Emerson’s Unexamined Life

The chances are good that there was once a time in your life, as there once was for young Emerson Pickering, in which philosophy held a deeply personal, transactional, and purely experiential meaning. A visceral, intuitive, and non-verbal understanding of the essential contours of human existence. A time when freedom and existence were conjoined.

Think back to a time before MasterClass.com. Before adult ed sessions in the middle school library. A time before you checked out books from the self-help remedial-reading section of the library. Before reading Kant, or Buber, Nietzsche, Jordan B. Peterson, or looking at Shit You Should Care About on Instagram.

As Pickering knew then, as we all knew back then during that time in our lives before having been thrust into the onrushing stream, that all that one could possibly need to know about life, you already knew without knowing you knew it. That existence and happiness were the same thing.

A child of the late post-war baby boom. Emerson, most likely just like you, led an unquestioning, unexamined, and untroubled life. This was when Emerson Pickering was four going on five. After which, if you’ll remember clearly, and if you are being brutally honest with yourself, things started to turn sharply toward the south end of the curve.

Had he been able to read philosophy then, he would likely have disagreed with Socrates. Unlike Socrates, Emerson would have said then that the unexamined life is absolutely the best life. What was Plato thinking? Emerson was a pragmatic existentialist. Obviously, Plato and the others had lived very different lives from Emerson’s. If they knew something he didn’t know he would not have wanted to know it.

Surely, in his defense, Plato would have said, “Ah, yes, Emerson, wait, wait. You’re young. Wait.”

Until the age of four, Emerson was an only child. He had, with little exception, no worries. His mother was warm. He loved cream of wheat cereal in the morning. The sun in the afternoon. The stars at night. Crayolas. Chicken soup. Sleeveless sweaters. Sweaters with sleeves. Hats with earlaps. Snow. The way raindrops ran in crooked paths down the outside of a windowpane.

His thinking then was random. Responsive. Immediate. Free. Drawn to what was in front of him. Unguarded, Without artifice or intentionality. Without motive. Without restraint. Without questioning.

What was there to question? If a pencil lead broke, his mother would sharpen it. He didn’t wonder why pencil leads sometimes broke.  He knew. He’d pushed too hard on the point.

His concern never ventured beyond that. He was unconcerned with where pencils came from, or was the lead really made of lead or something else? Or, what, in fact, was lead? Where do you get lead, anyway? Why can’t you eat it? How much does it cost? Was buying stock in lead a good long-term investment? Or why were the good pencils always yellow? Who painted them? What makes a good pencil? What makes a pencil bad? Does using a pencil make you a good person? Can good people make bad pencils? Can bad people make good pencils?

And, as for chicken soup, he didn’t wonder where it came from before it was in the bowl in front of him. The concepts of provenance and “before” never entered his mind. And he had learned to be flexible. If one day the bowl contained no chicken soup, he might have had reason to consider where chicken soup came from, but fortunately for him, that never happened because on those days the bowl would have tomato soup in it.

There were other things that went unquestioned.

His grandmother had soft cushiony arms and white hair. She made fried bread on the stove.

His father left the house in the morning and read the New York Post and smoked a pipe when he came back home. His hair smelled sweet like maple syrup and tobacco.

He had a bed in his own room with a window, a dresser, a lamp, and a closet he could sit in.

Life was like being on a sailboat on a wide, calm lake in Maine in July with no black flies while someone else minded the sails. Though, admittedly, he had never been on a sailboat or any kind of boat on any kind of water. And he had never been to Maine or even knew what Maine was. He didn’t actually know anything about sailboats, lakes, or black flies. So, there was nothing to consider. Nothing to want. He simply spent each day quietly floating along.

When he was four, actually four and three-quarters, in September, which was one of his favorite months, because the leaves on the trees would turn bright colors, and you could smell them in the air and crunch them with your shoes, and the light in the afternoon would seem more orange than yellow and it would make your skin feel smooth, his mother went into the city for a weekend and he didn’t go along.

Socrates, if he might have been watching, might have said, “Ah, yes, Emerson, could this be a sign of uncharted waters ahead?”

And then, while his mother was away, he saw that his grandmother, who he was staying with, seemed to be busier in the kitchen. And she talked on the phone a lot, and he watched as she washed and folded piles of clothes that he used to wear when he was little, and then she put them with the old plastic rattles he had used and teething rings and the small square washcloths with images of ducks on them, in boxes tied up with pale yellow ribbons and arranged them on the table in the hall. And she asked him, no, told him, not to touch them before his mother came back from being away.

Where were his washcloths going?

The comfortable contours of life had begun to change.

Would his pencil be next to go? Would he need to ask for another one? If he asked, would he get it? Should he try to get two and hide one away? And, would it stop with pencils? Would his chicken soup be next?

Would he need to go out each day, like his father did, and find his own pencils and chicken soup? Would there be enough? Would he have to share them? If he didn’t share his pencils and soup with whoever was getting his washcloths, what would happen then? What would happen to him? What was happening to him? Was it something he said?

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