Thoughts on Time, Grief, and the Self

I would like to begin by considering two radically different pictures. First, consider the original notion of an atom: a kind of indestructible, unchanging, simple. That is, because it had no smaller parts, i.e., it was simple, and it was further then taken to be indestructible and unchangeable, since to be destroyed or changed, it would require smaller parts that could be taken away or replaced. Now imagine such an atom moving through the world, interacting with various things, but not being affected or changed by those interactions. Throughout all of its interactions and relationships with other things, it remains exactly what it is, this singular, unchanging atom. It hangs out with other atoms for various times, but then moves on, unchanged by the interactions.

Alternatively, consider another picture. Consider a seed that falls from a tree, catches the wind, and lands a ways away on the ground. With the air, light, and moisture it comes into contact with, it begins to change, sending down a tiny shoot that will form a root and opening up to the sky, to the embrace of light. Over time it interacts with, enters into deep relations with, the earth, the air, the sun, water, and even other organisms, such as fungi that form a symbiotic relationship with its root system—and we should not forget gravity, space, and time, all necessary to its existence. One summer there is a drought, and the young tree nearly dies. Ten years later it is still stunted from that summer and near death. But the soil is rich and the sun and water plentiful, and so it grows after many years to a great height. At one point though lightning strikes it, causing a split down its trunk. This doesn’t kill it but it forever alters the life of the tree.

What is the primary difference between these pictures? From my perspective it is that the atom’s nature, what it is, how it is, is intrinsic to it. That is, aside from its origin (if it has one), it is causally unconditioned by the world. The world does not leave its mark on its features, for it has no features, being a simple atom. The tree on the other hand, is what it is in complete dependence on the rest of the world. The kind of tree it is of course depends on its parent, but leaving aside its origin, we see that every aspect of the tree, its height, its girth, how healthy it is, the extent of its roots, the strength of the wood, etc., are all dependent, all conditioned, by the environment over time. If the tree had grown up and lived in an altogether different environment, even as the same seed, it would be a very different tree. Over time, the way it grew, the way its “being” enlarged would have been quite different. This is not at all the case with the atom.

And, so, let us now turn to a consideration of the self. While I think that the idea or concept of “self” is non-univocal, i.e., has multiple senses, I do think we can speak generally and usefully of the self. And here by “self,” I “simply” mean that which one takes oneself to be. For example: I am so-and-so, who was born here, loves this person, reads books, doesn’t watch sports, grew up here, and wants to one day live there—it is that self that is of concern when one contemplates one’s mortality. I take it that that is sufficiently clear for us to work with, even though there are a ridiculous number of complications that we could consider.

Given this notion of self, how do we think of ourselves? That is, do we consider them to be, do we act like they are, the atom or the tree? My impression is that we, usually unconsciously, go back and forth between these conceptions, these pictures. In some moments we recognize that we are radically different people than we were fifteen years ago, and that those differences are due to our experiences, our interactions and relationships with others and the world. Yet other times we talk and act as though we were unchanging atoms, unproblematically and exactly the same now as we were then. We do this when we find in a box a book that we read as a child and we think about how it was when we first read it as a child, how we would play in the woods as our favorite character. The person that is now holding the book just taken from the box is exactly the same person as the person who held it thirty years ago, just as the Morning Star and the Evening Star are exactly the same, namely, both are the planet Venus—one and the same, exactly. And we do it when we feel guilty about something we did years ago, accepting the responsibility for the actions of a person very different from who we are now, for we think that that is still exactly us.

I have been writing as though these different pictures or clearly and cleanly distinguished and distinguishable in our lives. But I suspect that the way we go back and forth between them, and often actually assume both simultaneously, makes their boundaries much more fluid than my description of them. And, indeed, the picture of the atom that I have described is not meant to be taken literally; its point is that we live with a picture of ourselves as persisting unchanged through time as the selfsame person, where same is the kind of same, the kind of identity, of the Morning Star and the Evening Star. With this caveat admitted, let us consider these ideas in the context of grief.


It has been seven and a half years since my ex-wife, Jennie, killed herself. As anyone would, I have struggled to figure out how to move forward in life, particularly as her death has been a kind of black hole, whose gravity warps time and space and seeks to encompass everything, pulling everything toward it. However, part of that struggle has been with myself and whether I have grieved appropriately, whether I have grieved enough, particularly as that black hole, seemingly impossibly, has slowly become more and more distant. In this context, I want to focus on one particular aspect of grief. I want to focus on the way in which time changes our response to loss. I want to focus on the way we can feel guilty as a result of our perceived slacking off of sadness, guilt, loss, as we slip further toward forgetfulness. I am reminded of the experience of playing in the ocean; after a while, you look back to the spot where your towel and things are supposed to be and they’re gone. The current has slowly carried you down the beach without your noticing and there is a moment of panic regarding what has happened to your things. Time does this; we do this no matter how hard we try to pay attention, no matter how mindful we are, how much we remind ourselves of what is important.

