Nihilism or Optimism? More Thoughts on Grief

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(My apologies in advance for writing about grief again. I wish my mind was elsewhere, but I suppose that’s what happens when someone close to you dies.)

I have yet to figure out what grief is. I can only tell you that my emotions are everywhere right now like a rubber ball bouncing in a small room. One minute I forgot and life goes on. Other minutes I feel nihilistic. I cannot see the point in anything, especially human life. Other times, I am just sad as hell. But strangely other times I feel optimistic about the future. 

To say a little more about the nihilism… I’m having trouble finding hope in the face of death. Ignoring my own father’s death, I look at the war in Ukraine or climate change, or the many atrocities committed in the name of humanity and all I see is suffering. I am a Buddhist of course, and the first noble truth of Buddhism is life is suffering.  But I haven’t fully felt what that meant till now. I feel pain. I see pain everywhere. Why go through this all? What’s the point? 

This has brought me into some dark thinking of late. I can feel a real antinatalist edge to my psyche lately. I am by no means suicidal, but I have been asking myself the question: would I have chosen to be born? Would I choose to bring a child into this world knowing how much they will suffer themselves? I don’t even mean the big sufferings like death. I think about my future, unborn child, and I imagine them crying or failing or feeling depressed, and my heart breaks. It is such a huge responsibility to bring life into this world. I don’t know if I’m up to i. 

But the other side of that is my Buddhist training and Bodhisattva vows. If life is suffering, then what? Well, real pain is an opportunity in this way of thinking. It is an opportunity to use our broken hearts to be more loving, kind, and caring. 

When suffering happens, there is a choice to be made. Many of us, when we feel pain, just collect defenses like I collected baseball cards as a kid.  This is largely an unconscious practice. But whether it’s rationalizations, sublimations, or reaction formations, we all have defenses. Our defenses protect us from anxiety and pain and are needed. They are just animal instincts in human form. 

 The downside of this is that these defenses can remove us from the experience of living. I am aware of this. I can see my defenses in action concerning my grief. But I also see the need to let myself just fall apart. I’m not ok right now, and it’s ok. There is nothing to be said or done about that. I can give myself the space and compassion to feel this all. 

And the good part is that I can use myself falling apart to be more compassionate toward others. The truth is that we’re all in the same boat. All of us will suffer. All of us will lose parents just as I have. All of us will die. Every single person you meet has pain. It is easy to forget that or pay lip service to that. But I think my pain is an opportunity to remember everyone’s pain first and foremost and to be kind toward that. 

And in that way, I feel a sense of optimism. Life might very well be meaningless. But I can’t fall into nihilism. My need to not fall into total despair and nihilism might very well be a defense of its own, a way to make sense of what makes no sense. But I can accept that we all need fictions or myths to keep us going. Humans have been doing that since the dawn of consciousness, and I am no different. 

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