How to Grieve for a Child: Al-Kindi’s Advice

While philosophers seem to thrive on conflict and would really have nothing to say at all without substantial disagreements, they are remarkably consistent on how to respond to death, dying, and loss. Most recently, I have turned to the work of Al-Kindi , who lived Al-kindifrom about 801 to 866 in Baghdad, for advice on how to respond to grief. Al-Kindi gives us the example of the mother of Alexander the Great.

As his death approached, Alexander wrote to his mother to prepare her for the loss of her child. As Al-Kindi tells it, Alexander said, “Do not be content with having the character of the petty mother of kings: order the construction of a magnificent city when you receive the news [of the death] of Alexander!” Everyone in Africa, Europe, and Asia should be invited to a great celebration of his life with one proviso, that anyone struck my similar misfortune should not come. After his death, his mother was mystified that no one obeyed and attended the funeral until someone pointed out to her that no one had ever escaped the type of misfortune she was experiencing and those with similar losses were told not to come.

Al-Kindi says Alexander’s mother exclaimed, “O, Alexander! How much your end resembles your beginning! You had wanted to console me in the perfect way for the misfortune of your death.” This story of consolation is similar to the Buddhist parable of Kisa-GotamiKisa Gotami who lost her young son and was advised by the Buddha to collect a mustard seed from every family that had not lost a close relative. Of course, she was unable to find any family that had not faced loss, so she realized her suffering was universal and took comfort in the teachings of Buddhism.

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, himself influenced by Buddhist texts, also points us to the suffering of others for comfort: “The most effective consolation in every misfortune and every affliction is to observe others who are more Schopenhauerunfortunate than we, and everyone can do this. But what does that say for the condition of the whole?” Indeed, the suffering of others may make us feel petty for our complaints, but it does little to relieve our pessimism about life. But maybe we just cling to life too tenaciously.

Al-Kindi tells us that all our possessions are only on loan to us and that “the Lender has the right to take back what He loaned and to do so by the hand of whomever he wants.” He says we should not see our loss as a sign of disgrace; rather, “the shame and disgrace for us is to feel sad whenever the loans are taken back.” He is speaking of possessions in this instance, not of children, but I’ve heard many people say that our children are only “on loan” from God, who can call them home at any moment. I personally have never found any comfort in this, and I wonder whether anyone has ever felt the brunt of loss softened by the thought of a merciful God calling in His loans.

No matter what happens, Al-Kindi tells us we should never be sad, as sadness is not necessary and “whatever is not necessary, the rational person should neither think about nor act on, especially if it is harmful or painful.” Many philosophers echo this sentiment. We should trust that God has created the world that is perfect according to God’s design; therefore, we should accept the vicissitudes of life with equanimity. This advice is almost universally dispensed and almost universally not followed for a simple reason: sadness is really an involuntary reaction to loss and pain.

Al-Kindi tells us the death is not an evil, because if there were no death, there would be no people. By extension, if what is thought to be the greatest evil, death, is not evil, then anything thought to be less evil than death is also not evil. As such, we have no evil to fear in our lives. From these assertions, Al-Kindi claims that we bring sorrow to ourselves of our own will. A rational person would not choose such a form of self-harm, so depression and mourning can be controlled through the proper exercise of reason.

Most ancient philosophers, and many contemporary ones, will tell us that letting our rational nature rule our emotional nature will ease our pain in the face of loss. Certainly, a rational examination of death, life, and loss helps us to make sense of our suffering, but it does not eliminate suffering. In fact, if you see grief as a moral failing, which many thinkers have said it is, I believe your suffering is compounded. Grief, hard enough to bear on its own, becomes a catalyst for an explosion of guilt and shame.

While it is important to examine the causes of our suffering and explore what meaning loss brings to our lives, denying the necessity of grief is as useless as denying the necessity of breathing. While I can accept that Al-Kindi’s description of death is accurate, it only helps me come to terms with the prospect of losing my own life. For each of us, our own death brings a promise of relief, but the death of our loved ones only brings relief when they are so burdened by suffering that we can no longer bear to see life oppressing them.

Death is still an evil, because it robs me of the people that make my life meaningful. It threatens to rob me of the people, indeed, who may make my life bearable. It is possible to imagine that death is not an evil, but, more importantly, we must recognize that love is certainly a good, and to lose those we love is an excellent reason to mourn. Mourn freely, I say, without guilt and without shame.

