Review: Grief

Grief: A Philosophical Guide, Michael Cholbi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.

Summary: A philosophical discussion of the nature of grief, why we grieve, and its importance in our lives.

The journey of the last several years has been a time of grief for many of us, losing loved ones to the pandemic or to other causes. A host of books have been written over the years, addressing psychological and spiritual dimensions of grief. What distinguishes this book is that, while referencing this literature, this work is a philosophical discussion that seeks to understand what grief is, who is the object of our grief, and how grief is important within the human experience.

Michael Cholbi observes that in much of the philosophical literature, grief is regarded as shameful, a sign of weakness. Cholbi argues otherwise, getting there through a sustained inquiry into the nature of grief. He admits that this may not help a person amid the tumult of grief, but may help prepare us to understand what is happening and how we may grow through it. He begins by considering for whom we grieve, why we grieve some and not others. He proposes that we grieve those in whom we have invested our practical identities, that is those who play important roles in our lives. He then considers what grief is, arguing that it is not a single emotion but a series of affective states, not necessarily those of Kubler-Ross’s five stages, or in that order. In addition, he suggests that grief is a form of attention, challenging us to interrogate the meaning of our emotions toward the one who has died, and what they reveal about our relation with the one who has died, a relation that has been transformed by death.

He then turns to some ethical questions. One concerns what he calls the paradox of grief. Grief is both painful and distressing, which seems detrimental to our flourishing and yet also capable of yielding insights and self-knowledge, shaping how we may live, moving forward. Can something so terribly painful be good? Cholbi moves on then and explores the rationality of grief. Instead of considering grief either arational or irrational, he argues that it is contingently rational, that is, it is “rational when we feel the right emotions in the right degree in light of the loss of the relationship with the deceased that we have suffered” (italics in the original). He then considers whether we have a duty to grieve. He argues that we do not have a duty to other grieving persons or to the deceased but to ourselves because of the good of the self-knowledge that may come when we attend to our relationship with the deceased and grow as rational agents. Most intriguing is that he wonders whether C. S. Lewis, at least on the evidence of A Grief Observed, grieved well in terms of growth in self-knowledge.

One of the most interesting questions Cholbi deals with is whether the peculiar “madness” of grief is a type of mental disorder. Cholbi would argue that grief is a human experience rather than a mental disorder, one from which most emerge, often with greater self understanding that shouldn’t be circumvented. Rather than treating grief as a pathology, he would want to treat the instances of pathology that emerge when grief goes awry.

In his conclusion, he distinguishes grief from other traumas, like divorce, contending that the loss of a person is more severe. I’m not so sure–sometimes the loss of a spouse or a parent to divorce is a living wound that never resolves. He also considers whether a considered philosophy of grief may change the experience of grief. While it may offer understanding of what we are undergoing, the emotional experience of grief and its course is unpredictable, nor can it determine what the specific content of our self-knowledge will be.

I suspect this is not the book to give someone amid grief, if one even can read books at some points during the grief process. I found the book helpful in reflecting upon what my experiences of grief have meant for me. I also suspect such a book, with its contention that we ought lean into the paradox of grief with attentiveness, is helpful. I believe attentiveness is the basis of various spiritually formative practices. It seems consistent that this would be so in the practice of grieving the loss of someone significant to us. Also, the careful discussion that distinguishes grief and mourning, that thinks about who we grieve and why, and that normalizes grief as part of the human experience are all important contributions of this work.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

What Do My Favorite Books Say About Me?

Some of my books…

Bookriot asked an intriguing question in one of its articles today: “What Do Your Favorite Books Say About You?” To make it more interesting, the author suggests that we look for the “threads” that run through our books and not simply individual books. Originally, I thought I might comment on the individual books but the author suggests making the list as quickly as possible and then looking for the threads. So here’s the list:

John Calvin, The Institutes

Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country

Louise Penny, Armand Gamache Novels

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

George Knepper, Ohio and Its People

James Michener, Kent State

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion

A few things right off. I am drawn to place, beginning with my own. If you follow this blog, you know that I write weekly about my home town of Youngstown. I believe places shape us and growing up in Youngstown and living my life in Ohio has shaped who I am. Both can be alternately fascinating and infuriating, and I think I’ve spent my life trying to understand that. Knepper’s book is the best overall history of Ohio for me.

Wednesday was the 52nd anniversary of the Kent State shootings. It was a shattering event for me as a high school sophomore. A government killing its own citizens shattered my illusions for good. Years later, I read Michener’s book while working as a campus minister at Kent. I walked the place where the shootings occurred and was stunned at how far away the students who died were from the National Guard troops–more than a football field distant–hardly a threat. I saw places where bullets had left their mark. The only other time I felt anything like it was walking the battlefields of Gettysburg, and particularly Cemetery Ridge.

