A meditation on grief
By Hammad Ali
A common theme in Greek tragedies is the inevitability of fate, or destiny. Greek tragedy is replete with characters who are told of an impending future they do not desire, their immense efforts and careful planning to avoid said fate, and the rich irony of how each of those efforts only moves them ever closer to the very thing they wish to avoid. Greek tragedy is fatalistic, almost relentless in its message that we humans are helpless when faced with destiny.
It recently occurred to me that South East Asian lore, and in particular the life of Prince Siddhartha, who later became the Buddha, has a subtle rebuttal to the fatalism of Greek lore. Even before he was born, Prince Siddhartha’s father was told that his son will be driven to the monastic life by the essential angst of being. The king responds to this sheltering his son from even the slightest discomfort, which is probably something that make his three encounters with suffering all the more powerful. But this is where the story diverges from the Greek template, for want of a better word. Siddhartha is driven to leave kingdom, love, and children, driven by a longing to understand why there is so much suffering. But the story does not end in sorrow. Years later, it ends on a full moon night, when the humble Siddhartha, a mere seeker of truth, becomes Gautama Buddha, an enlightened being whose teachings continue to pave the way for many who ask the same questions he did, centuries later and in worlds far removed. In other words, the fate of leaving home to become a monk was inevitable, but not necessarily undesirable.
At the risk of sounding preachy, there is no point longing for an uncomplicated life. For one, the entirety of human history seems to indicate that such a thing does not exist. For another, what would we talk about at parties? Levity aside, each of us is sometimes beaten down in life by stress and grief, and perhaps a shadow of the same haunting angst that once drove a prince to walk out on a kingdom to seek meaning. How it affects us, though, largely depends on how we think of it. Cliché as it sounds, I can attest from my own life that what matters is not what happens to you, but how you perceive what happens to you. Think of it this way. The exact same thing happens to others, many of whom take it much harder than you, and many simply shrug it off. There is nothing objective about your experiences, sans the meaning you attach to them.
Photo: G Creates
Let me come to a more concrete concept. Grief. We have all known grief, of some level. The death, or just the loss, of a loved one. Having to say farewell to a beloved friend, a childhood home, or even a career that we once found fulfilling. I once read something that said, everyone around us, every day, is carrying some hidden grief that colors the very way they relate to the world. And so are we. It is important to keep that in mind, and do everything we can to come to terms with it. It does not make us lesser, and nor does it make us different. We are all fighting something, and we owe it those who care for us to learn how to bring our best to this fight.
One of my favorite TV shows has one character say “every human is always a little sad, because they know they are going to die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” As I grow older, and have more grief and loss to deal with, I appreciate those words more and more. I realize that all the people, places, and things that I mourn for, are the ones that brought me no small measure of joy at some point in life. I miss my parents intensely, because I miss the evenings we would spend together, all seated together, talking about everything from our days and the world around us. I miss my uncle and aunt, because I was fortunate enough to have them be interested, and present, in our lives. I fondly recall the city I grew up in, even though it has changed to much I hardly think of it as home anymore, but the memories of a carefree childhood spent in the streets of Dhaka will always evoke those same feelings in me.
I do not wish to trivialize suffering and grief. But I guess, I do wish to be practical about it. No matter how much we try, we are not going to make a world or a life without any suffering, grief, and heartbreak. If anything, the very effort to do so will rob us off time and energy far better spent on other things. Like making the most of the experiences we are still able to enjoy, the memories we can still make, to be looked back on someday. The trajectory of our lives need not be a Greek tragedy, and nor does it need to be a journey towards rising above all those emotions to live like the Buddha. We can live in this world, take part in it, and create deep, abiding connections and memories. One day, they may be taken from us. And one day, we will ourselves cease to be. But that is no reason to not cherish life today. On the contrary, that knowledge is what gives life meaning.