Marie Kondo is quite the thing these days. Her New York Times #1 best seller book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and her Netflix series on the same topic both appeal to the desire of countless Americans to get rid of much of their material stuff and to live a less stressful, simpler life. Kondo’s magic focuses on several intriguing ideas, including keeping the things in your house which “spark joy.” As you can see from the picture of the shelf behind my desk, it’s apparent I really need help!
The method works well, according to many who have tried it. Kondo explains it very clearly and appealingly: declutter first, by category, starting with all your clothes, then books, then papers, etc., going by category through the entire house, holding each article and keeping only the ones which bring you joy. Then organize. She takes the reader and viewer through every step. What’s most interesting to me is why the whole process of discarding objects and organizing our lives is so attractive to us.
Kondo says that the “magic of tidying” is that it gives you “a new start on life.” As we declutter and look at the piles of bags we’re filling up we will ask, “Why on earth did I bother keeping all this stuff?…If you tidy up in one shot, you can dramatically change your mind-set.”
Okay, that is appealing. A new start on my life…changing my mind-set. Because what do I find when I study the picture above? Going from left to right, a pile of CDs accumulated over many years, an office phone that I use about once a month, a stack of papers awaiting shredding, family photos, a radio and CD player (yes, you do need a player for the CDs) which has another stack of CD’s in front of it (which I used months ago in writing about my friend David), a box of Kleenex — useful for weeping students as we discuss their grades – carefully wedged between the CD player and the 3-hole punch to keep apart these two well-known antagonists, and finally a jumble of manila folders crammed into the vertical file intended for a few ready-to-hand topics. Whew! I need help! What’s wrong with me?
Kondo suggests that attachment and anxiety may be the cause of my messiness: there are really only two reasons we can’t let go of an item that does not bring us joy, “an attachment to the past or anxiety about the future.”
How about that I am a stereotypical philosophy professor who is often oblivious to my surroundings? Until the mess suddenly starts to drive me crazy and I tidy up…some. To be fair to her, she’s right that there is definitely an attachment to some of the CD’s. And perhaps an anxiety that if I discard any of them…or the “invaluable” contents of those manila folders, I will realize with alarm that I needed that!
Kondo writes, “The whole point in both discarding and keeping things is to be happy….. Human beings can only truly cherish a limited number of things at one time,” so “your real life begins after putting your house in order.” These first two statements make good sense to me, even if the one that “your real life begins” is hyperbolic. Just as we can have a limited number of complete friendships, as opposed to acquaintances, so it is with the objects we really need.
“The true purpose of tidying up is, I believe, to live in the most natural state possible. Don’t you think it is unnatural for us to possess things that don’t bring us joy or things that we don’t really need?” There does seem to be something “unnatural” in having more objects than we need, although the idea of what’s “unnatural” and “natural” needs a good deal of analysis.
Happiness and What’s “Natural”
Marie Kondo touches on two ideas that are important not only in the traditional culture and philosophy of her native Japan and Asia, but also in Western philosophy. The proper place of material things in our “happiness” can be traced in Western philosophy at least as far back Socrates (c. 469 – 399 BCE), whose indifference to fancy clothing and wealth inspired both the Epicureans and the Stoics, both schools of philosophy and life that began in the latter part of the 300’s BCE. Epicurus taught his disciples that we are by nature creatures who seek pleasure, but since we are also by nature creatures who can think, we need to pursue pleasures as rationally and intelligently as possible.
So just as anxiety plays a role in the thought of Kondo, it always plays an important part in the thought of the Epicureans. If Epicurus somehow time-travelled and showed up at your door with a translator to help you declutter your house, – as Kondo does in the Netflix series — he would not only be a swarthy man instead of a lovely Japanese woman with an charming accent, but he also would be saying something quite different to the home-owning couple.
Instead of saying, “Now let’s put all the clothes in your house into a central location so we can go through them and then tidy up,” he would say, “Why do you buy all this crap in the first place? Why have you bought an enormous home and then tried to fill every part of it with expensive items? Aren’t you constantly worried about paying the mortgage and buying even more expensive stuff that you see on the strange screen where you stare at this enormous marketplace? Instead of just carefully going through your stuff and getting rid of it, quit organizing your life around material possessions that ultimately distract you from a life spent on more important things, like friendship, reflection, and the joy of being alive?”
What a downer! His book will never be a best-seller! The truth is that most of us really want it both ways: we want to have both an uncluttered life and also an abundance of never-ending material pleasures. We don’t want to start a whole new life. If we feel down or bored, just let us buy some new clothes, a new tennis racquet, or one of the latest-generation electronic gizmos. Then we feel better. For a while.
I feel pretty good that about my connecting and contrasting Kondo and Epicurus. But as Kondo might remind me, all that stuff is still sitting in my office, exactly as it was when I took the picture. Maybe the philosophizing just delays my doing the real work of de-cluttering or pushes down my anxiety.
Next time: more about what the best simple life looks like. And for added fun, maybe a little more about anxiety.
My family preferred to deal with challenges and craziness with humor, thus the plaque my sister Virginia gave to me on a recent birthday, “Just remember: as far as everyone knows, we are a nice, normal family.” I laugh every time I see this sign, as does everyone else. We can all see, in retrospect, the craziness in our families, and if it was not too harmful, we can laugh about it.
My parents, siblings and I lived in a house originally occupied by my mother’s parents. The small house, with three rooms on each side of a central hall that ran the length of the house, was typical of modest homes in Charlotte built around 1920. By the time I was a young teenager, the house was definitely aging. Things needed fixin’. But we had neither money nor the know-how.
One evening we heard loud noises coming from the attic, much too loud for a squirrel. As we read and watched television in the living room, we were concerned. What was that? Since we couldn’t figure it out, my brother Charlie and I and our father repaired to the kitchen to get a bowl of ice-milk before Gunsmoke began. We later drifted to sleep, accompanied by the rumbling in the attic.
The next day I was pitching a rubber ball against the front steps when I saw movement on the lower portion of the roof. I saw a large, fat possum ambling toward the side of the roof. It then disappeared. I walked closer to the roof, where I could see a possum-sized hole in the lower left corner of the house, just above the roof. Ah-ha! Mystery solved! I was excited to tell everyone what was causing the noises in the attic.
And what did we do with this knowledge? Well, mostly it enabled us to say with a rueful smile when we heard noises in the attic, “There’s that possum again.” It seems that the six of us living there, including our father, never thought of canvassing our neighbors to see if anyone had a ladder that would reach up to the roof. Perhaps the thought that we’d additionally need a board and some nails to make the repair made it out of the question. Our dad would hear the noise, glance up and then go on reading the paper.
Learning to Solve and Think About Problems
As I became a teenager and later when I had my own family, I began to see ways to live other than ignoring the possum or contemplating the possum. I learned how to fix some things: a flat tire, an electric dryer, an attic fan, loose bricks in a chimney, etc. As long as the result did not require too much precision, I did okay and took great pleasure in solving problems. In fact, I became a bit proud. There are ways to keep the possum out of the attic!
My actions in fixin’ things connected well with ideas. I came to realize there is a conceptual aspect to fixing things, including gaining knowledge about the underlying structure of a thing, and in all cases defining what the problem actually is rather than just what it first appears to be. In philosophy grad school, I was delighted to learn that the philosophers known as the American pragmatists – Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey – wrote that philosophy itself is an attempt to solve problems. Belief is a satisfied state that is interrupted when doubts begin to arise about the workability of those beliefs. We believe the roof is in good shape, but then water stains appear on the ceiling. We believe that our race is superior to others, but then we encounter folks of other races who demonstrate the falseness of this belief. Doubts arise. The doubts lead to an attempt to clarify and then to address the problem. Peirce even wrote an article entitled, “The Fixation of Belief,” about four methods to move from the problematic feeling of doubt to the settled state of belief: tenacity (stubbornly hanging onto whatever beliefs we have); authority (of others, societal leaders who tell us what to believe); pure reason (looking for a consistent set of beliefs); and the scientific method (which goes beyond just consistency to find ways to test various hypotheses about the world).
So now I could not only fix some things, I could think and talk about methods to solving problems! I was feeling pretty good.
The Stubborn-ness of Reality
One Saturday after I’d left grad school, in the year I first began teaching – in a high school, while I finished my Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy – I walked out into our carport and saw that my left rear tire was flat. Ah, a nice easy problem to fix on a pretty fall morning, with plenty of time. I opened the trunk to pull out the 4-way lug wrench, popped off the hubcap, fitted the wrench to the tire to loosen the lug nuts, and turned it to the left. Hunh! This nut was really tight. But I was young and relatively strong, so no problem. I bent my knees, grabbed the wrench tightly, and turned left with all my strength. What! Instead of the lug nut coming off, the wheel stud broke off from the wheel! How the heck did that happen? It must be some freak incident, perhaps due to a weakness in the bolt. I was agitated, and at the same time a bit pleased with my strength.
Okay, I thought, I’m sure after I remove the lug nuts on the other wheel studs, I’ll still be able to drive the car until I can get it repaired. I moved the wrench to another nut, braced myself, and turned strongly to the left, and broke off another stud. What the hell??!! Now I was furious. This stupid car! I tried another nut, turned with all my might, and – you guessed it – broke off that wheel stud too.
Having spent all my adrenaline, I sat down on the steps and cooled off. I thought finally to look at the car’s manual in the glove compartment, turning to the section on changing a tire. Crap! As I read I remembered: this Dodge Dart is a Chrysler, and Chrysler have left-handed threads on the left side of the car, so to remove the nuts, you turn to the RIGHT, not to the LEFT as on every other car I knew! Omigosh, how humiliating. I went back to the wheel and looked at the lug studs and saw an “L” clearly stamped at the end of each stud, indicating a left-handed thread. I felt all the energy drain from my body. I finally recovered enough to remove the other lug nuts and drove slowly to the filling station where I sheepishly explained my problem and let the professionals fix the problems I had created.