Place. Alan Paton, John Steinbeck, Anthony Doerr, Louise Penny, and even Tolkien evoke a sense of place. They also tell good stories, grand stories with large themes–the love of the land, membership in communities, the alienation of two brothers, friendship and betrayal, a lovely mythical village in eastern Canada that is the stage for mayhem both local and international, and a wonderful place, Middle earth with a fellowship of nine on an earnest quest.

I’ve increasingly come to the place of understanding that life is made sense of by understanding the story we inhabit, the adventure we are a part of. Maybe even John Calvin comes in here. I bought the Institutes when I won a small academic prize upon my seminary graduation. I’d never read more than excerpts but I spent that summer reading through the whole. I’ve never thought of my Christian faith as just an experience. Again, I wanted to understand the story of God’s ways with human beings. No one, with the exception perhaps of Karl Barth and maybe Thomas Aquinas, has thought so deeply about these things.

Then there is Life Together. I grew up, and still am, something of a loner. There is part of me that thinks I have always been longing for Rivendell–a place of feasting and conversation, story and song, quiet conversation and great councils. Certainly, I long for something of the life together Bonhoeffer describes and that I have experienced at various seasons of life, rich moments that lasted only for a time. I long for the time when there are no more good byes, no more partings, or moving ons. The feeling of a loner and the love of community is an unresolved tension I wonder if I will always live with this side of the grave.

I think Wendell Berry captures something of what we have lost in his “Port William membership.” It grieves me to see the ways people are alienated from each other. I long to see reconciliations like that in Cry the Beloved Country. It’s probably the middle child in me. Ultimately, I long as well to see people reconciled to God, to know that peace with God I found in my last years of high school and that has never parted from me.

I think I’ll stop writing for now–it really was an interesting question and one you might think about. It may just confirm what you know or may surprise you. There was a bit of both for me. When I have the chance, I love scanning the shelves of others, not only for interesting books but for what they reveal of my host. It is perhaps a good thing to turn that scan on oneself. You just might find someone very interesting on that shelf of your favorite books!

Review: Rhythms for Life

Rhythms for Life, Alastair Sterne. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: An approach to spiritual practices and a rule of life tailored to the unique identity, gifts, calling, and roles of each person.

Rhythms for Life joins an increasing field of books exploring spiritual practices and the idea of a rule of life. The author even includes a list of these books for further reading. What, then distinguishes this book?

I would contend that it is the first half of this book, coupled with the second half. The first half explores who has God made us to be. Sterne explores in successive chapters 1) identity, 2) gifts, talents, and personality, 3) virtuous values, 4) roles, and 5) vocation. The chapter stood out to me, defined as what we consider important and worthwhile, differentiating aspirational and actual values, how values are formed and transformed in Christ, and how we identify them.

Each of the chapters in the first part include a “workbook” section at the end beginning with prayer, identifying descriptive words that resonate, and asking a variety of questions to help one tease out and reflect on oneself. Doing this together in a group and inviting others to confirm or challenge your insights can be helpful.

The second part focuses on developing rhythms to live out our vocation based upon what we’ve learned about ourselves and our vocations. Sterne proposes four types of rhythms: 1) Up–Upward to God, 2) In–Inward to Self, 3) With–Withward in Community, and 4) Out–Outward in Mission. In these chapters there are brainstorming questions at the end of each section, rather than at the end of the chapter. Each of these chapters concludes with a sample set of rhythms organized around regular and seasonal rhythms and a growth rhythm.

In addition to the appendix on further resources, there is one on develop rhythms in community, and one on discerning a call to ministry.

Books have been written around the content in the first part. Others have been written around the practices of the second. What is unique is the idea of developing a rule of life around the self-knowledge gained in the first part. This sounds great in theory but I found the book short on ideas of how this translates in practice. Perhaps it just follows from working through the exercises. My own sense is that this is done best either with a spiritual director or a community of those who know and trust each other.

What is of value, it seems to me, are the insights gained by working through the first part of this. Knowing ourselves and knowing God walk hand in hand. And perhaps that helps us face honestly whether our spiritual practices are helping us engage with God and his calling in our lives.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Sense of an Ending

The sense of an ending

The Sense of an EndingJulian Barnes. New York: Vintage International, 2011.

Summary: A bequest that includes a letter and a diary forces a man in his sixties to examine the way he has remembered and conceived of his life.

