OCTOBER 10, 2017
I BEGAN Todd May’s A Fragile Life shortly before Hurricane Harvey lumbered, stage left, into my hometown of Houston; I finished the small book after Harvey finally slouched, stage right, out of the city. The timing was propitious. Having left behind a ravaged and reeling city, Harvey reminded us of the fragility of most everything we had taken for granted: our public institutions and organizations, of course, along with our private expectations and certainties. More fundamentally, Harvey’s knack for transforming placid bayous into rampaging rapids and home attics into watery traps forced us to recall the fragility of our very lives.
But can experiences like Harvey also lead, as May suggests in the book’s subtitle, to “accepting our vulnerability”?
In a certain sense, A Fragile Life is a continuation, if not a sequel, to May’s earlier work, A Significant Life. I confess to having read most of the latter book while working out at my local gym. From time to time, I would look up from my sweat-smeared pages at my fellow inmates, many of them tuned in to the small screens on their exercise equipment. Fox News on some, daytime talk shows on others, soaps on yet others. Significance, shmignificance, I’d mutter to myself. That is, until I would catch a reflection of that same self in one of the room’s many mirrors, wearing a startled look as I was rapidly going nowhere on my own elliptical machine.
The elliptical machine is now a rusting hunk of metal and plastic, part of a hill of similar machines outside the gym. But I still have my dry, though dog-eared copy of A Significant Life. It is a lucidly written and deeply considered essay on the critical role meaning plays in our lives. May was, in part, inspired by the work of the philosopher Susan Wolf, who has argued that meaning happens when “subjective attraction” meets “objective attractiveness.” I might be deeply attracted to, say, pounding out the miles on my elliptical machine. This activity is the alpha and omega of my life, offering me all the subjective attraction I need. Watching The View on the machine’s small screen is just the cherry on top of this sundae of personal satisfaction.
Yet this particular sundae, Wolf and May tell us, is nothing but empty calories. No matter how great my own fulfillment, a life devoted to logging virtual miles over virtual mountains and across virtual deserts is simply not the stuff of objective attractiveness. (Even subjectively, it’s beginning to fade.) Instead, what I need to do is yoke what I find attractive to a project others would find more or less worthy. Building upon Wolf’s formula — far subtler than I make it seem — May refines the notion of objective attractiveness to the matter of caring. This, in turn, brings us back to the related matters of extreme weather events and extreme personal fragility.
More than one Harvey-related headline underscored not just the civic spirit of Houstonians, but also our stoicism. Of course, when most of us hear the word, it is carried by a clipped British accent telling us to keep calm and carry on. But stoicism has a history that precedes, by a few millennia, the Battle of Britain. In fact, as a growing number of philosophers now remind us, what we mean by stoicism — or, for that matter, philosophy — is not at all what the ancient Greeks and Romans meant by it. Most notably, Pierre Hadot, the recently deceased and forever remarkable historian of ancient philosophy who taught at France’s prestigious Collège de France, devoted much of his life to reconstructing why and what the Stoics (along with Epicureans, Platonists, Aristotelians, Skeptics, and sundry other schools of ancient philosophy) had in mind. In his landmark work Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique? (What Is Ancient Philosophy?), Hadot offers a sneakily simple thesis. Ancient philosophical schools, he observes, were not what they have since become — namely, places that privilege theoretical exercises aimed at constructing systems of abstract or logical claims about the world. Instead, the schools offered what Hadot called, with some hesitation, “spiritual exercises” that aimed to change the way in which one saw the world, and thus to change one’s own self.
Stoicism in particular has surfed a great swell of popular interest. And why not? After all, as Aaron James observes in his book Surfing with Sartre, Stoics and surfers have a good deal in common. While Seneca or Marcus Aurelius were never locked inside a monster wave’s curl, they tried to do so with life: to conform their thoughts and actions with the world, no matter how gnarly it became. The world unfolds as a series of events, not unlike a series of waves, and we would do best to understand and act in accordance with that series. This, for the Stoics, is the point to philosophy: it is a set of principles by which to refashion our lives in order to live in accordance with forces far greater than we are.
