Children: The Familiar And Strange, The Known And Unknown

Parenting, and my relationship with my daughter, is persistently fraught by the presence of two seemingly incompatible states of affairs.

First, my child seems utterly familiar to me, the most intimately known person in our family: I was with her at her birth, and have been a companion and guardian since then, cleaning, bathing, feeding, escorting to school, playing with, teaching, comforting, advising, encouraging, ‘disciplining’ and so on. My daughter’s face, I have often said, seems to reflect my family album: sometimes, wistfully, I see glimpses of my father and mother; sometimes, I catch fleeting resemblances to cousins or nephews; on other occasions, miraculously enough, I see myself staring back at me. She is unmistakably, a recipient of my genetic material, a biological bond I have formed with the cosmos thanks to my relationship with her mother, and our joint decision to bring our child into this world.

And yet, for all of that, my child remains an utter mystery to me. To be confronted with her is to come face to face with the most profound question of all: Who is this person? When my daughter was younger, working through her terrible twos, her toddler stage, I used to  joke with my friends that while my daughter immediately took to her mother–the person who shared her body with her for nine months and then breastfed her for the next two–I had to ‘start from scratch’ and introduce myself, negotiating the parameters of a brand new relationship with a person who knew nothing about me. I could take nothing for granted in this relationship; I had, so to speak, to begin from the basement and work my way upwards, establishing myself as a presence in her life. Hopefully one to be loved and trusted. But it didn’t come for free; I couldn’t have it granted to me; I was dealing with an unknown quantity, as was she. And she is changing, in ways I cannot fully fathom and of course, cannot predict.

Most of this is utterly unsurprising to parents. Children, for their part, have long known that their parents are mysteries to them; indeed, when I think of how much my life had already transpired before my daughter met me,  of the little dribbles of information with which I seek to inform her of the kind of person I was, am, and am trying to become, I feel utterly defeated. As an immigrant parent, this task is particularly intractable. I will remain a mystery to her.

The nature of this relationship broadly understood is not radically dissimilar from that we enjoy with our lovers and friends: the most intimate of relationships is revealed to have acute perplexities at its heart, which have inspired countless poetic and philosophical flights of fancy: the encounter with another subjectivity, when we look into the eyes of the seemingly utterly familiar and find instead, the greatest mystery of all, one that we have merely deferred from our interiors to the external, and which serves to remind us of the task of discovery that waits within.

Mark Twain On The ‘Growing’ Wisdom Of Our Parents

Mark Twain is famously said to have revised his assessment of his parents’ wisdom:

When I was seventeen I was convinced my father was a damn fool. When I was twenty-one I was astounded by how much the old man had learned in four years.

Twain’s words speak to a crucial perspectival aspect of our life: our critical judgments are a function of our lived lives and experiences. We appreciate our parents doubly, if not many times more, when we finally become parents ourselves; we realize what their parenting experiences must have been like in their own complex particularity. The people we thought were experts (or sometimes,  less kindly, bumbling fools) were fumbling around themselves, learning the tricks of the parenting trade on the fly, making it up as they went along, sometimes getting it right, sometimes not. We realize how little we knew of them, just as we later realize with a start that our children know very little of us and will live their lives largely free of our presence and inspection and evaluation. We realize too, like Twain, that while our youthful impatience often led us to condemn our parents’ bumbling in matters that seemed straightforward to us, we did so because we did not understand the full dimensions of the problems that perplexed them. The facile solutions we had imagined for our ‘life problems’ had already been considered, rejected, and moved on from by our parents; we must, despite our reluctance, follow in their footsteps. That imperfect solution that so enraged us when we were young now strikes us as a masterful compromise, a skillful navigation between the Scylla and Charybdis of competing moral and parenting imperatives; we can only see that now because we have grown and learned and realized it as such. 

Twain notes too that the more we know, the more we realize we know very little. Moreover, our knowledge now makes our past more ignorant, and our assessments of the ignorance of others ever more flawed. By learning more, we realize how little we know and how much others know. This is especially true of academics who lose confidence as they progress through their PhD; gone is the cocky undergraduate who thought he knew everything; in his place stands the modest and humble grad who has learned how vast human knowledge is, how insuperable its problems, and how much everyone else knows in the fields in which he did not pursue further study; he learns that in his chosen field, many have explored its furthest reaches with diligence and creativity. We realize we have shrunk while the world has grown; the road we have set out on speaks of no end. 

Youth is wasted on the young; the wisdom of this claim is never more apparent than when we realize how we muddled around in our fogs of misconceptions and ignorance, even as it is true that while we are young, we were aware of truths we forget as we grow older. 

Philosophy Department As ‘Houses Of Healing,’ Not ‘Houses Of Production’

In ‘Two Pedagogies for Happiness: Healing Goals and Healing Methods in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas and the Śrī Bhāsyạ of Rāmānuja,’¹ Martin Ganeri (citing Paul Griffiths) writes:

[T]he root metaphor for scholastic intellectual practice is that of reading. The scholastic is one who is dominated by the text he studies, transformed by the text, and the scholastic institution is best described as a ‘house of reading.’ In contrast…the root metaphor for contemporary academia is that of writing. The contemporary academic is concerned with the production of texts, with getting things out in print, with being cited and getting academic credit for  his or her compositions. The university becomes a ‘house of production’ rather than a house of reading.²

….The scholastic approach challenges us to retrieve the idea of philosophy as transformative and pedagogical reading and to retrieve the idea of philosophical institutions as houses of this reading, so that they can also be houses of healing,houses for happiness.

The idea of philosophical institutions–like academic departments–being ‘houses of healing, houses for happiness’ is entrancing. As is the suggestion above by Ganeri of ‘retriev[ing] the idea of philosophy as transformative and pedagogical reading.’ I note this with some poignancy; when initially I began my graduate studies in philosophy I had hoped for philosophy to be ‘healing’ and ‘transformative’ and indeed, therapeutic. But I was, all too soon, consumed by the idea of academic philosophy being the business of writing and the prolific ‘production of texts.’ Indeed, the most common complaint from academic philosophers–a curious one, you’ll agree–is that they never have time to read anything, because they are too busy writing. Most academic philosophers will proudly claim they have no time to read fiction; if you are spotted reading something not directly academic, it is not unusual to be asked, “What are you reading that for” i.e., Which text being generated by you requires that ‘unconventional’ text as raw material? (I was once asked this because I was carrying around a copy of C.P Snow‘s ‘Two Cultures.’) 

Many are the academics who would like to slow down and ‘just read for a bit’; read all those ‘classic’ and ‘great’ authors and texts they refer to, chase down those footnotes to those beguiling sources that promise further exploration of a tantalizing corner of inquiry. But no one has the time–they need to write, to publish. They don’t have time to read your work in progress, which is why I always thank, profusely, those who do make time to perform this noble task, and they do not have time to read outside of their narrow field of specialization. And they most certainly do not have the time or institutional and disciplinary incentives to think about pursuing philosophy as a transformative and therapeutic process. All of which is, in a crucial sense, a betrayal of the promise of philosophy, its notion of unbridled inquiry, its potential to aid in self-understanding-and-construction.      


  1. In ‘Philosophy as Therapiea’ – Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement #66
  2. Paul Griffiths, ‘Scholasticism: The Possible Recovery of an Intellectual Practice,’ in Scholasticism: Cross-cultural and
    Comparative Perspectives, pp. 201-235.

Kierkegaard On Being Educated By Possibility (And Anxiety)

In The Concept of Anxiety, Soren Kierkegaard writes

Whoever is educated by anxiety is educated by possibility, and only he who is educated by possibility is educated according to his infinitude. Therefore possibility is the weightiest of all categories….in possibility all things are equally possible, and whoever has truly been brought up by possibility has grasped the terrible as well as the joyful. So when such a person graduates from the school of possibility, and he knows better than a child knows his ABC’s that he can demand absolutely nothing of life and that the terrible, perdition, and annihilation live next door to every man, and when he has thoroughly learned that every anxiety about which he was anxious came upon him in the next moment-he will give actuality another explanation, he will praise actuality, and even when it rests heavily upon him, he will remember that it nevertheless is far, far lighter than possibility was. [Chapter V, ‘Anxiety as Saving Through Faith’)

All too often in this ‘profound and byzantine’ work¹, Kierkegaard is elliptical. Here, he hits a sustained note of lucidity. That ‘all things are equally possible’ – especially from the standpoint of human uncertainty, epistemic limitation and capacity – is a truly terrifying thought; for we know that within ‘all things’ are truly included all things, good and evil, painful and pleasurable. There is no limitation here, save that of logic and that of conceptual imagination. Monsters lurk here, as do angels. Here, indeed, be dragons. To grasp the terrible as well as the joyful here is to grasp that life is not bounded normatively or physically by these; there are no boundaries beyond which the terrible cannot advance, no wall that can hold it back; there is no specified interval for joys to last, they may be as fleeting and ephemeral as the lightest of our quicksilver fancies.

To be educated by this knowledge, to be truly educated by the journey here, one must plumb its depths, and soar into and above its heights. Here anxieties acquire shape and form, crystallizing into fears; here, within the space of possibility, as we look around at its curling edges we see abysses lurking–these indicate the limits of our imagination, beyond which monsters worse than the ones our minds have been able to conjure up find their abode. 

To retreat from this space into that of actuality, the lived empirical life, is to arrive suitably chastened by the realization that we had ever dared demand from this world any consolation whatsoever; we learn to give thanks for the spaces of possibility that have been realized in our lives to our favor; this actual, realized, world for all its terrors, is still less onerous than the world whose contours we had so vividly and powerfully sketched as we traversed the spaces of possibility. It is our memory and our understanding of possibility – another name for anxiety – that weighs us down in the actual; the closer we look possibility in the face–as the Stoics too, urged us to do–the more of a home we find in actuality, which for all its terrors, is still only a subset of the possible.   


  1. Gordon Marino in the New York Times

Getting Pulled Over; A Teachable Moment

Last week, while driving in Ketchum, Idaho, I was pulled over for speeding (driving 36 mph in a 25-mph zone.) The traffic stop proceeded along expected lines: the police car switched on its flashing red and blue lights as it sidled up behind me, I pulled over to the side of the road, the policeman walked over and asked for my driver’s license and vehicle registration and insurance etc. After I handed those over, I was treated to a brief lecture on the need to observe posted speed limits; I apologized, received a warning, and resumed my journey to a local trailhead. 

This little incident was watched, with considerable interest, by my seven-year old daughter, sitting in the backseat. 

After the policeman had driven off in his cruiser, and as we began driving toward our planned hike, I asked my daughter what she made of the encounter she had just witnessed. She said that she’d been a little frightened as the police scare her, but she was happy all had ended well. I asked her why she was scared of the police, and she replied that she’d heard–probably from family conversations–of the terrible things they often do to people they detain, search, arrest or imprison. I then said to her that she’d witnessed an important part of her training and acculturation as a legal subject: she’d learned an important lesson about the reach and power of the law. It was an essential part of her growing up in a ‘legal society,’ in ‘a land of laws, not men.’

For in witnessing an uniformed police officer pull over her father, my daughter had learned that her father, the supposed co-master of the domestic dominion along with her mother, one who regulated most details of her life, was subject to a power greater than his: that of the state, and its armed, uniformed representatives, the police. She’d seen her father, an authority apparently unquestioned –except by her mother, interrupted in his ventures, commanded to cease and desist whatever it was he was doing, reduced to the role of a polite, deferential subject, one only too willing to be inconvenienced by a perfect stranger who just happened to be wearing a gun and a badge. She’d witnessed a presumed regulatory order come crumbling down, replaced by a far more far-reaching, powerful, and certainly impressive one. Nothing in my parenting arsenal of the raised voice, the disapproving tone, the wagging finger, can compete with the starched uniform, the holstered weapon, the flashing lights, the dramatic intervention in a public space. She saw me defer; she saw me obey; she saw me comply. (I’m unfailingly polite with armed police; I am, after all, a brown man with an accent.) 

My daughter was in fact, witnessing a species of social construction at work: the sustenance and promulgation of an ideology of law, one essential component of which is to remind the legal subjects of the reach and extent of legal power in showy, public, demonstrations of it. All those who drove by on Highway 75 while I was receiving my little re-education learned a little lesson too; but the most important spectators were the children, legal subjects in training. Children must learn their parents, while powerful, are not the supreme regulators of their lives, the state is. Secular citizens are especially impressed by such displays of the power of the law–there is a new Supreme Force in town, and it wears a blue uniform. 

The Seize The Moment Podcast On Philosophy And Anxiety

Last week (or so), I appeared on the Seize the Moment video podcast, thanks to an invitation from Leon Garber (a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Psychotherapist, specializing in existential psychotherapy, who manages a blog exploring death, self-esteem, love, freedom, life-meaning, and mental health/mental illness) and Alen Ulman (who manages Ego Ends Now, a growing community for expanding consciousness about science, medicine, self actualization, philosophy and psychology.)

Leon and Alen were wonderful hosts; this led to an eclectic and wide-ranging discussion–which beginning from my essay at Aeon on anxiety, ranged over the following topics, as summarized by Leon and Alen:

    • The importance and utility of anxiety in self-discovery.
    • The influence our beliefs have on our perceptions and conceptions of the world.
    • Why emotional intensity should be redirected rather than suppressed.
    • The universality and inevitability of existential anxiety.
    • Human diversity and our inherent inability to fully capture an individual’s essence.
    • The fluctuating history of our understanding of mental illness.
    • How normality is used to sustain power structures.
    • Overcoming false dichotomies to see the strengths in our weaknesses and vice versa.
    • The sense of relief and freedom accompanying one’s acceptance of the inherent meaningless of the universe.

Do give the podcast a whirl, and please do leave comments and questions!

The Grasshopper And The Ant Podcast On Philosophical Counseling And Anxiety

I’ve recently had the pleasure of recording an audio podcast with the folks over at the Grasshopper and the Ant on the topic of philosophical counseling and anxiety. Many thanks to Pawan Bharadwaj for having me on and for giving me the opportunity to describe philosophical counseling, its relationship to philosophical reflection, to alternative therapeutic traditions like psychotherapy, and to its application to ‘problems’ like anxiety.

I’ve also recently recorded video podcasts with my friend John Tambornino (a fellow philosophical counselor) on the topic of philosophical reflection and our nation’s current racial crisis, and with the folks at the Seize the Moment Podcast on the topic of generalized anxiety and philosophical reflection. I’ll be posting links to those podcasts as and when they become available.

Philosophical Counseling And Hellmuth Kaiser On Successful Therapy

In Existential Psychotherapy (Basic Books, New York, 1980), Irvin Yalom writes:

The therapist healed, [Hellmuth] Kaiser believed, simply by being with the patient. Successful therapy requires “that the patient spends sufficient time with a person of certain personality characteristics.” What personality characteristics? Kaiser cited four: (1) an interest in people; (2) theoretical views on psychotherapy that do not interfere with his or her interest in helping the patient to communicate freely; (3) the absence of neurotic patterns that would interfere with the establishment of communication with the patient; (4) the mental disposition of “receptiveness”-being sensitive to duplicity or to the noncommunicative elements in the patient’s behavior. [p. 405; link added]

Note that Kaiser here specifies ‘personality characteristics’; these are not a matter of formal, professional qualification or training. Rather, these speak to the personal dimension of the interaction the therapist brings to her encounters with patient (or client.) They address, most directly, the question of what kind of person, what kind of human being, the therapist is. 

