I walked into a large room, much too large for the arrangement of chairs it held within. Eight Victorian-patterned armchairs were placed in a loose circle in the center. All were empty. The room was empty. A sign on the wall said, “Days Since Last Argument.” In the corner of the sign, there was a dry-erase board with a six drawn on. A poster displayed a portrait of John Donne alongside his “No Man is an Island” poem in modern English. Thinking that I may be lost, I checked my phone for the meeting details.
This was the right room. I was early, though. My watch only said 6:42. A lanky, bearded man entered the room, his arms filled with white styrofoam coffee cups. He briskly walked past, eager to drop his load on the refreshment table. I wondered if he had noticed me through his obstructed vision. He began making coffee. It was one of those double-pot Bunns. He moved as though he had already had enough coffee for today: jerky and quick. He was young, older than me probably, but still young. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt with a suit jacket and a beanie. The filter-tip of a cigarette poked out slightly from the bottom of his hat.
Apparently, he had not noticed me because when I approached him to ask if I could help with anything, he jumped, somewhat startled, perhaps too startled. It annoys me when people get so startled. He introduced himself. He said his name was Mark. He immediately followed with, “Short for Marcus,” as if it would have killed him to omit that detail. I told him my name and again asked if I could do anything to help. “No, I think that just about does it. I used to put out crackers and such, but people just drank the coffee. Help yourself to some coffee and find a seat. Cream and sugar are next to the pot. Everyone else should be here soon and then we’ll get started.”
I poured myself a cup of black, burnt-smelling coffee. I asked Mark how many people usually showed up and how long had they been meeting. “I started this program the year after I graduated from college,” he said. “That was five years ago. I had a difficult time being a philosophy student and have had a harder time after graduating. So, I wanted to create an outlet for people like me. At one point, we had twenty visitors every week. We’ve been dwindling, though.” As he said this, his downcast face looked out at the eight chairs.
“That’s interesting,” I replied. “I would think this group would be growing.” Sometimes I ask questions to be polite but don’t actually have the personality to keep the conversation going. I nodded at Mark as to say that I was done talking and turned to find a seat. I positioned myself in the armchair furthest from the door. It was a well-worn chair with an ornate pattern. The armchairs were a nice touch, a touch of familiarity and sophistication. People began coming in, finding the coffee, and subsequently finding their chairs. One man sat down in the chair to my right. Another man sat down in the chair to my left. We nodded to each other but didn’t say anything. Personally, I needed to ingest more of my coffee before I could start up a conversation with another stranger.
A young woman was the last of the group to come in. She was the only woman here, and I was surprised to see her. That’s not a remark about female intelligence. I just remember that there were only a few women that studied philosophy at my university. The ones I encountered were beautiful and brilliant, which made for an intimidating combo.
My anticipation was turning to irritability. “Let’s get this started,” I thought. I had slunk myself down in my chair while I waited. Mark called everyone to sit down at 7:05. Slowly, without rush, the coffee-drinking conversationalists found their seats. We seemed ready to begin. I sat up and leaned forward over my knees.
“Hello everyone,” Mark began. His coffee consumption had seemed to calm his spastic behavior. “Welcome to Philosophers Anonymous. Most of you know this already, but for those new faces, we are a group of individuals who are acquiring or have acquired a degree in philosophy. These meetings serve to provide an occasion for disgruntled philosophers to vent their frustrations. Each person will get an opportunity to speak their grievances. Bill, could you get us started to show the newcomers how this goes?”
“Hello. My name is Bill and I have a B.A. in philosophy.” Bill was apparently the man sitting to the right of Mark. I sat across from them in the circle of chairs.
“Hello, Bill,” the group returned in cultic unison. Bill looked as though he was a recent college graduate. Young, but hair starting to recede, starting to gray — in his twenties. He was a skinny, small man who appeared not to care much about his appearance. Bill wasn’t dirty or even disheveled, but I wondered if he owned a mirror.
I was a fly on the wall. His introductions carried connotations of his own diminished confidence and dismay. Maybe he was sad that he had graduated and now had to move on. Maybe we all were. Maybe that’s why we were all here.