Why I Hate Valentine’s Day

Last year, I wrote a short essay on why I hate “Steak and BJ Day,” which is that it is built around sexist stereotypes and highlights relationships as transactions, consisting men giving gifts in exchange for red meat and sexual favors from women. Indeed, the idea of heartmanSteak and BJ Day (March 14) was to repay men for their generosity to women on Valentine’s Day. After being so kind to women with flowers, chocolate, and diamonds (or whatever), men deserved a day devoted to the kinds of things they like (ugh!).

Valentine’s Day is less crude and less obvious, but it still reinforces and exploits gender stereotypes. You might object that Valentine’s Day is a day for couples to express their love for one another equally, and I’m sure some see it that way, but men spend, and are expected to spend, far more money on Valentine’s Day than women. The implication is that men who buy lavish gifts will receive rewards of affection and sex. Satirist Andy Borowitz succinctly captured this relationship when he posted this:borowitz
I really object to the gender stereotypes that say women just want chocolate and flowers from men and will reward men with sex when they receive what they really want. I’ve heard of some mythological women who actually want sex for themselves, but men aren’t expected to hold their genitals for a ransom before providing sex.

I also have some suspicion that some men want more from women than a hot meal and a sexual favor, but women aren’t expected to show men affection and care just as a means to get in their pants.

Nonetheless, I do celebrate Valentine’s Day, and I think I always have. Perhaps I am just a victim of social programming, or maybe I’ve tried, with limited success, to create a holiday for a genuine and equal sharing of love, affection, and small gifts. I’m not sure whether it is possible to rise above the reductionistic stereotypes that infuse us from birth, but Valentine’s Day gives us a little more wiggle room than Steak and BJ Day. It is impossible to say the name of Steak and BJ Day without invoking crude masculine stereotypes. However, we can create our own Valentine’s Day, or at least pretend to, so let’s share equally, love equally, and make a better world.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Seeking God in Silence

Painter Fang Min has a series of paintings featuring Buddhist monks seeming happy enough despite an insect perched on or near their faces (you can see examples here and here). When I saw the exhibit in China, a small explanation accompanied the paintings. I Monks jdon’t remember it in detail, and I can’t seem to find it anywhere online, but the story was fairly straightforward. It was about a monk who left the hustle bustle of the city to see peace and tranquility in the country only to find that his meditations were still disturbed by the sounds of the country: farmers working, livestock making noises, and so on. He retreated further away, deep into the woods, but still found the sounds of nature disturbing. Eventually, he fled deep inside a cave to find absolute quiet—except for the sound of a single insect. Frustrated that he still was unable to secure tranquility, he sought out the Buddha for advice. The Buddha told him, of course, that he must seek tranquility inside himself, not demand it from the world around him.

This reminded me of my experiences with the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers). The meetings I attended were unprogrammed, which means Friends sit in silent reflection receptive to spiritual prompting. Some people refer to this as “silent worship” or a “silent meeting.” This isn’t really accurate, as Friends are expected to speak when moved to do so. Nonetheless, some people would remark on how wonderful some meetings were when they remained especially quiet. On other occasions, some attendees would complain of being distracted by the sounds of people speaking, children, animals, neighbors mowing lawns, airplanes passing overhead, and on and on.

I always thought that if I were to sit in silent reflection, it meant that I would not make any noise, not that I wouldn’t hear any. If I understand correctly, Quakers have the idea that God is in everything and everyone. For me, listening for God is just to listen to whatever happens to be in the universe. I never took it that God could distract me from God. The work is in the contemplation I am doing, not in finding silence.

The composer John Cage said that music never stops, only listening does. To help people listen, he composed a piece that was four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. During that piece, the audience listened to ambient sounds in the environment (or even the sounds of their own bodies). Cage said that anyone can do this at any time. It just takes an aesthetic attitude. He wasn’t trying to create four and a half minutes of silence. He was trying to create four and a half minutes of attention. Some people did not like being forced into a meditative state, but some people don’t like anything.

I suppose some of this depends on what one seeks when one seeks God. Spinoza described God as being infinite and eternal. God occupies every point in space and every moment in time. What then, is not God? Everything in the universe must be God, and God must be everything in the universe. To believe anything else is to limit God’s presence and power. I think this is why Einstein said he believed in the God of Spinoza.

Everything you hear today is the voice of God. Everything you see is the presence of God. Keep your eyes and ears open, please.