A philosopher of mind,
It doesn’t matter who,
But it was Daniel Dennett,
Made a point of describing
To prove that animals might
React physically to pain
Without being conscious of it.
He illustrated this with the case of
Children who dissociate during
Sexual assaults. *
In a seminar, another prominent male
Philosopher turned to another and said,
“I dreamed I raped and murdered your wife.
Do I owe you an apology?”
A female philosopher left the room.
Thought experiments are expected to
Be free and provocative,
But haven’t we experimented enough
With thoughts of violence against
Women and girls to know where they lead?
*(Dennett said the child thinks, “’I’ am not undergoing this pain, “she” is.”)
Day 8 of NaPoWriMo asks us to write poetry using the jargon of our professions (or someone else’s profession). As a philosophy instructor, my only learning objective was to destroy the smug and self-satisfied confidence my students had in their own knowledge. Petty of me, I know.
Your destruction is both Achievable and measurable
Because I’ve developed my
Learning objectives with care.
Eliot showed you fear
In a handful of dust,
But I will sow panic and
Confusion with only a question.
I will dash your gods
Against the rocks.
I will make you doubt
Your very existence.
Darkness will envelop you.
Your sure footing will erode
Into blind, directionless
Stumbling in a cavernous abyss
As your world dissolves in disillusion.
Eons of random events brought
Us to this moment and this
Particular arrangement of cosmic
Dust and energy, but only now
You realize you’ve lost your way.
I am the dark demon raising the spectre
Of wasted life, of a mind unmoored.
Your breakdown is the final
Documented learning objective.
Your own failed attempt at a
Meaningful life is the ultimate
Yielding data for the ravenous
Sisyphean minions to chew
And regurgitate for eternity.
They say the pain is all in your head, but where else could it be? I mean, some people do complain of pain in their hands or elbows or knees or whatever, but really the experience of the pain is in their heads as a matter of perception. That’s why some people can claim to have pains in hands or legs that don’t exist. Or exist separated from the rest of the body. The pain is in the head, or really the mind, which is probably in the head.
At least we think of our thoughts as being in our heads. When someone does something crazy, we say, “What got into your head?” or something like that. And our thoughts really do seem to be in our heads, except when they are thoughts of the pain that is in our feet after a long day of standing—or maybe the pain of anxiety.
Or the head might not have that much to do with it. Maybe thoughts and pains are in the mind, but the mind is nowhere near the head. Stranger things have happened. I mean, no one doing brain surgery ever found a mind sitting in a skull. You just find brains and stuff in there. And fancy brain scans give colorful and delightful images of brain activity, but not too much info on where the mind is. Pretty interesting things brains are, maybe interesting enough to make minds, but who knows? Honestly, the question never crossed my mind before (this is an obvious lie).
As a young philosophy student, a professor asked if I thought the mind was in the brain. I answered affirmatively. He asked why I thought that, because that is what philosophy professors do. I’m embarrassed to say I answered in a way that seems typical of young men—with a violent example. I said that if you smashed someone’s skull with a steel bat you would witness significant degradation to that person’s state of mind.
Without relying on violent examples, you have to admit that it is often hard to see a mind capable of pure reason in a person whose brain is seriously damaged. Brains really seem important to this discussion, you know? So perhaps all pain is in the head because all pain is in the brain, but what of my arthritic hands? Surely something in my hands is related to the pain in my brain (or my mind for the people still holding out hope for that).
When someone says the pain is all in your head they mean it is in your head and does not correspond to any injury outside of your head (you know, like a stubbed toe or something). The pain is in your brain and nowhere else. Some doctors, of course, will think this fact is enough to justify denying your pain all together and, more importantly, denying you any treatment for your pain. Because of that, your pain gets no sympathy, no consideration, no attention, or anything.
And that creates a pain in your heart, and by that I mean an emotional pain. We say emotional pain is in the heart, partly because our chests often hurt when we feel emotional pain, but I think emotional pain is also in the brain or the mind, wherever it is. Pharmaceutical companies seem to agree; antidepressants aren’t heart medications, are they?
No matter where the pain is, it is most definitely real, even if we can’t be sure the mind is real. You know the pain is real because it is hurting you, and you can’t be wrong about whether you are hurting. Show me where the pain is in your body.
Impossible. The pain just is. The pain is part of the universal pain. The pain is in stardust. The pain is free-floating. The pain is in the neurons. The pain is in the gluons. You are hurting. I share your pain. We are real. Suffering is infinite, and it is all in the mind.
