Cafe Plaka on a Monday afternoon is entirely different to Saturday, when it was bathed in sunlight and full of life and chatter, so busy that we had been unable to get a table on the terrace upstairs. Today, I feel comfortable being here on my own. I think I’m adjusting slowly to a new degree of solitude. It’s not that I’m unaccustomed to being on my own – my work is often solitary – but since losing Mark I feel my aloneness very keenly. Although I enjoy sitting reading or writing as I am today, but I have to be watchful or pain and grief could flow into, and dominate, all my time alone.
I’ve been reading Simone Weil’s essay on The Self in an anthology of her work, where she addresses suffering, redemptive suffering and affliction. How different Weil’s writings are compared to some of the books about grief I’ve been reading, which focus on recovery, the healing of the self, the discovery of the new ‘I’ that is emerging from the catastrophe of loss.
Some of them I’ve found useful, but I like reading Weil because she roots her ideas in life, politics and a consideration of the other rather than in developing a self-focused, self-improving philosophy – and provokes me to think about love and personhood in a wider context with paragraphs like this:
We possess nothing in the world – a mere chance can strip us of everything – except the power to say ‘I’. That is what we have to give to God – in other words to destroy. There is absolutely no other free act which is given us to accomplish – only the destruction of the ‘I’.
A lot of Weil’s writing was done during the Second World War, and like many writers of the time, she was concerned about Totalitarianism in all its forms, including Nazism, Communism and the Church and was seeking insight into how that power might be constrained. She sought not only to write about the restraint of power, but to live her life accordingly.
But although she talks about destruction and annihilation of the self, Weil’s concept of attention towards affliction and suffering suggests that something more active is required of our engagement with the other if love is to reanimate the ‘I’ says Weil, warning that the love we give “must be love that is pure without the slightest trace of condescension”.
My experience of love has been of something very gentle and attentive, a love that isn’t just for the ideal self, but gives space to, and accepts the other’s vulnerabilities, listens to the expressions of hurt and woundedness, even if it is uncomfortable to do so. You can’t expect to get it right all the time, and will hurt and be hurt by such failures – but if you are quick to acknowledge and set it right, then love and trust can continue to flourish. Weil sees love as an objective, impersonal attribute, but it’s the fact it requires an ‘I’ to give it to the other that also makes love so precious. It’s the substance of ourselves that we must draw on in order to be present to and love the other, to give ourselves to their desire to be loved and not to be hurt. To give the kind of love that can, as Weil suggests, reanimate the ‘I’ is costly, ultimately, it doesn’t destroy us, but only leaves space for more love to fill and increases our capacity to give it.