Possibilities of the unknown offer solace in grief

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It is still summer, and we are trying to slow down the calendar to make the languid, lazy days of sunshine and bare feet remain a little longer. In this last month of the warmest season, we cling mercilessly to the idea that we don’t have to go back to real life quite yet. Not quite yet. The heaviness of August’s backpack, then, is particularly confusing. The backpack is exhaustingly heavy, and it is painful to carry its soggy load.

August’s burden is paradoxical, of course. It always has been and it always will be. It should be physically impossible to lift the rucksack; however, we can’t seem to shed its weight. It’s as if the backpack has been willed upon us without our consent.

What is the cause of this mass that nearly tips us over and is certain to make us buckle under its enormous load? What is this weightiness disrupting the peaceful, easygoing pace of this month?

August’s backpack is filled with grief and unfairness, and it is laden with heavy tears of anguish and anger. It might be the physical loss of someone who wasn’t supposed to go, the diagnosis that wasn’t supposed to happen or the impossible circumstances that are not supposed to exist, but the weight of this grief is unbearable and we are frightened we might drown in its sad water.

Somewhere, at the bottom of the heavy pack, the scientist-philosopher William James is trying to tell us something, but we can’t seem to make sense of his words through this drenching sorrow. Something about a dead hypothesis? A momentous option? Free will? Who cares about this stuff when you are carrying a load this heavy? There is so much grief in here, we holler to anyone who will listen, philosophical ideas seem useless and irrelevant. We can’t breathe and we are falling apart under the backpack’s weight.

Thankfully, unexpectedly and wonderfully, because even the greatest of thinkers and scientists aren’t immune to being strapped with grief-filled backpacks, an empowering and comforting theory emerges. A philosophical proposal for how to survive the screaming, shouting, falling-to-the-ground-in-a-rumpled-mess-of-human-brokenness situations that are guaranteed to affect us all. This proposal urges us to take solace in the possibility of the unknown, to find consolation in the stability of the practical.

James offers an honest view of our turmoil and a sincere evaluation of pragmatic and purposeful beliefs. He presents the possibility of finding comfort in the aspect of the human condition that recognizes the struggle between the finite versus the infinite, the struggle to believe as well as to grieve. And, when it comes to offering a theory about human resilience, William James doesn’t disappoint.

James rose from the depths of his own anxiety and depression by recognizing the relationship between free will and potential states of happiness. In his essay “The Will to Believe,” James wrote that we are not automatons doomed to accept fatalistic circumstance. He bravely admits that at certain times and at particular points in a person’s life, specific issues, beliefs and questions will have more relevance than at other times. Acknowledging the temporal nature of these feelings and beliefs, he theorizes that we influence our ability to be resilient when we recognize the role of free will.

In “Archetypes of Wisdom,” David Soccio credits James with arguing for a “refreshing vote of confidence in the individual human spirit.” James doesn’t try to explain the deeper meaning in unfair situations. He doesn’t pontificate pious platitudes regarding tribulations, obstacles, tragedies or sorrows. Instead, he argues we have tangible options. He summarizes his beliefs when he famously ends his essay with a quote from James Fitzjames Stephen: “We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. ... If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”

This type of thinking requires a paradigm shift in our thoughts, to be certain. August isn’t a sanctified state of being, a respite from real life or protection from pain. In fact, James argues that our only certainty may be that our world is unpredictable. There are no guarantees.

This knowledge doesn’t have to paralyze us with fear, however. Our ability to choose our trail, despite hiking with the grief-laden backpack, is liberating. We can choose to be strong and of good courage, even in the face of unfairly issued, sorrow-laden burdens. We might not accept our ability to choose without reservation, we might still harbor the hope that we may be able to cash in on a customer service warranty that doesn’t seem to exist and we might not want to acquiesce to the marketing claim that carrying a backpack of crushing heartache builds character. Even if we still want answers, James assures us, we have the ability to choose how we are going to finish the hike.

The weight in the backpack is great, but it isn’t unique. According to James, we have the right to believe, we have the right to be courageous. Sometimes, that knowledge is just what we need to give us the strength to carry on. And possibly, when the time is right, to lighten the load for someone else’s August.

Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at jennifer.baynelemma@wwcc.edu.

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