What caused this minor disaster? Certainly a lack of knowledge of the underlying structure of the bolts. However, the real cause was my pride and then my anger. I threw myself into the torrent of pride and anger, and then found myself swept downstream, ultimately wrecked.
A year or so after My Humiliation I read a book that greatly influenced me, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. The book is both about the most lofty metaphysics and also about…well…fixin’ things. In the 1975 Bantam Books paperback I’ve held together with tape, the frontispiece quotes two statements from the book: “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself’….Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become part of a process, to achieve an inner peace of mind.”
That’s it. My ego demanded some magic by which a piece of metal would submit to my strength, anger became my dominant emotion when it did not, and much to my surprise that did not end well.
Reading Pirsig’s Zen led me to be curious about Buddhism, and I learned that one of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that “clinging desire” or “craving” is the cause of much suffering. “Clinging desire” is the result of my belief that there is nothing more important than my individual self, and if I can just cling a little tighter to what I want then I will be satisfied. If I just cling to my righteous anger then the wheel lugs must come off in the direction I turn them, cling to my desires that my friends and loved ones will change to be exactly as I want them to be, cling to my demands that my cravings be ceaselessly met, then I will be happy. In fact, since these desires are based on a false view of reality, this attitude results in unmet desires and living in a continuing state of dissatisfaction.
There are some possums we probably should just leave alone. And there are lots of problems we should resolve the best way possible. Either way, rather than demanding of reality that our desires be met, Buddha advises that we get rid of those clinging desires and cravings. If we do, he says, that sense of things being unsatisfactory and unworkable will go away, or at least lessen. We can train ourselves — through meditation, mindfulness of the present, and practicing compassion — to lessen our desires and paradoxically increase our sense that this life is satisfactory.
“In poverty, too, as in all other misfortunes, people think friends to be their only refuge….
But friendship is not only necessary but also noble;
for we praise those who love their friends,
and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends;
and again we think it is the same people that are good people and are friends.” — Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics
David McKnight at the Durham Farmer’s Market, Sept. 2014. Photo by Bill Pope
David encountered many challenges in the years between being voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school and ending up living on the streets in Durham. All along the way, however, were friends who both were drawn to David because of his gifts and who he was, and who also nurtured those gifts and David. As a result, sometimes, together they brought about amazing events.
A heads-up: this is a long post, but it all seemed essential to the final installment on friendship and David. Read it as you wish. I suggest a glass of your favorite beverage and finding a little time. Or just listen to the music, watch the videos, look at the pictures and browse around.
“In Poverty, Too, As In All Other Misfortunes, People Think Friends To Be Their Only Refuge”
Between 2009 and 2016, several things happened that substantially improved David’s life. In 2009, he began playing his violin each Saturday at the Durham Farmer’s Market. The $100 he could make in tips became his main source of income and provided him more predictability about his resources after two decades of playing on the street. And the exposure to people who otherwise might never have heard or seen him brought joy to many, as witnessed by the mother and child with David above.
Of course, even with a little more money, David was still living on the streets. Friend Bill Pope captures David’s astounding routine for all those years: “David was blessed with a loving guardian angel. He never experienced any harm. He avoided homeless shelters. Police watched out for him. Bartenders often slipped him food and drinks. He was amazingly resourceful and resilient. Satisfaction, a sports bar and restaurant, became his living room; Kinkos served as his late-night office, and the city buses, his bedroom. He drank beer, ate dinner, and socialized until closing. He would then go to Kinkos and pay several dollars for the use of a computer (this was before he had access to Duke Library and the internet). For several hours he wrote editorials, made copies, and mailed them the next day to newspapers. Early the next morning he would buy several different newspapers and carried them in large paper bags. He memorized all the bus routes. Starting around 5 a.m. he would hop on the first bus and pay $2.00 for a day pass and immediately fall asleep sitting up. A good ride would last 90 minutes. In between bus rides, he would play his violin or guitar on 9th Street in Durham, Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough Street in Raleigh.”
Even given David’s resourcefulness and resiliency, he could not have made it all those years on the streets without friends. As Aristotle writes, “In poverty, too, as in all other misfortunes, people think friends to be their only refuge.”[i]
David was fortunate to have so many friends as his refuge. When the overnight temperature would get below freezing, Bill Yaeger would get into his car and ride around looking for David to offer him a room for the night. Sometimes he found David, other times he did not. One day when there was an unexpected snowstorm, Bill found David on Main Street in front of Satisfaction, walking in a circle. He was disoriented but got into the car, and Bill drove home to house David for the night. Friend and former band member Pattie LeSueur remembers, “”Driving down Ninth Street, I would always just keep my eyes peeled for him, and a lot of times I would see him at the bus station. I’d stop and give him a ride. If you needed to find David, you’d find him down there. But through the years, we would talk about him and express a lot of worry about what was going on with him. We’d try to sit down and talk to him, but we just weren’t sure how to help him.”
Bill Pope writes about David’s many homeless years:
“There were short term stays with friends, usually a night or two a week, a year with an acquaintance in Charlottesville, a month or so here and there with musicians. He once spent the winter on the office floor at an old tobacco warehouse. For many years, he slept on a mattress in my living room, usually once a week, sometimes longer in the winter. He rarely asked to stay with me. I learned to read between the lines. In the winter, he might say something like ‘I hear it’s going to be 17 degrees tonight.’ One memorable night in January 2000, a monster snowstorm bore down. I jumped in my car searching frantically for him as the first flakes covered the windshield. I spotted David calmly sitting on a wall near downtown. That night we feasted on spaghetti and salad and gulped down a half bottle of red wine. He basked in a hot shower, and within minutes was snoring. The next morning we stared at a record 20 inches of snow. He stayed a week.”
Another friend, Bill Erwin, writes, “There was a time when several of us were discussing making a monthly contribution to pay apartment rent for David. My wife, Heidrun, and I had also discussed building a little house for him in our back yard. Neither of those ideas went very far, however. David was opposed to anything that sounded like ‘charity.’”
He did live with us for three months or so, sleeping on the couch, and was an amenable housemate for Heidrun, me and our two sons.”
And then, about 2013, a few years after David began playing at the Farmer’s Market, something remarkable happened. David accepted a long-standing invitation to share with a young man a two-bedroom side of a duplex only a couple of blocks from 9th Street and near the bus lines. David had held off accepting that invitation for a long while, but he turned 65 that year, and the results of aging, the lack of sleep, and his weight were taking a toll on him. The duplex was a god-send. It eliminated living on the street and thus ended David’s mind-boggling 20-year-long daily routine.
David in front of his duplex, Oct. 31, 2015 Photo by Bill Pope
“Friendship is not only necessary, it is also noble”
In 2014, yet another good thing happened, thanks to friends who helped David to apply and qualify for Social Security benefits.
Even before David could consider applying, he had to have an acceptable ID, and for this he received help from his friend and niece Lorrin Freeman, who lived in nearby Wake County. She writes,
“The effort to get David his social security was a multi-phase process. It required him getting an ID. I will tell you that getting an ID for someone who has no ID is nearly impossible. David had been ‘off the grid’ for years. We originally went to get a passport but it turns out you can’t get a passport without an ID. I took a second afternoon from work to take him to DMV. As we got closer to the office he became more and more nervous. I was determined we were going to follow through. As we waited in line, I tried to distract him with conversation, but his anxiety clearly was rising. When it was our turn the DMV agent almost turned us down because we were lacking sufficient identifying documents. It was at that moment I believe she saw the despair on my face and in a last-ditch effort asked me if he had ever had a driver’s license. It had been more than twenty-five years I told her, but yes, he had had one. She then pulled it up on their computer – looked at the picture which I am certain looked virtually nothing like David and at me and agreed it was certainly him. I have always been so grateful for her compassion and assistance. I feel certain that if we had failed that day, David, who had had to be consistently cajoled to receive some help, would have given up and never agreed to go again.”
Another friend was Sybil Huskey, David’s co-recipient of “Most Likely to Succeed” at Garinger High School in Charlotte, as well as editor of the school newspaper for which David wrote a sports column. Sybil, a dance professor, spent the entire summer of 2014 in Durham at the NC Idea Labs, in her role as a co-founder of a start-up software company, Video Collaboratory. During that summer Sybil had numerous prolonged discussions with David about applying for Social Security benefits. David was excited about the prospect, as he felt he had earned these benefits rather than their being charity, but he still did not apply. Sybil writes, “I knew that the ‘Bills’ had tried in vain to facilitate David’s S.S., but David just said he would take care of it online. NOT. So knowing this, I kept nudging him during my Durham summer and finally established a breakfast date at Elmo’s diner followed by a visit to the S.S. Office. When David saw all the people, he broke into a sweat and reiterated his intent of enrolling online. I laughed and told him we would just take a number and then have lots of time to visit. Miraculously, he agreed. When his number was called, he insisted on going solo to the window. He was exuberant when he found that he would be receiving more money than he had anticipated so it was a happy day. And he got enrolled in Medicare Part A.”
Later that summer Sybil helped David fill out an application for Medicaid, which he finally had agreed to do. But when they came to the section that asked for David’s address, David balked. His paranoia took over: “I don’t want my address to be out there so that God knows who knows where I live.”
This seemed an insoluble problem until Sybil had an idea.
“David, I’m your editor, right?”
“Well, yes,” David responded with a quizzical smile.
“Well since I’m your editor, you have to do what I tell you to do. So put in your address, sign the form, and let’s get it to the office!”
Amazingly, David laughed, and signed.
