We are – at a collective level – deeply committed to the idea of overcoming and resolving problems. We want to banish pain and cure ourselves of the ills of being human.
But there’s another less prominent yet highly relevant tradition which doesn’t suppose that a share of our most serious problems can ever really be solved. Dying, missing out, failing, losing are simply very often not going to be amenable to ‘solutions’ of the sort a scientific and technological age asks us to put our faith in.
The Romantic impulse is to insist that every genuine ill must have an equally potent cure. When facing hardship, we should – we are told – redouble our efforts, and never rest until we have altered our destinies. We must rage against the obstacles arrayed against us and overcome them through a bold and stubborn force of will.
Such messages have their place but they may also, at points, be indistinguishable from cruelty. Kindness does not only lie in pushing other people towards solutions, it is also made up of a willingness to console them for the awful but unavoidable presence of tragedy.
The word ‘consolation’ does not have a good reputation. It sounds like a loser’s counsel, something we would be interested in only when other and better options had been exhausted. Yet in relation to some of the largest challenges, consolation is what we need above all else. There will at many junctures just be no solutions, and yet we can vitally be helped nevertheless. We can be comforted by a sense that we are not alone in our suffering, that others care for us inordinately, that many have been here before and that there are reasons – however dark and appalling – for why we have ended up in this place. Consolation doesn’t seek to tell us that our problems are minor or can be ingeniously worked through. Rather, it dismantles our excessive remaining hopes and reinterprets our particular misery as a feature of a universal and ultimately unavoidable story of woe.
Consolation invites us to look with tenderness on the generic sorrows of humanity of which we have, in time, been allotted our necessary share. Consolation aspires to turn rage and confusion into melancholy.