Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909

Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909


Now there’s a rich topic! It seems easier to do (achieve) than happiness, or at least easier to write about. The New York Times Book Review — where you have a weekly roundup of what the people who read, and the people who write, are doing with their literate time — is pretty much a pilgrimage through the wilds of unhappiness.

If you’re anything like me, unhappiness is doled out in measures of vulnerability. When I lived in Australia, where one was expected to be pretty much tip top (or at least to say one was), I would answer the perfunctory

“How are you?” with,

 “Oh, fabulously wonderful!”

In Sydney, I told a female philosopher colleague, who was going through a difficult time, that in New York (where we lean more to psychological soul-baring), such an answer to the how-are-you question would be almost offensive. But in Sydney, where it seemed to be taken as true prima facie, I recommended it as a protective shield for unhappy women Down Under.

When (if we must) have I been unhappiest? I believe it generally revolved around loves, true or false. For other kinds of unhappiness, such as unavoidable losses and deaths — if washed with tears sufficient to the occasion — God eventually sends peace. Unhappy loves are intrinsically harder, and take longer to recover from, in my experience.

For example, there was an “unsuitable” first love, described in my forthcoming memoir, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, which – for various excellent reasons – had to be kept a secret. It was, as I say, my First Love, but also my First Great Lie. And I don’t know which was worse, in the sense of occasioning the most suffering.

I don’t fault myself for the lie. Given the era, I had a choice of evils, and still believe that I picked the lesser one. Yet, a human being is by nature truthful. So, if a lie is lodged at the core of one’s active life — the lie protecting itself by concentric circles of supporting lies — one’s identity is undermined in a way that is utterly fundamental.

There follows an unhappiness that one can’t quite get at. Nor is it cured by telling the hidden fact privately to one or two confidants. One simply has no stability, no nuclear center. Any predator can help himself or herself to the shell that is left.

When else have I been the most unhappy? Well, there were the romances that just didn’t work out. We weren’t the right ones for each other. Why not? Either because one of the lovers had been a seducer, never serious but looking to score. Or else because, with the best will in the world, to fall in love is not the same thing as to stay, or grow, in love.

Why not? What makes the difference? Are there distinguishing marks? I’m not sure. No one who knows my history thinks I found the Right Guy by trusting to Abigail’s native wisdom. Those who know me longest and best think I don’t have any, in this department. They think God found Jerry for me, having got tired of looking down from On High and seeing how I was doing, unaided.

That said, there is one distinguishing mark of mister-not-right that I have discovered, by trial and error.

He will expect me to save him.

And I would. No question about it. The only way you could have stopped me was the method used in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus wanted to hear the song of the Sirens but be saved from crashing on the rocks to which the legendary singers drew sailors — to their doom. So he ordered his crew to stop up their own ears but strap him to the ship’s mast, so that he could hear the Siren Song but not crash.

Unless you’ve got a crew as serviceable as his,

best to steer wide of that island.

Are there other times of maximum unhappiness? Now that I think about it, they all have the character of trying to save someone I cared about, who did not care to save herself. The context need not be romantic. It’s odd. One would think the impulse to help, to save, to rescue, to bring succor, could only bless the would-be sacrificial helper. But, at least in my experience, that’s not so.

If one has a determinate gift to give, and can give it in a disciplined context, that’s not a recipe for frustration and despair. But if the context is vague and open-ended, and the rescue seemingly endless, that’s the Siren Song rippling over the waters again. By now, with God’s help, I steer clear.

But it’s painful. One wants to help! One wants to play God, to make it all right when it’s not. One wants happy endings. The bad guys lying face up, booted toes pointed at the ceiling, dead on the barroom floor. The good guys riding into the sunset, after the signature kiss and fadeout.

Well, tough!

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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