When the social security checks started to arrive, Bill Pope observed, “That was the happiest I had ever seen David.”
David on 9th Street, relaxing with a glass of wine after playing a set,
Oct. 2015. Photo by Bill Pope
David still faced many challenges, but these good events must have made the world a bit more open and welcoming to him, like the past travel that inspired the song below. David wrote, “I got the idea for this instrumental when I went out to Kansas to interview for a newspaper job at The Wichita Eagle.”
From the album “Changin’ My Mind,” by Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight. Composed by David McKnight and John Wenberg. David McKnight – Guitar, Fiddle, Piano; Bill Cleaver – Guitar; David Spencer – Mandolin, Electric Guitar; Joe Swenson – Bass; Robert Smith – Harmonica; Bill Erchul – Pedal Steel Guitar; Time Rae – Percussion.
“For We Praise Those Who Love Their Friends”
As if to cap off this good news, in 2016 David attended the 50th reunion in Charlotte of our Garinger High Class of ’66 in Charlotte. In the months leading up to our high school reunion in May of 2016, Sybil and I wrote David regularly, urging him to attend. He was very enthusiastic about the prospect, and he remembered our classmates far better than I did. Bill Yaeger offered to David to take him to the Durham train station to buy tickets and to take him to buy a new pair of slacks and a shirt, which David had identified as items he needed for the reunion. All looked good. But at the last minute David became nervous and emailed Bill, saying that something had come up and he could not go with Bill to the train station. Nor to the store. I wrote David, and after a few days finally he wrote back with the time of the arrival of his train in Charlotte. We had no idea whether he would actually show up. My lifelong friend Ike Casey went with me to the Charlotte station, and when the passengers came through the tunnel to disembark, there was David at the end of the line, with a big smile, a bag, and the folding chair he carried with him everywhere for when he needed to take a rest break from walking.
After we helped him check into the hotel, David and I spent a little time in his room. “I’m worried about what people will think about my teeth,” he said. “Not having much money all these years, I couldn’t go to a dentist.”
“Don’t worry about your teeth, David,” I replied. “Everyone there is going to be fat or bald and/or just plain old, and people are just going to be glad to see you.”
And they were delighted to see him. When we arrived at the reunion reception, David was seated in the lobby chatting with our good friend Deno Economou. A little later he hobbled into the reception room and then afterwards the dining room, carrying his folding chair with him, set up at a table in the back of the room, and held court for three hours, telling stories, listening intently, and laughing that infectious laugh. Dozens of people came up to talk with him. As always, he amazed us with his knowledge of North Carolina history and politics. “….So the candidate came to Governor Kerr Scott to ask for his help, and Scott said, ‘Well, I’ll come out publicly fer you or ag’in you, whichever will help you the most!’”
David in one of his many conversations at the 50th Reunion
David McKnight and Norris Frederick at the Garinger Wildcats reunion
The next morning after the reunion dinner and dance, I went to the hotel and found David seated at a breakfast table, where he again was holding court for several fellow alumni. David and I drove around Charlotte, looking at the many changes since he had lived here 25 years earlier. As we rode, he said he was so glad to see Charlotte again, and then he said, “You know, I am just about done with my work in the Triangle, and I am thinking about moving back here and doing some violin concerts, maybe a little music teaching at Queens if you can introduce me to some folks, perfesser!”
We stopped off at the Elizabeth Creamery and sat in the pleasantly warm sun on the quiet side street, enjoying a double-scoop waffle cone in the beautiful spring day. “This is the life,” he said with a smile. I heartily agreed. In fact, it was a wonderful day and weekend for me, too. The re-connecting with David and my other high school friends, and re-connecting David with them, was so very meaningful for me. And David now had a regular gig at the Farmer’s Market, an apartment, social security benefits, and a host of high school friends to add to his friends in Durham. This is the life.
“And It Is Thought To Be A Fine Thing To Have Many Friends”
It seemed like the next day, but a few months later, it became obvious that something was wrong with David. His friends in Durham noticed that David had started forgetting words and had even more trouble walking. One day in November Bill Yaeger receive a call from David asking for help — the first time he’d ever asked Bill for help. Calling from the Duke library, David said, “I can’t move my body.” When Bill came to pick him up, David refused to go see a doctor. So Bill took him home, where he seemed somewhat better. The duplex was a mess: simply nothing was ever thrown away, and newpaper were piled up everywhere. Bill brought food to David for several days.
Niece Lorrin Freeman managed finally to get David to a doctor. “The overarching theme that jumps out at me when it came to David’s last few months is similar to what happened in getting David’s ID: complete strangers exercising tremendous compassion and understanding. It became obvious something was wrong with David. He hadn’t sought actual medical care except for one incident in decades. I located the free clinic in Durham where the doctor on duty immediately recognized David’s situation and listened to him exclaim about his life achievements before providing just the very first steps of medical assistance understanding that a full-blown medical physical would deter David from any follow up. When he left he agreed to a next appointment within the week.”
But that follow-up visit never happened, for soon there was a time when no one saw David for days. Bill Yaeger was the first one to get to David’s duplex. He could tell David was in the bedroom, lying on the floor, with his considerable girth blocking the door. Bill was able to get the door open, and found David and the room in terrible condition. In addition to the usual newspapers and junk piled everywhere, David had lost control of his bowels and the room was putrid. When the ambulance and the EMS workers arrived, David protested that they had no right to take him from his home. Eventually they were able to get David into a chair and carried him in that chair to the ambulance.
Bill rode in the ambulance with David to try to keep him as calm as possible. One of the EMS workers recognized David as the street musician and treated David as a celebrity, which improved David’s mood. Another stranger showing compassion and understanding for David. At the Duke hospital, the doctors put David on an anti-psychotic drug, one of the rare times in his life he took medicine for his mental challenges.
David was diagnosed with brain cancer, which the doctors deemed inoperable. David’s sister Carson and brother Pete met with Bill Yaeger and Bill Pope, and all agreed that it was unwise to pursue surgery, but that they would do everything they could to make David’s remaining time as good as possible. David insisted that no one had the right to keep him in a hospital. Carson writes, “David was furious with Lorrin and declared to all who would listen that she had ruined his life.” Lorrin remembers, “David spent a lot of the last few weeks angry with me because I had confined him to a hospital and then a nursing home. His preference was to be free and independent. Despite that, he largely was gracious and happy to have the non-stop visitation he experienced.”
Friends and family rallied around him, getting him into a good extended care facility only two miles from where David had played the violin on 9th Street all those years. He had visitors every day, including high school classmates Nancy Gaillard and Sybil Huskey, who came from miles away and stayed in town for days to be with David. Former band member Joe Swenson flew in from California. Carson, her daughters Meg and Lorrin and their families, Pete, and other family came to spend time with David. Even a policeman who knew David came and serenaded David with his guitar. Lorrin and Pete worked with the doctors and nursing home to get David the best treatment. Pete drove from Roanoke, Virginia, to Durham, and back again the same day to Roanoke, a two and one-half hour drive each way. Friend Bill Pope visited frequently, and Bill Yaeger spent time with David almost every day.
David was delighted to see the friends and family, but he also said to them that he was not seriously ill and that he wanted to leave the hospital. At times he would beg them to take him home with them until he could get back on his feet and be on his own again. Carson remembers, “There were so many things I wanted to say to David at Pruitt, but my presence was his excuse just to dig in and needle me and insist that I get him out of there and bring him here to Greensboro. No other conversation was tolerated. I told him he required a team and I couldn’t provide that.”
It’s heart-breaking for friends and family to have such conversations with someone who is ill and in an institution. There was some solace for Carson: when family took David to Elmo’s Diner on his last birthday to have dinner with some of his friends, he announced to the table his deep appreciation of his sister and her importance to him.
“ We Think It Is The Same People That Are Good People And Are Friends”
His many friends in Durham decided to pull together an event to honor David, to play his music and to let him know he was loved. The event was set for Sunday, January 15 at the Blue Note Grill in Durham.
Musician friends Rebecca Newton and Pattie LeSueur posted an invite on the Blue Note’s website: “Pattie LeSueur and I want to have a few hours of great music for him, and Bill and Andrea graciously gave us The Blue Note Grill on Jan 15th. This may well be the last time David gets out to hear live music. We hope MANY folks will be involved in this tribute to him.
We’re busting David out of his facility for a few hours on Sunday, Jan 15th and paying a musical tribute to him as a thanks for 40+ years of music in the Triangle. Come join us!”
But three days before the scheduled event I got the news from Sybil that David was declining rapidly: “Bill Pope is with David as I write and says he has been sleeping all day, unable to sit up or feed himself. He thinks it is a matter of days. The music tribute is still on but will surely be a more somber event without David’s presence. Just so sad.”
When Sunday came, over 200 of David’s friends showed up to celebrate David. The three-hour event was live-streamed to David’s room in the long-term care facility in hopes that he would be able to watch. The friendship, love and joy that poured forth that night were inspiring. Pattie LeSueur called out the love of the group to David, and then she and Jack LeSueur played a song they had sung with David when the three of them formed the group “Triangle” back in the 1970s.
Pattie and Jack Le Sueur, accompanied by Mike Foster. Written by Carlene Carter . Video by Bill Erwin of CelebrationVideos.com. https://vimeo.com/200115898
Among the highlights were Cleaver, Smith and Swenson, performing without McKnight, who provided a superb rendition of David’s “Back in Texas Again”:
L-R: Joe Swenson, Robert Duvall Smith, Dave Spencer, Bill Cleaver and Gary Siems. Written by David McKnight. Video by Bill Erwin, CelebrationVideos.com. Excerpted from https://vimeo.com/199936592?ref=fb-share&1
Another song featured that night was David’s “Mecklenburg Waltz.” David at one point said he was going to write a waltz for every one of North Carolina’s 100 counties. If this one is any indication, I sure wish we’d had the other 99. Here is David playing the violin on the waltz, in 2011.
