In this episode, Dr. Hackie Reitman speaks with existentialism expert Gordon Marino, Ph.D..
Dr. Marino is a philosophy professor at St. Olaf College with a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago. He is also a former boxer, a boxing instructor, and the boxing correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. He is a prolific author and most recently published The Existentialist’s Survival Guide. He discusses what existentialism is, how it intersects with neurodiverse conditions, and offers insight on perspective taking related to anxiety. (19 mins)
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HACKIE REITMAN M.D. (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. Today we have the pleasure of having my friend, Gordon Marino, who’s a very unusual individual. In fact, our mutual friend, Angelo Dundee, once called him an extraterrestrial, but Gordon is a professor of existentialism at St. Olaf. He’s a philosopher. He was a boxer. He was a boxing trainer. He was the boxing writer for the Wall Street Journal. He writes for the New York Times, and we’re friends, and he always gives me a hard time. Gordon Marino, welcome to Exploring Different Brains.
GORDON MARINO, Ph.D. (GM): Thanks for having me on, Hackie. Great to be with you.
HR: Because I know you so well, and I’m gonna make fun of you continually, why don’t you start…
GM: You’re gonna be getting it back then, my friend.
HR: Ok, well why don’t you start out by introducing yourself to our audience?
GM: You just introduced me!
HR: Well, I wanted… Don’t argue with me! Do it right way. Come on, this is your chance.
GM: That’s right. I’m a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library, freelance writer who writes for a lot of different outlets, boxing trainer, still, and boxing writer. I’ve just written a book called The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age in HarperOne, and it came out in April, and that’s all there is.
HR: And it’s a great book.
GM: It is, yeah!
HR: It’s a great book right here. There it is.
GM: Yeah, thank you.
What is existentialism?
HR: Gordon, tell us how you got into existentialism.
GM: Ok, well, first it might be helpful to tell people what existentialism is, right? I’ll give a little mini-lecture on that. Existentialism is a movement, basically that includes philosophers, such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and authors such as Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and playwrights, Ionesco, so it’s a very motley crew of people, and they don’t, the only person who ever identified himself as an existentialist was Jean-Paul Sartre. What links these thinkers together is certain themes, for example, emphasis on choice, on freedom, on questions like what’s the meaning of life, and they’re somewhat skeptical that we can come to understand life through pure reason, so there’s a little bit of skepticism about reason. Some of them are atheists; some of them are true believers, so it’s quite a disparate crew of people. I came to them because I was a very, lot of heartache and troubles as a kid. I went through a divorce, and I was in my twenties, and I was in a mental hospital and all this, I encountered Kierkegaard, and he was very helpful to me.
HR: Well, we appreciate you being here, and I tell you, in reading your book – which I have not quite finished yet – The Existentialist’s Survival Guide, it was enlightening to me how much overlap there was with everything Different Brains is about with neurodiversity, with mental health issues, with brains just being different, and I was very proud of you and admire you greatly, because you really bared your soul in that. You’ve had a tough go. You’ve had every kind of neurodiversity there is, and lots of mental health challenges and everything else.
GM: Thank you.
HR: And you’re still standing. You’re still standing.
GM: His legs are rubber, but he’s still standing. One of the things that attracted me to Kierkegaard, in particular, was this view that in order to be a good person, you need to be able to deal with some very difficult moods. It’s easy to be nice when all the lights are green and everything’s going well, but that’s not always going to be the case in life. One of our major goals in life is to be a good human being, or in Kierkegaard’s case, to have faith, but we’ve got to be able to deal with these difficult emotions.
Existential angst vs. anxiety
HR: A lot of times, you hear of existentialism and in terms of existential angst, ok. How does that overall aspect affect one’s anxiety and one’s mood overall?
GM: Well, the idea of existential angst would be that because we’re human beings, we’re born free, and we have to make choices all the time without any objective guidelines for it. That’s the primary notion of existential angst. I have to make all these moral decisions in life, and there’s no book you can turn to to make them. So that’s what existential anxiety is about. It’s about the anxiety that comes with being human beings. So there’s a little bit of a different, one of the things that’s different about the existentialists is that they would say, instead of saying anxiety is a symptom or a disease, they would say in general, it’s a sign that we’re, it’s a way of appropriating the fact that we are human beings. It’s part of what it is to be human, experiencing freedom. They still think that, someone like Kierkegaard believes that anxiety can lead you to very bad things, even suicide, but at bottom, he says that it’s a great thing. It’s an important thing. He even says that to learn to be anxious in the right way is the ultimate lesson in life.
