The Most Important Question in Philosophy - Part 4 of 4

Loss is a special kind of pain. The loss of a loved one, and the loss of cognitive functioning. Those are the two most intense kinds of loss that I have experienced, and we all will, or have, experienced them. What is this feeling of loss? What can we do about it?

A loss is revelatory. It reveals something that we valued. Sometimes we were not even aware of what we valued, or at least not aware that we valued it so much, until it was gone. This alone can help point us towards values in the future. Let's take five examples and see what we can learn from them.

When I was 20 my girlfriend ended up pregnant, it was a partial surprise. I hadn't really thought much about having kids up to that point, and I reacted primarily by getting nervous and being conservative. Then, the miscarriage. The miscarriage revealed that I had actually wanted to have a baby, I valued it, and two years later she was pregnant again. The second miscarriage was even harder than the first because I had allowed myself to become excited, and I had talked with my girlfriend about the future often and enthusiastically to keep her in a positive state of mind, a major mistake. Now, my values have been tempered in both directions, I realize that I value children highly, but I also realize the heavy risks incurred.

I've had losses that have affected me more strongly though. After that second miscarriage my relationship with that girlfriend never recovered, although I didn't know it. Neither of us knew how to handle it, at all, and we didn't really come together over it, but I thought we were doing better and that everything was going to be okay. I found out around a year later that she had been cheating on me for months, I didn't even accept it at first. She had just been waiting to complete some schooling and for the lease to run out on our apartment before telling me. It felt like such an immense betrayal, we had been through so much together. In my mind I had imagined so much of our future, I had imagined overcoming our difficulties and having children. I had imagined running a business together and buying a house together. All lost hopes and dreams cast down the River Styx. Love turned into hate.

When I was 13 I was on the bus on the way to school. It was early and still dark out. We were traveling down a long straight road lined by thick forest on both sides. Up ahead we could see some flashers. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, my entire body felt heavy like lead. The bus driver pulled up too close to the scene and parked just across from the flashers. All of the kids on the bus were screaming. Everyone moved to the side of the bus to look out the windows. I did too. When the went you could see a wet streak on the blacktop, and when the red flasher went you knew what it was. I didn't scream, I didn't really react. I turned back towards the front of the bus. I saw my sister screaming, flailing, and being held back in the front. The scene went grey and silent, and I sat down. My best friend had been hit in the back at 55mph by a car swerving around a garbage truck on the way to work. Andrew was young, intelligent, athletic, good looking, and energetic. He had such a future, until he didn't.

When I was 26 I decided to go on a grand world tour, but I got sick one week into Kenya and had to abort, and that trip almost cost me my life. When I got home I thought it would take me a week or two to recover. Then I thought it would take me a month or two. Then I thought, "Wow, maybe this is going to take six months!" At times I would think that I was improving, but it was only a brief appearance. I knew I couldn't think straight, but it wasn't until I asked someone what the word "piece" was that the significance of what was happening sunk in. Not only wasn't I able to take in and retain new information, but I was losing old information too. My aspirations for my future were evaporating before my eyes, and now my past was withering away as well. I was losing my mind, my ability to think, my ability to remember, my ability to be.

Five examples: two unborn children, one girlfriend, one friend, and my mind (the functioning of the brain). That's a pretty depressing list, but just to drive the point home let's make one more observation: there are only two types of people, those who are dead and those who are going to be. This is not the type of issue that you can ignore and hope that it will go away, or that you'll get lucky and it won't bother you. This is an issue that we must dig into, and learn from.

Notice what I have lost (note that I have regained a significant portion of my cognitive ability, although not all of my health). I have lost things that I have valued. If we lose something that we don't value, well . . . that doesn't really matter, because we don't care. This can lead to some dark places. Sadness turns into depression, depression fosters apathy, apathy become nihilism. We don't care about anything, we don't value anything, or at least we try not to. And, in a world with nothing to live for, "Is life worth living?" No, it's not, but that question not only offers us no solutions, it doesn't even offer us any problems. It's final, it's closed, there is nothing left to learn, discover, or ask after you answer. Our questions must lead us on, they must demand something from us. That's why "What makes life worth living?" is such a powerful question. It demands that we seek an answer. At times though, before we can find that answer, we must seek some answers to our sadness.

Are there some similarities in all of these examples? Yes, there are. They all have to do with things I valued. They all had to do with things I expected to have a future. They all had to do with things that were part of how I defined myself and considered a part of my identity.

Humans are made to become attached(1), right away and for the rest of their lives. Without attaching to someone, and someone attaching themselves to us, we would die. Humans need other humans to care for them for years. Humans can only exist in a social environment. Humans need other humans. It only makes sense that we would attach to people, but we also know that all humans die. Therefore, it also only makes sense that humans would be equipped to be able to deal with the inevitable losses. The brain has an immense capacity to change itself. The examples of brains rewiring themselves after severe injuries are extraordinary. If the brain can do that, it has the capacity to view loss in another light as well.

