Waves Of Grief

Andrea Woodhouse, who was in Indonesia when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit a decade ago, reflects on the connection between grief and catastrophe:

In her book Upheavals of Thought, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that emotion is bound up with intelligence: it is not opposed to rationality but rather at its center. Feelings such as love and sorrow are finely tuned responses to judgments about what is true and valuable in the world. As such, our beliefs about the outer world can condition the experience of the inner: they affect not only the way we behave, but how we feel. If I believe in God and an afterlife, for example, I might feel grief differently from someone who does not. The name we give our emotion will be the same, but my grief may contain some hope.

I wondered if this might be true too about grief in the face of catastrophe. Was it that in the face of social expectation people in [the province of] Aceh sought to overcome emotion and control how they behaved? Or did catastrophe overturn something about the emotion itself? I wondered if the vast weight of the tsunami made small the space for grieving. It was as if each person’s grief took the measure of itself and shrank to fit the space left over by the sorrow of others. And so the human spirit flourished instead, and in this there lived a kind of beauty.