I was recently invited to think about answering two questions: 1. What is philosophy? 2. How is philosophy done? Teaching first-year community college students for 17 years gave me ready answers, of course. Philosophy is a love of wisdom inspired by a sense of wonder about the world. Philosophy is an activity, not a study. It is a way of engaging with the world critically, not accepting things simply as they appear to be, and it is expanding the imagination to ask broader and deeper questions about reality.
These answers aren’t too bad for first-year students hearing of philosophy for the first time, but they seem fairly shallow for older adults who have already lived examined lives and have also read the works of some of history’s most famous philosophers. A second approach might be to think of the work of professional philosophers working the field at the moment, some engaging in work so arcane and distant from everyday life that I wouldn’t even begin to know how to describe them.
Still, we do have public intellectuals who engage with social issues and try to help us navigate how to live just and meaningful lives. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Martha Nussbaum come to mind. Another group of philosophers are trying to answer basic questions about both consciousness and morality through experimentation—Joshua Green, for example. And some philosophers are doing their best to use an expansive and critical approach to science of the mind to develop a coherent philosophy of mind to explain what it means to be conscious at all (Patricia Churchland, for example).
But none of this answers either of the questions that sent me down this path. Most first-year philosophy students in the United States learn that Socrates is considered the father of philosophy—despite the fact that philosophers certainly existed before him. Nonetheless, Socrates is credited with establishing the foundations of philosophy by developing the practice of refutation. In this method, possible conjectures about the truth are offered, though not by Socrates, and then examined for possible flaws. Socrates, it would seem, was good at finding the flaws and refuting the conjectures of others, which made him quite unpopular in some circles.
It is worth noting that coming up with those conjectures in the first place might be an important function of philosophy, but refutation became cemented in our minds as a sort of negative function of philosophy. It doesn’t really give us answers to what our own existence is, but does tell us what it is not. The process of refutation invites a competition that can be demoralising to the person whose theories are being refuted. Some female philosophers have opined that this negative approach to philosophy is exactly the thing men would come up with. Women, they say, would use more collaborative approaches, which may be true—at least for some women. Many female philosophers have shown both the willingness and capability to engage in refutation with fervour. Christine de Pisan was refuting hither and yon in the 14th century.
Regardless of the importance of refutation, philosophy does seem to involve an ongoing conversation. Though philosophers often claim to lock themselves into a state of solitude (just look at Descartes for example), they rely just as much on interaction with other philosophers (see Descartes’ objections and replies). So, the proper method of philosophy must involve engagement, whether collaborative and constructive or competitive and destructive. So, philosophy is a kind of conversation with testing, challenging, and, one hopes, some degree of support—and maybe a little experimentation with fMRI’s and things of that nature.
And to what end do philosophers engage in this conversation? Is it to generate questions, generate answers, or to live a good life. Socrates must have believed that the practice of philosophy would help develop a good life, or he would not have declared so forcefully that the unexamined life is not worth living. Of course, not everyone agrees that the examined life is worth living, either, but maybe that is the kind of question philosophy can help answer.
Bertrand Russell offered a pretty convincing argument that philosophical questions can’t be answered because the ones that can be answered are scientific questions. From time to time technology and scientific experimentation move some questions from the realm of philosophy to the realm of science. In such cases, philosophers might offer a hand in interpreting the answers to such questions, which doesn’t seem like the grandest aspiration for philosophy—helping to interpret scientific findings.
I also don’t know that generating questions should be the ultimate goal of philosophy, either, but it is one I enjoy. I always used to promise my students that while other subjects would answer their questions about the given subject, philosophy would make them question the answers they already had and open up a slew of new questions. I once had a student challenge me and say that he was pretty sure everyone in the class knew what a human was and he couldn’t believe anyone would waste time asking about it. After asking a few questions about at what stage in mental deterioration one loses the rights they had as a functioning human, he agreed that the question did have important implications and could be difficult to answer. As promised, I failed to give him any clear answers to the question of what a human is, but I did give him more questions than he had expected.
I do think my life is better for the time I’ve spent engaging with philosophy and philosophers. If nothing else, philosophy has made me less sure of myself, and I think the world would be better if more people were less sure of themselves. Unfortunately, telling people they don’t know the answers to questions that pop up in everyday life is not always met with gratitude or praise. Socrates would agree.
