Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Gravity Problem

            Kim was talking with her good friend Edna about how they’d each lost about two inches in height since they met years ago.

            “You’ve had a lot of years of dealing with gravity,” was my helpful observation.

            We’ve all spent a lot of time dealing with gravity, and some days are worse than others. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick, gravity varies from day to day, like the weather. On days of light gravity, all males have erections; on heavy gravity days, they crawl about on all fours. I’ve noticed during our daily morning hugs that Kim’s height varies from day to day – the tape measure confirms this. And during the course of her radiation therapy, she sometimes notices a particularly heavy gravity, even though it does not show in her attitude or behavior.

            In my non-fiction world, the older I get, the more heavy gravity days occur. An evening walk around the apartment complex makes my feet weigh more than they used to, and sometimes I struggle to get up out of my chair. And I’ve learned that light gravity moments can give way to heavy gravity rather suddenly, almost making me believe that the light gravity was an illusion.

            I don’t think anyone really understands what gravity is, or how it works – not even my physicist friend, Phil Allen, who may enlighten me if he reads this post. So I rush in to fill my vacuum of knowledge with Vonnegut’s fiction. Anyone have a problem with that?

            What do we do about The Gravity Problem?

            When I was teaching I would sometimes ask my students if they would experience more freedom if gravity were somehow turned off. At first they said yes. Then they said no. We worked the definition of freedom around to Tolstoy’s “at ease in harness,” leaving them more confused than when the conversation began. I am pretty much at ease with gravity, after living with its constraints for more than 70 years. Except when I slip and fall. When I used to fall on light gravity days, I would bounce back up. I don’t bounce any more. This is a problem.

            But it’s not just falling that makes me aware of The Gravity Problem. Illness makes me aware that a lightness has gone out of the world, and that includes the illness of loved ones. People getting shot, blown up or run over can bring on a stretch of heavy gravity, as can the general ugliness of the human landscape as we drive around looking for a house.

            Kim and I found a brief light-gravity respite  when we stopped at a nature preserve for half an hour to walk around a meadow looking for butterflies. We were without our cameras, but we did capture some images on my phone. This was important, as was seeing a Luna Moth as we walked away, disappointed, from a great house that was far too small for us. So we seek out places and moments where the gravity is light. It helps to turn off the news and, this week, the Republican Convention.

            But gravity isn’t all bad. Gravitas (pronounce the “v” as a “w”) was one of the important Roman virtues, along with pietas, dignitas, and virtus. No translation needed for the latter three, but gravitas, from the Latin word for “weight,” suggests seriousness and substance associated with depth of character. Remember “heavy” as a word of praise from the 60s and 70s? Think of the difference between the current emphasis on lightweight superficial “personality” and the old-fashioned stable virtue of “character.” It’s good to have gravitas.

            Gravitas, like gravity, is a force that connects, related to civic and personal responsibility and care – a kind of attachment related to what Kim’s dad referred to as honor. Because their character connects them to friends, family and community, people who possess the virtue of gravitas are more susceptible to heavy gravity. That’s why Kim and Edna lost those two inches.

            So I accept my heavy gravity days, including the pain that the Buddhists say comes with our attachments, as an indicator of my character, however unenlightened. This understanding works pretty well for me, except when I fall down.


  1. This is superb. You've pretty much explained the universe. I doubt physicist/friend Phil Allen can deepen the insight. (Is Deep caused by gravitas?)