David’s “Mecklenburg Waltz,” from a 06/09/2011 mix
Everyone there found it such a moving and meaningful event.
The Sad Message
Just two days later, on January 17, Sybil wrote with the sad words, “Meg Whalen just called to say that David passed about an hour ago, about 9 a.m. He had no pain and was peaceful to the end. With Sunday’s tribute event, one could say that he was ushered out by the music and friends/family he loved. What better way to go.”
As has been the case for me with other before, I knew David was going to die soon, but I still felt shocked.
Words fail about moments like these. In his life David said so much with his music, and in death he left us a song he’d authored and recorded in memory of the death of his own father, “Last Call.” It’s exactly the right song for those of us who knew and loved David.
David McKnight, Piano, Violin, Viola; Bill Cleaver; Joe Swenson Bass. Written by David McKnight.
Last call, with its definitive ending. But his friends were not ready to let David go.
After the shock of David’s death wore off, the discussion began of a memorial to David, with lots of ideas. Ultimately it was decided that a bench would be placed at the edge of the Durham Farmer’s Market, right where David played his music. Brother Pete worked tirelessly to make the idea a reality. He was instrumental in raising the money for the bench and getting it designed and fabricated and to Durham. The tribute concert for David raised over $2,000. Pete and Bill Yaeger and others went to the Farmer’s Market to ask people to tell their stories about David and to seek funds for the bench. Family and friends gave gifts, and the City of Durham cooperated to make the memorial a reality. Many people came to honor and give thanks for David.
People gathering to honor David, Aug. 5, 2017 Photo by Christopher Frederick
Bill Pope’s words written shortly after David’s death capture what was in the hearts of many at the memorial dedication: “The past year his mobility waned. Years ago I bought him a folding metal bar stool. This allowed him to sit down while he played. He eventually used it as a crutch and resting chair. He would walk 10 yards or so and have to rest. We worried about him. He told me in October that he had completed his work. A month later he started forgetting words. A few weeks later he couldn’t formulate sentences. Then the diagnosis of an aggressive brain tumor. I felt his spirit was ready to go. His work was complete. He died peacefully without pain. He spent years hoping newspapers would print his editorials. Ironically, he finally had editorials printed. They were about him.”
After David’s death, stories about him – tributes really – ran in Indy Week, The Charlotte Observer, The DurhamHerald, and Duke Magazine. Reading the latter tribute I realized a mistake I’d made in my first post. David did go back and graduate from Duke, in 1974. I don’t think he ever told me that.
The Durham Herald-Sun said it beautifully in an editorial: “McKnight’s artistry with the violin and the guitar and the quiet warmth of his personality won the hearts of many in Durham, even if they knew him only as a street musician along Ninth Street or at the edge of the Durham Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.”
David was a neighbor to so many people in Durham, and they were neighbors to him. It’s fitting that David and the music he composed were featured in the Durham film, “Love Your Neighbor.”
As people gathered and speakers voiced memories of David, the bench in his honor sat covered, and on the bench sat David’s violin and a picture of him playing it on this spot. Bill Yaeger says, “I’ve been to a lot of funerals of people who were highly accomplished, who made lots of money, and who were thought worthy. But I don’t know anyone who had a send-off, with such uniform affection as David, both at the musical tribute and then the memorial at the Farmer’s Market. Even with his limitations, he had such a positive effect on others. I think he had a very happy life, rather than one associated with sadness.”
Photo by Robert Duvall Smith
After some remarks, it was time to unveil the bench memorial, below, to David. Perhaps the greatest tribute are the words: “Musician, Journalist, Statesman, Friend.” Most appropriately, the last word is “friend.”
A Christmas Gift from David and A Friend
I have one more story to tell, about the day after Christmas, 2016. The last time I saw David was that morning. David was sitting on the bed side talking with his friend Bill Yaeger, and his face lit up when I came in. He knew who I was, but he had trouble calling out my name. “I was just telling Bill about the election results in two nearby counties where Hillary had such a big victory. And I was saying that if the Democrats had just been able to….” The thought that had started out clearly became impossible to follow. The cancer was doing its horrible work on his brain.
The friend left, and I stayed on with David. I had searched Durham high and low on this cold and overcast morning after Christmas, and I finally found a place open, where I bought coffee and doughnuts. David attacked the doughnuts with gusto as he sipped the coffee. We talked. I asked him how he was doing. “I’m doing all right, just having some bad days here and there. I’ll be getting out of here soon, so I’m working on that.”
When it came time for me to go, I said, “It’s so good to see you, Dave. You’re a good friend and I love you.” He seemed a little startled by my words, but he smiled and said, “Thanks so much for coming by. You’re a good friend, too. I will see you soon.”
I sat in my car and cried.
Later that same day after Christmas, David’s friend and long-time musical partner Bruce Emery (together they created three CD’s) came to visit David. Here is Bruce’s story.
“I had brought the mandolin along on visits several times, but he declined to play, saying that while he was physically capable he couldn’t do it psychologically. The day after Christmas, I was playing some of the guitar parts from our duets, and I hit upon ‘Ode to Joy,’ which David was always happy to sing along to, in German of course. So I slyly asked him if he could remember those lyrics, and got him to sing along. Then I offered him the mandolin, and he agreed to play, but only after a bathroom break, during which he later said he was getting his courage up. After we did ‘Ode to Joy,’ a new melody just popped out of his hands, and I had glimpse of the old David, getting reacquainted with an old instrumental friend. I groped around for some chords that would work and we recorded it. He composed it on the spot and wanted to call it ‘Looking Up’ or ‘Ready for a Change’ or something hopeful like that. He was very pleased and uplifted by the experience. We agreed that we would do that again next visit. I left on a real high. Of course, by the time I had returned, he had clearly gone around another bend in the road, and I didn’t even bring it up. But for a moment there we back at the Global Village coffee shop, trading chords and licks and grins.”
Here is David playing “Ready for a Change.”
David McKnight, mandolin, and Bruce Emery, guitar. Recorded at PruittHealth – Durham, December 26, 2016.
In my previous post I questioned whether David’s friendships met Aristotle’s idea of a complete friendship, given David’s character flaws. I concluded that in asking for perfect virtue/excellence for those in a complete friendship, Aristotle has gone beyond what observation shows, and he has set too high a standard. None of us are perfect in our traits. For example, me. When David voiced ideas about moving back to Charlotte, I did not explore that further with him, not being willing to imagine what it would be like for me if David were living here. His last email to me, on November 4, 2016, focused on his ideas about moving back to Charlotte. I never encouraged him in that idea. Nor did I travel enough to Durham to visit him.
Even David’s niece Lorrin, who did so very much for him, questions whether she did enough. “I loved David – and like many – wish I had done more to be with him while he was here. As you know, being with David was not always easy. He didn’t dwell on his misfortune, almost always demonstrating joie de vivre. So neither shall I.”
And it was difficult to be friends on a daily basis with David. His paranoia, his refusal to accept medical help, his fierce and sometimes seemingly irrational independence, his lack of personal hygiene, and other traits made it a challenge. David kept putting off applying for Social Security, yet it did not seem to occur to him that friends were supplementing his busking income so he could have food and shelter. As a house guest David paid little attention to cleanliness. He ate an enormous amount of food, understandable since he might not know when he’d have his next meal, but he was helpless about preparing meals or cleaning up afterwards.
One friend captures well what must have been the experience of all of David’s close friends: “At times I had to pinch myself and say, ‘he’s the one who is mentally ill.’ David’s friendship meant a lot to us, and the frustrations came mostly from his unwillingness to accept help.” Another friend said, “I miss David and at the same time, he could really drive me crazy.”
But that latter friend goes on to write, “I do miss his deep-down goodness and sweetness and humor.” David was also warm, witty, knowledgeable, gifted, and creative. He was generous when he could be. Bill Yaeger writes, “When he started receiving Social Security he enjoyed hosting me for a couple of nice restaurant meals.”
When I look at friendships I’ve known and observed in my life, I feel an overwhelming admiration for both David and his friends. When I think of the type of thing a friendship is and what it can be, I am convinced that his were complete friendships. Who could imagine more than what David’s friends gave to him, and what David gave to his friends? David was a friend to all those people and to me. He gave of himself joyfully, and people gave to him willingly. While certainly they must also have felt some sense of obligation, friends who visited him in the hospital wanted to be there with David and for David. Another statement from Aristotle rings true for me now: “friendship is not only necessary but also noble; for we praise those who love their friends, and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends; and again we think it is the same people that are good people and are friends.” I am inspired by those many good friends of David, by their and David’s nobility.They are indeed friends and good people.
As Lorrin writes, “David had the most amazing friends. My observation near the end of his life was that all these people surrounded and helped him because they genuinely loved him but also because David had been a good friend over the years – keeping up with their happenings and encouraging them along. A personal example of this was when I was Clerk of Court in Wake County hosting the other one hundred Clerks from across the State for dinner during our annual conference. David wrote and sent me a poem in which he worked in all one hundred counties.”
You could give David the name of any city or town in North Carolina, and David could tell you the corresponding country.
I began these three posts on friendship and David McKnight by asking whether his life was a tragedy. I wasn’t with David daily like his friends and family. I didn’t know the daily heartbreak of dealing with his mental challenges. I did know the young and beautiful David, and I saw his world come tumbling down, bit by bit. When I think of what might have been for David, without his mental issues, without the cancer, his life is tragic.