Imagine you and a friend go to see a documentary (or even fictional film) about the plight of victims of famine, war, disease, or oppression, and you bawl uncontrollably throughout the film as your friend sits next to you unmoved and indifferent to everything happening on the screen. You think anyone who isn’t moved by the extreme suffering you’ve just seen must be some kind of monster (or a sociopath at the least). You feel, in short, that crying is more moral than just sitting there.
You will admit, of course, that your crying through the movie didn’t help the victims any and your friend’s indifference didn’t really hurt anyone. Still, it seems that a moral person should have feelings for those who are suffering, even if you can’t find any real benefit for these strong feelings for strangers who get no benefit from your tears, heartfelt as they are.
In fact, your friend might point out that you are getting all worked up for no reason, and it might be better to keep your emotions in check. Your wailing for these strangers won’t change anything for them, but it might impair your ability to attend to problems you can change. What good are you to your children, for example, if your mind is on the poor souls in some far corner of the world? You should get your head together, friend, and get on with the business of life.
But, you counter, if you learn to be indifferent and unmoved by the pain of strangers, you may become indifferent to the pain of others, including friends and, yes, your own children. You don’t want to become the kind of monster you now suspect your friend of being. You want to be the kind of person who is moved by the suffering of others. You may not be able to help in every situation, but you do not want to become callous and cold. You want to be a caring individual. It isn’t about what you can do but about what you are.
And now your friend points out that not only did you cry during the movie, but you seemed, in some sense, to enjoy it. In fact, you apparently went to the movie with the prior intention of being moved to tears. You chose the movie because it was described as “moving” and “emotionally riveting.” Will you be happy when your children fall ill because it will satisfy your need to “let it all out”? Perhaps you are the monster, after all?
You didn’t enjoy the pain, you object, but you enjoyed the high quality of the film and its ability to elicit the pain. It was beautiful in its ability to enlarge compassion and trigger a caring response. The film will help, if nothing else, audiences develop a greater sense of concern for others, even if it doesn’t affect everyone (with a sly and disapproving nod to your friend).
And your friend now points out that people had to suffer in order to expand compassion and develop a greater caring response, so the suffering of others is used as a means to your own ends. You are actually acting selfishly after all, and the film makers are also exploiting the suffering of these people in order to teach a moral lesson and even to make a profit and perhaps sit in the spotlight after receiving coveted awards. You can just imagine the director’s teary expressions of gratitude and exhortations for a more acts of compassion at the ceremony.
In 2012, comedian Anthony Griffith told the story of his daughter’s cancer in a moving performance for The Moth. The video quickly went viral. You can see the video here:
The video on YouTube now has more than 1.8 million views. It is almost impossible to watch the video without sobbing, and people shared it by promising that anyone watching should have some tissues on hand. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, we enjoy experiencing his grief with him. It might be objected that we are emotional voyeurs watching a sort of grief porn. By watching, we are not helping his daughter, we are not preventing future cancer deaths, we are not improving medical care, and it isn’t clear how we might be improving ourselves.
Paradoxically, we simultaneously want to avoid our own pain but glom onto the pain of others. Watching the story enables us to experience the pain without having to actually experience the loss of child. Doing this while watching a fictional account of loss seems justifiable in many ways, but to seek out a chance to cry and experience this kind of pseudo-grief that is provided by the actual grief of another person certainly raises an ethical concern.
We might say that Anthony Griffith needed to talk about his loss, and we are providing him with an audience. We are doing him a great favor by listening. We are honoring his loss. And he may agree with us. In this case, he is using us to help him along his healing journey, but this doesn’t seem to be what is going on. We want to see and hear his story. We want to be part of his grief story without having to do any heavy lifting ourselves. We watch the video, feel emotional excitement, hug our loved ones because one never knows when they will be gone, and then we are done with it.
We might say that we want to hear the story because it is well written and well performed. Griffith is extremely talented as a story teller, and we appreciate his talent and courage to share such a personal story. When we watch the video, we are paying tribute to his writing and his acting. The only problem is that he really doesn’t seem to be acting. He has merely put his pain on view for the world. He is certainly talented, and the story is well-written, but most people will be moved by anyone’s story of a lost child. It is relatively easy to evoke strong emotions with a story of intense pain and grief.
It may be that we want to hear his story so we can prepare ourselves for the times our story might be the main event. Someday we will have to do the heavy lifting. If we can live through Griffith’s pain, maybe we can face our own. By experiencing Griffith’s grief, we see that we can also face it and live through it just as he has done. We finish the video feeling somehow more prepared.
