THE HIERARCHY OF GRIEF and THE POSSIBLE IMPOSSIBILITY OF EMPATHY

THE HIERARCHY OF GRIEF and THE POSSIBLE IMPOSSIBILITY OF EMPATHY

“This is generous, for to be close to her pain has always felt like a privilege to me, even though pain could be defined as that which we typically aim to avoid. Perhaps this is because she remains so generous within hers, and because she has never held any hierarchy of grief, either before her accident or after, which seems to me nothing less than a form of enlightenment.” (Bluets, p.39)

**

This idea of THE HIERARCHY OF GRIEF made my jaw drop.

Previously, its existence had always been a felt thing, not a named thing, as it is now.
Thank you, Maggie Nelson.

Perhaps my delight at having finally found a name for this is symptomatic of a larger problem—the fact that this term is not familiar to us.

Perhaps this has something to do with shame, which seems to rear its sleek, otter head whenever our grief is in the company of others’.

Something interesting happens when grief (let’s imagine it as a creature) meets others in its species. Instant hackles.

That bizarre competitive reflex, which might stem from the instinctual, animal need to ascertain who is the alpha in the room. Whose grief is dominant, and whose must submit. We love power dynamics, cannot escape them.

That otter-head of shame seems to enter, most often, in “submissive grief”.
Following this tack, what then, enters in a “dominant grief”? The great Nessie?

Think about those whose aim seems to be to invalidate the experiences of others.
The “Yes, but I…” people who can often be found hijacking conversations, asserting their dominance, playing into the “hierarchy”. They’re all around us. We’ve done it ourselves.

What enters is a kind of violence, I would venture—a violence to both the “players”, and to grief itself. A kind of disrespect; a mishandling of the very nature of grief—who or what it might belong to, if it belongs to anything.

Propriety has always been an issue.

We can’t seem to leave it alone.
What to do.

“Often we examine parts of her body together, as if their paralysis had rendered them objects of inquiry independent of us both. But they are still hers. No matter what happens to our bodies in our lifetimes, no mater if they become like ‘pebbles in water,’ they remain ours; us, theirs.”(Bluets, 42)

Some things to consider then:

What do we DO with our suffering, our grief? Where does it go? What does it inhabit?
Do we put it there? Or is it there already, intrinsic to the thing itself—as blue seems to be.

The various outlets, expressions, distractions, mis-directions, the straight up lies—all the forms grief can take. Some true, some feigned.

Is there shame in a fiction?
Is there honor in a grief?

Once, I assigned my students an essay in which they had to identify a moment in their lives where they could feel something in them changing. That moment of self-awareness that comes when you feel a specific bone adjust, bend, break. An irrevocable shift.

Many of my students came up to me after class, panicked. “I’ve never had one of those moments….nothing bad has ever happened to me,” was the general cry.

Interesting, the unconscious linking we make between “moments of change/shift/growth” and “moments of suffering/grief/pain”. There is a general consensus, (among 18 year olds at least) that we learn more from grief, than we do from anything else. As a belief, this strikes me—in turns—as highly oversimplified, but also, achingly beautiful.

The pursuit of grief.

Often, ours does not suffice, we attempt to appropriate the grief of others— add their blues to our nest like a bowerbird.

There is a compulsive need to amass, to appropriate, to own, control. We see it in all sorts of species. I’m a particular fan of animals that create literal piles of booty.

Gentoo Penguins and their piles of stones come to mind.

While reading this excerpt from a penguin field manual, try to mentally replace the “stones” with “grief”, or “grief pebbles”.

“Their nests are usually made from a roughly circular pile of stones and can be quite large, 20 cm high and 25 cm in diameter. The stones are ‘jealously guarded’ and their ownership can be the subject of noisy disputes between individual penguins. They are also prized by the females, even to the point that a male penguin can obtain the favors of a female by offering her a nice stone.”
(http://www.factsnfacts.com/birds/gentoo-penguins-facts/)

In the realm of dating, and bars in general, I’m sure everyone has experienced a particularly questionable specimen offering up a sob story of some kind in order to push the “ohhh”/pity button— which I’ve heard many a frat boy claim as the key to a swift entrance into anyone’s pants.

So it goes.
Offer up a grief pebble, and usually something comes of it.

I certainly don’t mean to condemn frat boys—as a general rule, offering up a “grief pebble” often brings about good things. Human connection, shared experiences, sympathy, empathy, honest dialogue, and of course, we can’t forget, good sex—to name a few.

I suppose what’s important is where that “grief pebble” comes from and how you intend to use it. Grief is one of those human tools that can easily double as a weapon. Like all things, it depends on whose wielding it, and how.

Everyday, we use (and often exploit) the grief of others without thinking.
Humans are sponges, but self-conscious. Not to say that being a sponge is bad, because it’s not— I’d be the first one to slap on a sticker saying “Hello, my name is SPONGE”.
However, when you add self-awareness to a sponge, things can get a little dicey.

A self-conscious sponge is aware of what it’s lacking. It’s also cognizant of being a “seen thing”, a thing on display, a public creature. It knows how to manipulate its Facebook profile and various avatars in order to create a certain kind of image or “identity”. It has the ability to conflate its “created” identity with its “actual” one—to fully buy into and believe the fiction, to fervently defend it.

Though, I suppose, who is to say what is “actual” when it comes to identity? We seem to be creatures who are primarily comprised of our fragments.

In many ways, we are decidedly “made” things, and yet, this seems to be our main point of contention. Thus, our cultural discomfort with the act of “leaning against”. Thus, our hesitation
to engage with the fragments that compose us. Thus, the importance of Bluets, which calls to attention the necessity of dialogue. Perhaps we are what happens when our various parts start to acknowledge one another. When they start to talk. When they decide to listen, instead of arrange themselves in a hierarchy.

As emotional creatures, we are often defined by our suffering, just as we obliquely define ourselves in reference to the suffering of others.

So, suffering must be the common denominator, the connective material, the blue on which we compose our individual constellations.

How then, does one relate to the suffering —the blue of another?

Is empathy even possible? Or, is this a myth we perpetuate in order to not feel abandoned in the moments when we are truly and irrevocably alone? Much of human culture is fashioned around myth, so I wouldn’t be surprised.

**

“We look at her skin together as she describes this pain.”(Bluets, p.38)

In class, Leni brought up a good point: ultimately, is this all we can do? Look as someone describes? Is that enough?

How do we decide what is to suffice—when it comes to compassion, vulnerability, suffering?

How do we negotiate being alone in our own particular blue—letting others do the same?
Ungracefully.

We say we want to be alone. But we don’t, we’re ill-built for that.
We say we want to be understood. But we don’t, not really. Being understood “takes away”.

Perhaps what we actually want is to suffer,
individually, but in the presence of others
who are also suffering, individually.

Ultimately, I think,
we’d all like to share a similar sky.

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2 comments

  1. […] “This is generous, for to be close to her pain has always felt like a privilege to me, even though pain could be defined as that which we typically aim to avoid. Perhaps this is because she remains…  […]

  2. […] THE HIERARCHY OF GRIEF and THE POSSIBLE IMPOSSIBILITY OF EMPATHY (maggienelsonseminar.wordpress.com) […]

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