What happens, then, when the wipeout inevitably arrives for the Stoic? I’m not sure what James says on this score, but in his new book May offers a compelling (if inevitably imperfect) answer. In the face of emotional, physical, or material wipeouts — and the suffering that follows — May suggests that we can adopt one of two responses: invulnerabilism and vulnerabilism. (He reluctantly coined these terms, pleading that while clunky, they are necessary.) By the former, May means the project to “develop a place of peace in ourselves, a place of detachment that ultimately cannot be touched or shaken.” Along with Stoicism, certain strands of Buddhism and Epicureanism also offer blueprints for such a station. It is proof against pain, if not defeat — a place where we might be shaken, but not overly stirred by suffering. May compares this philosophical position to watching a movie or basketball game: “[W]e may feel the sadness or excitement of the moment but know that, in the end, it is only a movie, only a game.”
This is a place of peace, I admit, I have never glimpsed, much less found as a New York Knicks fan. (And, I wager, a place that our mercifully departed and Zen-inflected president of basketball operations, Phil Jackson, also failed to find.) This may be due, in part, to the fact that I accepted a kind of vulnerabilism as my default philosophical stance. The vulnerabilist might well use this or that gadget from her philosophical toolbox in order to patch what can be patched: exercises that focus our thoughts on the here and now, for example, or efforts to place our losses in their proper perspective. But, ultimately, the vulnerabilist “concedes — indeed embraces — the idea that we can be shaken to our very foundations.”
Why should we want that? Wouldn’t we all prefer to “secrete [a word May uses more than once] a certain distance between us and what happens to us”? That is certainly the case for what May calls “Small Matters.” Ranging from one’s train running late for a business meeting to running one’s car into a malfunctioning garage door, such matters are small enough to be defused by run-of-the-mill spiritual exercises. It is enough to remind ourselves that, while we cannot control the reasons for the train’s lateness or the door opener’s failure, we can control our response to such glitches.
But what about Large Matters? Matters of life and death, irreparable loss and inconceivable grief? At this point, May rightly parts company with those who cultivate, as their life’s project, invulnerability. His discussion of the ways in which those who try to make themselves invulnerable — especially in the face of Large Matters — undermine what makes us most human, is clear and bracing. Importantly, May underscores that it is not that we wish to grieve, or be saddened, by the death of a loved one. Instead, “each of us wants to be the kind of person [May’s italics] who can suffer at certain misfortunes. Being able to suffer in the case of Large Matters is an expression not only of who we are but of who we want to be.”
May finds himself in good company. In his essay “Reflections on Gandhi,” George Orwell memorably anticipated these same arguments. Citing Gandhi’s willingness, on three occasions, to have his wife or a child die rather than take the prescribed animal food, Orwell characterized the gesture as noble, but inhuman. In a line that might well sum up May’s own unease with invulnerability, Orwell wrote:
The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.
Other members of that same group are the men and women I worked with after Harvey ransacked our city. As soon as the floodwaters began to recede, many churches sprinted into action, opening their doors and kitchens to those in need of help. Impressed by the organizational skill and ecumenical approach of a nearby church, Heritage Park Baptist, I joined one of their volunteer teams assigned to muck out flooded houses. As the word suggests, mucking out is a grim activity: wearing masks and wielding crow bars, we went to houses whose owners asked for help to tear out sheetrock already blackening with mold and rip up flooring slick with sludge and sewage. Generally, by the time we arrived at a house, sagging piles of mattresses and couches, carpets and clothing had already been hauled outside, where they steamed and spilled across lawns and curbs.
One house, in particular, was a dire sight — a small and low-slung rental home in a dicey neighborhood. The reek of rotting meat the family had only just emptied from their powerless fridge overwhelmed our breathing masks. We helped drag the mattresses and bedding to the curb, along with battered pieces of furniture. But the renter, a slight, elderly woman named Lily, asked us to leave a massive wardrobe where it was. When I asked why, she replied: “There are photos and letters in all of the drawers. I need to go through them.” We looked at her in silence, having no words — perhaps needing no words — to share her sadness.
This moment of course blurred the line between Large and Small Matters. No one on the team could have told Lily that the photos were a Small Matter for the simple reason that, at that moment and place, they were not at all Small. But the moment also recalled the justness of May’s observation that sadness, accompanied by a kind of acceptance, is how we ought to respond to such events. Imperfect and incomplete, such sadness, even if it falls short of suffering, is what we expect from others, and what we should expect of ourselves, at such moments. Notwithstanding the claims of the so-called Stoic sage, this is where true sagacity lies.