Category Archives: anxiety

Marie Kondo, Me, and the Philosophy of Simplicity

by Dr. Norris Frederick

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.”[1]  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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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…..[4] 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.”[5]  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?”[6]  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.

He argues that simple pleasures are the best pleasures.  Luxuries, in addition to being vain, call for feeding unnecessary longings and for a constant striving that inevitably brings anxiety and stress.  Pleasure is “the state where the body is free from pain and the mind free from anxiety.”[7]  In such a state, one can enjoy the amazing simple pleasures of friendship and of the joy that I exist, now, in this day.

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.


Photo: Norris Frederick

[1] Kondo, 7

[2] p. 16.

[3] p. 181.

[4] p. 38.

[5] p. 203.

[6] p. 197.

[7] Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus.

Fixin’ Things

by Dr. Norris Frederick 

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.

What Else Matters? Friendship and David McKnight

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Part Two

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.”[3]  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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6] 

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:

From the album “Changin’ My Mind,” by Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight, You Tube.  David McKnight, Bill Cleaver (Guitar, Harmonies), Joe Swenson (Bass, Harmonies), Robert Smith (Harmonies), David Spencer (Guitart), Bill Erchul (Pedal Steel Guitar), Tim Rae (Percussion).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h61BVwdNlVQ&list=PLIpkbtRUqjri_JOnjjMIFppudnQeIpJeC

David:  Genial, Funny, Creative, Knowledgeable

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 sakebecause of themselves.”[7]  In a complete friendship, our friend feels the same way toward us. And we are also “both unconditionally good and beneficial to each other.”[8]

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.”[9]  As one commentator writes about Aristotle, the friends in a complete friendship are “fully good and virtuous people.”[10]

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.”[11]

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!”[12]

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.]

Vote for the Transit Referendum Ditty – David McKnight
Posted by Dan Jewell on YouTube, Nov 8, 2011
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtEAzOym_Ww

Next time:  David’s friendships and David’s last years

_______________________________________________________________

[1] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 2, translated and notes by C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014).

[2] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 2, Reeve.

[3] Book 8, chapter 3, W.D. Ross translation (The Internet Classics        Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html )

[4] Ken Fine, “A Requiem for David McKnight: Prodigy, Journalist, Politician, Homeless Street Musician,” in Indy Week (online version),  Jan. 18, 2017, , http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/a-requiem-for-david-mcknight-prodigy-journalist-politician-homeless-street-musician/Content?oid=5100256&showFullText=true

[5] https://www.facebook.com/pg/CSSMusic/about/?ref=page_internal accessed August 13, 2018.

[6] Robert Smith email to Norris Frederick, August 14, 2018.

[7] Book 8, chapter 3, Reeve, emphasis added.

[8] Book 8, chapter 3, Reeve.

[9] Book 8, chapter 3? (p.139), Reeve.

[10] Reeve note to Nichomachean Ethics, p. 315.

[11] Fine, Indy Week.

[12] July 16, 2007, email, “McKnight’s Essays”

What Else Matters? Friendship

by Dr. Norris Frederick
Third in a series

“No one would choose to live without friends,
even if he had all the other good things.”
–  Aristotle[1]

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.

Halcyon Days

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.”[2]  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.[3]

“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.”[4] 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 sakebecause of themselves.”[5]  In a complete friendship, our friend feels the same way toward us, and we are also “both unconditionally good and beneficial to each other.”[6]  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.[7] 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


[1] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, translated and notes by C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014).

[2] Book 8, Chapter 2

[3] Book 8, chapter 2.

[4] Book 8, chapter 3, W.D. Ross translation (The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html )

[5] Book 8, chapter 3, emphasis added.

[6] Book 8, chapter 3.

[7] Thanks to David’s niece, Meg Whalen, for this information, via email.

What Else Matters? Achievement

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Second in a series

Mr. Freddie Sherrill

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

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.

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A story about Freddie Sherrill and a video of a speech by him:  http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article210207924.html .

NBC Today show interview with Freddie Sherrill and pastor Steve Eason: https://www.today.com/video/once-a-homeless-drug-addict-he-s-now-a-college-graduate-1239179843659?v=b

[i] Bruce Henderson, Charlotte Observer online, May 3, 2018.  http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article210207924.html

Healthy-Mindedness and the Sick Soul

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Third and final in a series on death

The recent solar eclipse was almost total here in Charlotte, and a large number of people gathered on the Queens University campus to watch the event.  For the folks around me and those shown in videos from around the country, the atmosphere was of celebration or deep awe at this rare celestial event.  At our campus there were enough eclipse sun-glasses to share so that everyone could gaze as the moon came closer and closer to blocking the sun.   For weeks, there had been dire warnings about the dangers of looking directly at the sun.  I wonder:  should there be similar warnings about staring at death, as it eclipses our lives?  Is our joy destroyed by that evil shadow creeping over our vitality?

