There’s a discussion that Terence Blake and I are having in the comments section for this post that I find fascinating. Terence is an Australian philosopher, living in France, who knows tons about contemporary European philosophy. I’m always grateful to him for putting my project, and Bert’s project, in the context of the work that high profile French philosophers are now pursuing. But one downside of this conversation between two philosophers is that it may seem to some non-philosophers as though it is happening in code. I fully believe that the things we are talking about are rooted in everyday phenomena that anyone should be able to recognize if they think about their own experiences carefully enough. It’s one of my firmest beliefs about philosophy that at its core it ought not only to be accessible to everyone, but it ought to enrich and enliven your understanding of yourself and your own existence. So let me try to talk about the phenomena Terence and I are discussing in a different, more colloquial context. One way to approach these issues is to ask a basic question: How do you make a decision?
Real decisions are hard. They require commitment, and in that sense involve an understanding of who you are and what you are up to. Furthermore, that understanding needs some grounding. That is to say, it needs to be firm enough to allow you to sustain the commitment in the face of adversity, to allow it to stand steady even when events conspire against your sticking to it. These events could be internal (lack of “willpower” for instance, as we sometimes say) or external (lack of progress or success, for example, and the discouragement that comes along with it). Perhaps there are other kinds as well. But every commitment will come up against adversity in some form or another. So where does the “grounding” for a decision like this come from? How do we get to be “committed” to something, so that our actions flow out of that understanding of ourselves, instead of caving in the face of challenges to them? To approach this question, let me tell you about how I made a decision recently. It was the decision to write the book I am working on now: The Proper Dignity of Human Being.
In the last post, I gave a potted history of what I have been up to for the last eight years. It ended with a quick story about teaching Later Heidegger in the Spring of 2018, about writing a huge number of notes for my students, and eventually, with their help and Cheryl’s, about deciding to write a book. But it was actually quite a bit more complicated than that.
Not too long after Bert’s death, in April 2017, I knew that I would start on a new project. Partly, this was because I felt clearly that I had been released from the project he and I had been working on together. The Lofty Sway of the Dark could not continue as our joint project, now that Bert was gone, and at least for the time being I could not take it on by myself either. In this way, although Bert’s death was an enormous blow, it also freed me up for a more open future. And I knew that, in some sense or another, it was up to me to figure out what version of that future called me most. As my agent, Jill Kneerim – an incredibly wise and caring woman – said to me: “You’re the man now.”
Now, I had been struggling for a long time to figure out what project I should be pursuing – what man, in other words, I was going to be. I talked before about the way that struggle may have interacted with my relation to Bert, and the decline in his health. But whatever its source, my inability to commit to a serious project was palpable. I don’t know how, but I suspect that at least some of my students understood this. At the end of the Later Heidegger course, I met with one of them to talk about her plans for the summer and the coming year. What really happened, though, is that she helped me to focus myself.
The details of our discussion are not important, but the way it ended is. As we were saying our goodbyes, my student gave me a small gift. It was a Japanese daruma doll. I had never heard of such a thing, but my student explained to me that it is the custom in Japan to use these hand painted red dolls for encouragement and perseverance. The way it works is this. First, you decide upon a goal and fill in one of the eyes of the doll as a way of “waking it up.” Then, as you pursue the goal the doll looks over your progress and helps to keep you on track. Finally, when you have completed the goal, you fill in the other eye. It seemed to me the ultimate kind of polytheism: a god to watch over even a single, important aim.
I was simultaneously touched that my student had been so thoughtful and kind as to give me such a gift, and also slightly embarrassed that my struggle had been so obvious. Unfortunately, however, even with the help of the daruma doll my condition did not improve that summer. Deciding what to commit yourself to, it turns out, is made no easier by having a doll that will encourage you once the decision is made. If anything, the little red puffball seemed to mock me and my curse of indecision. There it sat on my desk, still asleep, continually pressing the question when I would finally decide what to do. Every time I thought I was ready to make a decision – I would write this book, or that essay, or maybe do some other kind of work entirely – I found that I could not wake up the doll to oversee the commitment. For I knew, in each case, that I was not ready really to commit to any of these projects. It’s not like I did nothing that summer. I explored a bunch of options, all of which fizzled. I wrote a lot and threw it all away. But what I didn’t do was actually decide to do anything.
Things changed dramatically as the summer came to a close – but not in the way you’d think. On Sunday, August 5th, 2018, while bodysurfing in the ocean with our 14-year-old son Ben, I was thrown violently onto the shore by a powerful wave. As my outstretched left arm slammed onto the sand above my head, the wave continued forward, taking my legs and torso over the stationary limb. It was a movement the human body was not designed to make. When the wave finally released me, I lay dazed and dizzy at the water’s edge. As I struggled to get up, my left arm dangled helplessly, motionless and alien. I stabilized it against my body with my good, right arm, but the left one felt a dead, portentous weight. My shoulder, it would turn out, was shattered into dozens of pieces.