There are a number of different ways to seek a resolution of the emotional trauma suffered in a loss. Josef Breuer had a lot of success in the late 1800's(2) by taking the patient back through the event in a state of reverie. Different, but similar, experiences happen for some people when they do deep observational meditation in the tradition of Gautama Buddha, with the explicit aim of relieving themselves from all suffering through breaking the bonds of attachment. The reactions that we press down and repress build up pressure and insist that they must be released. Some people find that artistic expression, or other kinds of symbolic expression help to relieve the tension for awhile.

It seemed to me, for a long time, that a foundational change in perspective was necessary, and I have found that to be true. But, first, a small aside into values and love.

What's the difference between "I value you," "I like you," and "I love you?" I would propose that it mostly has to do with context and scale. Let's make the context the same to make it a little less confusing. Let's say that I am talking to an apple. Yes, an apple. I say, "I value you" to an apple. What does that mean? It means I think the apple is of worth. Let's add a little more context and say that I value the apple because I enjoy eating the apple. Okay. Let's say I am talking to an apple and I say, "I like you." What does that mean? Well, let's stick with the same context and say that I like the apple because I enjoy eating it. Finally, let's say I tell the apple, "I love you." What does that mean? Well, it means that I enjoy eating the apple. With the same context, they all mean the same thing, except for one thing; there is a scale. I think the word value will be different for some people, so let's just go with like and love. If I say I love one apple and I like another apple, which one do you think I would prefer to eat? That's right, love is stronger than like. It's a value scale. That's the most common way in which the word love is used, but there is another.

Romantic love is often seen as a little different than just love as a value preference, often it is, but sometimes it seems to be a bit different. There are a few different reasons for this, such as imprinting(3), but I think they can all be put under the header of identity fusion(4). It's possible for humans to forget that they are only what they can sense, or even to never realize that. Identity fusion can happen in groups large or small, including in a two person group, a pair pond, a couple, romantic love. This is a very strong attachment, it feels like you are one with another, that it would be impossible to be separated, until you are. This is a unique psychological and emotional experience, but it is still a type of value, and we can talk about liking, and loving, and valuing together. Because, in many ways, when we feel as if something is a part of us, or we are a part of it, it has such a strong value for us because we have such a strong value for ourselves. There are special dangers here, for instance, what happens if we start to devalue the thing we identify with? Well, ideally we would be able to realize that it isn't actually a part of us. For now, though, it is enough to realize that all of these things are still talking about our values.

So, someone dies, what did you lose? What value did you have that you no longer have? You valued doing this with them, and that with them, and this talk with them, and that talk with them, but are any of those gone? No, those are part of the past. They not only cannot be erased, they can't even be changed. Even if our memory is erased, or changed, the true past will continue to be as it has, whether we know it or not. So, what have we lost? We've lost the future. A future that we imagined we would have, but we don't. It's important that humans make predictions, guesses, and conjectures about the future. It's important that we anticipate and have expectations. But, it's also important to realize that we are sometimes wrong. When this occurs with a lesser value, with a less emotional value, we are able to realize that we just had a false expectation and adjust to it, but as that value increases it becomes easier and easier to lose sight of this truth. Did you ever have this future that you imagined? No, you did not. What you have lost is a false expectation about an imagined future.

Even when we say that it was unreasonable to expect such a loss to occur, it's important to realize that it was perfectly reasonable. So reasonable in fact that it actually occurred. It helps, of course, if you understand causality, that one thing leads to another, going back as far as you can imagine, and as far forward as you can as well. Einstein talked about time being a persistent illusion, that's what he was talking about. Probability is just a measure of our uncertainty, a measure of what we don't know. We can think about the probable future, but we can be wrong, even about the probability.

A unique perspective dealing with the loss of loved ones is that you could change your expectation of the imagined future. You are experiencing a loss of all of the good imaginary future events that you expected, but we all know that there would also be pain the future. If you valued the person then you surely didn't want them to experience pain, and now they don't have to. The loss is not only a loss of the good, but also a loss of the bad.

Losses help to reveal our values to ourselves, they help to clarify them, they help us to appreciate the past, to realize that what has passed is permanent and can never be taken away, what has not happened cannot be lost, only our false expectations can be lost, both the good and the bad, and that to have lost something, at some point we must have gained something.

Here is where this essay began:

Here is part 2:

Here is part 3:

And here is the overview of the entire project:

1 -
2 - Studies on Hysteria by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, 1895.
3 - The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris, 1969, chapter five.
4 -

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