We always need lenses through which to look at the deepest philosophical questions, and I find the philosopher and psychologist William James to be of great help.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), his method is to collect and categorize human responses to the question of “What is the character of this universe in which we live?”[1]  After examining these responses as shown in “feelings, acts and experiences,”[2] he offers philosophical hypotheses and conclusions to answer two key philosophical questions, what is true and what is best.

The healthy-minded temperament and strategy

James describes two main types of temperament toward viewing evil and death.  The first he calls the “healthy-minded”:  “In many persons, happiness is congenital….when unhappiness is offered to them” they “positively refuse to feel it [unhappiness], as if it were something mean and wrong.”[3]  Evil has no reality.  Their soul is “sky-blue” and their “affinities are rather with flowers and birds…than with dark human passions… [and they] can think no ill of man or God.”[4]

People with the totally healthy-minded temperament manage not to see the reality of death at all.  When James published The Varieties in 1902, there was in America (as there is now) a great emphasis on happiness or “healthy-mindedness.” Today those who are not naturally as optimistic can voluntarily adopt strategies to become happier through therapy, medication, or meditation.  Healthy-mindedness can be not only a temperament, but a strategy.

In my most recent post on death, “Out of Sight, or Front and Center?” I wrote of our study tour visiting the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, where the bones of thousands of past monks are on display.  The healthy-minded in our group would have preferred to never have entered in the first place (“Why go to such a gloomy place on such a beautiful day, and in romantic Italy, for God’s sake!?”).  And many of us left after viewing the Crypt moving as quickly as possible to find a cappuccino or a beer, trying to restore healthy-mindedness, happiness. And why not?  Don’t we want to be happy?  Isn’t happiness a good thing?  And if the young naturally cannot conceive of the reality of their death, why should we focus on it, either?

The temperament of the sick soul 

James describes a second temperament which he names the “sick soul.”  For people with this temperament “the evil aspects of our life are of the very essence…the world’s meaning most comes to us when we lay them most to heart”[5]  For these people, it’s as if they are born to a life where from every pleasure, “something bitter rises up:…a touch of nausea…a whiff of melancholy,” which have “a feeling of coming from a deeper region.” [6]

If you’ve ever had a time when evil and sadness overwhelmed you for extended periods of time, you know how inadequate this description is to what you felt or feel.  We know now that at least part of this temperament (as well as the temperament of the healthy-minded) is genetic.  Whether from genetic or other reasons, the sick soul can overcome us.  In The Varieties, James gives a vivid description of someone overwhelmed by depression.

Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence.  Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin….This image and my   fear entered into a species of combination with each other.  That shape am I, I felt, potentially.  Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.  There was such a horror of him… that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since.  It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone.[7]

James later admitted the sufferer was himself, in a period of depression early on his life.  Clearly, the category of the unhealthy-minded was no mere philosophical abstraction for James; he had experienced it with the depth of his being.

What strikes many people immediately upon viewing the Capuchin crypt and all those human bones is a feeling of disgust, easily seen in the faces of the viewers. The word several people in our group used is that it’s just “morbid.”  If that viewing and that sense of morbidity, darkness and gloom dominated a person for long periods of time, we might well judge that to be unhealthy.To the sick soul it is not the pleasure of the beer and human company that is the most real, it is the feeling of death to come.

Which is true and best: the healthy-minded or the sick soul? 

Like so many questions of this sort, the question of whether the healthy-minded or the sick soul presents a true view of reality and is the best way to live is a false dilemma.  There are other possible answers.  There are both different levels and combinations of these two temperaments that form a philosophy for living.

There is something to be said from within the morbid-minded view, especially when it is taken not from the extreme of debilitating depression but from its more philosophical form.    James writes that the view of the sick soul is “based on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart.”[8]

I think that is why so many of the great works of literature deal with death and suffering.  That why Tolstoy grabs us so strongly with the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  It’s the truth and reality of the unhappiness that reels us in.  It’s why Walker Percy’s The Second Coming has stuck so many as a powerful truth, as the central character deals with the sadness and emptiness he feels and sees in his past, his self, and the society around him.

James points out that there are different levels of both healthy-mindedness and morbid-mindedness people have some mixture of the two temperaments.  He stated in his 1895-96 lectures on abnormal psychology that “A life healthy on the whole must have some morbid elements.”[9]  Finally, he argues that the morbid-minded philosophical position is superior in some ways to the healthy-minded, as the former ranges over a “wider scale of experience” and because “the evil facts which [healthy-mindedness] refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality.”[10]

Refusing to see and experience the reality of death and suffering narrows and constricts our experiences, while acknowledging and feeling their reality paradoxically enriches our lives.  Acknowledging and feeling the reality of death, suffering, and evil turns out to be healthier than trying to deny it.

