“Things in Their Right Places”


“Things in Their Right Places”

The editing of my to-be-reissued memoir has its own life rhythms. The version that appeared a decade ago included a scaffolding of explanations. At that point, I was trying to do something that received opinion, Freudian and post-modern, said was not feasible: recollect and tell truthfully what I had lived through. Sounds simple enough, but back then it was held that only the unconscious “knows” what one has been through, and of course the unconscious isn’t telling – except to those third-person experts who have the right theory.

The culture has changed, those barriers have subsided, and accordingly my defensive barricade of counter-argument can be taken down. The present editing job consists in allowing the essential narrative to fall into place unencumbered.

A fair amount of living-and-learning may have that character, of things getting released to the habitats where they belong.

Take my walking handicap. I’ve written about it here, also mentioning that Resignation is not something that I’m good at — especially when it’s not clear I have to be. Neurologists who interpreted the initial MRI had told me to get braced for a straight-line decline. As years went by, and the predictions no longer matched the symptoms, diagnoses got more tentative. There was no holistic remedy I didn’t try, including ones that were pretty borderline. Finally, I tried therapeutic riding, with a teacher who is a fabulous person and has gotten paraplegics ready to compete internationally.

My taking up riding may have led my doctors to take me more seriously. They saw me going the extra mile. A horse is a very big and willful animal. He’s not going to let you take command, unless you can. As if by a kind of contagion of purposefulness, my regular physician seems to have been prodded into referring me to someone called a “physiatrist,” who has a method for testing the difference between what muscles can do and what nerves can do. The results enabled him to say something exactly in line with my long-time intuitive sense: we don’t yet know the cause!

Never has an admission of ignorance sounded more welcome to my ears! Hey, there is a cause. Hey, it has not yet been discovered. And the diagnostic process has two new places where it might operate. Go to the veins. Blood might help us locate the biochemical aspects. Go to the muscles. Physical therapy could strengthen them. And by the way, you can put your right foot in the stirrup now. Which is the place that foot most wants to be.

Today a friend emailed a video about the new anti-Semitism on a number of U.S. campuses, coast to coast. From the insults and placards that now figure in “anti-Israel” demonstrations, it’s evident that Jewish college students on those campuses are suffering intimidation and vile bigotry reminiscent of Germany in the thirties.

Watching this, I felt both terrified and impotent – two sides of the same feeling. As I talked about it with Jerry, it became clearer to me that, were I still on campus as active faculty, I would organize. I would find a few equally outraged professors-in-the-closet, plot our course, pressure the administration, parents, trustees — and use the press. I would do something. Despite Saudi money and this season’s brownshirts, we would get somewhere.

I don’t teach beautiful and noble things – only to roll over for infamy.

I no longer have any leverage on the Brooklyn College campus where I used to teach. I’m not there. There are still campus fights in America, but they don’t have my name on them. But where I now live – outwardly a town secluded from the world — I have been in a succession of combats in defense of Jews and the beleaguered Jewish nation, have found brave allies and taken the stands that could be taken, up to now, in this place.

In the Greek myth, Theseus has to kill the Minotaur who dwells in the dark depths of a labyrinth. Slaying the Minotaur is hard enough, but it will be harder still for the hero to escape the labyrinth. Ariadne comes to his aid with a thread he can attach to the entrance, finding his way back by keeping hold of the thread.

What can the myth tell us? We can’t help getting into fixes like the one Theseus faced.

Our job is not to avoid or escape the journey.

Our job is to find the right labyrinth.

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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4 Responses to “Things in Their Right Places”

  1. Carla says:

    I’ve learned, during the course of a challenging life experience, my place is very small … resistance is the insidious thief of peace concerning my response toward this reality … embracing insignificance is a practice that has precious rewards for mind and heart …

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks so much, Carla. Your Comments are always searching and thoughtful. Re this one, I recall that the rabbis say that each person should consider that “the world was created for my sake.” But also, they teach, the world was “created for the sake of the law” — meaning among other things the faithful acts that we are called to do. So on this view, one should treat oneself as a creature of the greatest importance — but also as of the least significance! Is this inconsistent? Or are both views of us true, but true in different senses? Something to think about!

  2. Judy says:

    A thought I’ve had is that each individual is a unique tapestry of different threads.
    Now you’re enriching it to suggest that each thread is engaged in diverse and particular labyrithian habitats. As diverse as anti-Semitism, or a foot disability. To negotiate each labyrinth, the thread must be connected to the entrance/source of the habitat. Which is not inside it. And we find our way keeping one hand holding the honest, pure-colored, true-to-self (God-given, so to speak) thread. Hopefully (hah!) not getting it muddied or tangled by the mess in the labyrinth.
    And to make it more complex: as we move through life the same thread may engage in different labyrinths. Or a previously latent thread gets all shiney, ready to be dragged into new habitat.
    Oy! Being a human is exhausting!

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