We mistakenly categorize grief as a naturally occurring emotion, but that notion is neither rational nor beneficial.
The easiest way to illustrate this is to observe babies and profoundly cognitively impaired persons. They will have genuine moments of joy, sadness, affection and anger. But nothing like grief exists there. They may, in the future, miss somebody who has died, but only in the same way they would miss them if they moved far away.
Grief requires two things they do not have, which is a concept of their own mortality, and a complex enough set of social behaviors.
The concept of mortality gives us a sense of the value of life. For any one of us it is a limited resource. And this is where grief became a useful display to create social bonds.
“The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care. Right? Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Grief evolved as a social construct to signal how much we valued others lives, and therefore how trustworthy we were within the social unit. It is not a feeling, but a display, and one which perhaps helped is immensely to evolve, but may now be holding us back. Let me get back to that last point shortly.
Now I want to you to remember back to being a child. Recall how you used emotional displays as leverage within the social unit of your family, classroom, etc. It was all you had to get across how serious and important something was to you. But you knew it had to be believable, so you called the storm in. You summoned the fire. And if your first attempts were mocked as fakery, soon enough you would have absorbed the frenzy fully enough to drive it home.
Over time you just learned how to pull that trigger faster and surer. You faked it until you made it. Now imagine how easy it could be, given how we mature emotionally, to believe something we produced was happening to us beyond our control. We are adept at self delusions which benefit us socially.
However the concept of grief may have outlived its usefulness. Today it has made us so existentially terrified, so in denial of our own mortality – as well as the transient nature of everything and everyone we love, that we torture ourselves and others over it. From petty vengeance, to war – almost every instance of us hurting each other is related to our discomfort and non-acceptance of death. We torture ourselves with grief to show we care so much that we will destroy everything to prove it.
The above was first written as a social media post. In the comments I continued to clarify these thoughts and will include them below.
People get so attached to their grief that it is hard to break the cycle. They want it to be bigger than and more real than them, because otherwise it becomes meaningless. But letting go of things whose time has gone is all about relinquishing past meaning. If something is hurting you and there is even a chance you can make a choice to alleviate or end the pain, not exploring that option in full faith is just insanity. There is nothing to be gained by clutching to pain.
Perhaps the greatest cost of war is not of the dead, but of the living. Survivors will have had their quality of life irreparably harmed by the war. And the killers will tear themselves apart over what they have been party to. In our unacceptance of death, fueled by attachment to grief, we create what is far worse than death – to live in misery and suffering.
This is also not to say that any present or past experience of grief you have or have had is invalid or unreal. All experiences are real.
But if you realize where that feeling comes from, it gives you control of it. You are no longer bound to see yourself as inevitably suffering from grief, and then fulfilling that prophecy. You can honor the goodness that grief has created, as well as the caring intentions behind it, while shielding yourself from future misery. There is only gain to be had in shaping your own evolution by realizing how your defaults were set.
When I speak of these things I will often encounter a suggestion that I am ‘against emotions’ or am immune to them. Neither is true. I am for emotions. They make life meaningful. I am against obscuring emotions with constructs that deny the full range of emotion, and the construct of grief tends to be so absolute that it obscures all emotion to make room for itself. Nor am I lacking in emotion. I am, in fact, awash in all sorts of passions and depressions. I have also experienced plenty of grief, and having done so quite early, I was given the luxury of examining it later in life more deeply. My experiences of grief and value for emotion is what brought me here.
Addendum: Many of the rebuttals I have received regarding this is that grief is evident in several species of animals. The examples given are highly social animals, animals who have social constructs to regulate their group identity and behaviors. And they evolved grief for the same reason our early ancestors did, because it encourages complex, cooperative behaviors that increase fitness. The grieving animal example actually works in favor of my claims.
And lest you think I am alone in this, here is some scientific literature which makes the same claim.
This writing is also a follow up to responses I received from this earlier article: