By “brokenness” I mean what occurs in our psyches, not what happens when a vase shatters on a tile floor. But what is this psychic brokenness? It seems to occur in our conviction that something – whatever it is – that we prized is lost, ruined or tarnished, dishonored or left behind – irreparably.

We know when a shattered vase is reparable and what sort of glue repairs it. We also pretty much know when the vase is beyond repair and must be discarded. In the human case, what’s broken seems always to call for repairs – whether the fix-up is available or not.

A friend of mine (to be accurate, an ex-friend) often said that there were two classes of people in the world: those whose mothers loved them – and the rest. This divide was, she would say, irreparable.

I once met her mother and must agree that I never saw a woman who so much reminded me of Hitler. So my poor friend was correct, so far as her literal, one-and-only mother was concerned. Her mother was, to borrow from Thomas Wolfe,


And by the wind grieved … .

And, with a mother like that, Wolfe would have been spot on to add,

You can’t go home again.

But that’s why God invented substitution. My friend did get a husband who loved her as her mother ought to have done. And she did get me, who would have done as much as a woman friend can, if she hadn’t decided to take needless offense and ditch me.

Substitution is an art form too. Don’t shatter the substitute just because it’s not the original. We can’t help our place on life’s timeline.

On the other hand, if you’ve not found a persuasive substitute, don’t pretend that the original is not still regretted. Don’t make the first love nothing, as a kind of revenge against it for being absent, or in self-protective amnesia.

My first love had the long-penciled eyes and eyebrows that you find on archaic Greek statues. He disappointed me, though we loved each other, I think, on the level of the soul. When we parted, he handled it however he wanted to, but I refused to erase his image from my psyche. Years later, I would repair to the Metropolitan Museum in my old neighborhood where I found a portrait bust of a fifth-century Greek youth who looked like him. I would stand before it, just letting myself undergo my helpless longing.

Almost every love thereafter seemed either an imitation or a negative – and thus also a reminder – of that original. As a point of principle, I never never made any effort to forget.

Unlike those predecessors, Jerry does not resemble my first love, nor does he remind me of him. What was fragmentary in that love is completed and transcended. What was posed or fragile is now unfrozen and natural, having its horizon at the future. Because I honored the fragments, I know where they’ve been filled in.

When I was a graduate student in philosophy, I wanted somehow to combine the vulnerable and threatened aspirations of romantic youth with the inviolable, above-the-battle verities of philosophy. It seemed a half-formed, vague and childish wish, one that could give no sober, discursive account of itself – much less offer an argument on its own behalf.

Today I believe that was what was smartest about me. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of the bravest, most beautiful, charitable and clear-seeing women of our era, reports being struck by the solemn seriousness and whole-hearted commitment of the American wedding ceremony. Yeonmi Park, the lovely young woman who managed to escape from the hell on earth that is North Korea, says that she first realized that “not all the people in this world were living like us” when she saw a smuggled-in copy of the movie Titanic, with its tragic romance. There are no love stories, “no Romeo and Juliet” in North Korea. The idea that you could give up your life out of love for a particular man or woman – not for the regime – “was mind-blowing,” Yeonmi recollects. “It gave me my first taste of freedom.”

I am not maintaining that a life where, as in love ballads, “the rose twines round the briar” is the only kind of life worth having. Not at all. There are many types of lives, seasons of a life and worthy aims. That said: if true love of the romantic kind is not one’s deepest wish, or not available for whatever reason, it is still of ultimate importance to act – and to be in the world – so as to be worthy of it.

I could not love thee, Dear, so much

Loved I not Honour more.

So says the poet.

But, just as true:

honor would be vainglory

were it not the eligibility

and the credential

for romance.

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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2 Responses to “Brokenness”

  1. Frank says:

    The following from Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (1975) captures something true enough:

    She said why don’t we both just sleep on it tonight
    And I believe in the morning you’ll begin to see the light
    And then she kissed me and I realized she probably was right
    There must be fifty ways to leave your lover
    Fifty ways to leave your lover


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