Mar 14, 2012

Courage and Consolation

Earlier today, I was prompted to reflection on some material I've read and studied, taught and written upon, for years without ever really pulling back on the particular corner, turning over the ground, putting the grist into the mind's mill.  In one of my online classes, a student who suffered a terrible and harrowing experience, during the course of which their (I'm using the third person plural deliberately here) own actions -- and perhaps luck, chance, or grace -- brought them through with minor injuries, revealed this to the class, as well as what troubled that student even more:  Not all of their friends had been so fortunate.  Reading Sartre and thinking about our responsibility for who we make ourselves got the student thinking, remembering, raising feelings still not entirely processed through back to the fore, leaving them "morally rattled."

Fairly understandably, none of the other students commented on their classmate's post.  It's difficult to know how to respond to such personal revelations, particularly at the beginning of a class, when perhaps one has but the briefest of acquaintance with one's fellow learners.  I tend to think that in these sorts of situations the young find themselves more at a loss, resourcesless than do their elders -- though there are many very insightful, empathetic younger people and enough clueless older people to render that generalization not entirely reliable.  I wrote the student privately, offering condolences, a bit of my own experience, and a few suggestions about how the class and our subject matters might provide some resources for working things through.  Then I commented publicly.

In my public post, I praised the student's decision to write about the matter as "prudent," but in my private remarks, I invoked a different virtue: courage.  What was particularly striking to me was that the student's reply, thanking me for not leaving their post just hanging out there as well as for what I'd written in private, also mentioned and lauded courage, this time on my part.  Does that language, that concept, that virtue, fit this sort of situation?

What the student wrote was quite simple and heartfelt:  "I think it takes a lot of courage to try to say the right thing in situations like this, and most people won't say anything much simply because they don't know what to say."  For someone in their early twenties, this is pretty insightful -- the sort of philosophical condensation of lived reality which one can work over and over, polishing, determining its deeper contours, honing, experimenting with to see what it fits.  Does it take courage, though?  Is that the right word, the correct rubric, under which to set "say[ing] the right thing" when acknowledging or responding to the grief revealed by another?

We don't typically think of these sorts of situations as calling for courage.  Instead, we think in terms of other traits, other attributed: self-control in the face of one's strong emotions, allowing one to navigate the things, occasions, sayings, deeds that must be done, or alternately giving way to emotions, allowing oneself authentic experience of their fullness -- these on the part of the one grieving.  And, what on the part of the other?  Compassion, expressions of sympathy, assurances of being there if or when one might be needed -- even just a measure of gravity and etiquette, dressing darkly, keeping conversation within certain courses. . . any of these things can be the right ones.

As time ebbs away from the past period in which the grief was first occasioned, when death happened, resisted, even raged against, then dully accepted, what is called for when a person reveals their own grief -- the situation of themselves, living, and the situation of their loved one, their friend, their comrade, even their acquaintance, dead, past, inaccessible, but memorialized -- that becomes less clear, but unless one is simply callous there is some sense that something is called for.  But what is it?  Just about any gesture or word one can originate risks ringing hollow, doesn't it?  One can never be entirely sure what effect one's response will have on the grieving person.  One can wound them anew, provoke their ire or sadness, fall flat and short, show oneself up as someone who simply doesn't understand -- there's moral and psychological risk inherent to any response.  And -- particularly for those who are young, who have so far experienced relatively little loss or bitterness -- one might even legitimately sense an absence within oneself of anything that might be appropriate to the person, to the situation, to the loss.

Drawing on my own experience in these matters, rather unnaturally accelerated even before it was the half-a-lifetime duration it now claims, I can claim that there are several constants to point out, which do in fact lead me to think that not only am I correct in attributing courage to my student for revealing a not-yet-seen-through grief to those who cannot be expected to understand or to know how to react -- my student is also correct in seeing a species of courage in my own response.  I'll enumerate those constants momentarily.

Before that, I'd like to note a few corresponding features of courage, at least how Plato and Aristotle saw that virtue.  We often speak in our ordinary non-philosophical parlance of courage as consisting in mastering or at least standing up to one's fear.   Occasionally we err in attributing it to one who feels no fear at all, or who at least is unperturbed by that passion in situations where the ordinary person can be expected to feel, perhaps display, and to be motivated by fear -- that's actually rashness or foolhardiness.

