Friday, November 23, 2007

THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES

This was supposed to be a week of celebrations for me, and Monday evening lived up to its billing. On that evening, we held a meeting of my beloved Washington Spinoza Society. The guest speaker, Professor Firmin DeBrabander, spoke about his book Spinoza and the Stoics and reminded me once again how refreshing it can be when a professional philosopher talks in a down-to-earth manner about issues that actually matter to people, instead of engaging in pretentious masturbation about minutia. When I see the jargon-loving academics in action, I feel so friggen smart for having gone into the practice of law. But when I listen to knowledgeable people like Firmin talk about “the great issues” in a way that is as accessible to teenagers as to professors, I can only shake my head at my stupid career choice.

Pete Townsend, you might recall, once wrote “Getting high, you can’t beat it.” Well, a good philosophy discussion led by a soulful philosopher beats it like a drum … at least for me.

Tuesday was a celebration of a birthday -- an 82nd birthday, to be precise. The date was November 20th, Steve Novick was in town, and that can only mean yet another ceremony commemorating the birth of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Every year, around twenty of us gather in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice on or around the 20th of November to remember RFK, who was once our nation’s Attorney General. Novick flies in from Oregon and leads the ceremony. He had the idea to hold this annual celebration back when he was a Trial Attorney for the DOJ, and when he left my home town to go back to the left coast, he vowed to return every year and keep the tradition – and RFK’s memory – alive.

For most people, the gathering on November 20th is a reminder of RFK’s life. It’s usually a time to think about how wonderful it was to have such a passionate, pragmatic, intelligent, hard-working and principled progressive in the position of Attorney General. It’s a time to recall, for example, how much he loved his big brother John, and how amazing a President he might have been -- almost certainly the greatest President in my lifetime for someone with left-leaning political views.

For me, however, Tuesday was a time to think less about RFK’s life than about his death.

As I stood in the Great Hall listening to people reminisce about Kennedy, I found myself harkening back to June 6, 1968. Your humble scribe wasn’t quite eight years old then, but I was already a political junky. And that night, I had been watching coverage of the Democratic primary in California, which RFK had just won. Seconds after his acceptance speech, he was gunned down by a man with the mysterious name of Sirhan Sirhan. I experienced that assassination as if it had happened to someone I knew personally.

To be candid, I had been hoping that Eugene McCarthy would take the Presidency – he seemed the greatest bet to end the war quickly. Still, I admired the hell out of Kennedy and was absolutely aghast that some creature would take his beautiful life … and right smack in its prime. That shooting struck me as the height of horror – more horrible, in fact, than anything Hollywood could ever produce.

On June 6, 1968, I thought about death. But all that thinking merely reinforced my love for life and hatred for violence. Returning now to the present, and having just lived through a week when two boys at my daughters’ school died in a car accident, I suppose it was only appropriate that I spent RFK’s birthday party contemplating his sickening demise.

The next planned celebration was to be on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, when we all get to give thanks for all the wonderful things in our lives … and for life itself. Then, on Saturday, November 24th, I expected to celebrate the 375th birthday of another slightly important person in my life – Baruch Spinoza. My celebration would, of course, be a solitary one – Spinoza’s birthday isn’t exactly a big news item in Bethesda, Maryland. But the next day, I am scheduled to deliver two sermons at the Silver Spring Unitarian-Universalist Church, and my topic for these talks is none other than “Spinoza and Unitarian-Universalism.” It’s the least I can do to keep the memory of Spinoza alive. For to quote Firmin DeBrabander, Spinoza is none other than “The Father of Secular Liberalism” – and that makes him just the role model we need in a time when religious fundamentalisms of different stripes are threatening to destroy both this country and this planet.

What does it say about a man who can at the same time be called “God intoxicated” (according to Novalis) and the founder of secular liberalism? I say that this must be a man who appreciated the holiness of freedom. Spinoza devoted his political and theological views to advancing freedom in all its forms. But he devoted his ethical and metaphysical views to the celebration of life. To quote the great 17th century philosopher, “The free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death.”

Well … let’s just say that in the last 24 hours, I haven’t been a very free man.

You see, my friends, my Thanksgiving was interrupted a bit. Not by death, mind you, but by the fear of death. Some would say that such a fear is among the greatest original spurs to philosophy and religion, but Spinoza would identify it as one of the most enervating facets of the human condition.

My family had just finished a marvelous Thanksgiving dinner when my mother – my last surviving parent -- reported a little dizziness. We took her blood pressure only to find that her systolic pressure, which a few hours earlier had gone up to 190, had dropped all the way to 60. Within minutes, we got her to the hospital, and that is where she is now. Her pressure is stable at the moment, but it has fluctuated wildly before, and if her doctor is to be believed, there’s no cure for her condition. To be sure, everyone’s blood pressure fluctuates, and fluctuates considerably, but once it starts bouncing around by 130 points or more, you know you’ve got some issues.

