'People are the key to our source of hope': Michael Ignatieff explores consolation

In the face of death, disappointment or fear we look for meaning, a sense of order, and consolation to help us carry on. Michael Ignatieff, in a public forum with Nahlah Ayed for the Toronto Public Library, discusses his book, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times.

'Consolation attempts to give you the meaning to reassess what you've been through and see it anew.'

Michael Ignatieff’s latest book, On Consolation, is an exploration of the search for meaning and consolation in uncertain times. (Paul Musso/Random House Canada)

*Originally published on Feb. 7, 2022.

Humankind has always looked for meaning, and sought comfort and consolation when that meaning seems absent. In the face of death, disappointment or fear, we yearn for solace.

Michael Ignatieff explores how great figures from the past confronted their own fears and tribulations — and found the courage to carry on. That confrontation is the focus of his most recent book, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times — a series of essays inspired by his own experience in hearing a musical setting of the Psalms. 

Ignatieff is the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and currently president of Central European University in Vienna. He is the author of several books, including The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World

He spoke to IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed in an online forum sponsored by the Toronto Public Library.

Here is an excerpt from their conversation.

Nahlah Ayed: It's very timely this exploration that you've undertaken. So many people are suffering and looking for consolation. And it's rare, it seems to me, that most of us around the world are facing the same crisis, searching for consolation at the same time for many of the same reasons. I'm wondering what you think the implications are of that? 

Michael Ignatieff: I think the implications are huge. I think we've all had a lot of time with ourselves and with our loved ones. It's tested the resilience of our deepest relationships. I mean, I've suddenly measured the cost of being away from my children, for example. My children live in Toronto and in London. I miss them and because we are not physically present, I felt a stretching of my relationship with my kids. 

Conversely, I've felt much closer to my wife as a result because we've been together for two years, depending on each other. I think many families out there are experiencing this: moments of strain in some places, and moments of coming together. But always, I think COVID has tested our human relationships as never before. 

How does it test the potential for consolation, the fact that so many of us are seeking it at the same time? 

I think we've discovered our hunger and need for consolation in a way that's come as a surprise. I remember that first period of the COVID lockdown in April/May 2020, suddenly seeing around the world doors opening at a certain time, and people going out and applauding the workers, the wonderful people on balconies in Italy singing to each other across the street — and then looking at the way artists, poets, writers began to use the internet to reach out.

I can remember being incredibly touched by an orchestra in Rotterdam playing Beethoven's Ode To Joy on earphones because they couldn't be in the same room. I thought, 'Wow, this is so comforting to see people seeking comfort,' and I thought that was pretty wonderful. 

You write in your book that today suffering is seen as an illness. And that when suffering becomes understood as an illness with a cure, that something is lost. What is it that's lost? 

The sense that suffering goes with the territory. I don't ever want to indulge in suffering, and I want to get over it as quickly as I can. But I think the sense that you're not ill when you're suffering, you're going through one of life's inevitable and necessary passage, I think is helpful. 

You know, I've had moments in my life when my suffering, my state of mind was so messed up that I had to go and seek therapy. Nothing I'm saying is against therapy or any medical help you can get for real distress because there are moments when we're just overwhelmed, we just can't manage it. And I've certainly been through that. But I've learned to see difficult times as just part of the business of being here. And that then changes you. You ride with it. You go with the wave. You wait for it to pass with some confidence that this is just part of the amazing business of being alive. 

Michael Ignatieff pays homage to emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius. In his Meditations Marcus Aurelius writes, 'Living is more like wrestling than dancing. You have to stay on your feet ready and unruffled while blows are being rained down on you. Sometimes from unexpected quarters.' (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The question you seem to be asking yourself in this book is what exactly does it mean to be consoled? What do you think it means? 

I think it's the feeling: a) that what you're going through has meaning, it's not just meaningless. To console someone is to try to give meaning to their suffering. And (b): meaning so that they can go on. So there's a connection between consolation and hope. That's very important when you've been crushed by failure, when you've been crushed by defeat, when you've been crushed by grief and loss.

There is a feeling of total solitude, you're cut off from the world to console yourself, to restore your connection to the world and restore your connection to meaning, and to restore slowly your relation to hope — and by hope, I don't mean big panorama, high altitude hope. I just simply mean something very specific. The belief that you can and will go on, there will be another day, a better day. That sense of hope is, I think, fundamental of being alive and you can lose it. To console yourself is to regain that.

You do say that hope is an essential element to consolation. And you also say that 'it is the belief that we can recover from loss, defeat and disappointment, and that the time that remains to us, however short, offers us possibilities to start again. Failing, perhaps. But as Beckett said, "failing better." It is the hope that allows us, even in the face of tragedy, to remain unbowed.'

What's the mechanism? How does hope allow us to remain unbowed? 

Sometimes the things that hit us are bigger than we are and we get flattened. So the hope comes from other people. When I wrote the book [it was] partly to recover these stories of extraordinary human beings who face situations and difficulties much worse than anything I or most of us have ever faced, and somehow came through with a sense of hope and belief.

So the hope comes from other people, and I've had countless occasions in which people gave me the hope to go on, from my most intimate circle, my wife, for example, my kids, for example, my dad and mom when they were alive. This is what we do for each other. We keep each other going. This book has been, not a process of discovery, but a process of affirming just how much I depend upon and need other people to get through this wonderful experience called being alive. People are the key to our source of hope, I think.

Just so we understand the specific reference to that word and to delineate it away from other words that are similar. You say that it's possible to be comforted, but not to be consoled. What's the difference? 

If you and I were together and something terrible had happened to you, I would comfort you just by putting my arm around you, if you'd allow that, and give you a hug. It's physical. I don't need to say anything. I just acknowledge that something bad has happened to you. So that's comfort. Comfort is physical, tactile. Just being with somebody.

A resident in a Rome nursing home holds her daughter's hand through a plastic screen in what's called the 'Hug Room,' during the COVID-19 pandemic, March 3, 2021. The Hug Room allows guests and their families to embrace while remaining protected, as a way to continue physical contact for mental and emotional well-being. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images)

Consolation is an attempt to give meaning to what you're going through. If you'd suffered some terrible blow, then I would have to try and say, 'Look, now this is why it happened. It's not your fault. You did your best or it happens to everybody.' All these cliches that we assemble when we try and console somebody will take some form like that, their attempt to give meaning to what you're going through.

Which is something more enduring, isn't it? 

Yes, and consolation should be more enduring. Comfort passes as soon as that hug is gone, you're left alone with yourself. Consolation attempts to give you the meaning to reassess what you've been through and see it anew, in a new light more positively and keep going. 

But I do want to stress, I haven't written a kind of "happy talk" book. A lot of this book is saying — there may be a lot of experiences for which we're properly inconsolable. There are some blows we receive in life, for which you can't give a meaning, you can't get better. You can only endure them.

And I do want to emphasize that because I think it's part of the dignity of being human, that we respect the inconsolable character of some people's experience. And that's something else that I learned from doing the project. 

Books mentioned in this episode:

On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times by Michael Ignatieff (Random House Canada, 2021)

The Needs of Strangers by Michael Ignatieff (Picador, 2001)

The Emperor's Handbook: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius translated by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks. (Scribner, 2002)

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume and edited by J. Gaskin (Oxford, 2008)

The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne, translated by M. A. Screech. (Penguin, 2019)

Cicero: Selected Works by Marcus Tullius Cicero, translated by Michael Grant (Penguin, 1974)

*Q&A edited for clarity and length. This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.

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