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A Philosophical Guide to Coping with Life, Death, and Sour Grapes

Can you have hope in the face of death? For believers this is somewhat easier, but non-theists require a different set of philosophical tools.

Luc Bovens: Well my name is Luc Bovens. I’m teaching at the London School of Economics and I’m actually going to make a move, I'm coming back to the States and I’ll take up a position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the first of January. And last year or last fall I was in the Hope and Optimism Project in Cornell University and I was very excited to be part of this because I’m currently working on a book project. The book is called 'Coping: A Philosophical Guide'. So what I would like to do is actually bring out a lot of the work that I’ve been doing in moral psychology over the last 20 years and to put it in a format that is accessible to the public, to the general public.

And so the main idea of the book project is the following—well, let me start with this: there is this well-worn prayer of Niebuhr and it says that, 'God gave us the courage to change what we can change, and the serenity to accept what we can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two.'

And I think this is actually a false dichotomy, because there is something in between accepting the things that we can’t change and changing the things that we are able to change; having the courage to change the things that we are able to change. And what comes in between actually is precisely sort of having a kind of control over the mind. And now hoping is exactly the sort of thing that fits in the space in between courage and serenity.

You’re not changing the world and you’re not just merely accepting things. You’re developing some kind of attitude of coping with hardships, and that’s precisely, I think, what this hoping is all about. Now I think hoping is actually just one of the things that fits in the space between this courage and serenity.

Another thing that I’ve been exploring over the years is what’s often called sour grapes, right. Now sour grapes has a little bit of a bad rap but if you think about it, what you’re really doing—or what the fox is doing when he can’t reach for the grapes, and he turns his back and he says, “Oh, those grapes are sour,”—you can interpret this in many ways and actually when you think of this fable, it’s been written and rewritten in many ways. It may be the case that the fox just says, “Look, you know, these grapes are not ripe yet.” Then he’s actually changing his beliefs in order to deal with his frustration.

But in other versions he actually says, “Look, I don’t really like grapes,” so it seems like he’s changing his taste. He’s changing his desires. That’s a different thing. And then the third thing that the fox might be doing is he says, “Oh, you know, grapes are really for the lowlife animals in the woods.” Then he’s kind of framing the whole thing. So often I think when we’re trying to deal with hardships in life, we’re changing our beliefs, we’re changing our desires or we frame things differently. And depending on what you’re doing, these things are either more or less problematic. I think people often have problems with changing your beliefs at will. Whereas changing the frame with which you look at things in order to make things more acceptable, that seems to be a perfectly alright thing to do.

I mean at one point, actually going back to Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations'—see Marcus Aurelius had this history of spending a lot of time with soldiers in barracks where, really, where he wanted to be was in Rome, hanging out with people in high society. But he says, 'Look, when you find yourself in a situation like that you have to come to love the people with whom your fate is cast. And you have to love them truly.'

So the idea is he changes his desires. He changes the way that he frames the situation in order to make it acceptable to him. And again that’s a form of coping.

So I’m doing a chapter on hoping. I’m doing a chapter on coping. And then I also try to explore these ideas in context where it seems like there’s a lot of need for them. Like one thing I’m doing currently is I’m thinking about how it is that people cope with death. And there is of course a lot of talk of hoping for salvation and an afterlife and so on, but I really want to think about the idea of what kind of hopes, what kind of secular hopes, that we can have in the face of death.
And so I try to look at various components and sort of make a taxonomy of the sort of hopes that people have in the face of death.

Like for one thing, I think people hope that their life was worthwhile somehow. And I started thinking about this because a friend of mine, he’s in his late seventies right now, he was a medical doctor and he is currently in his retirement working on a family tree. And he says to me at a certain point, he says, “You know, the only thing that I’m proud about in my life is this family tree that I made.”

And I said, well how is this possible? I mean look, being a philosopher we’re kind of envious of the medical profession in a way because it seems so easy for them to answer the question, “Do you do something meaningful in life?"

I said, “Well what about your patients?” And he says, “Oh, my patients,” he says, “you know, they’re all dead or they’re going to die soon anyway.” And I thought that was really interesting because it seems like the only thing that he thought would make his life worthwhile are things that would remain past his death. And, to me, family trees and genealogy and so on is a little bit like train-spotting so I can’t get too excited about it, but I’m definitely envious of people who have spent their life in the medical profession.

So then I started thinking about, “How is it that we hope that our lives will be worthwhile?” And it seems to me that there is this difference between thinking about a worthwhile life in terms of projects that will extend over the moment of your death versus thinking about having done great things in life which can be purely ephemeral.

So I’m thinking about a DJ who threw fantastic parties. You could say, 'Look, nothing of it remains,' but at the same time that party, that night, that was a fantastic thing to do.

Whereas artists in general think about leaving a legacy that goes beyond their death. There’s an interesting quote by Keats which, you know, Keats died young of TB, and when he realizes that he’s going to die, then he says, “I haven’t been able to make a mark in life,” and that bothered him. But he says, “I’ve always lived my life according to an aesthetic principle.” And I think that’s quite interesting too, because you can think of your life being worthwhile in terms of ephemeral projects that you’ve done, in terms of projects that will extend over your death, but also in terms of living in a particular mode, right. Living a particular style of life. Maybe a life of self-forgetfulness. Maybe a life of other-orientedness or, in the case of Keats, living a life in accordance with an aesthetic principle. So that’s sort of the idea of hoping that you’ve lived a worthwhile life. But I think there’s other hopes that we have too. Other secular hopes that we have too. In general, we just have hopes for the future, right. I mean, there is this saying, you know: 'After me, the downfall,' but we all feel like there’s something wrong with that. You should have hopes for a better future. In addition to that, I think we also hope not just to have lived well but also we hope to die well.

Now that goes back all the way to Aristotle. You know Aristotle actually thought that dying on the battlefield, that was really something to strive for. And this may seem a little bit outdated to us but it’s interesting when you notice his justification for it. So he says, 'It’s a good thing to die on the battlefield because there you can show off your prowess and you can also be doing something noble, something that would have an effect after your life.' And I think people like this idea of dying in a way that is in accordance with the way that they’ve lived. And so we want to live our lives, and I think we want to die in a way that is reflective of the way that we lived and we want to leave some kind of legacy as well towards the future. There’s a lot of interesting debate going on recently in the Netherlands—I mean euthanasia is legalized in the Netherlands—but the debate right now is whether, if somebody gets a diagnosis of cancer, whether they can have a very early euthanasia, because of they wait too long none of their organs will be any good anymore. And so they ask to be euthanized earlier because they want to be organ donors. And it’s the same thing: you want your death to be worthwhile in some way.

Life throws us curveballs that test our ability to cope, but perhaps none is more curvy than the end of life itself. Philosopher Luc Bovens examines the idea of secular hope, the forms it takes, and the function of it. He asks: what does it mean to live a meaningful life, and is it possible to die as well as you lived?

This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. For more on Luc Bovens, go here.

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