Woman’s Search for Meaning

“Blizzard”
Joseph Farquharson 1846-1935

Woman’s Search for Meaning

I’ve talked two friends out of committing suicide.  Don’t recall exactly what I said, but I do know what went into my general approach.  First, I ignored their existential/metaphysical pronouncements, eloquent as they were.  Life, they each said, had lost all meaning.  The world and everything in it was totally pointless.

Okay, okay, moving right along here … What precisely, I wanted to know, had gone wrong?  Details, please.

For the first friend, her publisher had dropped the contract for a book on which she’d already worked long and very hard.

The second friend, a proud and classy woman, had been seduced by a man in her consciousness-raising group, who advertised himself as a veteran – an advanced initiate — in the therapy offered by that group.

What was out of joint was not the cosmos.  Rather, it was each woman’s sense of what she represented to herself or to anyone else.  Neither woman wanted to survive as mediocre in her own eyes.

Did I offer a solution?  No.  Not at all.  The point was to call the precise trouble by its right name.  Then “the mind’s instinct for self-delight,” as Thomas Hardy calls it, was able to find its own way out of the labyrinth.

I do recall, though, that in the case of the seduction, I took absolutely seriously my friend’s sense of having been desecrated by someone unworthy of touching her — even if he wore ten gloves.  I did NOT say, “It’s not that big a deal.”  Maybe for someone else, it wouldn’t have been.  Someone more sportive, more disposed to say with a shrug, “win some, lose some.”  But such a woman would never have contemplated suicide in the first place.

These invisible crises can arise when, outwardly, we seem to be coping quite successfully.   We are more delicate than we look.  It’s not the apparent size of the defeat that undoes us.  It’s what, in us, has been defeated.  For that, the big picture might be beside the point.

Recently, I’ve been passing through a crisis of my own.  It started on My Worst Birthday, if you remember that column.  There I am, walking up the darkened, snow-covered footpath to our front door when – what d’ya know? – that patch of snow wasn’t the footpath and I slam down on the pavement about a foot below.  And the leg that thus collides with a hard surface for which it’s unprepared is the same one that’s been in treatment for neuropathy.  The first effective treatment I’ve encountered after years of vain searching.

As the diagnostic picture shifts, travel plans for resumed treatments shift too, and with them speaking engagements.  There are two and then three reschedulings.  Finally my travel plans are canceled altogether.  Jerry will go to give his papers without me and read my paper at one event.  The other talk I’ll simply have to miss, with apologies.  The neuropathy center was at first encouraging, then sharply discouraging, once the MRI’s (reporting a stress fracture) are read.  They don’t want to see me till the medical team here deems me completely healed.

In the midst of these dislocations and reorientations of projects, we’ve had to  relocate to hotels twice, dodging power outages, for two of the four great winter storms of March.  Moves possibly contra-indicated for a person whose walk is wobbly even with a nice black shiny walking stick and whose One Major Life Ambition has come down to Avoiding A Second Fall.

Oh, and one more thing.  During this time, someone I believed trustworthy volunteered to do a distance healing for me.  It would be some combination of prayer and unspecified other techniques.  The person making the offer claimed to be a gifted healer.  Since I’m trained in second degree Raiki healing and have done four such healings, one of which failed but three of which were deemed successful by the persons I did them for, I don’t find such claims particularly exotic or hard to believe.  I’ve done distance healings and received them, with different techniques.  Some of the purported healers I thought charlatans.  Some meant well but were ineffective.  Some were effective in some respects, but not in as many as they claimed.  But the same might be said for doctors I’ve known.  Since I’m not a materialist, the notion that the mind can act on the body doesn’t unsettle my intellectual conscience.  I didn’t know that my would-be healer would help, but hey, how bad could it be?

Well … I’ll just say that, had I not been philosophically trained, experienced in distance healing, and knowledgeable about mind control (there’s a chapter on spiritual seduction, “Going to the Bad,” in A Good Look at Evil) it could have been a damaging experience.

What’s the combined impact of all this?  It’s like being spun around so many times that one loses one’s sense of direction.  It’s what they call anomie.

It’s become a crisis of meaning.  At first, I was too busy coping with one rapidly changing circumstance after another to notice the underlying loss of grip.  But I could feel that my world had changed imperceptibly into something that felt rough and indifferent to me.  It felt meaningless.  But why should it feel that way?  After all, nothing cosmic had changed.  Only a lot of what are called “little things.”  By this time, however, I know enough about these crises to stop still in my tracks, drop whatever else I’m doing, turn and take it very seriously.

Time to quiet my mind, 

to focus,

to get a sense of true north.

The last chapter in A Good Look at Evil is called “God and the Care for One’s Story.” It tells of a sequence of happenings that intervened in my life to “save the story,” as it were.  In that chapter, I make the case for viewing these events as providential, though, as I readily admit, they can reasonably be viewed as chance happenings.  I merely argue that it’s a better explanation – more illuminating overall — to see them as divine interventions.

Nevertheless, even though I’m prepared to say that miracles happen, now it comes back to me that they don’t happen predictably.  For much of the time covered in that chapter, what I was going through was pretty near intolerable.  It seemed absurd.  It seemed meaningless when I was in the middle of it.  Only, every time I was ready to give it up and pack it in, something would happen, some little coincidence or oddly hopeful signal, that would tell me to keep on keeping on.   Despair was tempting but always premature.  I didn’t know the ending yet and therefore shouldn’t pretend to know it.

It’s quite true that at present I don’t know what part of my story this is.  Though I’m home, making my way cautious step by cautious step, I don’t have the comfortable sense of living in familiar surroundings.  The landmarks have been subtly altered, expectations thwarted, plans frustrated.  But, if I remember rightly, that’s exactly what it’s like when you live a new chapter.

Precognition and

living one’s story

are incompatible.

It would be like flipping to the next page in a novel before one has read the page that’s open now.  Recent happenings have made a heretofore familiar landscape seem unfamiliar to me.  My surroundings suddenly look uncharted.

At such moments, one can only look for clues to the unknown plot as it unfolds – to listen for

hints

from the Great Co-Author.

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. 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, 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. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. 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 Woman’s Search for Meaning

  1. I’ll give you a distance healing session too! Hehehhe.. okay, maybe not. Although I do actually do them so recognize some of what you might have gone through. Anyway, Abigail, as usual you blew me away with this blog. I admire and appreciate the depths of heart and mind that you so willingly explore, the vulnerability with which you are willing to share, and the courage you exhibit day by day. You are a gift to me!

    Like

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks Penny for (among other things) the “hehehhe …”! Yes, despite what the song said, heaven [does NOT] always protect the working girl! There are attempted abuses that need intelligent discernment as well as the help of heaven. Meantime, I much appreciate your sensitive, collegial (as-it-were) response.

      Like

  2. Johan Herrenberg says:

    I recognize this, Abigail. The sense of dislocation, of being a displaced person in your own life. As you say – you have entered a new chapter, and you cannot see ahead. Now it’s all about trust and faith. I’m sure you’ll find out where you are eventually. Just gingerly moving along will give you the answer.

    Liked by 1 person

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