But when I think of all the lives that David touched for the better, of the over 200 friends and musicians who turned out for a benefit and tribute to him near the end of his life, of all the people he enjoyed and knew were his friends, of the joy he brought to his friends, when I think of the beautiful music he played and recorded all these years, even when homeless, I think not just of tragedy but of overcoming, of triumph, of transcendence, of redemption, of a small world of people brought together by music, stories, laughter and friendship.
And I think of someone who in many ways lived life on his own terms, despite his limitations. We all live lives within our limitations; most of ours just aren’t as readily visible as David’s.
David, you were not only gifted, but you gave us irreplaceable gifts. Thanks for it all, David. I still miss you. We all do.
Some say David isn’t totally gone. Some say he is back in Texas again, or somewhere else, thinking about coming back to Carolina. Listen to his voice and his violin here, and you will know that his spirit lives in his music.
“Tell ‘em back in Caroline, I’m doing swell, and feeling fine, Tell ‘em back in Caroline, it won’t be long til I’m in those pines.”
How to obtain David’s music
There are several options: YouTube, I-Tunes, Amazon music, and CD’s. For the online sources, search for “Cleaver Smith Swenson” to pull up both the earlier album “Back Home Again” and also the later album when the group had become Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight, “Changin’ My Mind.” I will list below specific songs by David. You can also order these CD’s from Robert Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org . Bruce Emery and David McKnight have 3 CD’s, of which the first is Christmas music and others familiar tunes: “All is Calm, All is Bright”; “Night and Day”; and “Windy and Warm.” You can order from Bruce, email@example.com. I recommend all five of these albums.
A couple of days after our high school reunion, David sent out an energized and upbeat email to many classmates, saying how much he enjoyed the reunion. He sent the list below as a “sampler” of the songs “I have been involved with during my breaks from journalism writing and academic research.” He closed the message with characteristic good humor: “First the good news: That’s all the songs for this music mailer to GHS ’66. Now the bad news: There are some more on the way!”
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, W.D. Ross translation (The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html ), with minor changes by Frederick.  Bill Pope, unpublished memories about David McKnight, 2017. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, translated and notes by C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2014. Durham Herald-Sun, Jan. 21, 2017.  Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, Ross translation.
David McKnight playing on 9th Street, Durham, NC, about 2008 Photo by Bill Pope
In Part One (which you can read here), I wrote about my friendship with David McKnight, beginning in the mid-60’s with high school, where he was voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” until the mid 90’s when I lost track of him. I eventually heard from friends that he was living in the Triangle, back and forth between Raleigh and Chapel Hill and Durham, homeless. He played his violin as beautifully as ever, but now on the streets. And stories came back to me that David’s was indeed experiencing mental health challenges.
In this second post, I want to continue to examine the nature of friendship, by extending the story to the middle of later years of David’s life, and by expanding the circle of his friendships. This is going to take me more space and time than I anticipated, so there will be one more post after this one.
A Quick Review
Aristotle confirms the deep value we place on friendship when he writes that no one would want to live without friends, no matter what other goods we have. He writes that friendship is love for each other, “reciprocated goodwill.” Since we love people for different kinds of reasons, we have three different kinds of friendship, based on what is useful or pleasing or good. The first two by themselves are incomplete forms of friendship, while the friendship based on what is good is the basis for a complete friendship, which does include the first two types, also.
“Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.” What we love in such relationships is what is good for ourselves. We love the usefulness of the friend; we do not love the person for who he is. It’s the mutuality of this usefulness that makes it friendship.
David: Music and Friendship
Through his musical genius, David was highly useful to his friends. (That musical ability also was a way in which he made new friends.) He was useful to the musician friends he joined to create groups, adding a richness and variety and creativity that both broadened and deepened their music and appeal. And his music was also pleasing to his band members and to friends who listened to the music, either live or recorded. Watch and listen to David’s violin playing with the group “Triangle” in the 1979 video clip below (especially at the end of the clip, but listen throughout) and see if you agree with me that it is both pleasing to you and useful to the band. [If video does not open for you in this post, you can watch at the link below.]
“Wasting My Time,” by the group Triangle (David McKnight on violin, Pattie Le Sueur, and Jack Le Sueur), a clip from the 1979 video; full song, (composed by Jack Le Sueur) is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTSOP5rcB2g ]
For me this song is “pleasing” in a very deep sense, deeply moving. I can’t imagine it being without Jack’s writing and singing, without Pattie’s beautiful and amazing voice, and without David’s haunting violin. The words are haunting as well, making me think about whether I am “wasting my time,” which is a very useful thing to think about. I will wager that David did not think he was wasting his time as he played it, but instead found himself totally immersed in the song as he chose the path of being a musician. And the words in this 1979 song eerily address the future life of David:
“Somebody tell me, the price I must pay, In love and in money, to make my own way.”
David played with Pattie and Jack Le Sueur beginning about 1975. “We had a great four- or five-year run, and David was such a good fiddle player,” Pattie says in the Indy story about David. “But this was before David really started exhibiting signs of what would later prove to be declining mental health.”
The group Cleaver Smith & Swenson also found David’s musical ability beneficial to them. As the group Facebook page states, “David McKnight, an experienced violinist and fiddle player, joined the group in 1984 during a break between sets at a club in Durham, NC. After literally just passing by on the street, the music drew him in and he asked if he could sit on the next set. That was all it took. ‘Everything just clicked.’ David’s many original songs and upbeat instrumentals, which showcase his versatile fiddle and guitar playing, added yet another facet to the band’s sound and ‘down home’ persona.”
Band member Robert Smith writes, “We were taking a break on the sidewalk and David walked by and asked to join us. We went back inside and played a song I had recently written. David played an amazing violin solo that knocked everyone out. From then on, David played with us. He wrote many songs, instrumental and with vocals that we played.”
A song written by David in 1986, “I’m Back in Texas Again,” with David as lead vocal, guitar, violin, and piano, captures for me not only one type of his music, but David himself:
It wasn’t just David’s musical ability that was pleasing to people when he was on playing on the street. Alan Wolf, who himself had experience in Europe playing as a street musician, commented that David as a street musician had some amazing “hooks” to draw in the audience:
A clip from “Memories ‘of David McKnight on Ninth St., Durham ,and ‘Mecklenburg Waltz,’ ” by William Erwin, CelebrationVideos.com” https://vimeo.com/199855940
I found David to be an astoundingly genial, funny, creative and knowledgeable person. He was unique. About 2014, when I had not seen David for several years, we emailed to set up a day and time to have lunch at Dain’s, on 9th Street in Durham. David let me know he was inviting Bill Yaeger, a longtime Durham friend. Bill and I got there first, and we had a few minutes to chat. Bill told about both his friendship with David and also the challenges David presented. I saw David coming in the front door, walking slowly with a folding stool he carried so he could sit down and rest whenever necessary. His hair had become grayer, and he was heavier than I last saw him. But when he saw me he broke into that familiar inviting smile, and he came over and gave me a big hug.
We sat back down in the booth, where a couple of David’s other friends had joined us, and I asked if everyone was ready to order. “I’m not that hungry,” David said, “so I’m not going to order anything.” I replied that since I was honored to be seeing David at Dain’s for the first time, I was going to buy. “Well, in that case,” he said, “I think I will get something.” And he polished off a hearty meal, joining me and the others in having a beer.
As we all sat and talked, David’s personal gifts were vivid, refreshing my memory. He listened to what others had to say, responded well, and worked in several good jokes. I believe that one person at our table was German, and David at point switched seamlessly into fluent German. Then as the conversation went on, something prompted David to start talking about his trips to various towns in the United States named Charlotte, the same as our hometown. As he talked about Charlotte, Michigan, and his visit there, he began to rattle off facts about that town, its history, its old courthouse that had been turned into a museum, and conversations he’d had with residents. As he was going on, Bill Yaeger caught my eye, and smiled, and nodded as if to say, “he’s amazing, and he’s not just making this up.” Sure enough, when I got back to Charlotte, I googled the other Charlotte and found David was right on target.
So it’s clear that in many ways David had many friends in the types of friendship based on his benefiting and pleasing others. And they clearly were beneficial and pleasing to him, too. The groups provided a way to earn some money, get food and drink, and to enjoy comradeship with good folks. And as I’ll write in the next post, they were a refuge for David. But were they complete friendships, in Aristotle’s sense?
Mental Illness and Complete Friendship
Unlike friendship based on utility or pleasure, Aristotle writes, in a complete friendship we “wish good things to [our] friends for the friends’ own sake…because of themselves.” In a complete friendship, our friend feels the same way toward us. And we are also “both unconditionally good and beneficial to each other.”
What does it mean that in a complete friendship we are “both unconditionally good and beneficial to each other”? Sometimes it’s helpful to carve out the boundaries of a concept by showing what is on the other side, what does not fit within the concept. For example, if we are friends and you ask me to procure heroin for you, and I do so because I want you to have what you want, procuring the heroin is not what is good or beneficial for you in the long term, for either your physical health or your developing self-control, so that is not a complete friendship. A complete friendship is based on what is good. Likewise, if I cannot control my anger and periodically erupt and hit you, again that doesn’t fit under complete friendship, and I lack an appropriate use of anger. If I hit you periodically, certainly if I do so for no reason, I’m not doing something for your good. Or, to take it one step further, we could not be complete friends with an evil person. What, I ask you, would it look like to be complete friends with Hitler?
In a complete friendship, for Aristotle, each friend is alike in excellence (virtue) and “each alike wishes good things to the other insofar as he is good, and each is intrinsically good.” As one commentator writes about Aristotle, the friends in a complete friendship are “fully good and virtuous people.”
