“Knowing Thyself”

Autumn in Moscow

“Knowing Thyself

My right foot has a walking difficulty. I have been trying unsuccessfully to cure it for as long as I’ve had it. That’s about twenty years.

No one in the medical field has been able to diagnose it. The handicap corresponds more or less to some telltale spots on an MRI in the area of the brain that governs locomotion on the right side. That said, there are several labels that neurologists would normally reach for to describe the disability. But, as it happens, none of them exactly fits my symptoms.

Since no one whom I’ve conferred with in the medical establishment has a cure, the fact that they haven’t agreed on the right name for it hasn’t bothered me. From what I’ve been advised, even if they could pin the tail on the donkey, they couldn’t cure it.

Sounds hopeless, doesn’t it. Time to give up? The trouble is,

 I don’t know that.

Aristotle said: all men [and women] desire to know. I won’t know for sure that it’s hopeless till I’ve exhausted the available remedies – turned over every stone.

The neurologists recommended exercise. Since it couldn’t hurt, I do that religiously. I can do the Eliptical for 15 minutes with no hands, Total Gym and a few yoga asanas. The combined effect of these probably kept the condition from getting worse. But they haven’t made it better.

Lately, and most interesting to me, I’ve started therapeutic riding with a great teacher. It’s worth a post all by itself  – so meaningful is it to me  – but so far I still can’t walk worth a damn.

Since the white-coats have not come up with a diagnosis  – and I have no reason to believe that all the causes affecting you or me are physical – how do I think I got in this fix?

Here is what I believe caused it. There was a time in my not-exactly-trouble-free life when I found myself caught inside a conflicting pair of summonses: willing me to walk through a certain line of conduct and – at one and the same time – willing me not to walk that line. While this was happening, I had no way of sidestepping these two contradictory commands of the will. As a result, the neurons in my brain that governed walking simply shorted out.

Does that hypothesis seem far-fetched? Don’t let the “identity theorists” (who hold that the mind IS the brain) lead you down their garden path. How the brain causes mental events is NOT better understood than how the mind causes brain events. That said, experience tells us that both kinds of causal relations take place all the time.

Since I believed – nay, was morally certain – that the root cause of my disability was mental, not physical, why did I not seek a mental cure? Well, the proximate cause was verifiably neurological. I had no reason to suppose that the talking cures offered by psychotherapy were able to reach that deep into the physical system.

But I did think healers who tried to reach, by psychical means, the places in the energy system where the blockage resided, might be able to get at it. I had tried acupuncture, which had not worked. But there were other types of psychic healing to try. I tried several. Almost all were at least interesting.

One such healer was able to banish several ailments — unconnected with my walk — but nice to get rid of anyway. Patients who are given sugar water capsules, but told that they are getting newly-discovered powerful drugs, tend to get cured almost as often as patients given real medications. The phenomenon is called “the placebo effect.” Were these apparent cures just the placebo effect?

Who knows? They worked. Had they cured my foot, I wouldn’t have cared if they had been the placebo effect. But they didn’t cure my foot.

Why do I care so much? Many people suffer handicaps far more serious than mine. Who am I to hope – beyond all reason – for a cure?

What I love about strolling

is the way

the dynamic of one’s body,

its inmost rhythm,

catches the outer rhythms –

of woodland, of cityscapes,

of museums with their disparate treasures,

of crowds, of one’s own solitude –

and dances with it all.

 I am not reconciled to saying farewell to all that and I never will be.










About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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5 Responses to “Knowing Thyself”

  1. Elmer says:

    Your story set me to thinking about feet. They are our most constant relation to the world. Feet and world go together in an essential but inescapable way—a mixture or maybe mix-up, that is outside of thought until something goes wrong. (I’m afraid I’m being a little Merleau-Ponty-ish here. But I think that at least to some extent, I’m right.) I think that the thought here is that from time to time our feet ask us, “What is our relation to the ground we walk over?” I continue this line of thought on my own mind you: [–] is always talking about the flow of energy. Then my question is “Do we let our love for the supporting ground flow through our feet, and receive the ground’s love in return?”

    • Judy says:

      I love Elmer’s comment! Once in a blue moon, when I remember, I walk using my feet, with each step, to caress our dear lovely Terra Madre. Thanks so much Elmer for the reminder.

      • Abigail says:

        Thanks Elmer and Judy. I think that’s exactly right. “Being grounded” is, first of all, about feet! My therapeutic riding class, once a week, which adds four feet to my one and a half, is probably as close to Mother Earth as I can get, nowadays. But all the more valued for that.

  2. Judy says:

    Just read “Knowing Thyself” as I was cooling out this morning, tired from overdoing some strolling yesterday. In early evening, decided to walk in this magical place from 53rd along 5th up to 57, across to B’way and up to 72 to get stuff in TraderJoe’s, then down then to 67.
    I want you to be able to do this too.

    What you said about strolling resounds with me so much. It’s so very different in the country and the city. But when happening, there really is a kind of merging with one’s surroundings. But I never saw it in my intellect until reading what you wrote. Yes indeedy.

    One of my cute little sayings is that, when you feel good, it’s like “bopping down Broadway on a good hair day.”

    The other thing is that the pace is so fast in Manhattan, and so leisurely in country nature. I do not “jog” in the country. Here, it was the same amount of time doing that speedy bop last night, as to wait in the Trader Joe’s line.

    Gotta stop now. Have just been served a lightly toasted bialy with butter … one of the best things in the entire Universe.

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