one of the many curious characteristics of human beings is that we find it easier to bear adversity when we discover that others are similarly afflicted, especially so when what is besetting us has a name. i am at the moment suffering from two minor afflictions, one physical and the other spiritual, each of which has been given a title, and somehow, that fact makes them bearable. the physical problem is the persistent pain in my left arm, which, i am told by the doctors whom i have consulted, is called 'tennis elbow.' [never mind that i do not play tennis, and would use my right arm if i did. when i objected to the label, one doctor replied breezily, 'oh, ninety percent of the people who come to see us with tennis elbow don't play tennis.'] inasmuch as the specialist who will give me an injection of cortisone under ultra-sound cannot see me until january 13th, i plan tomorrow to call a 'rolfer' [at the suggestion of my son ] to see whether he can help.
the spiritual problem is a general eeyore-like gloominess that comes over me each year as christmas approaches and displaces my customary tigger-ishness. i associate this with the end of the academic year and the approach of the holidays with their interminable three-day weekends, but in all likelihood i am reacting in a primordial manner to the shortening of the daylight hours, which reach their nadir with the winter solstice, roughly on december 21st. i think i was well into my seventies before i discovered that this affliction too has a name -- 'seasonal affective disorder,' or s.a.d. how comforting that discovery was. the mere fact of the name, i feel, gives me leave to wallow in my funk, cosseting myself with chocolate ice cream from the parlor across the street, or lying slugabed until five-thirty or even six in the morning.
this year, my s.a.d. has been made more intense by such unrelated matters as the mid-term defeats and the release of the congressional report on official united states torture. last night, as i lay awake, kept from sleep by the physical pain and kept from pleasant daydreams by my spiritual distress, i distracted myself by composing in my head a lengthy meditation on an odd fact about my life that has long posed for me a puzzle. this blog post, even more self-referential than is my custom, is a report of that meditation.
the puzzle quite simply is this: how am i to think about the fact that neither i nor my immediate family, for almost a century, has been adversely affected in our personal lives by the flood of terrible things that have happened to our country and that our country has chosen deliberately to do? needless to say , i am grateful that we have been spared, but our immunity gives to those evils, for me, a hypothetical or merely conceptual character, as though i were contemplating the problems of some alternative world. since i have for much of my adult life been a passionately engaged ideologue, it seems to me, how shall i say it, inappropriate that none of the evils against which i have railed have affected me personally. the incongruity is made all the worse by my embrace of karl marx's scorn for what he and engels called 'utopian socialism,' the speculations about better societies ungrounded in the realities of this one.
my father was too young to be called to serve in the first world war, and too old to serve in the second. indeed, only one person in my extended family, a very distant cousin named joe singer, spent any time in uniform before i enlisted in the massachusetts national guard in 1957. [joe sat out the war on a weather station in burma, and as a little boy, i contributed to the war effort by writing v-mail letters to him.] my father went to work as a substitute teacher in the new york city school system upon receiving his master's degree from columbia, and from that time, roughly 1924, until his retirement from that same school system in the late sixties his employment was never in doubt. because he came from a socialist family, he never invested in the stock market, a fact of which he was very proud, so the crash of '29 did not touch him. i was born in 1933, in the depths of the great depression, but nothing in the circumstances of my family suggested that the country was being torn apart by drought and unemployment, by economic misery more severe than it had ever known. my own working life as a college professor coincided with a period in american history during which tenure was secure and virtually unbreakable. tenure is a recent phenomenon in academia, a post-world war two phenomenon really, and it is now under an assault that will probably destroy it at all but the elite rich private institutions. but from 1964, when i was hired as a tenured associate professor at columbia university, until 2008, when i retired from a tenured professorship at the university of massachusetts, my employment was absolutely secure, regardless of how far i strayed from the field in which i had earned my doctorate or how controversial were the views i expressed. in america, only independent wealth or ordination in the roman catholic church offer comparable security.
the raging inflation of the 1970's, which wreaked havoc with many lives, served simply to reduce the real economic burden of my mortgage, and inasmuch as my salary more or less kept pace with the official consumer price index, the net effect on my financial status was positive. the great recession of the past six years has indeed reduced the market value of the condominium in which i now live, but since i plan to stay here until i die, and my sons are both quite successful on their own, that paper loss will merely reduce somewhat their inheritance when i die.
i am white, not black, so i have been personally untouched by the deeply rooted systemic racial discrimination and oppression on which this country is built [save to benefit silently and invisibly from it, of course.] although i am nominally jewish, i entered the academy just as the long-established discrimination against jews subsided.
in short, i and my family have lived charmed lives in a world awash in ugliness. since there is a voice in my head that is constantly challenging me to justify myself -- have i worked hard enough, have i done what i ought to help those less fortunate than myself, what have i done lately -- i cannot honestly say that this completely unearned good fortune gives me great comfort. but it is a fact.
those of my actions that others might view as supererogatory have in truth been more self- than other-regarding. i spoke out against nuclear weapons because i enjoyed the attention it brought me. i raised money for students in south africa because it flattered me to be received so warmly when i traveled there to meet the students who had received the scholarships. there were some who were so foolish as to imagine that i left the philosophy department at umass to join the afro-american studies department out of some moral conviction, but the simple truth is that i, like most philosophers, care more about sheer intelligence than anything else, and when i noticed that the members of the afro-am department were, on average, smarter than the members of the philosophy department, the decision was a no-brainer.
it was about at this time that the acetaminophen finally eased the elbow pain, and i drifted off to sleep.