I mention this sad truth because I’m only now beginning to explore the raison d’etre for this literary device known as a “blog.” Its beauty stems in part from the fact that there are no rules of the game, no “adults” telling us what we can and can’t write about, or how we must go about the craft of writing. Perhaps the Rationalists out there would like me to continue talking about my favorite philosopher, or about the Kennedy Brothers, and all the things that we could learn from their respective examples and teachings. I’d rather, however, point out that sometimes a noun is less important than an adjective. And such is the case with the title of my blog.

Rationalists can be cold-blooded bastards. But Empathic Rationalists should always be benign forces in the universe. Right now, instead of concerning myself with great philosophical or political questions, I’d prefer to reflect on the fun I had today at the hospital (we enjoyed the LSU/Arkansas game together), or simply to hope that somehow, my mother can will her body back to health and buy a few more precious years on this planet.

You see, it is only during times like this when we really appreciate what Spinoza was talking about. A free man doesn’t like to think about death. Why should he? But when he must, he realizes that his disdain for death is precisely because of how much he loves to live. And when he sees his loved ones battle valiantly for life, that is when he most realizes how intertwined our lives are, and how much of the meaning in our own lives comes from loving other people.

Allow me to quote a somewhat lengthy passage from Spinoza's Ethics:

"As every man seeks most that which is useful to him, so are men most useful one to another. For the more a man seeks what is useful to him and endeavors to preserve himself, the more is he endowed with virtue ... or, what is the same thing ... the more is he endowed with power to act according to the laws of his own nature, that is to live in obedience to reason. But men are most in natural harmony, when they live in obedience to reason ...; therefore ... men will be most useful one to another, when each seeks most that which is useful to him. ...

"What we have just shown is attested by experience so conspicuously, that it is in the mouth of nearly everyone: 'Man is to man a God.' Yet it rarely happens that men live in obedience to reason, for things are so ordered among them, that they are generally envious and troublesome one to another. Nevertheless, they are scarcely able to lead a solitary life, so that the definition of man as a social animal has met with general assent; in fact, men do derive from social life much more convenience than injury. Let satirists then laugh their fill at human affairs, let theologians rail, and let misanthropes praise to their utmost the life of untutored rusticity, tlet them heap contempt on men and praises on beasts; when all is said, they will find that men can provide for their wants much more easily by mutual help, and that only by uniting their forces can they escape the dangers that on every side beset them."

We've all surely leaned on a number of people in life to escape the dangers that beset us on every side. But who have we leaned on more than our mothers? I'd like to take this opportunity to wish mine the strength and motivation to defeat this illness for as long as possible. And while I joke sometimes about how it is both weird and stereotypical to have lived 600 feet away from "my Jewish mother" for the past 17 years, I have never felt happier about that fact in my life. For all that my mother drives me nuts -- and those who have read The Creed Room can only begin to imagine the ways -- she, more than anyone else, has given me the spirit that I have in life, and the day that I forget that fact will be the day my mind has officially stopped working.

8 comments:

Betty C. said...

I went to bed that night before the event, but my parents were watching it on TV. I woke up the next morning and my mother was sobbing; my father hadn't slept all night. It's a very strong memory for me too.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about your mother. I hope her condition is stabilized by now and she is safely home. Take care.

Daniel Spiro said...

Thanks. We got her home from the hospital this afternoon. We'll just have to monitor the blood pressure and see what happens.

Betty C. said...

I read almost all of that post but skimmed over the key paragraphs about your mother -- sorry. I'm glad she is home...

Daniel Spiro said...

Betty --

You skimmed over the last part? Are you saying I should stick to talking about something truly important, like football?

Just kidding. Though I am wondering if Stanford should wise up and base our reunions around a sport where we don't embarrass ourselves. (Four missed field goals yesterday en route to a home loss against a 2-9 team.) Maybe the reunion folks should feature something like water polo or tennis.

As for the "skimming" comment, I do that all the time. It's called being a busy person.

Anonymous said...

I guess your post is about how fragile life is. How can we be strong ambitious rationalists, when the crazy, the random, or the evil can finish us or our loved ones off in a second? I guess we just need to be kind and try to do the right thing to the best of our ability. My grandfather died last year after a long illness. He was a doctor in the Red Army during WWII, immigrated to US in his 70th, lived the last years of his life in the strange country, struggling with English etc. Such a different life... It is almost unimaginable for me to live an entire life in the same neighborhood. It must be pretty nice... I guess it is a blessing of growing up/living in a stable society.

Simmer Down! said...

Young Man

Glad to hear that Evie's Ok.

Your comments about Stanford football suggest buyers' remorse. Shoulda gone to Rutgers which you idolized and where u belonged.

Your DNA makes u breakout when ure more than 50 miles of the Capitol Dome. Even though you technically live just outside the Beltway, the Belt around your mind has always been tight...

Simmer Down!

Daniel Spiro said...

Simmer Down, I mean Tom,

Thanks for the kind words. :)

Actually, I may bitch and moan about the Cardinal, but at least I still watch them.