Or we may be drawn to the stories of others because it provides an evolutionary advantage. By hearing stories of others, we develop compassion and care. Other than providing an audience, we may not be helping Griffith directly, but we may be better able to empathize with others in the future. We are preparing not only for how to face our own struggles but to help others through theirs. If this is true, then we are actually doing something noble and beneficial by watching such videos.
Or, maybe we are just seeking the thrill of an emotional roller coaster ride.
Comments are welcome below. I appreciate corrections to typos and so forth (firstname.lastname@example.org).
On November 28, 2014, the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) posted an announcement that it would no longer publish papers from authors with financial ties to industry with the aim of eliminating harmful bias from published articles. I’ve since talked to some researchers who quickly pointed out that everyone has biases, so eliminating financial conflicts of interest will not result in objective research free from fraud or manipulation, and I agree with them on that point. [Note, a response from Fiona Godlee clarifies this policy: “The policy applies only to editorials and clinical education articles designed to guide patient care and does not extend to other types of article published in The BMJ.” updated 1/14/15.]
As far as I know, Gregor Mendel had no financial conflicts of interest, but his data proved his theory of genetics perfectly—too perfectly, almost everyone agrees, to be true (see a brief discussion here). Paradoxically, Mendel seems to have cleaned up his data in order to help promote his theory, which happened to be true, so he used untruth to promulgate truth. Other researchers have let their biases affect them more nefariously, letting sexism and racism cloud their ability to form accurate or even coherent theories of health, intelligence, or moral agency.
But the goal of science has always been for an objective pursuit of truth free from emotional bias. Philosopher Alison M. Jaggar made a compelling argument that no scientific inquiry is value free or separate from emotion. She argues, on the contrary, that emotion is a necessary part of any pursuit of knowledge. “Disinterested inquiry,” she says, “Is an impossible dream.” (See “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology.”) A scientific researcher with no bias and no values is both impossible and undesirable, I agree, but it is one thing to have a socially constructed bias and another to have a financially constructed bias. Being paid to have a bias raises a whole new set of problems.
I don’t mean to suggest that pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies should be prohibited from hiring scientific researchers or even that those researchers should be prohibited from publishing in scientific journals. They should, of course, have adequate oversight to detect and prevent fraud, but I’m sure many great products in medicine and elsewhere have resulted from an unbridled pursuit of profit.
The problem is that we don’t have enough independent researchers to ensure a robust search for solutions to human problems that may not lead to profit. Further, we don’t have enough independent researchers to prevent harm from flawed conclusions that may, in fact, generate a profit in spite of their flaws at great risk to public health.
We need publicly funded research centers or anonymously funded research centers where researchers can pursue knowledge that may or may not be convenient for corporations. These researchers would be freer to publish negative results of “promising” treatments. They would be freer to pursue treatments that may be effective but less profitable. As anyone familiar with this problem is aware, it is far more profitable to market maintenance treatments than treatments that will actually cure any given medical condition. Imagine if public funding were also used to manufacture inexpensive and effective cures rather than expensive and less effective treatments.
Of course, this is not the direction the United States (or the world, really) is heading. Rather, we have now entered the age of “venture philanthropy.” (Read Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones’ piece in the New York Times. ) Venture philanthropy enables foundations to use tax-exempt donations to invest in for-profit companies. Rather than using public funds to ensure research free from financial conflicts, venture philanthropy uses public funds to develop and market new products. As Hinkes-Jones puts it, “If the intent is to cure rare diseases, then we should be increasing the budget for the National Institutes of Health and other research initiatives. Instead of gala balls and donor drives, higher taxes on the same rich benefactors could be used to fund the research that isn’t already being supported.”
When the BMJ announced it would no longer publish pieces by authors with industry ties, one chilling line from the article leapt out at me: “In some fields—for example, obesity medicine, genetics, and rheumatology—we may find it difficult to recruit authors free of relevant financial links with industry. It might even prove impossible.” Somehow, we must find the will to make it possible for researchers to make a living and publish their findings without joining the payroll of for-profit corporations. I do not believe all researchers are motivated only by the opportunity to accumulate wealth. Jonas Salk passed the opportunity to amass great wealth with the polio vaccine. Others deserve the chance to do the same.