It was difficult for people to be complete friends (in Aristotle’s sense) with David, due in large part to his mental challenges. When David and I were friends in high school, I knew he was eccentric. As time when on, certainly by the time he was homeless, it became clear he was dealing with serious challenges. While it’s not clear whether he was diagnosed as such, several people who knew him think he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Regardless of a formal diagnosis, his behavior at times made him very difficult for his friends and family. David’s sister Carson says, “He refused treatment. He refused to take his medicine. I think it was because he thought it would interfere with his ability to play.”
The paranoia showed up in various ways. One of the more persistent ones was that some conspirators – the Democratic party, or perhaps the Kennedys – had surreptitiously altered the vote count in that 1978 Democratic Senate primary in which David finished 5th of 8 candidates after walking all the way across the state. A friend says, “He thought ‘The West Wing’ stole his song as their theme song. He did have that fixation with numbers and history and even baseball and would link them together into some theme or conspiracy. He would see photos in the newspaper and think they all reminded him of friends. He saw words from songs I had written in newspapers and thought that meant something.”
I lived in Charlotte, and David in the Triangle area, so I was not dealing with him on a day to day basis like his friends and co-musicians, but I could sometimes see the paranoia and unevenness in his letters and emails. One 2007 email was delightful, with the same corny and funny punning he did in high school, responding to my inquiry about ordering a CD he and Bruce Emery had produced: “I Kant imagine doing otherwise.” The next email, one of “McKnight’s Essays,” as he titled his more formal emails which he often sent both to friends and to newspapers, never mentioned David specifically, but it clearly was about how he was being treated unfairly and why he could not find a job in journalism. “Now we hear that the Democratic Party in North Carolina and nationally has worked out a scheme by which former working members of the press can be kept underemployed or unemployed while being goaded, prodded or otherwise subjected to partisan political pressure to devote all their literary, journalistic or artistic energies toward the promotion of only one of the two political parties in this country, and I am sure you can guess which one!”
Another email focused on a “technological stranglehold” by powerful organizations, and then moved on to argue that Kinko’s was conspiring against him and the smaller colleges. The reason? Because he had tried to send an email at two different computers at a Kinko’s about a Davidson College croquet match, and the email did not go through either time!
All of us who knew David have our own stories, sometimes converging, sometimes diverging. Carson remembers “not knowing which David you were going to get.” One musician friend says that he got the “good David” 95% of the time and that he showed up on time for every gig except once or twice when the bus carrying David was running behind. Another says that at first David “mostly showed up on time. Then, it became hit or miss. We couldn’t count on him. We had to have sets with and without David made up ahead of time.”
And living on the streets as he did, David and his clothes were sometimes dirty and smelly.
So, David is a long way from being one party in Aristotle’s ideal of a complete friendship, in which each person is perfectly excellent and virtuous. David didn’t always keep his commitments, he could get angry irrationally (such as at Kinko’s), and perhaps didn’t have sufficient pride in his appearance and cleanliness (easy to say from someone not homeless). But perhaps the problem also lies in Aristotle’s definition of a complete friendship. One of the strengths of Aristotle’s approach to philosophy is that he bases his ideas on a process of observation and then thinking about the best way to describe and evaluate those observations. That’s how he came up with the idea of the three types of friendship. And we know and experience all three: friendships which are based primarily on mutual usefulness, or mutual pleasure, or those much rarer ones which are complete friendships.
However, in asking for perfect virtue/excellence for those in a complete friendship, Aristotle has gone beyond what observation shows, and he has set too high a standard. I don’t know any perfect people, and I know for sure I am not one.
Aristotle is right, I think, that the friends in a complete friendship must have some key virtues. Who could be complete friends with a truly evil person? If a person doesn’t show any loyalty to me, or at key times does not show loyalty, how could that person be my friend? And if a person breaks too many promises to me, I will no longer consider that person a complete friend. There’s no magic number about how many broken promises a friend can make, but we can make reasoned judgments about such situations.
Next time I will try to capture some of the love and joy David’s friends found in him, as well as a sense of the depth and reality of David’s friendships in the next and final (I’m pretty sure) post on David.
In the meantime, keep with you the image of David singing this brief song he wrote, “The Transit Referendum Ditty.”
[If video does not open for you in this post, you can watch at the link below.]
“No one would choose to live without friends,
even if he had all the other good things.” – Aristotle
David McKnight 1966 high school yearbook
Aristotle is right: who would want to live a life without friends? We especially realize that when a friend moves away and most vividly when a friend dies. In January of 2017, my friend David McKnight passed away. A man who already had endured many steep challenges in his life, he had been diagnosed in November with a massive and inoperable brain tumor. When the news came about the brain tumor, it seemed to foretell the sad end of a tragic life. Was it? Let me tell the story of David and of some of his friendships, and you be the judge.
David wrote the sports column in our Garinger High School paper, was voted in 1966 the senior guy “Most Likely to Succeed,” and was a finalist for the highly esteemed Morehead Scholarship to UNC – Chapel Hill. Perhaps my earliest memory of him is from Miss Mary Balle’s English class, where we read Chaucer, Shakespeare and all the greatest hits of Brit Lit. David was always full of energy, unable to repress his bad puns which we all secretly loved. Once he somehow turned a class discussion to a question of responsibility about actions just so he could say, “It’s neither my Faulk-ner yours that It happened.” All of us, including Miss Balle, groaned, and then we all laughed. The memory makes me smile.
He and I played tennis matches near his house, at Midwood Park. The tennis was fun, but David’s running commentary before, during, and after the match turned the game into struggles both hilarious and grand beyond words: Beowulf vs. Grindel, Rod Laver vs. Ken Rosewall, madness vs. King Lear.
The Guy Most Likely to Succeed was accepted at prestigious Duke University. There he could continue his virtuoso violin, his study of multiple languages, history, journalism and whatever else struck his fancy. It looked like a cloudless blue sky.
David McKnight and Sybil Huskey Most Likely to Succeed Garinger High 1966
A Few Clouds, Heroism, and Ah, Youth
Then there were surprises I never saw coming. David became the guy wearing the Duke Blue Devil costume at basketball games. Still full of hilarious and grand stories. Like the exam he refused to take because of a difference of opinion with the professor, thus an F. More F’s. Ultimately an unfinished college career in which every course earned either an A or an F, according to David. He did not want a high-brow college education, he wanted a life of the rough and tumble of journalism.
After leaving Duke, he told me one day in 1968 that he had decided to fly to Czechoslovakia to report on the Prague Spring liberalizations in that Communist country. Given the threat of an invasion by the Soviet Union, the decision seemed both sudden and perilous. The next day I put him on a plane to Prague. He carried his manual typewriter in its case, and a gym bag containing a change of underwear and one clean shirt – that was it. It was crazy. And, I thought, heroic.
He published some fine stories on that trip, came back and got jobs with newspapers in Durham, Greensboro, and then in Fayetteville, where another of our close high-school friends lived. When my wife and I visited there, David and I played tennis in the hot summer morning sun. We all drank Tequila Sunrises afterwards. It was grand. That night we all rode around the town, David with his beautiful and accomplished fiancée. We passed by a Fayetteville structure resembling the Eiffel Tower, and David cracked us up with, “When I saw the tower, I-fallaciously thought we were in Paris.” We were young, life was good.
Reflections on Friendship
Philosophy begins with questions and problems that arise from our experience. As I look back on these early years of my friendship with David, as I wonder about what friendship really is and whether I really was David’s friend, my questions transport me from memory, narrative and emotion to more analytical thoughts about our relationship. Aristotle’s observations and thoughts about friendship, written over 2,300 years ago, are still helpful today.
Aristotle writes that friendship is love for each other, “reciprocated goodwill.” We love people for different kinds of reasons, so we have three different kinds of friendship, based on what is useful or pleasing or good.
“Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.” The idea of a “friendship” being based on usefulness to one another might seem base, but think about a friend at work or a neighbor: you wish well to and feel affection for one another, but the cooperation and alliances form the basis of the relationship. These relationships may go no further than utility and tend not to last very long once the usefulness goes away, as we change workplaces or neighbors. What we love in such relationships is what is good for ourselves. We love the usefulness of the friend; we do not love the person for who he is.
The same is true for friendships based on pleasure. We enjoy our witty friend because of the pleasure she gives us, not for the person she is. Once we no longer enjoy our friend’s wit, these friendships tend to fade.
In a complete friendship, we “wish good things to [our] friends for the friends’ own sake…because of themselves.” In a complete friendship, our friend feels the same way toward us, and we are also “both unconditionally good and beneficial to each other.” Our friend has character traits that we love because they are good, and this friendship itself is intrinsically good.
Was my early friendship with David at least partly based on usefulness and pleasure? Well, yes, as I look back on it and ask myself this question for the first time. David came from a wealthier neighborhood than I, and he had gone to the “in” junior high, whereas I had gone to the “out” junior high, with a relatively higher number of poorer and intellectually weaker students. By becoming his friend, I moved up in social status and became accepted by David’s friends.
And certainly, his quick wit and good spirits gave me pleasure.
I was aware of some good character traits (aka “virtues”) he possessed, such as his intellectual persistence, curiosity, and sociability. It is sharing and valuing virtues that for Aristotle form the basis of a complete friendship. But David had some bad character traits (aka “vices”) that made a complete friendship challenging, as at times he seemed to be a social climber, his attention and time quickly moving to someone else more important.
That’s ironic: I just realized that I criticized David for what I used him to do for myself, to climb up socially.
U.S Senate Candidate: Walking the State
David on U.S. Senate campaign walk from coast to mountains Photo by Terry Wyler Webb
In 1977 David made another grand decision, reminiscent of his ’68 trip to Czechoslovakia: he decided to leave his job as a journalist to run for the U.S. Senate. He walked the entire distance of the state — 1,654 miles — from Manteo to Murphy, carrying a change of clothes and his fiddle. He got lots of good press coverage, promising voters that he would not “fiddle around” if they sent him to Washington. But that campaign was also when I first began to see the cracks. He ran up large phone bills, came in 5th of 8 candidates in the Democratic primary, and destroyed his relationship with his fiancée. In my eyes, he was never quite the same after that campaign.
