It’s Personal

"The Song and the Space," Arthur Polonsky

“The Song and the Space,” Arthur Polonsky

It’s Personal

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been confronting a shift of mood that’s quite rare for me.  The name of this mood is


As a person who’s talked two women friends out of suicide – don’t worry, I’m not there – I should know a fair deal about the feeling that a situation is hopeless.  So one of the factors I found most disturbing personally was that I couldn’t find a ready remedy in my own case.

Lately, I’ve often been in tears.  This too is rare.  I can cry readily at the death of someone dear to me, or even confronting a situation that presents a tragic face for others, if I am able to see what they are seeing.

But these tears were tears of helplessness, hopelessness, seeming loss of the power and the motivation to go on.

We are talking bitter tears.

Normally, I do my best to keep hope alive.  However, by the same token, I don’t like to keep the candle of phony hope lit.  If there’s one thing more unpleasant than despair, it’s pretended good cheer.  Pu-leese!  Take your horrible scratchy-throat cheerfulness away!  Has someone broken your heart?  Don’t jog it out of your system.  The heart has its reasons that your jogging knows not of.  Take your heart with you!

So far as I could determine, talking it out over many days, with my friend and husband Jerry, my despair has had three sources.  Each one alone might have been surmounted with the tools I’ve learned over the trials and errors of my life.  But coming all at once, the three overwhelmed my toolbox.  Accordingly, it went into free fall.  And the cascades of tears followed.

Here are the three sources of my despair: Jerry heart’s surgery in late August, the apparent failure of my last realistic expectation of a cure for neuropathy, the betrayal of trust at the temple to which I belong.  Hard to say which was more undermining, so I’ll review them one at a time.

  1. Jerry’s surgery. Beyond the rigors of the ordeal itself, for Jerry and for me, a further question loomed for us both. When you set sail on the blue waters of true love, you aren’t likely to finish the journey simultaneously.  One of you will be left to steer the ship without the other.  How – practically, and in terms of sincere motivation to go on — do you do that?

  2. Neuropathy, and my crash landing. There are many people who deal with worse conditions than the one I now face, which is the permanent inability to walk normally. Those heroes have my admiration.  But I am talking about me.  For me, who can live happily without a box at the opera, expensive vacations in warm climates, exotic travel or fancy clothes, the one thing I really can’t see myself doing without is strolling.  Strolling through woods.  Through museums.  Through city streets.  Navigating the world of people and natural things with my bodily self.  Sending the message with my big city walk: don’t mess with me.  Harkening to tall woodland silences.  Walking as the best way to talk privately with a friend.  Walking to collect myself.  Have I made myself clear?

  3. Moral chaos at my temple. In a previous column, “At a Loss,” I’ve described the particular backstory. There is, of course, the deeper backstory: God, for reasons best known to Himself, decided to cut out a certain people from the rest, the way a herder cuts out cattle to put His brand on them.  They were to live in an intimate relation with Him.  Provided they would consciously agree to do that.  Which, perhaps imprudently, they did.  They were to remember and record what happened next.  They did that too.  They were to become famously hated.  Okay, what’s next?  They remain a touchstone of people’s ability to acknowledge a unique sacrifice and to acknowledge the God who still asks for that sacrifice.  It’s a responsibility.  When it’s shirked, that counts.

At present, how am I coping with these three separate currents of despair?  Well, in three ways.

  1. Jerry’s surgery and its question for the sooner-or-later lone survivor: Dying first is easy, or anyway it looks that way.  Dying last is not.  What can we do now for the one who will stand alone?  What Jerry and I agreed to do was think it through, as best we can, with respect to property and its disposal, and with regard to each one’s reasons for living.   It’s not that we can foresee the actual situation.  It would be arrogant to think we could.  But every story has its ending.  Subliminally, we already picture that in some way.  Can we share the picture with each other?  Is it open to improvement?

  2. Neuropathy’s non-cure: Whatever turns out to be the outcome of my two-year treatments at the Loma Linda Hospital in California, the present outlook is less hopeful than the one I was led to expect.  I’m not blaming the people there.  I think they are honest and have helped many others.  They even remedied the worst of the condition I presented at the outset. And they may yet improve things.  Or they might not.  But, as the situation stands today, I teeter and totter around.  If I step down from a curb, I have to find a lamppost or a car to lean on.  If I walk in the woods, it’s not a walk: it’s a hazardous stagger from foot to foot.  Who am I kidding?  To get anywhere alone, I’ll need to use a walking stick!

  3. My chaotic temple, about which I feel so very …

Forlorn! The very word is like a bell

To toll me back … to my sole self!

Having wrestled with it for some days, I can give you an interim report on my efforts to fathom the contours of that despair.

I thought to myself, well look, don’t try to get above it and don’t try to get beyond it.  Try to get inside it.  Try to enter this cavern.  Trace out its concavities, if you can.  It looked to me as if the precipitating cause of despair might be the attempt to dodge it.  After all, the great, nineteenth-century, Danish proto-existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard thinks very highly of despair.  He sure doesn’t run from it.  He sees it as an eventual source of light.

So, first of all, I tried not to dodge it.  Tried instead to get congruent with it.  To be at one with my despair.  As I traced it and tracked it, the despair began to take on human contours.

One despairs of something.  Despair refutes hope.  But hope, after all, is specific.   Tracing it out, holding on to it like Ariadne’s thread that she gave Theseus to take him out of the labyrinth, I come to … somebody.  A person.  Well, whaddya know!

It’s personal.

My touchstone of hope was personal.  Who?  Of whom did I first entertain hope and then discover hopelessness?  There was someone I trusted, the person to whom I first brought my complaint of harassment.  I thought him the epitome of a straight arrow individual.  I placed moral reliance on him.  My disappointment – that he had gone over to the side of my harasser — was personal.

What of the harasser himself?  There, my reaction was less personal.  It was more like moral shock.  I had looked for the familiar tokens of respect for the norms.  Tokens we all live by, because ordinarily they are there.   Besides,

we have to live as if the norms are there.

But outlaws seem energized by their defiance of the social norms.  They even gather adherents by that inverted method.  To many, they look like what the late Osama Bin Laden called “the strong horse.”  They do have a certain force: the force of their brazenness.

In his great poem, “Shine, Perishing Republic,” Robinson Jeffers says,

… corruption

Never has been compulsory.

He’s right about that.  Corruption is not compulsory.

But it sure is contagious.

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” ( 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 . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to It’s Personal

  1. Abigail says:

    Hi Romola, How marvelous to hear from you! I did not know you followed “Dear Abbie.” I’ve actually never ingested marijuana (is that a bad thing to admit?). My impression is, I’d be all too susceptible & it could send me on a far far longer trip than I’ve ever been. The good news: the brand of neuropathy from which I suffer doesn’t include pain. I wish you, too, a New Year of great flourishing.

  2. Romola Chrzanowski says:

    Hello Abigail,I don’t want to minimize your problems but do want to be sure you have looked into Medical Marijuana for neuropathy pain. I love your writing and please keep sharing your thoughts, feelings and opinions. They are valuable and helpful. I hope the new year will bring you reasons to celebrate successes and to conquer some despair. Sincerely,Romola

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