When he lost her he was reminded cruelly of metaphysics. Ontology. That a particular thing can have an absolute value. A paradox, surely, but one that shows itself in our lives. In our loves. In our griefs. Later he reflected: We love certain people absolutely. And we love numerous people this way. Mathematics would say: when we lose one we still have the others. So too does the advice of friends. So the grief should be partial. The logic of the soul, however, giver of value, says No. By a strict inner law the loss of one absolute renders the whole of life a place of loss. For a time. This is the logic of deep grief. He would learn it in his body as much as his mind.
In the aftermath: Sleep
At first he would wake suddenly in the night, heart racing. The knowledge ruptured his sleep, bringing him forcefully back to the empty world. For he carried the truth in his body before consciousness, and woke in emotional pain.
Over time, however, there was a shift. A gap appeared. At some point he began waking to the open space he used to know, where the world was neutral and instinctively good. This lasted a few seconds, before the wave of painful knowledge flooded again. In time, however, even the power of that wave lessened.
This change occurred because in time lost loves recede to take their natural, paradoxical place in life: as absolute values among other absolute values, embodied in finitude. This is what they were before the loss, and it is what they become again in time. Anything embodied in finitude will be lost, regardless of its value. Again, the cruelty of the nature of our being. And yet the site of the problem is also the location of a cure. As we continue to live after loss, we naturally return to an empirical world marked by absolute value, but myriad enough to contain constant newness and possibility, including in the domain of love.
The initial moment
Through the embodiment of grief in the experience of waking, a quick story has been told above about loss and recovery. But I have moved on, so to speak, too quickly. Let us take a step back and consider how, in the initial moment, the knowledge of loss is embodied. The moment that some terrible truth hits us.
It may come out of nowhere, or we may have anticipated it, or it may be a mixture: we knew, but denied that knowledge to ourselves, suffering what we considered “foolish anxieties.” The man of our example had physical tremors in the weeks leading up this moment. Regardless of that intuition, the moment itself of spoken truth, of witnessed truth, is a catapult. He was sent spinning through space. How does a person's body contain this explosion? How does our finite body hold, in that moment, a traumatic experience of the infinite: of an absolute loss, an absolute violation?
In that moment he could make no distinctions. He conflated the absolute with the finite. The paradox I return to repeatedly here. For in our being we are both, held always in tension. Tension is different to conflation, however, and the conflation is an actual impossibility, a confusion. The mistake is one we all make, and in such moments it causes our inner space to crack and fly apart. He heard an animal wail from elsewhere in the room, and then realised it was coming from him. He had broken in two. He needed to do something absolute, but what is an absolute action? There is no such thing, for only values can be absolute. He could not hold this truth in his body at that moment, coming to him as it did with such callous force. It was to his body and mind like a brick thrown through glass. He shattered.
Human beings are finite existents capable of bearing absolute values. Everything material is finite, including our lives, but the value we can have for others, or they can have for us, can be absolute. This means that in deep suffering our bodies can be riven in a way that is distinct to human life. The animals, who suffer too, are free of our particular possibilities for suffering. But we are animal, and these possibilities must be born in an animal body. Hence the images of being rent, torn, broken, smashed, spinning, shattered. To understand our suffering we need to recognise the tension and contradiction in our nature. All suffering is embodied.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Artwork: Margarita Georgiadis
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.