The following is an actual dream (nightmare) I had. As far as I know, it doesn’t mean anything. I have no idea why Peter Singer was in it, but I only wish him good health and safe travels.
I am crossing riotous waters on a suspended steel walking bridge composed of steel cables with metal planks bolted to them on either side. As I walk, a storm moves in quickly and pelts me with blinding rain that makes footing unsure. As my feet slip on the metal planks, the planks begin to come undone and slide off the cables. I am forced to cling to the cables and pull myself up onto the loading dock on the far side of the bridge.
As I take cover under an overhang on the dock, I see Peter Singer in a white cargo van on an elevated roadway or ramp of some kind. To my horror, he drives off the ramp and crashes nose first onto the concrete dock below. The van is badly mangled and I fear he is dead. I think to call 911 but realize my phone is in the van. Just then, he pops through the broken glass of the van like a jack-in-the-box and says, “Well, that was lucky!” in a comic fashion to the sound of laugh track laughter. Before I can feel any relief, he collapses and appears dead.
I walk to the nearest person (the dock seems crowded with rubberneckers now) and ask, “Did you call 911?” She says, “Well, HE won’t call!” [More laugh track.] Finally, I am overwhelmed and start to walk away. I hear a voice call after me, “I’m sorry. Did you know him?” [More laugh track.] I say, “No, but I’ve been reading his books for decades.” [Laugh track.]
The voice replies, “I know what you mean. It takes me a long time to get through a book, too.”
I’ve been reading many posts on scientism lately. Some have been from well-known academics and some have been from less known equally astute members of my social-networking circle. Some seem to equate scientism with atheism, some equate it with a reasoned approach to the world, and some equate it with pure evil, apparently.
I don’t know what definition is correct, but I view scientism as the belief that science is not only the best way to gain information about the world but also the best way to make meaning in the world. As a humanist, I reject scientism because I believe we can and should turn to philosophy, literature, religion, art, music and other forms of human introspection and expression to make meaning in our lives. This does not mean I reject the idea that science is the best way to learn facts (disputable as they may be) about the world.
In other words, I think climate scientists are the best qualified individuals to give information about whether the climate is changing and what is causing it. I don’t think I should challenge scientists because I don’t “feel” like they are correct. Opinions are not all equal. Informed opinions are of greater value than uninformed opinions any day.
Similarly, believing that religions can help us find our make meaning in our lives does not mean that scientific information regarding evolution is invalid. Science as an endeavor does not encroach upon religion. It is only when religious dogma makes scientific claims that conflict arises between the two discrete domains of knowledge. Some people in science may occasionally make a religious claim, citing their authority as a scientist, that runs in to conflict with religion and creates controversy as well, but I really think that most scientists simply do their best to report the best information they can glean from available evidence with the hope of improving life for all of humanity.
I’m not sure, but I suspect this has all come to head because of recent controversies over evolution and climate change. Folks on the left have accused those on the right of being “anti-science” because they reject the findings of scientists in these two areas. Many on the right took this as an attack on religion for some reason that I don’t understand, but there you have it. What would we call the view that religion is the only way to find information about the world? Religionism?
Anyway, in response to the left’s accusations of an anti-science bias on the right, some on the right have accused the left of being anti-science because they don’t like genetically-modified foods or vaccinations or something. Never mind that many who oppose GMOs and vaccinations are either conservatives or libertarians, it is true that some people on the left do not approach the world with scientific rigor.
And somehow this has all resulted in people tossing the word “scientism” around like a new hacky-sack. If someone says you are anti-science, you can just say that they are guilty of “scientism.” And, once someone throws that label at you, it is hard to shake it off. So, you either accept the label, ignore the situation completely, or fire back a volley of counter-attacks.
In Steven Pinker‘s response to such an attack, he embraced scientism in a positive sense by simply recounting all the successes of scientific reasoning. Of course, in response to an accusation of scientism, he basically says humanists should embrace scientism and accept that only scientists can save the humanities from extinction. He said, “A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding.” He then inadvertently points out the risk of doing so, saying, “In some disciplines, this consilience is a fait accompli. Archeology has grown from a branch of art history to a high-tech science.” In other words, we should all accept how the infusion of science can improve our disciplines by destroying them.
Pinker mentions that philosophy has benefited from collaborations with cognitive scientists, and interesting and productive work has certainly been done in philosophy around cognitive science, but western philosophers have been involved in scientific theory and method from the beginning. Early on, philosophers and scientists were essentially the same people, but even later philosophers sought both to influence scientific method and apply apply scientific method to philosophy. In the twentieth century, the drive to conduct philosophy with the rigor of science led it to a level of obscurity that almost destroyed any hope of philosophers reaching any kind of popular audience.
