Note: From time to time, I hope to include posts from guest writers whose preoccupations align with All of That. The following piece is by my wife, Barbara Black, who teaches nineteenth-century British literature at Skidmore College.
Pascal famously claimed that we live by situating something between us and the abyss so that we can keep going and not see the abyss. I must have encountered this line early in my philosophically oriented education, but it didn’t stick in my craw until I re-encountered it later in my life, when it seized my attention and shook my world. It aligned perfectly with my mid-life madness, nursing my feelings that my life’s greatest work had drawn to a close—children reared, retirement closer to me than any sort of on-boarding, my sexual debut long behind me.
But now I realize that this is an obvious point (sorry, Pascal), and the hard, philosophical work involves moving on from the obvious and discovering what we might find in it that can prove edifying. Of course this is the human condition, Blaise, and none of us is spared it. Where the revelation begins to take shape involves a two-step recalibrating of the mind. First, there must be the recognition that anything we do is the thing between us and the abyss. No one’s work is more important than another’s, and no phase in our life’s work is more consequential than another. So the man who made millions growing a business but is now a goat farmer is doing, essentially, the same thing: building a human life, and possibly a world around that life, that matters in some way and to some degree to himself and a handful of others. It is, in other words, a human tendency to “rate” the boulder that stands between us and the abyss’s edge. Is it large enough? Is it important enough? Yet the commonality of boulders suggests they serve the same function, despite their difference in size, composition, or shape.
The second re-jiggering comes from embracing that thing at the same time knowing—wisely, even joyously—that, yes, the abyss lurks behind. Let’s be blunt: Why should that stop anyone?
The Sight-line of Our Finitude
This came to me in full force in an unremarkable way when I rose one morning to an email from the Saratoga Film Forum, run by a woman who used to have a career as a teacher and had been a beloved teacher of my own daughter. I’m not sure why she left her primary career; I can only assume that it involved some degree of rupture and disruption in her life, even if it were a professional move she had wanted to make. Whatever her reasons or her back-story, here she was in my email inbox, doing something that my younger self might have derisively written off as “volunteering.” It was that sort of “less important” work that older people do, like the candy stripers at a hospital, when they have nothing else to do, when the world isn’t calling them to roll the ontological big dice and pursue the glamorous, seemingly high-stakes job. How unwise a distinction!
Here was this former teacher-now a film forum organizer bringing art to my small, upstate NY town—specifically, a Swedish film about a female border guard’s uncanny sense of smell that allows her to detect nefarious border-crossers and keep her world safe. As I read the email’s description of the film, it surprised and delighted me; it was strange and wondrous. And the film’s undeniable weirdness drove home the point: This former teacher was widening and deepening our small ecosystem. This was good work that benefited the others who existed alongside her on that same slim ridge at the abyss’s edge.
And, thus, perhaps there is even a third step to the reframing of Pascal’s famed assertion. Look left; then look right: There are others there alongside us, sited in front of their thing that stands between them and the abyss. There’s opportunity there in what we do for, and with, others. Pascal’s view is so damn solipsistic, so individual-centered. Did he not look around and see all those by his side? As we face the end of an era that is painfully our own, is there still work to be done? Might the position near the abyss afford a meaningful view—looking up, a big sky; looking around, a deep glance; looking past or through the boulder, an exhilarating perspective? Might it require of us a long, sustained breath? Might it fill us with wonder and a strong sense of purpose and joy? Can purpose be found in finishing in the sight-line of our own finitude?