November 2 is All Souls’ Day, when many Christians honor the dead. As much as we all know about the inevitability of death, we are often unable to deal with the loss of a loved one.
Our modern-day worldview could also make us believe that loss is something we should be able to quickly get over, to move on with our lives. Many of us see grieving as a kind of impediment to our ability to work, live and thrive.
As a scholar of Chinese philosophy, I spend much of my time reading, translating and interpreting early Chinese texts. It is clear that dealing with loss was a major concern for early Chinese philosophers.
So, what can we learn from them today?
Zhuangzi butterfly dream. Ike no Taiga (Japan, 1723-1776), via Wikimedia Commons
Two influential philosophers who reflected on these issues were Zhuang Zhou and Confucius. Zhuang Zhou lived in the fourth century B.C. and is traditionally credited with writing one of the most important texts of the Daoist philosophy, “Zhuangzi.”
Confucius, who lived more than a century before Zhuang Zhou, had his teachings compiled in a text written by later students, commonly known in the West as the “Analects of Confucius.”
On the face of it, these two philosophers offer very different responses to the “problem” of death.
Zhuang Zhou offers us a way to eliminate grief, seemingly consistent with the desire to quickly get beyond loss. In one story, Zhuang Zhou’s friend Hui Shi meets him just after Zhuang Zhou’s wife of many years has died. He finds Zhuang Zhou singing joyously and beating on a drum. Hui Shi upbraids him and says:
This person lived with you for many years, and grew old and died. To fail to shed tears is bad enough, but to also beat on drums and sing – is this not inappropriate?
Zhuang Zhou replies that when his wife first died, he was as upset as anyone would be following such a loss. But then he reflected on the circumstances of her origins – how she came to be through changes in the elements that make up the cosmos. He was able to shift his vision from seeing things from the narrowly human perspective to seeing them from the larger perspective of the world itself.
He realized that her death was just another of the changes of the myriad things constantly taking place in the world. Just as the seasons progress, human life generates and decays.
In reflecting on life in this way, Zhuang Zhou’s grief disappeared.