Good Grief, Charlie Brown

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Recently, I asked readers for some topics they'd like to see me blog on. I got lots of suggestions. I've written on two of them already. Today, I'll tackle a tough one, and briefly: Grief.

Grief is an experience and expression of great value lost. We can grieve the passing of a family member, a friend, a pet, or our youth. We can grieve the loss of a job, or a marriage, or the demise of a great business.

Grief, like most emotions, can be rational or irrational. It would make no sense to grieve the loss of a potato chip. And there are probably philosophical conditions for sensible grief. It makes sense for me to grieve the loss of people and animals I've known, in a way that it might not, regarding people and animals whose passing I rationally know must be happening around the world, but with whom I've never had contact. In one of his early movies, Woody Allen's character says something like, "If one guy is starving somewhere in the world, it puts a crimp in my day." And I get that. I feel a keen regret about the suffering and loss around the world that happens every day - at least, when I have the time to think about it. But my experience of that is not quite the same thing as grief.

Grief is personal. And it can be good. If a person or relationship or endeavor or hope has indeed been of great value, and of great value to you, it would make no sense to experience its loss without such an emotional recognition of its value. The stoic philosophers wanted to avoid any disturbing emotion, but, as I've pointed out in my book The Stoic Art of Living, in a discussion of Epictetus, they went too far. Epictetus even went so far as to think that on hearing of the death of your son or spouse, you should react exactly as you would if you had heard instead that someone else's son or spouse had died. And that makes no sense at all. It would signal a pathology, or emotional void that isn't properly human.

But what Aristotle said about anger is also appropriate concerning grief. In order to evaluate its experience in our lives, he urged us to ask questions like: For whom? On account of what? How intense? And for how long? As a philosopher I believe that things and people can have objective value. And I think they can also have subjective value, which constitutes the manner and degree with which we place value on them. Part of rational living is to acknowledge anything that has objective value with a subjective response proportionate to it. Of course, we can value personal possessions, or a tree in the backyard, with our own special subjectivity, tracking the history we have with such things, and our subjective response can in such cases go far beyond any question of objective value, but when there is high objective value, or an appropriately elevated subjective value, grief is an altogether appropriate response to loss.

But grief must have limits, in order to be good - limits of both intensity and duration. In order to honor the high value of something or someone who has been lost, we don't have to inflict on ourselves the other great losses that would result from being totally overwhelmed and shut down for a long period of time by overly intense or prolonged grief. We have a responsibility to ourselves and those who remain around us to be as strong as we can, and make efforts to stay on the path that life has provided us, remembering that, despite any loss, there are many gains and even joys that can await us, and be brought to others by us, if we can regain our equilibrium.

No one promised us that life would be easy and without loss. In fact, as great philosophers have understood, we need difficulty and loss to refine us and goad us to grow into the full maturity that life can afford us.

To know good grief is to know a part of that growth.