Getting a Grip

getting a grip

Le Croisic by John Everett. 1921.

Lately, I’ve been in a funny sort of crisis: the crisis when nothing is going wrong — and that’s what’s wrong! It’s as if the distance between my present place and its boundaries is equidistant on every side. Nothing inclines me to take a step in one direction rather than another. Consequently, I’m suffering from a deficit of rough edges — a disappearance of traction — a loss of grip.

I believe Martin Heidegger called moods of this kind unheimlich, i.e., “uncanny.” (Heidegger was the 20th-century’s most celebrated German philosopher of human existence, as well as a lifelong secret Nazi sympathizer.) Well, maybe what I’m describing is what he meant by “uncanny” or maybe he meant something different. In any event, I wouldn’t ask Heidegger to hold my watch while I took a shower. I’m not trying to celebrate my loss of grip as a sign of authenticity.

There’s an odd kind of plenitude to it. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be than our pleasant home.  Jerry is upstairs at his work that I too value highly. I can’t think of any man I’d rather be married to (from the list of previous candidates). I can’t think of any task not already on my agenda that I’d prefer to be doing instead. There’s no previous phase of life experience that I now yearn to revisit.

Of course, I do wish I didn’t have the neuropathy from which I get my walking handicap. But in that connection, an insight came to me in meditation that surprised me. (For me, meditation and prayer blend into each other. First, I sit cross-legged or in a half-lotus. Then I quiet my mind, as meditators do. Then I silently ask if there’s anything God wants me to know, or to do.) What came to me was that the reason my handicap has so troubled me was — not that it deprives me of freedom or enjoyment — but that I fear the handicap could block my ability to carry out some assignment that God might put in my path.

Can you imagine?  

This is me I’m writing about, not some imaginary character named Saint Goody-Two-Shoes! That’s what’s added the component of anguish to my neuropathy experience? Well, shiver me timbers! — as the old sea captains used to say. If I read about someone making such a claim, I’d say that’s got to be at least an exaggeration. Nevertheless, strange as it sounds, what came to me in meditation was that, regardless of the handicap, I can now do whatever God wants me to do. And, if that’s the case, then I need not be in anguish because of my handicap.  

Of course, it very much bothers me. I want to take the long strides I used to have, let the ground revive my feet each time they touch it – and there’s no denying the sincerity of that desire. The body wants to get its norm back. I wouldn’t be going to California for treatments and doing homework exercises if I didn’t sympathize and agree with my body. But apparently, that’s as far as it goes. It stops well short of anguish. And — with vicarious anguish for those who are — I’m not in pain.

What about the state of the world, the extremisms that imperil the world’s democracies, the rise in Jew-hatred here and abroad, the survival of the ecosystem, the health of our friends?  Why wouldn’t any or all of these imbalances tilt me off the slightly eerie equipoise of which I now complain?  Well actually, for the same reason that I don’t seem to be decentered by my neuropathy.  None of these seem to be within my power to affect significantly.  And none prevents me from acting on any directive that appears to me (with time allotted to consult wiser heads) God-sent.

So here I am, at a mental standstill, pushed in equal degrees from all sides, and still feeling this loss of grip.

I was pondering this inner state last Friday, mounted on a lovely brown mare named Spice. The young woman who is my horse-empathic guide translated what Spice was conveying to me, as the mare took her deliberate, unpredictable sidesteps, halts, circles and reversals of direction. Here’s the gist, so far as I could get it: “When my book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, comes out, some readers will surely misread it or get its meaning quite wrong. It’s important for me to know that I can’t control what they get from it. I’m not obligated to furnish further explanations. What it means is just what I wrote.”

As I rode, I wondered: can I think of anything else that might explain this lingering sense of stasis? There was this: I was feeling as if I already foreknow what would, in the best case, follow from the efforts I’d so far invested in the story of my life. I think I know what still needs to be accomplished. If all goes well, and I do get the future at which I aim, those outcomes could be seen as deducible from my present inputs. But if so, they lose their character as future! A deducible world lacks surprises. Or, if it has any, it would take a better mathematician than I am to discover them. No wonder I feel that I’m at full stop!

But wait a minute! Where did I get the idea that the contents of the future are already contained in the present? No human life has deducible outcomes, least of all a life prepared to act on directives from on high!

Suddenly, my guide called something to my attention. A band of about five white herons was alighting on hillocks and rocks around a small lake at the far end of the field. They were not native to these parts, she told me, but must have flown up from a southern state. For a while they stood, in their one-legged poses, like birds in a still life. Then they slowly circled the sky overhead before flying away. It was not a scene I would ever forget.

Spice, a little spooked by the unfamiliar spectacle, shied suddenly. Cowboy style, I kept my seat, a feat my guide put on record with an authentic western yell. Then she asked what I made of the scene we had witnessed.

“I read it as a clear message:

the landscape ahead 

is not foreknown

but holds its own surprises.”

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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