Refusing fear, finding joy

I’ve already lost enough years of my life to fearing nuclear war.

In my teens, I was undoubtedly disturbed in various ways, tormented by hormones, situational depression, anxiety, blah blah, but that was one of my big fears. It was probably much less likely in the 70s than it was for my brothers, half a generation earlier, but I was greatly influenced by their accounts of what they worried about, at my age. (Please note: those “kids these days think they have it so tough” lectures can backfire terribly, since “kids” practically by definition do not have brains as mature as those lecturing and may misapply the intended lesson.) I wanted to live to grow up. I was terribly jealous of, and furious at, adults who had already lived a good chunk of life, most especially those who were engaging in the political posturing that I found so frightening. They had already done the things I was hoping to get a chance to do (go to college, travel, get married); it was my entire life they were threatening. In my view. I mean, looking back, I can see things differently, but that was my lived experience, the fear and rage. I think I even got a letter to the editor published in some local paper, when I was particularly angry about something a columnist said. That just came back to me, as I write this. I don’t remember the exact topic, but I do remember that it felt better to write about my fears, that I was amazed when the letter was published, and that the columnist was still rather patronizing in his response. But at least someone heard me.

Now, that fear keeps cropping up, strangely familiar. I do think that it’s more likely than not that we’ll somehow muddle through, avoiding the ultimate disaster, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be various smaller yet still serious disasters along the way. And I am enraged by the fear. Enough to take action, in various small ways—sending e-mails, making phone calls—but also enough to be determined to refuse it. I will not live in fear again. I have, now, had the life I wanted to have. Not enough of it; I definitely hope to live as long as my father has, in equally good health and enjoyment of life. But I have reached my 50s, achieved college and graduate school and a highly rewarding job, traveled quite a lot, married a wonderful man. It’s been good.

So my goal is to be one of Carolyn See’s “hedonists . . . too enchanted by [my own life] to get excited by Death descending,” to go on “making love, or napping, or fixing dinner,” to do the things I find meaningful and enjoyable. Teach my students, write my articles, brush my cats, tend my garden, eat raspberries and re-read my favorite books. If we muddle through, I don’t want to have lost these years (as I lost a chunk of my youth that could have been a lot more fun than it was). If we don’t, I want to enjoy the end of my life. I want to fill it with music, dance, art, beauty, pleasure, joy. I want to refuse the fear and instead appreciate every mundane moment, every bite of chocolate, every sun-shot afternoon, every meal I cook. This is my rebellion. This is the flag I will fly: love of life.

Not entirely unfortunate

Unfortunately, I did not get nearly enough sleep.

Fortunately, waking up early meant I got to campus in plenty of time to make copies for my first class, a process that (unfortunately) was more complicated than it used to be, thanks to unfortunate cost-cutting measures imposed by the Powers That Be.

Unfortunately, no deus ex machina prevented today’s main event.

Fortunately, I was teaching during it and was able to spend the morning communing with Great Minds from the past and thinking about topics I love, instead of being subjected to the news. I may spend a lot of time living far in the past, over the next few years, unless that deus shows up at some point.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t prepared my documents for annual evaluations. I spent the afternoon grading, instead, which might seem unfortunate except for the alternatives. I avoided the news successfully and felt like a wonderfully efficient and dedicated professor.

Fortunately, I have the weekend to do the damned evil documents. “Eval,” that should read, but thank you, autocorrect, that is a fortuitous correction.

Unfortunately, I have a considerable number of Life Stuff tasks that I would like to take care of this weekend, without facing up to what I have achieved in recent years. I have done those things I ought not to have done, and left undone those things I ought to have done, and there is no health in me—could I just write that in place of my scholarship report?

Fortunately, I have one truly awesome comment from a student evaluation of my teaching, which I can report on the teaching form: one of the most discerning and intelligent students it has ever been my pleasure to teach compared me to Minerva McGonagall. That made my day, week, and month. A small thing, but a definite consolation.

I fear change . . . and yet . . .

As people do around this time of year, I’ve been thinking about the coming year, what I want to work on, what’s on the schedule, what I hope for, and so on. I like the idea of a theme rather than resolutions, and as I was thinking over possible themes, one popped into my head. I wanted to resist it, to consider other themes, to find one I really liked and wanted to work with, but this one wouldn’t go away. I don’t especially care for this one, but it’s insisting that it is my theme for the year, will-I nill-I:


There are changes I hope for (selling the house that is wrong for us and moving to something that suits us better), and changes I fear, both specifically (friends retiring and no longer being part of my campus life) and more generally (political changes for the worse). Who knows what else may come, either in the train of known changes, according to the Law of Unintended Consequences, or just as part of life. I suppose it is some help to have notice, from my unconscious or the zeitgeist, that change will be coming. Maybe I can surf that wave rather than being pulled down by it.

And it has begun already. Not only did I spend the New Year in a place new to me, but this morning I placed a telephone call to my House representative, about the changes to rules proposed for the 2017 session. My representative is as blue as they come, so at first I thought (as I have been thinking), “Why bother?” and then I decided that I could at least express my enthusiastic support for his vote against weakening ethics oversight. I spoke to a human being, and said my piece. I hate telephone calls, but more will be necessary in the years to come, and practice will no doubt make them easier. I can’t remember the last time I contacted any elected official, and I am certain that the last time I did, it was in writing rather than by phone. But the vote is supposed to happen today, so I phoned.

Yay? And yet I so much wish that this were not necessary. As I move into this strange new world created by 11/9, I want to remember that my core values, the ideas that really matter to me, have to do with learning, education, the life of the mind. Yes, one needs certain conditions in order to have those things, and one must act to create those conditions. At the same time, strength of various kinds—personal, cultural, political—comes out of a focus on education, on thoughtfulness, on informed communication. I will continue to stand for these ideals, whatever changes come to pass.

Mehr ändert es

Concerning Marburg, I could tell endless anecdotes, but it is impossible to write them down—and this not only has to do with external reasons. All over, there was not much wisdom required . . . , only a certain amount of composure (which was not always easily available). Besides, there was more foolishness than wisdom. At Marburg, I am living among people who are not of our origin, and whose conditions are very different—but who, nevertheless, think exactly as we do. This is wonderful, but it implies a temptation for foolishness; the temptation consists in the illusion that there is a ground to build upon—although individual opinions (however numerous they may be) simply do not count. Only this voyage liberated me from my error.

Erich Auerbach, writing to Walter Benjamin from Florence, 6 October 1935.

Quoted in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, “ ‘Pathos of the Earthly Progress’: Erich Auerbach’s Everydays,” in Literary History and the Challenge of Philology: The Legacy of Erich Auerbach, ed. Seth Lerer (Stanford UP, 1996), 13–35 (p. 16).