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Monday, March 2, 2015

A Happy Life Of Absolute Certainty–The Story Of Flannery Barnum

Flannery Barnum had an air of certainty about her.  She always had ever since she was a little girl  Her father called her stubborn and her mother called her willful, but she was neither.  She had been gifted an uncanny sense of self-awareness and absolute confidence in her choices, decisions and actions. Her Uncle Filbert said she was a genetic anomaly with bits of DNA whose purpose hadn’t been scientifically deciphered  but were active nonetheless.  Her Aunt Angelina, a devout Christian, said that it was a clear sign that she had been saved.  A Jewish friend of the family considered that Jehovah might have chosen yet again.

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One evening her mother arrayed an assortment of green peas, bite-sized pieces of carrots, and a few small broccoli florets. “I want something I like”, said Flannery.  Although she was too little to know what that might be, she knew with absolute certainty and conviction that the marbley peas and tasteless, half-cooked vegetables was not it.

She often made adults uneasy because of the direct way she had of looking at them.  Her gaze was steady, her face calm and composed, and her lips relaxed but firm. “I always feel that she’s appraising me”, said one of her mother’s friends; and indeed she was. She was still too little to have the broad canvas of fat, skinny, bulbous, and elegant human beings laid out before her with which to compare individuals; but she knew precisely what beauty was.  Mrs. Lester’s eyes, for example, were far too wide for the size of her face, and she looked like the toads that fell into the window well. Mr. O’Reilly’s nose was off-kilter and distorted the symmetry of his face.  Mrs. Palumbo flushed from the neck up, and although she wore collars that were intended to hide it, she still looked like a red-throated warbler.

As she grew older Flannery never had a second thought about what she wanted to wear.  Every year she looked in the mirror, appraised the change in her looks from the last, and chose hairstyle, clothes, and shoes most appropriate for her new appearance.  She was immune to girly group-think, and her fashion was unique and always attractive.  Even the most jealous girls had to admit that she always looked good and somehow her outfits, as unusual as they were, were becoming.

When the was eleven she told her mother that she didn’t believe in God. Her mother was very aware of her daughter’s ex cathedra pronouncements but this was too much.  The Barnums were a religious family of consistent if not exactly devout faith, and Flannery was simply too young to throw over generations of observant Methodists. “It’s not possible”, her mother said. “You can’t possibly know enough to make that decision.”

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Without missing a beat Flannery replied, “You told me that God has already chosen those people who are going to be saved. Whether he has chosen me or not, and no matter what I do, the decision has been made. For all intents and purposes, therefore, God doesn’t exist.”

Flannery’s father made an appointment with Pastor Jenkins, told him of his daughter’s presumptuousness, and asked him to set her straight. “She’s a very willful girl, mind you, so it won’t be easy.”

“Leave it to me”, replied the deacon. “I have a way with children.”

After three sessions, Pastor Jenkins called Flannery’s father and said, “You were right.”

This youthful epiphany saved Flannery the many years and sleepless nights of the conflicted and doubting.  Everyone from Augustine to Tolstoy wracked their brains over religion, the existence of God, theodicy and the conundrum of evil in a world created by a gracious and good deity, the perplexing existence of suffering, etc. Once she had come to the absolute conclusion that there was no God, then questions of morality and right behavior never troubled her.  As Ivan Karamazov said in The Brothers Karamazov, ‘without immortality there is no morality’.  Nietzsche was right – the only validation of human existence is the expression of individual will.

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Now of course Flannery did not deduce all this at the age of ten. It just followed from her decisive and unalterable conclusion about the existence of God.  When she was much older and her studies of literature, philosophy, and history led her to the Russians and the Germans, she said to herself, “See? I knew it all along.”

I should mention that there was nothing unattractive at all about Flannery Barnum and her certitude.  She was never critical, petty, or vindictive.  Because she was so sure of herself, she never argued.  Why bother? she said.  She already had formed her opinions and was in need of no one else to validate or justify them. Those who did not know her well thought she might be an airhead with no opinions of her own; but anyone who had spent any time with her knew that she simply had no time for uninformed opinions. She read the Bible, Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Shakespeare; but demurred when it came to invitations from her cohorts. Because she was so uncritical and never dismissive, her friends warmly accepted her and never questioned her independence.

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She was surprised to learn that so many friends, colleagues, and families were in psychotherapy, dealing with unresolved issues of childhood or the angst of death and dying. Flannery was never given to such doubts and uncertainties, and took everything for granted.  Of course growing up was no bed of roses; and of course couples fight; and indeed people get sick and die; but since this was all so obvious, predictable, and certain, why should anyone be anxious or upset?

Men all told her that she was great in bed; but that had more to do with their insecurities and performance anxieties.  Flannery in her typically uninhibited way was passionate and nearly insatiable. “Whoever is responsible for giving us sex organs”, she said, “I want to thank him personally.”

Marilyn Monroe

Marriage or even long-term relationships were not in the cards for her. Living with someone who was shaky with uncertainty or wobbly with doubt and personal reproach would be unsatisfactory to say the least; and since most people were that way, better not waste her time.

Living alone was a perfectly good arrangement. She did what she wanted, when she wanted.  She did not pine away for lack of companionship or feel isolated from society. Just the opposite. How could anyone beat the company of Paul, Leonardo, Aristotle, and Faulkner?

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Flannery was indeed one of a kind, and because she was so unique I had to side with her Uncle Filbert – she had a gene that no one else had; one that gave her confidence, security, emotional stability, and an easy rationality.  She had many friends because she never lost her engaging and non-confrontational ways. She forgave slights and ignorant missteps without a moment’s hesitation.  It wasn’t worth it in this determined, short life.

She loved no one, and was loved by none; but that too did not dismay or worry her.  Romantic love was a construct divined by Abelard and Petrarch and had no relevance whatsoever.  She was, however, no misanthrope, and was as happy as anyone at Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Fourth of July.  She enjoyed the company of others.  She just didn’t need it.

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Flannery lived to a ripe old age, and there were many moving eulogies at her funeral. Over twenty friends wanted to say their goodbyes to this remarkable and unique woman.

I learned a lot from her; and although I did not have her special gene, she helped me evolve a stoic but affective approach to life.  I am married, have children, and have countless love affairs; and in that way I have been far more engaged in and involved with life than Flannery ever was. But did that matter?  I was sure it did not.

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