Some years ago a friend said to me, “Remember, everyone’s heart is broken.” A so-called “age of grief” didn’t set in yesterday, or with the pandemic. As Freud noted in Civilization and its Discontents, a fundamental disquiet or sadness is a function of civilization itself, because domestication is not a natural human condition. This seems to worsen as late-stage civilization goes on; probably why German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk called modernity “a leap into the monstrous.”
But this generalized trauma and loss pale in comparison, I would say, with specific personal loss, which is acute and particular. In his Mourning and Melancholia, Freud pondered the depth of personal bereavement. He wondered why “each single one of the memories and hopes” that is connected to the lost loved one “should be so extraordinarily painful.”
This past March, the American Psychiatric Association declared prolonged grief a mental health disorder. The implication would seem to be “just get over it.” A misguided and misinformed response to Rebecca Cadenhead’s Harvard Magazine query, “I have been wondering what I’m supposed to do with all my grief.”
In Megan Devine’s eloquent assessment, “the way we deal with grief in our culture is broken… We see it as something to overcome, something to fix, rather than something to tend or support,” she writes in her book It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand.
Michael Cholbi may be helpful, with his “There is Consolation in a Philosophical Approach to Grief,” published in Aeon, July 22, 2022. He discusses grief as a way to understand loss, asserting that “not experiencing grief at all [would be] worse than experiencing grief.” In this stricken world, Max Horkheimer wrote, we become “more innocent” through grief. We apprehend a reality deeper than the everyday realm of the commonplace, the symbolic.
In Earth Emotions, Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht sees the environmental crisis as an opportunity to foster new feelings in place of all-too-prevalent depression. Equally grounded is Darcia Narvaez’s short film Breaking the Cycle, which draws upon our thousands of generations living in face-to-face band societies, before domestication. She refers to our heritage of cooperative community, compared to today’s dominant outlook of competitive detachment. A transition is clearly needed, for ours is a time not only of post-traumatic stress disorder but of ongoing stress disorder. In the words of Ward Churchill, “We can’t achieve the healing until we stop the wounding.”
To me the silver lining, the grounds for hope, is that people are realizing that the system we live within — a global civilization — is broken. When we see how much is needed, each of us may wonder what we can do. But this awareness can be liberatory. Each one of us has a contribution to make. I see people coming together, seeking to find healing ways forward. We need to renew the face-to-face, and draw on Indigenous knowledge and life-ways, past and present. Events, gatherings, conversations, creative expressions emerge; an encouraging energy.