He lived here and there. He started spending more and more time playing with various bands. For a while he lived in a huge apartment in an old building in the French Quarter of New Orleans and played in a band on Bourbon Street.
In the 1980’s David inherited a sizeable amount of money when his father died, offering the chance for financial stability. But again he had a grand vision that he put into action. He traveled a good bit of the Eastern U.S., visiting symphony orchestras where during a performance he would donate to that orchestra an expensive violin that he had purchased from John Sipe’s Presidential Series. Sipes named those violins after various presidents. David bought a few and then donated them to musicians or the orchestras in the cities where those presidents were born. For example, he went to Missouri to deliver the Harry Truman violin. Often David performed, playing his violin with those orchestras.
Once he showed up at our house in Charlotte, his usual energetic story-telling self. “I am travelling around visiting all the best minor league baseball parks,” he said. “Three nights ago I was in Toledo, and then the night after that in Nashville, and last night the Asheville Tourists.” And then he would go into rich detail on the glories of each park and its history and the history of the city.
A Grand Life, Except…
It sounded a grand life, except for a couple of things. He almost always was alone on these long road trips. And it seemed more and more often the story would take a strange turn, “So right as I was coming into Charlotte I saw my odometer hit 400 miles, and that make me think that in another year it will be 400 years since the founding of the Old North State, and so I have an idea that could connect the Republicans and Democrats in that…” and suddenly I could no longer follow what he was saying.
At some point, maybe in the early 1990’s, David no longer came back to Charlotte and I lost touch with him. (Or did I just not try hard enough to keep up with him?) I eventually heard from friends he was living homeless in the Triangle, back and forth between Raleigh and Chapel Hill and Durham. He played his violin as beautifully as ever, but on the streets. He never asked for money, but gratefully accepted it if offered by folks who were listening. He rarely bathed and smelled bad, and of course his clothes were dirty. That’s what it’s like if you’re homeless and living on the street. Going to a shelter was not something David was willing to do.
Next time: The rest of the story
 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, translated and notes by C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2014).
After 28 years of attending and watching commencement exercises at Queens University of Charlotte, I’ve come to expect a certain routine of music, speeches, and the awarding of diplomas. The event feels familiar and comforting to me — I know what’s going to happen. But at last month’s graduation, as students’ names were being called and they marched across the stage in a flowing parade, something unexpected happened. As “Freddie Sherrill” was called, a non-traditional age student walked toward the president to receive his undergraduate diploma. Before he could get there, dozens, hundreds and then all 2,500 students, faculty, family and friends stood and cheered in honor of Mr. Sherrill and his achievements.
Achievement is one of the goods that make life worth living. Pleasure is surely another: that first cup of coffee in the morning speaks for itself, needs no argument. In my most recent post I argued that reality is another such “good,” a type of thing that is desirable or has value for humans.
Many college students these days experience a great deal of anxiety about how well they will do in realizing their envisioned achievements — academic, social, and others. Anxiety of course extends to most all of us, and one could well argue that an over-emphasis on achievement only adds to that anxiety. But not to include achievement at all as part of a good life is surely to go too far.
Achievement is a matter of envisioning and then mastering some aspect(s) of reality. I think about a state of being I want to occur, think about the intermediate steps, and then work hard to make that vision a reality. Achievements involve struggle, because reality has a way of pushing up against us, resisting us.
Some achievements are rather trivial (I tied my shoes this morning), but even the matter of what’s trivial needs to be seen in context. When my son Neville — who has Down Syndrome — was a child, he worked for two years to learn to tie his shoes. After struggling every day to tie his shoes, with lots of moans and groans, one morning he walked out of his bedroom triumphant and beaming: “I did it! I did it!” In his case, learning to tie his shoes was a significant achievement, not a trivial one.
Writing each of these posts is a bit of an achievement for me. It’s not a huge one in the scheme of things, not like coming up with a new philosophical idea expressed in a thick, well-argued, and acclaimed book, for sure. There is a similarity in Neville’s case and my own. In order to bring about our external achievements we each had the internal achievement of mastering and thus further developing our self, at least enough to complete the achievement. Neville had to overcome his frustration and perhaps sense of inadequacy to the task, while I…. well, it’s pretty much the same for me.
Great achievements often are spread out over a long period of time, requiring a vision of a goal, continued efforts and struggles, mastering highly complex skills, and mastering of self: leading your college or professional team to victory, becoming a world class dancer, making a scientific discovery and being awarded the Nobel Prize.
And yet even in the scope of great achievements context can lead us to see what we ordinarily regard a medium-sized achievement to be a great one. Such is the case with Freddie Sherrill. When he walked across the stage to receive his diploma with an undergraduate degree in human service studies, the audience gave a standing ovation indicating their admiration for his achievements.
What made his achievement great? As detailed in the stories and videos linked below, for many years Freddie was addicted to alcohol and other drugs, in and out of jail and prison, and at times homeless. As if this were not enough, he could not read. One night in 1988, he dropped his $2 bottle of wine. “On his knees, he tried to lick alcohol from the shards of broken glass and began to weep…. he walked to a railroad track, pulled the .25-caliber pistol he always carried, put it to his head and pulled the trigger. The gun didn’t fire. He threw the pistol to the ground and it went off, pop-pop-pop.”[i]
From that point of hitting rock bottom, Freddie pleaded to God for help, received counseling, got in a recovery program, was given a work opportunity by a pastor, began speaking to AA and other groups, received help from a literacy council, earned his GED on the 6th try, earned an associates degree through 13 years of work, and at age 65 earned his bachelor’s degree at Queens through 7 years of work, including passing statistics on his third try. (I am honored to have been his first professor at Queens, in an introduction to philosophy class.)
His amazing achievements were aided by many positive relationships and friendships. At each stage, with the help of others, he envisioned another reality that would be the result of his achievements. He gained knowledge of many types and in many fields. Perhaps most impressive, all along the way of his efforts and struggles as he mastered reading and then various subjects, he mastered himself.
Mastering Our Self
Every achievement involves a mastery of oneself. Mastering oneself is a challenge for all of us, not just for alcoholics. Mastering ourselves, as we all know, is fraught with our own anxiety, with challenges to our vision of what we will become, and sometimes with failure.
Freddie Sherill’s example points a way for dealing with anxiety and the possibility of failure. Surround yourself with support and a few good friends. Work hard and have some success with the smaller achievements, like learning to read a few words, and realize the joy you feel at having accomplished that. Gain some confidence with each achievement, so that the prospect of joy begins to outweigh the anxiety. Realize that while there are some achievements that are significant and even amazing regardless of circumstance, many and probably most achievements – like those of Neville and Mr. Sherrill — get their significance from context and the specific life of the person involved. These latter achievements are still real achievements which are worthy of celebration.
Each of us is, after all, our self, and a self is a very difficult thing to change. When we do change some significant aspect of our self, that’s an achievement worth living for.
Thanks to those of you who responded to my most recent post about an assignment from my “Philosophy for Life” course, based on Nozick’s thought-experiment, “The Experience Machine.” The ultimate virtual reality device, this machine can give you any experience you desire. Any. I asked whether you would “plug into this machine for life, pre-programming your life’s desires.” If not, why not: “What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”
For those of us who are getting a bit older (which I suppose would include everyone, wouldn’t it? …but you know what I mean), Dr, Nancy Gaillard wrote, “I think about this quite a bit as I realize there are so many things I can no longer do or places I can no longer go.” Instead of just occasionally having dream-fragments about running fast, I could program into the machine many long runs and even road races where I do well and have a great time, followed by delicious thirst-quenching beers being absorbed into my slim body (okay, I really went overboard, even in my imagination, with that last adjective).
But then Nancy went on to write, “I suppose that this kind of machine would be good but nothing compares to the actual adventures, both good and challenging, that give us perspective.” There are several “what else matters to us” in her thought: actuality, adventures, challenges, and perspective. We might call each of these things a “good,” a type of thing that is desirable or has value for humans.
Let’s consider the first in the list, which I’ll call reality. Reality matters to us, even though it is not always pleasant. The first time I did this thought experiment with a class, one guy said, “Yes, I would plug in.” When asked why, the student did not give a list of pleasures (such as endless ice cream sundaes, a date with the sexiest singer, etc.), but said “I can be with my friends whenever I want for as long as I want.”
“Aww, that’s sweet,” someone said. Then someone questioned whether “for as long as I want” is true friendship. Finally another student hit the nail on the head: “You aren’t really with your friend, you’re just experiencing what appears to be your friend, but it’s not your friend. It’s all you, it’s all in your head.” “Ohhhh,” the first student got it.
Why This Thought Experiment?
A thought experiment is an imaginative exercise that gives us an opportunity to test our concepts and their limits, how they connect with other concepts, and which concepts are incompatible. This particular thought experiment, for almost everyone, shows the limits of pleasure. Pleasure is a fine thing indeed, but it’s not the only thing, and there are limits to the value of pleasure. We value reality, too, even though we can’t always control it. This lack of control makes possible adventures (if it’s all controlled, as in Disney World, it’s not really an adventure) and challenges, which we also value. Our dealing with and reflecting about reality over time makes possible perspective.
I find this thought-experiment not only intriguing, but also vital as it leads us to ponder the values and limits of pleasurable experiences. It’s easy for my students and the rest of us to recognize how those addicted to drugs value the drug pleasure and/or absence of pain over any other good: relationships, family, health, and even food. And for at least part of the time, they use the drugs successfully to avoid reality. Poor them, we say.
