
The source of despair
For a question as universal, sensitive and poignant as mourning, there is no philosophical position. For much of history, philosophers were also generally religious, and so the problem was with priests, scriptures, or meditation.
The pre-Christian scholars of ancient Greece and Rome are perhaps an exception. But even there the philosophers came to simmer in a cauldron of religious assumptions. It has become fashionable today to read old references to “the soul”, for example, as poetic or psychological metaphors. Yet, with the possible exception of the Epicureans, the ancient world had far more religion than our modern and secular sensibilities could prefer.
For SÃ¸ren Kierkegaard, that visceral sense of mortality that we feel after experiencing grief, he called it âdespairâ. And in the long night of despair, we can begin the journey to realizing our true selves. When we see first-hand that the things of life are not eternal and nothing is eternal, we appreciate how passionately we yearn for things to be eternal. The source of our despair is that we want this “forever”. For Kierkegaard, the only way to overcome despair, to alleviate this condition, is to surrender. There is an eternal in which to get lost. There is faith, and sorrow is the dark, marble door of belief.
The philosophy of mourning
After the Enlightenment and the rise of an atheistic philosophy, thinkers began to see death in a new way. Seeing death only as a gateway to religion no longer worked.
The ancient Greek Epicureans and many Eastern philosophers (though not necessarily all of them) believed that this powerful sense of grief can be overcome by suppressing our mistaken desire for immortality. The Stoics, too, subscribed to the idea that we hurt precisely because we mistakenly believe that things are ours forever. With a mental shift, or after a great deal of meditation, we can come to accept this for the false pride that it is.
German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger argued that the presence of death in our lives gives new meaning to our freedom to choose. When we appreciate that our decisions are all we have, and that our whole life is punctuated by a final coup de grace, this energizes our action and gives us “daring”. As he wrote, âBeing present is based on turning to [death]. “It’s a theme that echoes the medieval idea of ââmemento mori, of keeping death near to make the present moment sweeter. When we lose a loved one, we recognize that we are well and truly left behind, which in turn gives a new seriousness to our choices.
For Albert Camus, however, things are a little darker. Even though Camus’ works were a deliberate and relentless effort to resolve the apathetic abyss of nihilism, his solution of “absurdity” is no easy medicine. For Camus, mourning is a state of being overcome by the uselessness of it all. Why love, if love ends in such pain? Why build big projects when everything is dust? With grief comes an awareness of the bitter end of everything, and it comes with angry and screaming frustration: Why are we here at all? Camus’s suggestion is sort of macabre revelry – gallows humor perhaps – that says we should enjoy the ride for the insignificant roller coaster that it is. We must imagine ourselves happy.
Three responses to grief
Here we have three different responses to grief. We have the religious turn of Kierkegaard, the existential carpe diem of Heidegger, and the laughter until you die of Camus.
For many, grieving involves a separation from life. It can be like the wintering of the soul, where we have to heal and restore meaning to existence. It is a kind of chrysalis. In many cases, we come back to life with learned wisdom and can appreciate the everyday world in a completely transformed way. For some, this hibernation lasts a very long time, and many are starting to see their cold retreat as all there is.
These are the people who will need the help. Whether we agree with Kierkegaard, Heidegger or Camus, one thing is true for all and for all: talking about help. Expressing our thoughts, sharing our desperation, and turning to someone else is the soft warm breeze that sets off the thaw.
By Jonny Thomson
Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy at Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.
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