Sunday, January 20, 2013
XXV. What a small portion of vast and infinite eternity it is, that is allowed unto every one of us, and how soon it vanisheth into the general age of the world: of the common substance, and of the common soul also what a small portion is allotted unto us: and in what a little clod of the whole earth (as it were) it is that thou doest crawl. After thou shalt rightly have considered these things with thyself; fancy not anything else in the world any more to be of any weight and moment but this, to do that only which thine own nature doth require; and to conform thyself to that which the common nature doth afford. Marcus Aurelius, Book XII, Meditations
My dad was a Stoic, of that I am sure. I remember a conversation about pain and the idea of "mind over matter" when we were in a doctor's office once when I was perhaps 11 or 12. It stuck with me, and has underscored my reading the past few years of Stoics like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. I am reminded of this aspect of my father's character because I spent much of the past week in bed, felled by the flu, visited often by my son, and it takes me back to one of the few times I recall my dad being sick in bed when we were boys, perhaps our first or second year in Ridgefield. My dad was sick in bed, and what a strange thing that was! I remember padding, with my brother Matt, into his room in the afternoon upon our return from school. Autumn afternoon light washed though the window…we chatted, and then he gave us each an assignment; mine was to write a five page paper on ducks! I recall a weekend of watching the mallards on the marsh, and then a trip to the library for books on the subject. But most importantly, this: sickness comes, get through it, carry on. Only we can defeat ourselves.
Three years of a vast and infinite eternity have passed. I still hear his voice everyday.
There are Stoic principles running through this piece I dug up in his papers:
"It's November 28th and the winter's first snow is on the ground. It began late last night and accumulated several inches overnight. I decided to work out of home today and avoid complications getting around on my crutch. I'm three weeks into recovery from a fall down the stairs that left me with a fractured pelvis so I'm unwilling to take a chance with the snow. Looking out from my office I can see the roads have already melted and look no worse than if a good rain had just passed through. Still, it's snow and I can't help but begin thinking about Montserrat. We've booked a flight for mid-February and will be staying for a month, returning in early April. We're going despite the still-active volcano on the island that is, apparently, unpredictable. We heard yesterday from Frank Edwards who manages our condo for us that the seismologists say that they will be able to give "ample warning" if and when the big blow occurs. We've already made up our mind that we are going to spend time there anyway even though there appears to be no well defined escape route for getting away should the volcano erupt. That's what you call a life-style choice and we made it rather easily. Just so long as it's just the two of us.
It's not as though we want to give up any of our last quarter allotment but we've seen enough recently to know that there are worse things than Going suddenly. The long term, mindless, sans dignity of old age appears as no great attraction either. We went to see Al Timpanelli in a "rehab home" on Sunday. He's so enfeebled by past and recent bouts with arthritis, fractured pelvis, crushed ribs and the like that he just keeps drifting in and out of reality. He relies totally on his wife, Jean, but doesn't have the mental resource to understand that and so berates here every time she doesn't cater to his ever changing whims. He is 85 years old and has had a good life, enjoyed good health, and a prestigious career as a Park Avenue doctor. So rather than feel sorry for him as the clock begins to wind down, better to remember that he had it good for a long time and now is in the payback period.
Everybody pays. If you don't pay at the end then count on having paid in one of thousands of ways when you were younger. Long way around, but maybe things like the volcano or a sudden plane crash are not such tragedies but just ways of paying earlier. The beauty is you avoid the late stuff; the downside is you lose some years, have some regrets while you're going down and maybe you'll experience some intense pain or terror. Either way, you pay.
This is no exercise in morbidity--just an exercise to capture the thought so that I can remember it."