The Hidden Pain Of Others

A few years ago, as I walked down the street that I live on in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, toward my home and my waiting family, past a row of restaurants and coffee shops with their happy and contented consumers, I spied a pair of friends and neighbors of ours. They were sitting outside a local eatery, waiting for their wood-fired oven pizza to be brought out to them. The husband sipped on his wine while his wife chatted on the phone, smiling and laughing as her conversation ensued. I stopped and stared for a second, wondering whether I should stop by and throw out a quick hello and make some small talk. I moved on; they looked busy and preoccupied, enjoying their meal, each other’s company, and the fine late summer weather. They looked, for all anyone could tell, happy and prosperous and content. Elegant glasses of white wine; outdoor seating at a not-cheap restaurant; they looked exactly like the people who were supposed to be living in my neighborhood: Brooklyn thirty-somethings, successful and intelligent, well-educated, with adequate privilege and comfort underwriting their lives.

But I was in the possession of some knowledge about my friends that complicated the sunny picture above. For a few months prior to this spotting, they had lost their only child, their daughter, a toddler scarcely two years old, killed by a piece of falling masonry from the eighth floor of a building in Manhattan. It was the worst parental nightmare of all: the loss of a young child to a freak accident, one that you could have done nothing about. It had devastated them with grief and regret and anger in ways that I could scarcely comprehend, and yet, here they were, seemingly oblivious to this fact of their own lives. They would so easily have been the targets of envy at the moment I espied them: good-looking, happy, content, well-fed, prosperous enough for leisure and good cuisine and wine, connected with friends and family, savoring life’s gustatory pleasures. Someone might have congratulated them on their good fortune: “You guys have got it all!” But they didn’t. They were like all of us, who don’t have it all.

It was time, obviously, to relearn some old lessons. We imagine all too easily, that others are happier than they are (the chief cause of our unhappiness, as Montesquieu famously said.) We wear masks all the time; we are brave, more resilient than we imagine; the surfaces that are presented to us, and that we present to others, in our daily lives and social interactions, offer the barest hint of what lurks beneath; we should never presume too much about the happiness that we find exposed to us–for it sits alongside a great deal else–anxiety, fear, grief, self-hatred–in those interiors that we have no access to. Every life when viewed from the inside, as George Orwell said, is but a series of small failures; viewed from the outside, we are prone to imagining that life as enjoying the fortunes that passed us by. The truth lies elsewhere.

Parenting As Refuge From Writing

Writers who are parents love to complain about how parenting takes up writing time; so many great books, essays, plays, short stories, screenplays and the like remain unwritten because caring for a child is time-consuming and emotionally draining. Other members of the writer’s tribe–or sometimes the same folks–will readily admit that parenting provides great material for writing. So many reflections on the art and skill and science of parenting; so many confessions of humility; so many observations of grace and candor and existential discovery in the presence of unsullied human innocence (within which occasionally lurks a id-driven monster of desire and ill-formed reason), the child.

The original complaint about the pressures of parenting on writing time contains within it a disguised acknowledgement of one of the greatest reliefs it provides the writer: distraction from the task of writing. For if there is one thing the writer needs more than anything else, it is the excuse for not writing. Your avowed vocation and calling and passion and obsession is writing; why then, do you not write? Why, instead, do you do everything but write? Every writer has faced this question; and parenting provides a wonderful apologia for not writing.

For parenting is the most perfect form of procrastination devised for the writer: its tasks are innumerable, and always make their presence felt; it is work that carries positive moral weight; a parenting task well accomplished is guaranteed to provide a certain varietal of deeply satisfying validation. And so the writer who is confronted with a blank page, a disordered passage of text, a jumbled and incoherent argument, finds suddenly, relief at hand. Put down the pencil or push away the mouse and keyboard and head for the childcare section, there to immerse yourself, if lucky, in the adoration of a child, and in the pleasures of someone else’s achievements vicariously enjoyed. And there is no guilt here to be found or reported. Why did you stop writing for the day? I had to take care of my kid. There just is no arguing with that.

The clever writer-parent has found the right sort of relationship with parenting: plunder its experiences for story ideas and material; complain about its demands as an explanation for diminished ‘productivity’ and failure to complete all those half-written drafts tucked away in folders marked ‘Drafts’; but most importantly, use its availability as psychological comfort from the anxieties and terrors of the unfinished writing task. Your child awaits, perhaps the gratitude of your partner in parenting; there really is no downside to giving up writing in favor of parenting. There is, of course, the risk of regret–“I coulda written so much if I hadn’t been so busy attending to domestic minutiae”–but that is quite easily dispelled with the honest acknowledgement to oneself that writing is pretty unpleasant work at the best of times, and that if we had any choice in the matter, we’d take up something far more rewarding and enjoyable. Like parenting, occasionally.