At first, the shock of the whole thing was deadening. I checked quickly to make sure that Ben was ok, and then focused my entire being on getting somewhere safe away from the power of the sea. As I walked up the beach away from the ocean I must’ve been stumbling, because in a much shorter time than I expected the lifeguards were there to help. The beach was very crowded that day, and it was amazing the teenage girls on the lifeguard stand could see through the dense thicket of bathers and tanners at all. But they got to me quickly, and Ben did too, and when I told them that I had injured my shoulder, they all sprang into action. One of them got me ice, another water, a third a shady spot to sit in and a triangle sling. A fourth lifeguard held an umbrella over me, looking worried. Although quickly done, none of this was either diagnostic or therapeutic. Still, their concern was genuine, and I was grateful for their help. As I sat there with people buzzing all around, I seemed to enter some weird, liminal zone. The world continued on without me. I became the object of other peoples’ action instead of the originator of my own. It was comforting in a way, to let the world simply persist, endure, to be riding atop its wave, to be carried along by its power. But I also knew the limit of the training these young lifeguards had undergone. I had been in their position once myself, and I understood that in a certain kind of emergency the main goal is just to get someone else who can help.
The hours after that event stretched on as if for days. They are a blur of hospitals and car rides and pain and conversations. I could not have made it through them without the help of a huge number of family members, friends, and professionals. My mother, my wife, my two sons, my brother, his entire family, the medical staff who works under his supervision, my father – I cannot imagine what I would have done without them all. I will not bore you with the details, but I made it to my brother’s hospital in New York City the following day, and was eventually sent to my parents’ house in Connecticut after that. Finally, about a week after the accident, I arrived back at my home in Cambridge, MA.
The days and weeks after that are a blur. The pain in my shoulder was excruciating, and only the fear that I would become yet another data point in the opioid crisis kept me from taking pills for much longer than I should have. But perhaps even worse than the pain was the utter sense of uncertainty about the future of my life. It was mostly little things. I did not know for sure whether I would ever be able to lift my arm again. I did not know whether I would ever be able to swim, or grab a glass out of the upper cabinet, or scratch the middle of my back. I did not know how many of the things that only hours or days before had seemed so natural and obvious would ever be a part of my life again. They were small things from the outside, even if there were immeasurably many of them. But the possibility of their loss was utterly disorienting and raw. The future that had so recently seemed wildly, uncontrollably, terrifyingly open, now had become unintelligibly constrained. In fact, it seemed to close down to almost nothing at all.
As the days passed I became impatient to do whatever I could to aid my recovery. I was so anxious to get to work that I arrived for my first physical therapy session a full week before I was actually allowed to move my arm. There was not an awful lot the therapist could do, so she spent the half-hour session just talking with me about my condition. It was probably not the kind of therapy she was trained to offer, but I was grateful for it. Still, the future was an enigma curled up before me. Nobody could say for certain how long my recovery would be, or how many of my abilities I could hope to regain.
It turns out that this was a strange benefit. Who knows from where our help will come. But somehow, the dread uncertainty of my recovery made me even more desperate for it. The more I thought about all the things I might not have, the more I became dedicated to gaining them back again. And then one day, while I was sitting at my desk, trying disconsolately to pluck out a few words on the computer with my one good arm, I saw that daruma doll staring back at me. For the first time, its gaping, blank, white eyes, were filled with significance. They were clear and it was as if they were speaking to me. They said, “You know what your decision must be.” It was at that moment that I knew a decision had been made within me. I took up the doll, filled in its left eye to wake it up, and wrote on its base these words. “I will swim again.”
And that’s the basic part of the story I want to tell. If it has a moral, then I guess it is something like this. To make a decision, to make a genuine decision, is to be moved within to an understanding of yourself that is unshakeable and true. We call this “making a decision,” as if it is something that the decision-maker does. But the fact is that in my case, and in many cases like mine I believe, there is not really anything that the person does at all. Instead, the decision is made within you, it gains authority over you, it is a gift. I think this phenomenon is part of our everyday experience – it is something that people can recognize once it is described to them because it happens to us all. But it is covered up by the way we talk about ourselves and the basic phenomena of our existence. It is covered up by the fact that we think the basic thing a person does is to make decisions about what she cares about or is committed to. But this is a mistake. A decision is a gift. It is given to us.
And a gift requires gratitude.