The first, ‘an interest in people,’ is considerably under-specified, but at the least we would expect the therapist to be in the trade because she is genuinely interested in the perplexity of the human condition, and find human beings’ problems to be worthy of sympathy, and generative of empathy. Without this minimal personal qualification (sadly missing in all too many supposed ‘healers’ today) the therapeutic process is doomed. 

Kaiser’s second requirement speaks to letting the therapist’s personal interest in the client trump any preconceived views of therapy; the client’s personality and problems are foremost, and if they do not fit an accepted template of treatment, diagnosis, analysis and prognosis, then so much the worse for the theoretical model.  This requirement means the therapist cannot be rigid and inflexible; the client cannot be shoehorned, brutally, into an existent mold of treatment. Theory is always trumped by the living testimony of the physically realized, concrete client present in the ‘clinic,’ not the abstract, blood-and-flesh-less ‘case’ of therapeutic theory. 

The third is a rather more direct claim on the personality of the therapist. Every therapist, as a human being, suffers from his or her understanding of their life; they often, if not always, require therapy themselves. These by themselves are not an impediment to therapy; however, an established, stubborn neurotic pattern of behavior (excessive, obsessive, selfish, self-interest being an obvious one) that would interfere with listening sympathetically or that results in intolerant, abusive responses to those seeking help, is an obvious disqualification. 

The fourth is an abstract claim but can be made more concrete by considering it an extension and elaboration of the first requirement: the therapist’s interest in people must entail a particular sensitivity–perhaps borne from acute observation, listening, and learning about humans and the human condition–that makes him or her alert to the complexities of a patient’s personality–such as lack of transparency, duplicity, intellectual dishonesty, lack of forthrightness–that can interfere with the therapeutic process.  

These personality characteristics are not designed to be eliminated or created by professional training. You cannot create an interest in people, for instance. In Kaiser’s view then, the therapist is not as much a qualified technician, as much as he is a sympathetic and engaged human being, committed to helping other human beings just like him. Imperfect, but hopeful of learning and reconfiguring themselves. 

Like Camus’ Caligula, The Republican Party And Donald Trump Transform ‘Philosophy Into Corpses’

In ‘Can We Call Trump A Killer?Charles Blow writes:

It seems that in every possible way, Trump has willfully and arrogantly put more Americans at risk of getting sick and dying, and the results have been inevitable: More Americans got sick and died.

There is no way to remove Trump’s culpability in this. If your feeble effort saves two lives when an earnest, robust, science-driven effort would have saved four, are you not responsible for the two deaths?

At this point, how do we not label Trump a killer of American citizens by negligence, ignorance and incompetence?

When does the uncaring, ignorant American mismanagement of this Covid-19 pandemic become an atrocity akin to that of the Great Stalin and Churchill Starvations, the famines in the Ukraine and Bengal in the 1930s and 40s? The level of homicidal intent in these great moral atrocities of the twentieth century might be disputed but there is no gainsaying their final, deadly toll: millions dead, thanks to incoherent political philosophies and callous disregard for the human toll extracted by utopian visions and wartime tactical imperatives. 

The Trump administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, as Blow painstakingly and forensically details, an ongoing catastrophe of ‘negligence, ignorance, and incompetence,’ fueled by deadly prejudices (that the disease would only kill liberal, multi-ethnic, minority populations of ‘blue’ states being the most offensive one), bears striking similarities to the catastrophes Stalin and Churchill engineered. The bare facts are striking: while a deadly disease has been stalking the land, the Trump administration has most plausibly ‘withheld treatment,’ that of a coherent national public health policy, from American citizens, . This deadly managerial incompetence, this refusal to act, has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, many of which could plausibly have been prevented by earlier lock-down responses, better testing strategies, and a leadership that spoke clearly of risks and dangers and advocated simply, with all the authority of the president’s office, non-intrusive public health measures like wearing masks. The charge is made simply, and the evidence is overwhelming: the Trump administration, and its enablers, the Republican Party, are culpable for the deaths of thousands of Americans.  

