My mother was a phenomenologist. Of course she never claimed to be such because she’d never heard of such a thing.
Few people have, unless they matriculated at a liberal arts college and sat through Introduction to Philosophy lectures, where they heard terms such as: Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, rationalism, empiricism, idealism, pragmatism, and finally—if they survived to the end—Martin Heidegger’s phenomenalism and Sartre’s existentialism (which, as someone noted, is more of a mood than a philosophy.)
I matriculated at a liberal arts college. I majored in philosophy. I’ve forgotten nearly all of it except this:
Nearly every philosopher eventually came to the same conclusion, usually 30 years and 30 million words later: If you want to be happy, make someone else happy. Which happens to be the creed of humanism as well.
During Christmas break of my sophomore year, I sat with my father at the kitchen table sharing my new learning. I informed him that there was no way for us to know that the table, chairs, kitchen walls, or even we ourselves existed.
All of it could be an illusion, I said.
My father, a railroad worker, was astonished at my new knowledge, for which he was paying. I continued to expound, to his great amazement.
Meanwhile, my mother was baking biscuits. She interrupted our seminar. “I don’t know whether these biscuits exist, but if they do, you’re welcome to eat them.”
We did. Happily.
Don’t ask why or wherefore. Just notice what’s in front of you, and make the best of it.
Simone Weil was a phenomenologist. She got out of the ivory tower and got her hands dirty. She died young. If you want to live well and right, she said, just pay attention.
Last week a friend sent me this poem by Mary Oliver.
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow heads.