Walking Far Enough To Find Our Way Back To Ourselves

In ‘Running Through Fear,’ an extended excerpt from her memoir Running Home, ultra-marathoner Katie Arnold writes of the aftermath of an assault she suffered while out on the trail:

Afterward, in the disorienting fog of sorrow, everything scared me: my babies, so small and vulnerable and precious; my own body, once so strong but now ancient and aching with grief….My anxiety lasted more than a year. I tried everything, but the only remedy that worked was the one that had always worked: running. On the surface, it seemed like the least logical choice. I lived in constant terror of my body breaking down, but I pushed my limits every day, clocking long miles alone in the wilderness. I didn’t know the first thing about training for a 50K ultramarathon, but deep down it made sense. My father had raised me to find solace outside, on camping trips and bicycle trips and river trips, on long rambles through the Shenandoah Valley, up mountains in Maine, in musty tents in Nova Scotia. Maybe, I reasoned, if I ran far enough, deep enough, into the trail networks and hills, into myself, I would find my way back to the fearless girl I’d once been.

Arnold’s final sentences above strike a deep chord within me. I’ve always been anxious and fearful, and for such a person the ‘great wide world outside our doors’ is full of reasons to be anxious and fearful. But walking in the outdoors always made me less anxious, more calm, more inclined to sleep deeply at night. (Except when I was alone but that feeling has changed.) Indeed, when I stayed out on a trail, I was possessed of a curious vision, one that came to me in my other physical exertions, and which I imagine, must be shared by many: it was a feeling that if I did this long enough, every single weakness and impurity and imperfection, whether physical or psychological, would be swept out of me, flushed out by the relentless flood of physical exertion, of perpetual movement. The trails I walked on, whether flat or downhill, or uphill, all seemed in one important sense to head ‘upwards,’ up toward a zone of deliverance and clarity where all the  muddled thoughts and feelings of the ‘lower’ regions would be made more distinct and pure. The feeling of being cleansed–internally, even if not on the ‘outside’–by the walk was euphoric; the simplicity of the solution was stunning. All I had to do was keep walking; my steps would take me closer to that state of mind and being that I so desperately craved. This was a ‘stairway to heaven’ that seemed real, not fantastic, right here on earth. Just put one foot in front of the other; repeat.  For as long as it took.

Things don’t work like that, of course. But to possess this powerful vision for change, for relief, was in itself empowering and relieving. It is one I carry with me every time I leave the city, head to the trail, and start walking. Always upwards.

A Constitution Should Help A Country Govern, Not Hobble It

My short essay ‘A Constitution Should Help A Country Govern, Not Hobble It‘ is up at Aeon Magazine. Comments welcome. (Many thanks to Sam Haselby, my editor at Aeon, for all his help.)

Goethe On The Artist’s Supposed ‘Originality’

In Conversations with Goethe With Johann Peter Eckermann, Goethe says,

People are always talking about originality; but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us and goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favor. [p. 115]

Elsewhere, Eckermann makes note of Goethe’s response to Byron‘s critique of Faust that Goethe had ‘found one thing here, the other there’:

The greater part of those fine things cited by Lord Byron,” said Goethe, “I have never even read, much less did I think of them, when I was writing ‘Faust.’ But Lord Byron is only great as a poet; as soon as he reflects, he is a child. He knows not how to help himself against the stupid attacks of the same kind made upon him by his own countrymen. He ought to have expressed himself more strongly against them. ‘What is there is mine,’ he should have said, ‘and whether I got it from a book or from life, is of no consequence; the only point is, whether I have made a right use of it.’ Walter Scott used a scene from my Egmont and he had a right to do so; and because he did it well, he deserves praise. He has also copied the character of Mignon in one of his romances; but whether with equal judgment, is another question. Lord Byron’s transformed Devil is a continuation of Mephistophiles, and quite right too. If, from the whim of originality, he had departed from the model, he would certainly have fared worse. Thus, my Mephistophiles sings a song from Shakspeare, and why should he not? Why should I give myself the trouble of inventing one of my own, when this said just what was wanted. If, too, the prologue to my ‘Faust’ is something like the beginning of Job, that is again quite right, and I am rather to be praised than censured. [pp. 82-83]

Like all truly great artists, Goethe recognizes that ‘genius’ and ‘creativity’ have little to do with ‘originality’–whatever that means. Rather, the artist, as noted by all too many who create, is a magpie, a borrower and stealer and copier and mime and ventriloquist. She takes what she needs for her work and synthesizes them into a new work. It is this genius of synthesis we recognize; it is this vision, the one that picked out what it needed and combined them into a whole only visible to it, that we so admire. Great works of art, like all human productions, do not spring forth, fully formed, like Athena out of the skull of Zeus. They have long gestations, and the raw material that goes into this making is drawn from the world around them, from the creative work of other humans, artists or not. The history of an artwork always includes that of the pieces that went into its making.

