Getting Airier

“Shrike on Dead Tree”
Niten, (Edo period, 17th century)

Getting Airier

A funny thing happened while I was riding California, the horse that’s smarter than I am.  I’d been telling my trainer the various things I’d managed to get done while the pandemic had placed us all under house arrest.  Prominent on the list was my complete review of the voluminous papers of my late father.  

         “It’s been a karmic burden of many years,“ I said to Serena.  No sooner had I uttered those words, when California stood stock still and shook so hard that my hat would’ve fallen off had it not been for the buckle on the chin strap.  Her shaking went from top to bottom, the way a dog shakes when it comes in from the rain.

That’s odd, I thought.  I wonder what she has in mind.  You may think it’s pretty obvious, but this is one smart horse.  She doesn’t conform to cultural fads. 

One of our present-day fads is to flatten parental standing.  Our  culture tends to champion the young rebel who defies authority and tramples on traditional values.  I’ve rarely heard modern persons speak approvingly of filial piety. 

For instance, when I was giving a paper in England, my philosopher host whispered, shaking his head apologetically, “My mother is here!” 

         “I like mothers,” I said promptly, getting the sense that this might be atypical for philosophers.

Hebrew Scripture groups the commandment to honor your parents among the first five, concerning our relation to the divine.  (The other five are about human relations.)

Likewise, the epics of classical Greece and Rome make filial piety a foundational virtue, for the hero and the political order.

Hence my puzzlement.  Since I don’t share the flattened views of parent/child relations, why would California want me to shake off the filial burden so vigorously?  Surely she can’t mean that I ought to have left undone all the tasks that duty called for: care of the inherited house in Maine, publication – with biographical and philosophical introductions – of my father’s posthumous book, and now at last the proper disposition of his papers?  Surely a right-thinking horse wouldn’t regret those tasks getting done?

My array of questions got a simple answer the next morning.  Sitting for meditation, I noticed an inner shift.  It was dramatic.  Picture influence as having a definite color and rhythm.  Picture this as a sort of cloud.  It’s inside you but you never noticed it before now.  Suddenly it’s gone.  That’s why you notice it for the first time.  Golly!  A piece of me had been owned by my parents.  Now it was returned.  I had graduated – from Filial Piety School!

Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, wrote of womanly virtues in her book, many of which she may have embodied.  She had been a devoted daughter and died a day or two after the death of her father.  My guess is that she never graduated from the FP School.

Now it occurred to me to look through my own papers, to see how far they might be pared down.  My files hold about six years of correspondence with my late, first husband.  Since he was teaching philosophy in Sydney, Australia, and I at Brooklyn College in New York City, ours had been a largely epistolary marriage.  This was before the age of email, so we would number our dated letters and answer referring to paragraphs (e.g. “letter 26, 3rd para. down”) on specified pages.  In Sydney, they said it held the record for epistolary academic marriages. 

I know, I know.  It’s hilarious.  In Sydney it broke them up, at the Staff Club luncheons.

Since our divorce, I’d never gone through the letters but kept the thought that, some day, I would.  But I had a different outlook now.  It’s a heavy collection, especially if you are loading the whole thing into the largest plastic bags you can find.   I did glance at two letters, one from our courtship days and another when things between us were already fraying.  Each sentence I read was articulated in segmented parts aiming explicitly at an end-in-view.

The sentences reminded me of Zeno’s paradox.  Swift Achilles, racing a tortoise, will never overtake him.  Why not?  Because first he must traverse the distance between him and the tortoise.  And before that, he must traverse half the distance.  And before that, half of the half.  And so on.  So it was with this collection of letters between two philosophers working on their marriage.  First they had to cross half the distance between them.  Then half of the half.  It never quite added up to a marriage.

I threw them out.  What happened next was astonishing.  The most pleasing and favorable memories of times with John came floating into my mind.  You may think, so what?, but the phenomenon was unprecedented. Ordinarily, either I never think of him or else some oppressive and discouraging moment comes to mind.  Now, without trying, all that weight of tired memory had lifted!  I was recalling him fondly and our sunlit days in Sydney.

I have no idea why these disburdenings happened to me now and probably could not have happened sooner.  I do believe in living a thing out, not forcing willed closures before the time is ripe.  Often we don’t have a choice.  We have a timetable imposed on us; being on time becomes our  responsibility. 

However, it may be the case too that, in our lives, there are invisible seasons governing our relationships and endeavors.  If this is true, we might want to develop the sense of recognition alluded to in Proverbs 3:1:

To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under heaven.

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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