HR: If I were going to ask you what does existentialism and neurodiversity have to do with each other, for instance, in your book, you talk about the moods, the depression, the feelings, the emotions, it’s not something to just take a pill, it’s something to examine and get involved with. Explain it from your point of view, the relationship as you see it between existentialism and the fact that all of our brains are different, whether we’re talking about mental health issues or challenges, whether we’re talking about neurological conditions, or intellectual differences.
GM: Well, there’s certainly a call in my book to learn to sit with these difficult emotions, and for self-reflection, and I think in our society, we just say anxiety as something to get rid of as quickly as possible, there’s no need to reflect on it. Just try a different regime of pills or whatever, or on the other hand, you get all this stuff about seven steps to get rid of anxiety, seven steps to forgiving yourself, these methodologies, and existentialism certainly emphasizes the need for self-reflection more. What’s going on, what are you anxious about?
GM: Yeah, self-reflection. So for example, yesterday, I had an article that had been accepted somewhere, and egomaniac that I am, I’m going to teach a seminar. I’m thinking about it, worrying about it like it really matters. It doesn’t matter at all, right? I said, “Who cares about the article? What are you worried about? What’s your attachment to these badges and these publications and things like that? I was able to catch myself and think what’s behind this anxiety? What’s behind this need for affirmation all the time, this ego? So here I have this anxiety, reflect about, should try to get beneath it. What’s it about? It’s completely rational at some level.
HR: Well, you’re a dopamine addict. You have to produce dopamine all the time.
GM: What’d you say, dopey?
GM: You know what I’m going to say? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you. Dopamine or dopey?
Boxing and the brain
HR: Well, to me, I know that you, me, and a third mutual friend of ours, Angelo Dundee, may he rest in peace, who had 15 world champions, including Muhammed Ali, we disagreed amongst ourselves about certain things. One thing that I remember very well Angelo Dundee saying to me when we were making the documentary that’s still in development about him, he said, “Hackie, for you, boxing’s a metaphor. For me, it’s how I make my living. It doesn’t mean I’m any less caring about it.” I remember having this discussion, and I know that boxing has been a metaphor for life for me, and you judge a champion by what he does after he gets off the canvas.
HR: After he’s been knocked down, and you have to answer the bell every round. Tell us – in your view – how sports in general, but boxing in specific, has had an effect on you and what makes you, and one of the words I love in your book is “authentic”.
GM: Concussions is one thing. (laughs) Aside from that, one of the reasons I talk about boxing so much in the book a lot is I see it as a, in order to, we need to be able to deal with things like anxiety, and you know boxing gives you a workshop in anxiety, and I work with my boxers a lot on being comfortable with it, not freaking out or in a panic before a fight. It’s a real, it’s a very, in the right conditions is a very supervised place to practice dealing with anxiety, and we don’t get much of that in our society. That’s one of the reasons I’ve stuck with it, and as you know, it’s a crazy sport. We both curse it sometimes. As much as I work with, I’m lucky to be privileged to work with a lot of kids, there’s a lot of kids who never experience any affirmation in life. They come from difficult homes, and they’re angry. They get in a lot of trouble at school, and no one ever says they’re good at anything. No one gives them any love. They come to the boxing gym and they get some pats on the back, and they can really blossom. So one of the things there is that we all really need affirmation. Boxing provides practice with anxiety and also, when people stick with it, affirmation that can really make them blossom into wonderful human beings.
HR: Very well said. I remember Angelo emphasizing, Angelo Dundee, “You can only work with what you got,” meaning he can tell very well that everybody’s brain is different. And he would tell about the different champions how he would work with them all differently. You do a significant amount of boxing training. Do you treat everybody the same or do you treat them all individually?
GM: No, definitely individually. I’ve taken some lessons from Angelo on that. I don’t try to impose the same regiment on everyone or the same psychology on everyone.