Both philosophers do see and acknowledge this fear-feeling and-facing side to courage.  They go further, though, and explicitly connect it with doing the right thing, what is needed, what is called for -- whether this is holding the line against approaching enemy heavy troopers, steeling oneself to stand up for what is right in word or deed against those who are malicious or just ignorant, or offering something, a shoulder, a smile, a word of condolence knowing full well it may be unwanted, unnoticed, awry but that to do nothing is definitely to fail.  Courage is not just a matter of feeling but of action.

They also frame it in terms of a kind of knowledge, knowledge of what is fearful -- what is genuinely fearful, what one really has good reason and ought to fear, and what is only apparently fearful, what one need not fear.  This applies to degrees and measures-- this thing ought to be feared so much, for these reasons . . . that one less, and only in this case.

Sometimes, I think, this is a knowledge of. . . and other times, a knowledge that. . . A soldier who has taxed his or her body the the limits of endurance, suffered beatings, wounds, and seen others do the same, will not be done in by the flesh wound that, looking bad to the neophyte, takes him or her entirely out of commission.   Likewise, one who has been many or at least multiple times on both sides of death -- not dying oneself, of course, but experiencing and grieving a loss oneself and also being with other who experience and grieve their own losses -- will know many things that one who hasn't likely won't, or at least (for those reluctant to grace this sense with the title of "knowledge") they will possess a better grasp, a more adequate understanding, a knack for negotiating through occasions and notions to the (relatively) best choice.

This kind of knowledge -- or whatever one wants to call it -- is something that, though it can be put and perhaps even taught in a discursive format, susceptible even to a certain degree  of systematization, I suspect has to be learned through, or rather earned at the price of,  emotional, lived, relational, contingent experience, a measure of reflection upon that experience, and the always limited success which psychotherapy calls "working it through."  This kind of knowledge would be of how best -- or at least more successfully -- to thread one's way through the constants mentioned earlier -- so what are they then?

Fear is in fact one of them -- and the better one understands these matters, the more fully one understands not only one's own fear but fears of others, and the mindsets, the actions or omissions, the haltings and hesitations provoked by fear.  Realizing that while there may not be a single "right" response to provide, a safe word, a gesture that carries its consoling significance unambiguously within it, another person's grief still does demand some right response.  Experience teaches the unpredictability of what a song, a sight, a handshake, an expression of sympathy might evoke or provoke, but also that this unpredictability is less a reason for fear and more a reason to act even without assurance -- because it is right to act.

Perhaps the last constant to these situations -- a reason why a disposition of courage, not really so much the superficial facsimile our culture teaches us, but the virtue as conceived by Plato and Aristotle, possesses an intrinsic connection with consolation -- is that while not absolutely or even strictly required, the kind of concrete empathizing comprised by it does require reflected-upon, lived-through experience.  To reach that point -- and there are so many who do reach that point, more than we often think -- most likely requires some development and use of the virtue of courage in one's progression through the past, in working matters through, but that strikes me as a good topic for a further post, and a fitting place to end this one


  1. The Greeks really got it right with regard to language; there are different kinds of knowledge, and so are there Greek words for it: gnosis (which equates to head knowledge) and epignosis (which, somewhat inaccurately, equates to heart knowledge). There is a difference between knowing a thing as a fact, statistic, or piece of information, and knowing it fully and intimately through experience of it. What would courage be without epignosis of fear and subsequent action taken in spite of that fear? Love these musings.

  2. Yes, you're right -- there are some distinctions made in Greek which get left out in translation to English. I tend to think of these matters -- theoretical vs. practical or affective knowledge -- using Aristotle's terminology, where it's framed in terms of development of phronesis.

    We can also, I think, distinguish between higher, more comprehensive ways of starting from information or from experience and developing knowledge on it through reflection, mulling it over, ruminating upon it. Both facts/information and mere, undigested experience are in some sense less "knowledge" than something which takes them in and synthesizes them -- though, as Aristotle points out, if you just want to get something determinate accomplished, the person who possesses experience is at an advantage over the person who merely possesses information. Much more to mull over myself on this matter

    1. Yes! I was taught that the process of marrying gnosis with epignosis is achieved through this reflection/mulling/ruminating you mention, which we/I refer to as meditation, for lack of a better word, really.