But how do philosophers reach beyond their small circle of professional philosophers to a more popular audience? Philosophers achieve this when they write on matters that intersect with the daily lives of non-philosophers. Appiah is an excellent example of someone who is able to engage the public on matters of moral concern to anyone who happens to be alive on this planet. As a public intellectual, he comments on how we think, how we converse, and how we interact with one another. This ability has taken him out of obscurity and into the public domain.
But the least obscure living philosopher in the world must be Peter Singer. Singer writes on issues that affect our daily lives (what we eat, what we do with our money, how we preserve life), and he creates great controversy in the process. Whether you think he is skilled as a philosopher or not, you cannot deny the scope of his reach. He is helping, as is Appiah, us to interpret and determine exactly what value we place on life and exactly what we consider a good life to be.
Neither Appiah nor Singer is anti-science, but both know that a philosopher’s skill lies in helping us examine what is meaningful and valuable to our personal lives. They seem also to realize that science is unable to interpret and analyze human values. No, it is the humanities that enable us to envision a meaningful and rewarding existence. Scientific advances make a constant re-examination and re-evaluation necessary, and the humanities help guide us down that path. The idea that the humanities have nothing to add to this journey toward meaning and value is what I call “scientism.” Scientists and humanists can both be guilty of scientism.
And scientists and humanists can both engage in a search for meaning that reaches beyond data.
This sounds harsh, but Epictetus also advises us not to beat ourselves up when we do give over to grief. He says, “Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.” Epictetus assures us that death is not to be feared, and our terror of it comes from within, but blaming ourselves for our feelings is also pointless.
Cicero expressed his gratitude for the comforting words laced with recrimination, but also acknowledged their ineffectiveness, saying, “For I think it a disgrace that I should not bear my loss as you – a man of such wisdom – think it should be borne. But at times I am taken by surprise and scarcely offer any resistance to my grief, because those consolations fail me.”
Cicero had also been writing consolations for himself, and he felt himself the inventor of this type of self-help. He said, “Why, I have done what no one has done before, tried to console myself by writing a book.” (This is quoted by Han Baltussen in the Nov. 2009 issue of Mortality in an essay titled, “A grief observed: Cicero on remembering Tullia.”) Unfortunately, Cicero’s Consolations have not survived the passage of time, so we can only infer what they may have said. In a letter to Titus Pomponius Atticus, Cicero remarked that he wrote in order to heal, but his writing also kept him out of public view, preserving the privacy of his grief and avoiding a vulgar display of emotion.
Cicero also took his turn in consoling others, Baltussen notes, “In the examples where Cicero aims at consoling others, we find a subtle approach, developing, as it were, a ‘philosophy of empathy,’ in which he consciously or unconsciously takes personal and political aspects into account. He shows great sensibility in narrowing or widening the emotional gap between him and the consolee.” Cicero noted that one task as consoler was to establish that he needed consolation himself, as he was grieving for his friend’s loss. I think this goes a little beyond mere empathy. Cicero actually feels his own sorrow upon hearing of the sorrow of a dear friend. He understands the friend’s pain because it is a magnified form of his own pain.
I personally feel that Cicero’s struggle with his grief highlights a social failure to deal with grief constructively. Can we not manage to express and process grief openly without fear of censure from friends and counselors? Since the time of Cicero, we have developed grief therapy, expressions of support for the bereaved, and paid lip service to the process of healing. Yet, we still criticize those who can’t “get it together” within a short time. Sadness is seen as weakness, especially for men, and we do not tolerate prolonged grieving. Cicero was lucky to have friends and the ability to spend time grieving and writing his consolations. Men with less power would have had no option but to keep working without respite.
As for me, I don’t know the best way to console others, but I’ve thought a little about what kinds of consolations have helped me in the past, and these are the things that I appreciate. First, recognize that my pain is of such a magnitude that it obscures the horizon, and I can’t see beyond it. Second, do acknowledge the enormous value of the life I have lost. Third, do remind me that the person I lost had life filled with wonder, love, accomplishments, and happiness. Fourth, remind me also that this person is in a state of peace with no more struggle, pain, or discontentment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, assure me that I am not alone in the world, my grief is justified, and that a future is possible.