As always, Goethe remains relevant; so-called ‘intellectual property‘ acolytes would do well to pay attention to a man who knew a bit about artistic creation.

A Rarely Realized Classroom Ideal

Last night, in my graduate seminar–which carries the snappy title ‘From Schopenhauer to Freud (Via Nietzsche): Depth Psychology and Philosophy‘–my students and I spent the entire two hours of our class meeting time reading and discussing Section 354 of Nietzsche‘s The Gay Science. We each had a copy of the section in front of us; I read its text out aloud in class, pausing to offer commentary and elucidation and inviting similar interjections from my students. In the closing half-hour or so of class time, we discussed a pair of written responses to the section 354. (My students write responses to the assigned reading every week; this week while the primary readings were all secondary sources on Nietzsche, I had asked my students to base their responses on the primary Nietzsche texts invoked in these sources.)

It is no secret. to me at least, that the class meeting I described above comes close to an imagined ideal for a philosophy class meeting: I assign a text to be read; my students do the reading and have intelligent responses to it; in class we ‘work through the text’ diligently and patiently, reading every single word carefully, bringing out the texts many meanings and allusions and implications. Rarely is such an ideal realized; that is precisely what makes its rare occurrences even more pleasurable. Once, over the course of a semester in an undergraduate Social Philosophy class, my students and I achieved this ideal repeatedly; the secrets of that ‘success,’ were that my reading assignments were short and my class included a few ‘bright lights’ who came to class prepared and ready to dig into the material with me.

The reasons why such a class meeting represents an ideal for this teacher of philosophy should be evident from my descriptions above. My students and I ‘encounter’ the text in the way its writer intended it to be: sympathetically. This does not mean eschewing criticism of the text, but rather, “by looking at reality in the light of what it is saying.” From a personal perspective, as I’ve noted here previously, my understanding of a philosophical text is considerably enriched by these discussions with my students. A good  discussion with my students always lets me know there is more going on in the text than I might have imagined.

Our task was made easier, of course, by the text and its writer. Nietzsche always repays close attention and his language is extraordinarily rich (and to think that we were reading him in translation!) As he almost always does, Nietzsche sends out a message to all future writers and philosophers: if you want to read be with such attention and care, you would do well to follow him–in your own way!–on his chosen path. Write clearly and joyfully, letting your readers know that your writing represents a genuine attempt on your part to work through the problem at hand–which should always, always be a problem for you too, and not an idle academic pursuit.



T. S. Eliot’s ‘Is That All There Is?’

In The Idea Of A Christian Society, T. S. Eliot wrote:

Was our society, which had always been assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?

Eliot wrote these lines shortly after the 1938 Munich Agreement, as Britain and France bowed and scraped before Hitler’s demands for more territorial gains in Europe.¹ The idea expressed at their heart has not lost any of its pungency. Eliot sought to contrast the faith of the Christian, a belief in something more permanent, lasting, morally-inflected, with the commodified, fashionable foundations of the commercial society. But even if you, perhaps of secular persuasion, do not want to fall back on religious faith as an alternative to the call of commerce, there is an acute question that remains raised: what is the great prize of our civilization, the one we offer and hold forth and aloft in front of the gaze of those eager applicants, ‘our youth,’ ‘our best and brightest’?

Something like the following: Go to school, go to college, get good grades, study business, or accounting, or finance, get to work, make ‘good money’–or rather, as much as money as you can, your money-making endeavors unrestricted by any kind of moral impulse. Disdain art and the humanities and all else as not being the real world, as useless and impractical, unsuited to the needs of our times. Regard the history of the world as a mistake, one to rectified by throwing money or weapons at all of its recalcitrant problems. Regard the weekends as a bonus allotment of time to ‘catch up on some work in the office that needs to get done by Monday.’ Birth, (business) school, work, death? The physical details of this are as equally grim: rise and shine, dress up, put on a tie, get in a car and get into traffic, or get into crowded public transportation, and then spend roughly ten hours–if you’re lucky–indoors in climate controlled environments. Rinse and repeat. The utter vacuity at the heart of these pursuits is almost frightening in its blandness, its lack of emotional and spiritual sustenance; the commodification of life and love it promises is genuinely terrifying.

Small wonder so many who live this dream ‘stumble’ from boardroom to bar to coke spoon to therapy couch to the grave. And small wonder that when the allure of something more substantive, more emotional, is held out as bait, so many snap and bite. Perhaps religion, perhaps a ‘new-age cure,’ perhaps, in the most extreme circumstances, an abandonment of family and an older life altogether. We will join these travelers, like all others, in their final destinations, the grave, but we can exercise some measure of control over the paths we take there.

Note: As quoted by Edward Mendelson while reviewing Robert Crawford’s biography of Eliot and a collected edition of Eliot’s poems.