One of the dangers of reaching one’s sixties is that you begin the process of remembering your life. What is often not considered is that the way we remember it, and tell it may be of our “best self” but not necessarily of our true self. We may not even be aware of it, but there are episodes that are edited out, things done and said that we shove in a mental drawer, or hide in a closet. This novel, a Man Booker prize winner by the author of the more recent fictional biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, The Noise of Time (reviewed here) is a finely written psychological exploration of our constructed memories that shield us from knowing our true selves.

Tony Weber is a retired, divorced late middle aged man living in London. The first part of his book is a remembering of his life. He begins with his adolescence in a boys school, and the heady mix of ideas and awakening sexuality that is part of this period. We meet his friends, Alex and Colin, and the fourth who joins this group, the philosophical Adrian. The boys part but stay in touch during college years. Tony reads history at Bristol while Adrian goes to Cambridge. Much of the story here involves Tony’s relationship with Veronica, his encounter with her “posh” family, and the mother who tries to warn him off her while making him eggs for breakfast. Tony and Veronica have a sexually frustrating relationship and only have intercourse after she breaks off with him. This leads to an even more messy conversation where she tries to get him to be real to her, real to himself. Eventually Veronica gets into a relationship with Adrian, who writes him asking leave for them to see each other. Adrian sends a reply that he doesn’t go into a lot of detail about, and then gets on with his life, going to America and traveling around with a girl for a few months and then parting. When he arrives home he learns that Adrian has committed suicide. Tony and his friends puzzle over this, move on and separate. Tony marries, has a daughter with whom he has a decent relationship, divorces Margaret, his wife, lives a reasonably successful life, and enjoys a quiet retirement of trips and volunteer work. Until…

He receives word one day that Veronica’s mother had died and left him a bequest of five hundred pounds, a letter, and a diary. The money he receives easily enough. The letter and diary are in the possession of Veronica, who will not yield them up, at first. The second half of the book describes a number of encounters, often ending with the refrain from Veronica, “You just don’t get it, do you? You never did and you never will.” First she sends a cryptic page from the diary. Then she gives him the letter, which turns out to be a brutally cruel letter, the letter he had written in response to Adrian’s letter, a letter he had white-washed in his mind.

He begins to see that the memory he has constructed of his life doesn’t fit the reality. Yet he is troubled by what he doesn’t get, and this takes him deeper, into his choice of “peaceableness,” of an unwillingness to feel pain or to take a risk to really live and be responsible for his life. I will not give away the secret why Veronica’s mother gave him the bequest or came to have the letter and diary. What it brings him to is a sobering alternative narrative of his life that he summarizes with these words:

“There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.”

This is a book that holds up a mirror to show us the false selves that we construct with our “best self” memories and the danger of a life lived embracing that false self. It seems to me that facing up to the false selves, the constructed memories, as painful as these are, may be better than living cluelessly. If nothing else, it makes us keenly aware of our need for redemption.

Know Thyself?

Sometimes I think that of all the things we try to understand in the world, the understanding of ourselves may be as challenging as anything. Why did I respond in that way to him? Why do I find it so hard to get motivated to work on that assignment? What do I want to be when I grow up? As I approach the end of my sixth decade, I’ve come to conclude that, at least in this life, I’ll never be done with asking these questions.

I’ve been reading Ron Highfield’s God, Freedom and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture. In the section I read today, Highfield talked about three levels of knowing. The first is the sensual level, where we learn about ourselves by our responses to sensory experiences–for example, I really like Buckeye Blitz ice cream. What we learn about our likes and dislikes and how we respond to various things can show us quite a bit but he argues can also become boring. The second level he proposes is the interpersonal. We learn quite a bit about ourselves as we relate to other human beings, who help us clarify things about our own identities in relationship to what we see of them. Yet the challenge here is that every person is finite and different from us. He contends for a third level of knowing, which is knowing ourselves in relationship to God.

The contention of this book is that the being of God does not threaten or diminish our sense of our dignity and identity. Many fear that the idea of God’s power or presence diminishes our sense of self-hood.  All this, Highfield argues, is based in a “competitive” view of God–kind of like a zero sum game where everything granted to God is a loss to us. Instead, Highfield proposes an eternally self-giving God who gives us existence not because of his need for us but his love for us, to exalt us with him. And, when it comes to self-knowledge, we most deeply find ourselves in the one who is our source, who knows us more deeply than ourselves, who loves us, and who has drawn us to himself in Christ.

This reminds me of the opening to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion where he writes:

“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

Calvin thought these two inextricably bound together, and it seems this author is proposing something similar. One of the things I’m wondering, and it is a serious question, is what an atheist account of self-understanding would look like–would it consist only of Highfield’s first two levels, or is there something else that would be added?