It’s harder to recognize that for many of us non-drug addicts in the developed world, and certainly in the United States, there are ways in which we actual do inhabit the experience/pleasure machine a great deal of the time. Most of us have “smart” cell phones, which remain a constant focus throughout the day. To be sure, one of the reasons many people like the phones is that they offer extensions of real friendship, through voice, text, and email. But those phones also provide endless distractions from our present reality: cat videos, likes on Facebook, YouTube, music, Netflix, that ad that just popped up for shoes…. Then add time on the computer with all the preceding, and we actually are spending a good deal of time just seeking pleasurable experiences, whatever rocks your boat.
One measure of a person’s true values can be found in their expenditures. How much do you or I spend a month on cell phones, cell phone service, and cable service for television and internet?
Again, in itself pleasure is a good, and as humans we are clearly wired to, …well…, like pleasure. But it’s a matter of balance. Aristotle is right: “What we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole.”
This semester I’m teaching my course “Philosophy for Life: What do Great Philosophers and Current Science Have to Say about True Happiness and a Good Life?” [i] The course raises and examines questions and conflicting views about happiness, whether some views are closer to “true” happiness, and whether happiness is the same as a good life. One assignment asks students to consider and answer two questions about a thought-experiment created by Robert Nozick,[ii] “The Experience Machine.” Today I want to give you, dear reader, an opportunity to think about and perhaps answer those questions yourself. Here is the thought experiment.
“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s desires? …. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”
So think about, perhaps talk about with others, those two questions: “Would you plug in [for life]? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?” Then if you wish you can write some of your thoughts either on my website (click here) or on my Facebook or Instagram pages.
Next month I’ll reflect on the thought-experiment and your responses.
[i] The course is part of a learning community called “The Pursuit of Happiness,” which also includes a class in sociology and a class in rhetoric & argument. I am grateful to my colleagues Jay Wills, Sarah Creech, Tracey Perez, and Jenn Goddu for the opportunity to work with them in this learning community.
[ii] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 42 – 43 (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 2013, original paperback edition published in 1974).
I’ve been traveling down interstates 77 and 81 for about 3 hours, and the roar of trucks going 75 mph is getting to me. I’m on the way to the Virginia mountains to meet my friend Ike Casey for our annual fall hike. As I take a rest stop break near Roanoke, I look at the map and see what looks like good roads that will get me off the interstate NOW. I can’t wait to start this journey through the back roads.
I’m exhilarated as I leave I-81 and get on route 311, a nice two-lane with newly painted white stripes dividing the road. The quiet, the clear view of nearby grass and trees in sight as I travel at 45 mph instead of 70 on the barren interstate. How wonderful it is to take the back roads! I sigh with relaxation and happiness.
Then things begin to change. After a short while my route takes a right, and I notice that there is no center line at all. The road takes sharp turns first to the left, then back again to the right. I pass through the small town of New Castle, which amazingly has a Subway, and I consider stopping. But I’m already behind schedule to meet Ike, so I keep on driving, munching on trail mix. As I leave the town, I get behind a car creeping along, and I’m very frustrated.
Twenty minutes later I’m driving through a forest. It’s suddenly become rather dark, and the GPS signal has disappeared. There’s a “Road Narrows” sign, and after the road indeed does narrow there is a “Narrow Bridge” sign. After a while comes another tiny bridge, this time without any warning sign. Then the road narrows again until I think that surely I am driving in someone’s driveway, just big enough for one car.
Why did I come on this stupid journey? Impulsiveness? A lack of persistence, when my destination was clear on well-marked roads?
In a period of about 90 minutes, the frame with which I was understanding and feeling the drive changed dramatically. What I originally framed as an exciting and meaningful “journey” was unconsciously primed by my perceptions of the growing dark and the narrowing, unmarked, and unsigned road to an experience of being endangered or lost. I felt a bit like cattle being herded into a dead-end canyon. I wanted OUT OF THERE!
The idea that my life, my year, or my day is “a journey” is a powerful metaphor. “Journey” and “journal” come from the same Old French and Latin roots for “day,” the former meaning a day’s travel or work, the latter meaning a daily record. Unlike “trip,” “journey” implies a travel of considerable distance[i], and by implication, I think, “journey” also implies meaningful travel, just as a journal is an effort to record meaning in one’s life.
Every physical journey has an inward side, the awareness and state of consciousness of the person on the journey. Too often we are like me on the back roads of the Virginia mountain. We experience boredom, then excitement as the journey commences, followed soon by fear and worry – of being lost or late, or not achieving goals, or some possible future event. As it turned out, I wasn’t lost on that journey on the back roads. Despite my needless worry, my journey was as worthwhile as my destination.
We wait for the new year and for some transforming event for the journey to begin. We don’t see what is right in front of us, and so we miss our lives. As Aileen and Elkin Thomas sing so beautifully in “The Journey,” the journey’s all the time.
“Of all the time and space
our lives have occupied, Right now is where we’ve come to be, The journey’s not what’s going to be, The journey’s all the time,
The journey’s all the time.”
Every day and every hour offers us possibilities. If we are aware of what is unconsciously priming our experience, we have a better chance of consciously framing that experience in a way that is both more workable and meaningful. We have to train ourselves to do that, but awareness is the first step.
May your journey in 2018 be a meaningful one.
[i]Webster’s New World Dictionary, College Edition (The World Publishing Company, 1960).
Recently I was browsing the internet, looking at philosophy websites. I came across one with a prime domain name: philosophy.com. I wondered what philosophers and topics were covered there. Plato? Sartre? Perhaps a discussion of contemporary ethics? So I clicked on the url, and was quite surprised to find that philosophy.com is a site for…perhaps you guessed it or knew…a line of products for beautiful skin.
I found myself thinking about philosophy.com for several days, wondering why it stayed on my mind. And then it hit me that Soren Kierkegaard had given the diagnosis for this symptom long ago:
“Not just in commerce but in the world of ideas too our age is putting on a veritable clearance sale. Everything can be had so dirt cheap that one begins to wonder whether in the end anyone will want to make a bid.”
Kierkegaard wrote these words to open his book Fear and Trembling, first published in 1843, as an indictment of his native Copenhagen and Denmark. His words and thoughts still ring true in American society today, where many of us not only want fast and easy food, but fast and easy ideas and beliefs.
Selling ideas for cheap
In every known epoch and culture the appeal of easy ideas has been powerful. Why bother to struggle and think when the persuasive words of others can think for us? In 399 B.C., at his trial on the charges of worshipping false gods and corrupting the youth, Socrates has to open his defense to his fellow citizens and jurors by saying of his accusers that “I was almost carried away in spite of myself, so persuasively did they speak. And yet, hardly anything of what they said is true.”  It takes a Socrates or a Kierkegaard to sting us into the realization that often our ideas are not our own and that we have bought for cheap vital ideas that can be earned for oneself only through long struggle.
Kierkegaard’s age was one in which commerce — the buying and selling of goods — was coming to dominate the culture. In his eyes, society mostly consists of sleepwalkers following the vision of the collective society; those who realize this become insomniacs.
Our own age has surpassed Kierkegaard’s in selling ideas for cheap through the use of the image, brought to us through magazines, television, and now the internet. Thanks to cell phones, images and persuasion can now reach us most anywhere and anytime.
In the images above and below, “philosophy” does not refer to thinking critically or to a coherent worldview, but to a line of skin care. You can now buy philosophy from a bottle or a jar. One can move out of despair and toward a good life by purchasing “renewed hope in a jar” for as little as $16! The jar below tells us “philosophy: live with optimism, renew with hope.” Wow, I feel better already! (Let’s see now, the $16 jar buys 0.5 oz., but for $47 I can get 2.0 oz., oh yeah, that is the smarter buy!)
Philosophy.com also offers to help us easily achieve with purchases of the products “purity made simple” and “amazing grace” what some people would consider religious and spiritual blessings.
The point is not that the advertisers and philosophy® Official Site are evil, and it’s certainly not that there is anything wrong with wanting to look good and feel good. The point is that this selling of philosophy® is just one visible image of what Kierkegaard described – the selling of ideas so cheap that perhaps there may not be any buyers. The astonishing thing is how difficult it is to even have the thought that there is something a little odd about buying philosophy®, purity, and grace. (Wait! Am I now violating trademark by even using the word “philosophy®”? Should I be referencing those who own the word every time I mention it in class?)
Insomnia is not always a bad thing
Kierkegaard argues in Fear and Trembling that no one today can truly understand the gut-wrenching, fierce and raging struggle from which Abraham’s faith was forged in responding to God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac. Kierkegaard writes that listeners in those comfortable pews are mentally asleep, and perhaps too the preachers. And today, as we have learned, one can literally buy “purity made simple” and “amazing grace.”
Kierkegaard would tell us we need to wake up. “I’m just fine!” we reply. Kierkegaard, that physician of the soul, writes that “…the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” When we buy products such as “renewed hope,” we do not know that in the world of ideas one cannot get genuine renewed hope without doing the work, and the first step of the work is realizing that we may well be in despair, the complete absence of hope. That despair is masked and soothed by a culture that tells us through images that if we just buy more, just buy the right type of product, earn or inherit the money to get the right house and send our kids to the right schools, all will be well.
Sometimes being disturbed by one’s thoughts is a good thing. It’s really okay to have insomnia once in a while. The hope that Kierkegaard offers is that in the world of ideas – unlike the world of market exchange where some inherit their wealth – in the world of ideas “only one who works get bread, and only one who knows anguish finds rest.” Getting through the anguish and insomnia to another resting place is hard work, but it is a truer and better place to rest.
(First posted September 26, 2016)
 Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, translated by Alastair Hannay (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 49.
 Plato, The Apology, in The Trial and Death of Socrates translated by G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1975), p. 22.