Thursday, January 20th, was the 23rd anniversary of the day Jerry and I got married. In rabbinic tradition, God makes marriages. In fact, that would be the chief thing He does.
I certainly wasn’t looking for a husband when, from my Manhattan apartment, I telephoned Jerry’s office in Washington, D.C. Jerry ran an organization championing excellence in higher education. I telephoned because the then president of Brooklyn College (where I taught philosophy) had a terrible plan for revising downward the college’s award-winning liberal arts curriculum.
If the rabbis were right, God Himself must have put the terrible plan for revising the curriculum into the president’s head — so that Jerry and I could meet! It hardly bears thinking about — the providential coincidences by which our lives can remain meaningful!
As Jerry and I plotted strategy over the months that followed, speaking daily by phone, working together effectively to help save the college’s liberal arts curriculum (see Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 17, 1997), Jerry realized that he was falling in love. Sight unseen. (In those days, we didn’t have Zoom.)
For my part, I was busy saving my beloved college, had put my entire personal life into cold storage for the duration of that fight, and had no idea that anything “personal” might be going on. When I finally noticed that something of that sort could be underway, I thought I’d better take an objective look at the entire phenomenon.
Being a trained philosopher, I decided to apply philosopher Edmund Husserl’s “phenomenological reduction” to whatever might be going on. It’s a contemplative technique that involves “bracketing” what Husserl calls “the natural attitude.” Ordinarily, the experience we perceive comes embedded in its real-life implications and consequences. For example, in the natural attitude, when I see a street, I start estimating whether it’s safe to cross it. When I see an apple in my kitchen, I notice instinctively whether it’s a good time to eat it. That’s experience as it arrives in the natural attitude.
By contrast, in “bracketing,” I merely observe how the thing appears in consciousness. Bracketing is a little like pretending you’re dead, and just taking a detached look at your life up to that point. You unplug from your life in order to observe it.
So that’s what I did, but focusing on my mostly-by-telephone relationship with Jerry up to that point. What happened next was quite unexpected. I observed myself actually falling in love! And I mean falling. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, falling down the rabbit hole.
Uh oh, I thought to myself. This isn’t what I had in mind at all. My intention was to get above it.
This feels like falling
into a deep pit.
I’d better scramble out! But oddly enough, the more I scrambled, the less I could find a handhold to grip and get myself back up to the rim. It seemed easy to fall in, but beyond my power to fall up. Well! I thought. This changes everything.
I’m a serious romantic. That means, I’ve long thought that the mutual falling-in-love of a man and a woman has the character of utmost seriousness. Though many people do not think of the Bible as a romantic book, from childhood on, I had taken sober note of the fact, reported in Genesis, that the progenitors of the covenant had to get rightly situated, each with the right partner, before they could safely get on about their divine mission.
The marital relation — as I saw it exemplified in my parents’ marriage — combined elements often thought of as unrelated: the political, the erotic, and the irreplaceably personal. Such relations seemed to me to constitute the nuclear center of a meaningful life in one’s time.
I had never written anything about my romantic view. It seemed implausible to try to fit it into any topic with which philosophers were currently busy. But for me it remained a defining intuition.
If that’s what was going on between Jerry and me (and further inquiry confirmed that it was) then it was of overriding importance.
When I began to tell colleagues, in my own and other departments, that I planned to take early retirement so that Jerry and I could start joining our lives, the comments from academics were uniformly negative. This (romantic love) was an exhilarating delirium, I was told. It was like being crazy, except that you snapped out of it when the spell broke and you awoke. If I wanted to stretch out the time for the bloom to stay on the rose, I’d better confine the relationship to weekend trysts in my New York or his Washington D.C. If, while the delirium lasted, I needed a Tuesday/Thursday schedule for the sake of longer weekends, my chair and the provost could arrange it. And so on. Now that I think of it, my colleagues really tried to save me.
I wasn’t sure that the nay-sayers were wrong. All I knew was that, up to that time, my belief in the seriousness of love that was romantic, marital, and confirmed by the joining of lives, had been at the nuclear center of my other beliefs. If, given the opportunity, I refused to take myself up on it, then I would be unable to take this, or my other beliefs — hence myself — seriously in the future.
Had I ever meant what I most deeply thought, and implicitly said?
now was the time
to act on it.