We should, as always when writing or speaking of this administration, never indulge in the easy pleasure of describing Trump as a deranged fool, a criminal, a clown. The real power that stands behind Trump is the Republican Party, a pathetic conglomerate of young, middle-aged, old white men (and the occasional cowardly woman) desperately seeking to hold on to power through institutional capture of the Supreme Court, the Federal Courts, through gerrymandering at the state level, through naked appeals to racial rhetoric, through the shelter that the incoherent US Constitution with its rickety, Rube Goldberg design of American political institutions–depressingly for an electoral democracy, the Senate and electoral college–provides.  

Like Albert Camus‘ psychotic Caligula, Donald Trump and the Republican Party have successfully “transformed [their] philosophy into corpses.” There will be no Roman conspirators this time around, but the political fate that awaits this sordid pair of criminals should be no less final and unforgiving. 

Nietzsche On The Relief Of Mortality

In The Dawn of Day: Thoughts on The Prejudices of Morality, Nietzsche writes:

With regard to knowledge the most useful accomplishment is perhaps: that the belief in the immortality of the soul has been abandoned. Now humanity is allowed to wait; now it no longer needs to rush headlong into things and choke down half-examined ideas as formerly it was forced to do. For in those days the salvation of poor ‘eternal souls’ depended on the extent of their knowledge acquired during a short lifetime; they had to make a decision overnight – ‘knowledge’ took on a dreadful importance. (D 501)

Mortality places a terrible burden upon us: fear of the un-redeemed life, the incomplete, under-achieving, unsuccessful life, the one that did not find its summum bonum during our living years. But we’ve always known that finiteness was our friend too; with the clock running out for all of us we find many sympathetic ears when we announce that we simply cannot be bothered taking on too much for this life, this poor, short, all too easily terminated life, this mere blink of an eye. Can any serious projects, existential or intellectual, really be undertaken in such a brief repose from the eternal waits of the prenatal and the afterlife? Much as we might curse death and the interruption it induces in our life plans, we are secretly grateful; we have been saved by the cosmic bell. No more impatiently looking askance at us as we clumsily toil away at our pitiful life projects; we must down tools when Death comes calling. We are especially comforted when this death, this mortality, is combined with the lack of the Great Examiner or Proctor, the one who might otherwise have been imagined placed in charge of ‘grading’ our lives; our incomplete, unfinished work will not be evaluated or critiqued; it, like us, will pass into mere blissful anonymity. 

Nietzsche is right above to make note of the relief promised in case of mortality, in the case of ‘God’s death’: there will be no assessment of this ridiculously short life, one in which it is all too apparent that the ‘right’ or ‘correct’ knowledge could not be obtained within its pitifully short specifications–the dreadful importance of this brief preparation for the long immortality of the soul was thus mercifully negated. Investing the world and our life with the terrible significance of immortality comes with a burden all its own; the meaninglessness of the tenure of the not-immortal soul promised its own blissful anonymity. The disproportion between the immortality of the soul, that majestic eternity, and the miserable petty shortness of the life meant as testing ground had always seemed radically unfair; deliverance by death rightly seemed a great relief, an escape, from such existential burdens.

Immortality, without adequate instructions for the journey, always seemed like the greatest curse of all; mortality the greatest blessing of all. The mortal life returns to its humble specifications–it is no longer a prized microsecond of respite from the darkness, one artfully constructed to give us the opportunity to settle down for immortality. Instead, it is what it has always seemed: a meaningless interruption with no particular significance in some invisible cosmic schemata, one that awaits investment with meaningfulness by the living of our own, unique, particular life. 

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