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Moral Moments

Ignorance is Bliss

by Joel Marks

Thank God, I’m not depressed. Or so my self-diagnosis proclaims after an informal discussion with a philosopher-turned-therapist friend of mine. He explained that the symptoms of clinical depression include loss of appetite for food and accustomed activities. I have none of that. Take these columns that I write: I throw myself into them not only when I am feeling light-hearted but also when I am in the depths of ...

... despair? Yes, I think that must be what I had been mislabeling as depression. What I suffer from is a philosophical rather than a psychological ailment – existential rather than emotional at base, mental rather than behavioral in manifestation. When my friend asked me what exactly was the problem or symptom, which would be logically prior to rooting out the cause or seeking a cure, I replied at once: “Pain.” “What kind of pain?” he pursued. “In my head.” “Like a headache?” “No, but it hurts all the same. So much so that I might wish anything to have it stop, even the end of my existence. Absent that, I sometimes do things to relieve it that I later regret: out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

My friend continued to bob his head up and down in good therapist fashion. Eventually he attempted to employ the cognitivist approach – which hearkens back to Socrates – of asking questions that were designed to lead me down a rational path of clarifying the problem and thereby (possibly) arriving at a solution. But precisely what makes mine a philosophical ailment is that thinking makes it worse.

My non-philosopher friends often make the simple observation: “You think too much.” And it’s no joke! Not to condone misology, but even we of the ‘examined life’-stripe agree that certain matters are better left un-pondered. Sometimes they are just not worth the effort (“Shall we park here, or in the next space over?”). Sometimes it would break the mood (“Wasn’t she a wonderful lady?”). Sometimes they are too urgent (“Smoke! Should I exit the premises?”).

Yet some problems are properly philosophical because they do invite reflection although they seem insoluble. That is what can make them interesting to contemplate at one’s leisure (at least to a certain type of personality). That is also what can make their consideration dreadful (in the sense of angst-inducing) if they bear on what we care about in some significant way.

So ... I am en route to my second marriage. I am experiencing the jitters that are normally associated with one’s first approach to the altar. I didn’t feel them then because I was caught up in the fantasies of love. This time I am anxiously aware of the realities of my previously failed relationship.

In theory, one is supposed to be on firmer ground the second time around, having learned from past mistakes. I have indeed become knowledgeable about many of the things that can go wrong. But I have not thereby discovered how to prevent them, or how to deal with them once they arise. After all, marriage Number One ended in divorce, not reconciliation. Any ‘wisdom’ gained from that episode must therefore be purely speculative until put to the test, i.e., until the second marriage is a fait accompli.

Furthermore, a second marriage will present a host of new problems – some general (advancing decrepitude, step-parenting, etc.), some particular to the personalities and circumstances involved. One can hope to transfer some general knowledge from the first marital encounter; but generals usually know how to win the last martial encounter.

In fact what I know is that the odds are against us: Most marriages end in divorce and of those that don’t many, if not most, are unhappy. Furthermore, second marriages are in even worse shape than first ones. (It is not obvious how to interpret the statistics, and of course prognostications are always iffy; but the divorce numbers I’ve just picked off the Internet are 72% for second marriages in the U.S. and 50% in the U.K.) This is not necessarily an indictment of marriage per se, as the same may be true for life prospects in general (if one could assess such a thing); maybe most people are unhappy with their lives, married or not. But it is little comfort to know that one is likely doomed no matter what. One still wants to know how to become one (or in this case, one of two) of the lucky few.

And of course I not only know about the general facts; I am intimately acquainted with the particulars of what went wrong in my own case. Given my philosophic nature, I have also introspected and reflected on these particulars ad nauseam. I believe I have gleaned insights by the truckload: I see where we went wrong, where she went wrong, and most importantly, where I went wrong. But what I have not seen is the way to avoid any of this in future (other than just not to get married again).

In other words, part of my understanding seems to be that what took place was inevitable – and not just because I did not then have the insights I have now, but because of who I am and what people are and the nature of the cosmos and perhaps even of being itself. I have very specific premonitions about the impending marriage because of all this philosophizing.

Thus, in this instance, philosophy has proven not to be for me ‘the guide to life,’ nor even a consolation. I can no longer be taken in by the mantra, “We will beat the odds.” Just as I know that someday I am going to die, I know that this marriage is likely to fail. Perhaps that dose of reality will focus my attention in such a way as to improve the odds of our having a successful, i.e., an exceptional, second marriage. Or it could instead be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which way it will go is also something I feel I can do nothing about; it would be like trying to travel back in time to prevent my parents from ever having met.


Joel Marks is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com. He thanks Jerome Shaffer and Jack Davis for their sympathetic input, and, of course, his ‘altar ego’ for her leap of faith.

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