The Existentialist’s Survival Guide
HR: Now, Gordon, I know we’re going all over the place. Let’s get back to The Existentialist’s Survival Guide. Tell our audience how existentialism helped you get through your tough times.
GM: Ok, yeah, as I mentioned, for Kierkegaard, I was going through a very, very bad time and it helped me somehow to think that suffering wasn’t a standstill, but something you could do with dignity or not. It was an activity. To be able to suffer with dignity and do it well. There’s a lot of suffering in the world and that’s a task we’re all going to have. We’re going to lose people, terrible things are going to happen, and to be brave. To try to be brave with that. He was inspiring in that way. That really helped me a lot. Another think I’d like our audience – now that we’re off the boxing for a few minutes – I think one of the most important chapters in the book for me is the one on depression and despair, and the distinction between psychological disorder – or as you would probably say it, neurological disorder – and a spiritual disorder.
One of the claims in there is that we can’t control what our moods are a lot of the time, or a lot of us can’t. They come in and out like the weather, or precipitated by certain events, but we still have a relationship to our moods. So if I’m feeling really down, depressed, or sad, or something like that, I still have a decision whether or not to go out there and try to be a loving, good human being; reach through that pain, or to just be completely consumed by my feelings of melancholy. So this idea that we have on the one level roots, on another level this observing ego that has some decision about how to interpret those moods, how to, and what my duties are with those moods. So the spiritual disorder would be what Kierkegaard calls despair, as opposed to depression. It might be when I, when you’re really depressed, and completely identify with yourself in depression, kind of give up all your moral aspirations, spiritual aspirations, and completely identify with yourself with the blues. I came to this a little bit from experience in the mental hospital, where there was a woman who tried to commit suicide a bunch of times, and when I was in the hospital, she’d bring me coffee every morning, and I was in much better, she was in much worse shape than I was, so she was reaching through her pain. So this is the importance of the roots of our pain and not totally being identified with these moods. Not something the medicalizational (sic) experience kind of encourages.
HR: You know, I was very much moved in Victor Frankelman’s search for meaning, when he describes in the Holocaust, and he’s moving dead bodies of his friends, and there’s this stench, and he looks out through the window and he says, “You have a choice. You have a choice to say, ‘This is all terrible and life is not worth living,’ or you can say, ‘This is horrible. I hope we get through this and learn something from it, but that’s a beautiful sunset.’” You have choices.
GM: That’s a great moment in the book you pointed out, Hackie. You’re right.
HR: Gordon Marino, how does our audience find out more about you or get in touch with you, where do they go?
GM: Well they can… I am on Facebook they can certainly contact me that way. I am on email too so, email@example.com, you can always contact me that way. So its, marino at stolaf edu, happy to answer any questions. There’s a page on HarperOne for about my book and me and those are some ways. I’m happy to talk with anybody, answer any…, people contact me by email I’ll get back to them, whatever and we’ll enjoy the interaction.
HR: Is there anything, any topic we have not covered that you would like to cover today?
GM: Ok, so yeah. Maybe this one I think. At the beginning of the book, the first two chapters are anxiety, depression, death, and one of my students once said, “Oh, I want to get this book for my girlfriend,” and I said, “I don’t think it’s a lovey-dovey book to get, right?” but in the end, there’s also discussions, there’s also a chapter on morality, faith, and love, and the chapter on love, I pulled pretty much out of Dostoyevsky, in which Dostoyevsky makes this claim that I think, Dostoyevsky teaches us that one of the big challenges of love is loved, accepting love for who you are. So a while back, a close friend of mine’s wife died, and they had a very difficult marriage. He was in Europe, oh, actually California, and I called him up and asked him how he was feeling, and he said, “She knew me and she loved me,” you know? And that’s, being able to accept love by someone who really knows you is quite a task and a challenge, and I think really part of and something we ignore a lot of the time. We want to be loved for our ideal self, for being cool, and don’t often see it is hard to accept love. I think that’s a really important insight about love, that being loved for who you are, and what a special, special thing that is when it happens in a relationship, that kind of gave him some closeness. That’s something I’d like our audience to think about.
HR: That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful. Gordon Marino, it’s been a pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you for spending your time. You are authentic.
GM: Thank you. I’m really honored to be on. I enjoy the give and take with you. It was a pleasure.