As loss slips further away, so does our memory of the time spent with those lost. We are forever changed and can never forget, yet the times when they and their death are not the first and last thought of the day, the periods of focusing on other things without remembrance of them or what is lost, become more and more frequent and easily sustained. And here it is so terribly easy to feel guilty, to feel that one’s soul must be flawed to be capable of such forgetfulness, which must, after all, be due to some sort of selfishness. Whatever the details of the guilt, it arises all-too-easily at various moments and in different ways.

What I want to do is to suggest that part of the reason we are so hard on ourselves in these contexts, and it is only a part of the reason, is that here we are leaning hard on the picture of the self as a kind of unchanging atom. Whether it is one day or seven years after their death, we are the same and if our response to the loss changes, then we are to blame. However, if we acknowledge that there is an aspect of us akin to the atom in that we are, in some sense, the “same” person over time, while realizing that our nature is much closer to that of the seed growing into the tree, then we can get into a better position to understand the effects of time on our grieving. We should ask: Who died? Who was the immediately bereaved? Who is the bereaved now?

While there may be broad brushed themes that unify our lives—for example, my studying, my ongoing concern with, philosophy—our projects, our concerns, our desires and goals, all change in large and subtle ways over time. Seven years ago when Jennie died, I was living in Washing, DC, with my then ex-girlfriend (we had separated but not separated our lives yet), teaching as an adjunct at George Washington University and the Catholic University of America, while working part-time as a projectionist at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. I wanted a fulltime, tenure track position, but having just broken up with my girlfriend and contemplating what to do about Jennie who had tried committing suicide two weeks or so before, I did not know what I was about to do, where I was going to go. Today, I am a tenured professor at the University of North Georgia, happily married again, living not far from where I grew up, closer to relatives, etc. My concerns, interests, goals, projects, today are informed by my experience with Jennie when she was alive, but also her death, which has profoundly shaped me, as has my relationship with Sam, my wife, and all I have done since.

Further, in the context of my Buddhist practice, I have come to see that when I reflect back on my time in Iowa City with Jennie, when I think back to our many walks together in the woods, prairies, and wetlands, when I miss those times, what I miss is not just Jennie, but rather an entire world. What I mean is that just as the tree is what it is because of its history in its environment, so, too, Jennie was who she was because of her history and the because of the world that was then. All that we talked about and did was in the context of the world at that time. The war in Iraq and George W. Bush’s presidency caused us, say, to reflect and talk about government, power, war, violence, etc., instead of what we would have talked about if he wasn’t president or if we had not invaded Iraq. And, so, I see that everything said and done in those moments that I miss, and the person herself that I miss, they are all interdependent with the rest of the world at that time and all the times going back that inform them, that causally and conceptually condition them. Who and what she was was coextensive with the rest of the world.

It may seem that I have gone astray from my stated purpose. But the point is that when we fully appreciate the way in which we are much more akin to the tree than to the simple atom, the who and what we are radically changes. Just as the tree’s Being grows over time, quite literally in size, and is what it is completely in interdependence with the world, so, too, does my Being, my person, my identity, who I am, change and grow over time in complete interdependence with the rest of the world. My Being, my person, is not static. I am not some indestructible, unchanging pebble of existence at the bottom of the stream of time—the waters separate from me, merely rushing over me. When my responses to the black hole of Jennie’s absence from the world change, when my grief goes through phases, when my grief slackens over time and I feel a growing distance between now and then that is more than the accumulation of days, I need to keep in mind that I am far more akin to the tree than to the atom. Who I am today is literally different from who I was then, all while being in some sense still the same. Paraphrasing the 13th century Zen Master Dōgen, I am not the same but not different from my past self; we are not one but not two. This is the temporal paradox of life. The self seems to slip away with time, but really, the self is simply time unfolding with nothing truly slipping away. For every aspect of now is interdependent with every aspect of then, all of the past, all of the “things,” all of the events that led to now swallowed up by this moment, making it what it is.

Thus, I think that we must be gentle with ourselves in the context of grief, of life. We cannot expect who we are now to feel exactly as we did then. Not simply because our memories fade or we get distracted by things, but because who we are over time is not the same. We are not simply atoms that remain the self-same over time and who betray past commitments. Yet we do not simply become different either, like some cat who has been transformed into a dog. So, we should be gentle with ourselves, recognizing that while we are the same we are different people with different needs, goals, friends, loved ones, etc. And a consoling consequence of the way all of this works is that nothing is ultimately lost either; every word I write right now is due to everything I did in the past. All of that is right here. And everything I did in the past was due to everything else that everyone else had done in the past (and this is not a denial of free will). And this “everything” can be extended back in time to the evolution of life on earth, the evolution of the universe. All of that is right here, right now. And, yet, of course it’s gone, too. This is time, this is being, this is life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *