A Man of Constant Sorrow


Recent posts have started me thinking about sorrow and its purpose in human life, especially in the spiritual quest.  It may seem a strange topic to consider in relation to the Ideal, in the presence of which we know no sorrow, but as humans it is something with which we must contend until we realize the Ideal.  Our plight until then is that we are absent from our real self, and all the different forms of sorrow exhibit a sense of absence: absence of food, of friends, of health, of self-knowledge.


Odysseus and the Sirens, by John William Waterhouse

Of course ancient Greek literature abounds in examples of sorrow, perhaps none more so than the Odyssey.  A quick Perseus search of the words sorrow, suffer, pain, tears, and grief, shows a total of 155, which may not be a lot for a poem of some 12,000 lines, but enough to show a strong undercurrent of sadness.  The name of Odysseus means “anger,” or “displeasure,” and Telemachus his son referring to him says “for beyond all men did his mother bear him to sorrow.” (Odyssey 3:95)    His absence is the source of sorrow to his whole kingdom, especially his wife Penelope and son Telemachus, who also feel incomplete, their lives on hold.  Sorrow is Odysseus’ constant companion, even amid the pleasures of Circe and Calypso, until he reaches his “native land,” slays his demons (the suitors), and is re-United.

Sorrow has different expressions, all of which share this sense of absence or loss.  Grief is most often associated with the death of a loved one, but can be experienced with the loss of anything dear to us.  It is a way of helping us see our attachments and realizing that nothing earthly is permanent.  Learning to let go of these attachments is one of the most valuable lessons we can learn as humans, and it continuously amazes me how some people try to deny death, and can hold onto the memory of a child or parent or spouse or sibling or friend to the point of being barely unable to function in the present.  Grief is a normal human emotion, but if held onto, can become its own object of attachment and a way of defining ourselves–a tool of the ego.  (It can result in some rather ostentatious displays of grief, which tend to draw the attention to the griever.)  As I’ve said elsewhere, we all have to die, but the good news is that we are immortal.

Emerson, although he deeply felt the loss of his young son Waldo, “that hyacinthine boy, for whom/Morn might well break and April bloom,” did not allow it to define him, and wrote in his essay Experience:


Waldo Emerson, age 5. Daguerrotype from the collection of Harvard University.

People grieve and bemoan themselves, but it is not half so bad with them as they say. There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. Was it Boscovich who found out that bodies never come in contact? Well, souls never touch their objects. An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with.  Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, — no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me, — neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity: it does not touch me: some thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous. I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.

Like anyone who hopes to learn something from death or deprivation, Emerson walks away empty-handed.  Such experiences have nothing to teach except the opposite value and wonder of life and consciousness; the absent shows the present, the temporal shows the eternal.  In his poem Threnody Emerson says

…What is excellent
As God lives, is permanent;
Hearts are dust, hearts’ loves remain;
Heart’s love will meet thee again.

Misery also has the sense of an absence of happiness, but with the connotation of our withholding it from ourselves: “miser-y.”  We hoard what small happiness we have, and it turns to poison.  Think pre-conversion Ebenezer Scrooge.  How many people do you know who have no reason to be unhappy, who are surrounded by security and friends, but who still torture themselves that things are not as they want them to be?  People who are not happy unless they’re miserable?  And who of course try to spread their misery to others.  Suffering on the other hand is something visited upon us from without, and it is seen in people whose lives have basically been taken from them.  It is the result of an external event, that to a greater or lesser extent disrupts our carefully planned lives and sense of who we are.  We see it in people who have to care for chronically ill spouses or children, in the prison experience of Oscar Wilde described in De Profundis, in slavery, in the imprisonment and mass execution of victims of totalitarianism wherever it arises.

As with most experiences though, our ability to endure suffering comes from the extent to which we claim it as our own.  If we fully accept and embrace it, it becomes liberating from the idea that our lives are in fact our own.  (Again, I write this as someone whose life his been relatively free from sorrow, forgetting a pose in my youth as a sensitive and misunderstood artistic type.)  We can learn to see “sorrow” as an opportunity to uncover hidden strengths within us, to tap into vast resources of love and compassion.  As we saw in the case of Wilde, he regarded his imprisonment as a great unjust punishment until his attitude changed and he began to see it as a gift given to unlock the humility in his heart. The suffering of African-Americans under slavery helped produce the Blues, one of our national treasures.  (This is in no way meant to excuse the institution of slavery, which remains a national disgrace.)

Beyond this acceptance of suffering, however, lies a deeper approach: those who voluntarily give up their lives for others.  They forego the conventional pleasures and comforts of home and hearth and family to put themselves on the line for the benefit of humanity, or at least their own group.  This is the type of person we normally associate with the word “hero” (Greek: ἥρως).   It of course originated in a military context denoting those who died bravely in battle, and still carries that sense, but now it can also be applied to firefighters, missionary doctors, some artists or anyone who foregoes a life of ease to serve others or resist tyrants.  (I won’t dignify those who blow up themselves and others these days with that term, or martyr.)

But this heroism too often has its own selfish aspect, in that those who seek it are also seeking glory or “eternal fame.” (Greek: κλέος)  See Achilles in the Iliad.  For most of the poem he is sulking alone in his tent, believing that he is not getting his due respect.  But he is willing to bear this suffering, as well as the knowledge of his early death, because he believes it will give him the eternal fame he so desperately wants.  It is of course a sad joke, as Odysseus learns when he meets Achilles in the Underworld (Od. 11:486-91).

So as they say, stuff happens.  We are continually being presented with events, people, situations, choices, needs, opportunities: life, one might say.  We can see them as opportunities to learn (“Why is this happening?”), or opportunities to suffer (“Why is this happening to me?”).   We can realize with Alcinous  the Odyssey that “The gods arranged all this, and they wove the fate of doom for mortals, so that future generations might have something to sing about.”  (Od. 8:579-81) They can increase our journey toward our true self, or they can perpetuate our sense of being a separate entity.  How we respond will determine our happiness or unhappiness, our growing freedom or continued limitation.