A truly healthy philosophy for living has the proper relationship between the healthy-minded and the sick soul.  An Epicurean life of simple pleasures and serenity is not enough, for an adequate philosophy will value the struggle.

A healthy worldview calls both for acknowledging and for an overcoming of death in some way, whether by a life demonstrating courage and human excellence, and/or by a life continued – in some way — beyond this one, through an afterlife, reincarnation, or the influences we leave in the world.  We are elevated by the lives of good, honest, courageous, and hopeful people, and they inspire us to do likewise.
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[1] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (Penguin Classics, 1982), 35.
[2] James, The Varieties, 31.
[3] James, The Varieties, 75.
[4] James, The Varieties, 8o.
[5] James, The Varieties, 131.
[6] James, The Varieties, 136.
[7] James, The Varieties, 160 – 161.
[8] James, The Varieties. 131.
[9] James, “Notes for the Lowell Institute Lectures on Exceptional Mental States,” Manuscript Lectures, (Harvard University Press), 63.
[10] James, The Varieties, 163.

Photo Credit:  NASA

 

Thrown-ness: Understanding an experience of disruption

by Dr.  Norris Frederick

Philosophy offers us new ways of seeing the world and living in the world, thus helping us live and enriching our consciousness.  At first these new insights create a rupture in our thinking and feeling and an unpleasant sense of dizziness or confusion.   However, if we learn to persist in integrating new ways of thinking and being into our lives, we also come to experience feeling excited at the possibilities offered by philosophical challenges and we broaden our understanding of reality.

One of those insights is that of “thrown-ness,” first named and elucidated by the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), author of Being and Time.  What’s it like to be a human being?  Are there characteristics of experience that all humans share?  Heidegger thought so.  We ordinarily are engaged in activities and tasks in ways in which we use the objects and tools around us.  I type these thoughts but as I do so I’m not focused on the keyboard. We dig with a shovel but we’re not focused on the shovel but rather on the topsoil we’re blending into the garden.  We live with a family with whom we prepare meals and clean the house.  We’re engaged in what we do.

But then one day the handle snaps off the blade of the shovel, or a grandmother dies.  Suddenly my attention shifts from the task at hand to the presence of the shovel I was barely aware of before and to the missing presence of the grandmother.  I am jerked from my ordinary pursuits into a disorienting sense of looking at beings in a strange way.  My grandmother was just here, solid and real and fully being, and now she is gone.

I was 13 when my grandmother died, and her death led to a series of reflections in my consciousness.  There were the comforting reflections from family and friends (“she’s now with grandpa in heaven”), but simultaneously there was also the unpleasant experience that people can be here one moment and gone the next.  As we get older we get used to death in most cases as we go about our daily tasks, but there is always an opening in which we can sense the presence of death, the absence of a loved one, in a way akin to vertigo.  (I think of Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo spinning round and round as he goes down, down, down).

Stewart in Vertigo

For me, these reflections led to my first experience of “thrown-ness,” although of course I didn’t know this strange word.  After the shock and after the funeral of this kind woman with whom my family lived, I began to have a related sense of vertigo that began one day as I sat on our porch after school, trying to catch a breeze in that hot Carolina September.  I thought about and looked at my parents, sisters, and brother:  who ARE these people? In my altered state, I now had an alien strangeness about them.  Previously I was engaged in everyday life with them and never thought anything about it – they’re my family–  but now I wondered WHY am I in this family?  Couldn’t I have been living with some other family?  And would I have been someone else?  WHY was I born into this family, with these people?

For a teenage boy whose main interest was baseball and who was just beginning an interest in girls, it was a strange and disorienting feeling.  So strange that I never told anyone about the experience for years.  I was experiencing “thrown-ness”:  we are thrown into the world in a way not of our choosing.  We don’t choose our family, the century we’re born, nor the country and culture of our birth.  While I was well aware of making choices (“Shall we play baseball this morning?”), the reality of the “thrown-ness” of life hit me like a fastball straight to the pit of my stomach.  Worse, just when I thought this feeling had gone away, it returned at unexpected times like when we were all sitting down to watch “Gunsmoke” on Saturday night.  Who ARE these people? And who am I?

Not only is the existence of shovels and people contingent on circumstances, but our relationships and thus who we are is contingent in ways in which many of us are not aware in everyday life.  The idea of thrown-ness expands and deepens our understanding of reality.  The idea of thrown-ness also offers to us the reality that we are not alone in this contingency.  My teenage experience of thrown-ness resulted from my new awareness of death and my family.  At the time I felt that something was strange and wrong with me to even feel this sense of alienation, but now when I read Heidegger’s thoughts about thrown-ness, I no longer feel estranged but companioned.