Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Meaning and Grief: Two Insights from Heidegger

When we encounter a significant loss, it does something fundamental to our sense of identity.  Our losses, like most experiences, are not merely occurrences that happen externally in the world.  They are events which call for our response and understanding.  And when they involve people and situations that we are connected with or invested heavily in, then the urgency of sorting through them impinges on us all the more.  We live by our meanings, and when they are shaken by events of loss, we feel the challenge to our sense of identity.

But what is “meaning” anyway and how is it affected by grief?  This is where the philosopher Martin Heidegger can help with a couple of insights, both drawn from his book, Being and Time.  First, Heidegger has a unique understanding of personhood.  The term he uses in the German is hard to translate into an equivalent English word, so translations keep the German original, which is Dasein.  It means literally “being-there” (da-sein).  We have our being as persons right “there” in the middle of our world, embedded in the circumstances of our lives.  We are our unique relationships, habits, attitudes, family backgrounds, cultural identities, sense of possibilities, established meanings,and contingent experiences.  We as individuals don’t have an essence which lies underneath our situated existence.  We don’t have a dasein along with our sense of self.  Rather, we are our existence; we are our dasein.  We are always already a part of the world, embedded in the meanings of our lives. There is no essential me separated from my being in the world.

Now, this radical idea of the always already situated self has important implications for meaning and grief.  We start with the meanings which we find and establish in our lives.  These are often associated with our relationships.  For example, I am a father, a spouse, a son, a brother, a co-worker, a neighbor, a homeowner, a citizen, etc.  I understand and live all these relationships in terms of how meaningful I find and choose them to be. My sense of identity, of who I am, is tied up with the meanings I live, with the possibilities I choose and count on in relation to others in my world.  In some ways, I become established in and learn to count upon my uniquely lived meanings: my combination of understandings, experiences, values, practices and relationships.  In short, I live by my meanings.  I take them in and they become who I am. 

So in looking at grief, it is important to consider not simply feelings alone, nor simply an individual isolated from her or his everyday world, but at the meaningful patterns and people and values which we embrace and embody.  For example, I would not be who I am if I were not a father to my particular daughters, a spouse with a unique history to my particular wife, and many other specific circumstances which I understand and live in the world.  In a way, when things are going along relatively smoothly, I just assume my meanings as a part of who I am.

The challenge comes, however, when a significant loss happens.  Then we are confronted with a breakdown in meaning, and we are confronted with something that impinges on our sense of who we are.  There is a helpful analogy with Heidegger at this point.  In talking about our everyday practices in the world, he uses the example of a hammer.  A carpenter often uses a hammer without thinking too much about it as an object in and of itself.  He is used to its weight and size, the measure of a good swing to drive a nail, the fit and feel of it in his hand.  It is part of his everyday practice, and the hammer is like an extension of him as he works.  When he uses the hammer, he doesn’t need to stop and examine it as an object.  In fact, he could not do his work well if his focus was merely upon the hammer and not upon the work for which he was using it.  Through practice and experience, he just assumes the hammer as part of his world.  The meaning of the hammer is in the part it plays in his practice and life.  But if the hammer breaks or goes missing, then all of a sudden, the hammer becomes the focal point and a concern in and of itself.  The purposes for which he uses the hammer get frustrated and unfulfilled.  In a sense, his world (of carpentry) has broken down.

In a similar way, a significant loss and the grief which inevitably follows it is like this.  We often just assume the people and values and everyday practices and meanings in our lives as long as they are in place.  It is who we are.  But when the loss of a significant person occurs, our assumed meanings, and even our sense of self, breaks down.  This causes a series of reactions and responses as we mourn what we have lost and look for ways to reconstruct a new sense of meaning around our changed lives.  In a variety of ways, we begin to ask: "Who am I now?"  One of the leading researches in the field of Bereavement Studies is Robert Neimeyer.  He works with the “fundamental assumption that the attempt to reconstruct a world of meaning is the central process in the experience of grieving.” This task is often a messy, emotional affair, and it involves many considerations beyond this brief piece of writing.  But the tentative framework of meaning and its loss which I’ve mentioned here is an important tool to help us when we are hurting and feeling the challenges of our grief.