Everyone's a Critic
The Observer's culture blogFriday, July 1, 2016
GREGORY LINDSAY ADKINS, STOIC by Matt Adkins
My father, Gregory Lindsay Adkins, died on June 8, 2016, in Durham, North Carolina. He was 69 years old. Eleven days earlier he had been in perfect health. He took no medications, other than a half-dose of baby Aspirin per day, and he was remarkably strong and fit. He had just returned from a relaxing week-long vacation filled with kayaking and leisurely beach combing with my mother, his wife of nearly fifty years, which had immediately followed a pleasurable visit to our temporary home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my family spent the year during my wife's fellowship at the Frankel Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. My last strong, good memory of him was sitting on our front walkway in Ann Arbor, having a beer, and talking about bicycles—he loved bicycling, although he had many other passions, too. My memories of him also involve him reading, building, hiking, and traveling, and many, many other things, of course. Anyway, with the help of the guys at Ann Arbor's Sic Transit Cycles, I had built a single-speed bicycle using an old road bike frame given to me by a long-lost friend from Chapel Hill, and components mostly from my dad's old bicycles. He took the bike for a spin down the street and announced afterwards that the brakes were terrible and that I should replace them immediately. I stared at him in amazement and replied that they were his old brakes, and that I had wanted a bicycle that used his old gear, about which I already had nostalgic sentiments. I would never get rid of them for they remind me of him and of all those times with him that now exist only in our memories.
I have spent much of my professional life writing and reading about Stoic philosophy in ancient and modern times, but I think my father was actually much more Stoic than I ever was. He took pleasure in his material possessions, true, but he was not entranced or enslaved by them as I realize I am, even though I may have fewer possessions than he did. My favorite Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, once said, "If you are fond of a jug, say you are fond of a jug; then you will not be disturbed if it is broken." Likewise, my dad kept his judgments about things more pure than I have, and did not allow his soul to become too entangled with that which was not really his own—for, I think, we never really own that which is outside of ourselves. We just take care of some things for a little while as best as we are able, and then we give them up when the time comes. But I have let my soul become entangled with that which is not my own, and it causes pain when it is torn loose. I may be a student of philosophy, but I am a bad philosopher. The bicycle I built is not just a bicycle; it is mixed up with me and with my father.
My dad was a good philosopher, for he was free. That's what philosophy is all about.
My dad crashed his bicycle the day after returning from his beach vacation. One moment he was strong and free; the next he was severely injured, but still free. His will remained his own, and he insisted that he not be forced to remain in his body when his body was no longer under his own care. Perhaps understanding that his injury was mortal, and before his brain injury significantly hindered his cognitive abilities, he fought to remove the medical equipment, and demanded he be taken home. Epictetus said, "Sickness is a hindrance to the body, not to the will." One of Epictetus' more enigmatic epigrams goes thus, but it really means the same thing: "When you are on a voyage, and your ship is at anchorage, and you disembark to get fresh water, you may pick up a small shellfish or a truffle by the way, but you must keep your attention fixed on the ship, and keep looking towards it constantly, to see if the Helmsman calls you; and if he does, you have to leave everything, or be bundled on board with your legs tied like a sheep." My father's Helmsman did not have to take him by force aboard the ship. He was always ready to board; his passport was in his pocket.
My last visit with my dad filled me with dread, and the memory of it haunts me now. He was standing in line to board his ship, and I wanted to hold him back, not to let him leave us. Like my mother and brother, I called to him to come back, and offered him a gift of a University of Michigan bucket hat that I had brought for him from Ann Arbor, something to cover his thinning hair and injured head. But he could not come back, and I finally said goodbye and told him that I had to return home to take care of my two daughters. I feel like I am forever walking out of that dreaded place, seeing my mother standing by his bedside and wiping away tears. Epictetus said, "Never say of anything, 'I lost it,' but say, 'I gave it back.'" I tell myself that now over and over: I did not lose him; I gave him back.
But what did I—what did we—give him back to? I think we gave back his particularity to the universal—for all that stuff that makes up each of us never really goes anywhere, does it? We are made up of the stuff of the earth, and that stuff is made up of the stuff of the cosmos. Our particular individuality comes into being, perhaps mysteriously, for a small time, always already with porous boundaries, and then it disperses to become bound up with new particularities. As my dad exhaled his breath in the hospital bed, I breathed in that air, and then he inhaled the breath of those who surrounded him. Ourselves are never, I suppose, entirely our own—we are always mixed up with each other and with everything else. So we gave him back to ourselves. His will remained his own until the end, and then he gave us everything.
--14 June 2016, Ann Arbor, Michigan
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