Saintly Thoughts

Reflections Concerning Loss

People decry pain and desire pleasure.  This is a truism as old as humanity, but it is really only in the last 200 years or so that such a truism has been vaulted to become the founding feature of an influential branch of philosophy--for while the Epicureans may have espoused such a principal, their influence was never that widespread and their practice was far closer to that of the ancient Stoics than to the modern hedonists.  Do not misunderstand me, correctly understood perhaps there is no necessity that a consequentialist philosophy need descend into individualistic hedonism, but in a (first) world which appears to believe itself to have transcended the ancient bounds of scarcity, the pursuit of pleasure has become a paramount occupation.  In equal measure the avoidance of pain is such a pursuit's logical corollary.

What does this then have to do with loss?  I mention this because the human person experiences a loss as a sort of acute pain, and the more profound the loss, the deeper the pain.  We are programmed to avoid pain, for to feel pain is an expression of something that causes us harm--at least this is the evolutionary response of our primitive animal brain.  I do not wish to dispute the accrued wisdom of evolutionary process, but I do wish to suggest that the animal response to pain may omit rather profound subtleties.  

For regardless of what we might do, we cannot insulate ourselves from loss and remain truly human.  For even if we decry all material possessions, shun all close relationships, deprive ourselves of love, ignore all strong convictions, or rather embrace all these things but casually so as to use them only so long as we can see their immediate emotional and material profit, still we shall be faced with that final and awful loss, the loss of autonomy and finally of life presaging our own demise.  I suppose the only consolation for such an approach is the the pain of our loss of self will not, in the end, be felt by us--but what a high price to pay for such a puerile benefit!  The avoidance of pain will likely cost us less and be more assured in the moment than will the pursuit of pleasure, and yet not only will our goal forever remain elusive but will strip us of that most human of qualities--the human capacity to abide together in our pain.  While there is certainly truth in the assertion that the "higher" animals (to speak in the delightfully antiquated vernacular of 19th century biology) are not bereft of some sympathy, the human capacity to experience emotional pain and for this pain to be shared with others is something that indelibly marks the human experience of what it is to exist in community with one another.  That is, it is part of what makes us uniquely human.

The greatest of all inevitable emotional pains then is the pain we feel when we lose someone that we love, and the greatest of such love lost is the finality of the loss in death.  The sharp pain of such a loss is so great it has driven some sensitive soul's mad and driven others to despair.  And yet, while the terror and agony of such pain is great, and the penalty for inadequately tending to such pain is equally fraught, it is yet something that is appropriately human, reflective of the very essence of being.  And the power of this reflection yet expounds upon and magnifies a human approach to living that would be well incorporated into other aspects of our lived experience.  That is that the truly human course is not to seek only the extreme of great pleasure and to avoid the agony of deep pain, but rather to steer a middle course, letting that appropriate pain come and wash over us as a river while yet not allowing ourselves to be carried off into the extremes of its torrents.

Only by standing thus and hewing to this middle course, hard as it may be buffeted as we are by these torrents of emotion and pain, will we experience what it is to be fully human.  And we will find that the more who stand with us, locked arm in arm against the gathering squall, the more likely we are to face the awful grandeur of such a moment without the existential fear of those waters carrying us finally into the depths of the abyss.  So let us be as human beings and stand and face that pain of loss which is natural to our condition, and even if the pain is not ours but another's, let us not flee from them but share in their misery, that when our time of suffering comes we might not stand alone.