“Yeah, hi. Anyway, as I have shared before, my trouble started when I was teaching a Sunday school class at my church. The material I was teaching focused on interpreting the world through a biblical worldview. The examples given could be boiled down to apologetics, a term I had never heard before. Examples like, because there are so many manuscript copies of the New Testament, thousands more than say the historical accounts of Caesar, the New Testament should be trusted. I began watching videos on apologists and their opponents. I realized that I was studying philosophy. I watched all the ‘Crash Course Philosophy’ videos on YouTube in just a few days. I was hooked. I had to have more and more. After my Intro to Philosophy class in college, I changed my major. The historical survey courses made me think much harder about God, reading people like Descartes and Berkeley, even Nietzsche. God is dead, oh and don’t forget, we killed him. So that’s me. I’m still a Christian but there’s arguments out there that hurt, ya know? Is that what you wanted, Mark?”
“Religion is a hell of a gateway drug,” someone commented.
“Yeah, that’s great, Bill,” Mark said, ignoring the heckler. “And we’ve all been there. Something we have to remember is that philosophy, while trying to explain our world, is constructed of ideas and concepts that we don’t have to believe. We can discuss without aligning our opinions anywhere. These ideas don’t define us, though they may try. Rather, we define and discuss them.”
My rough opinion of Mark was changing. Perhaps he wasn’t the weirdo I initially perceived him to be. As he talked, I watched the responses of the attendees, looking for facial tells. Some looked down, unengaged. Others gave reactionary smiles that conveyed grieved agreement, rather than gladness. Bill and another followed along, nodding to themselves, signaling their listenership.
Bill nodded along but he was distraught, though. I wondered why, wondered how, this affected him so profoundly. He had probably thought about it and studied it often. He probably had to consistently reconcile his beliefs with his reading.
“I got one,” the man next to me called out. This guy was wearing an Oklahoma Sooners snapback. I knew it was a snapback because he was wearing it backwards. The man looked fit, not muscled up, but maintained. I got the feeling that he was a preppy jock in high school who finally figured out that he had more brain than brawn. He might be the type to bring up his “glory days,” and fail to notice the peaked-too-early connotations. He kept in shape because he still thought he was a jock. He wasn’t a jock anymore — just a washed-up smartass like the rest of us.
“Sure, I’m done,” Bill replied. He wasn’t the least bit upset to relinquish his power. Bill liked attention and but only in short bursts; he preferred to listen and respond.
“Hello. I’m Izzy.” He paused for their response, which he promptly received. “Ever since studying philosophy, I can’t find anything funny anymore.” Izzy was giving a slight smile, like he was setting up a punchline. “I mean, when I see a joke online, I get it. I know that it’s supposed to be humorous. But all I see is logical fallacies. I don’t laugh. Fallacies aren’t inherently funny. So, what’s going on?” He began talking more flatly, “I mean, I know that incongruity is funny sometimes but rather than laugh, I just want to call the jokester out. Just tell him, ‘hey just so you know, you’re using equivocation there,’ or ‘your all-encompassing conclusion includes you, too, ya idiot.’ But oh no, they don’t like it when you point out their inconsistencies. Then they say that I’m the dummy because I’m not playing along.”
“Well Izzy, sometimes you just have to force a laugh and move on. The problem may be that you are interpreting jokes as formal arguments, something that they were never intended to be. You have to take off the fault-finding glasses, relax and laugh a little bit. Don’t spoil their fun.” Mark was actually a competent mediator. In a room full of argumentative bastards, no one was arguing. We all sympathized, I guess. I thought about thinking up a devil’s advocate scenario, like I often do, just to rile them up, just to see what Mark would do. I didn’t get my chance because the man on my other side began his sympathies for Izzy.
“Izzy, man, you know, I do the same thing. I’m like a watchdog for fallacies online. I always point them out to people, but they never appreciate it. I guess I think I’m being funny or showing off when I tell them their flaws. False dichotomies are everywhere, man. Those are the ones you have to look out for.”
“Since you chimed in, Blake, do you have something to share with us?”
Blake looked like he was still in college, a little younger than the rest of us. He looked a little more innocent. Like he could be rough around the edges, but he didn’t really know what rough meant. He wasn’t sure if his jean jacket was a tough statement or hipster trend.
“Sure, man. So, like, I’m a senior in the philosophy program at my school. It’s a small program, probably one of the smallest in the school. But I have seniority, ya know? When I have discussions with the underclassmen, there’s this one that’s always asking these questions that really just serve to insert other philosophers into the conversation. They’re always philosophers that weren’t taught in the curriculum. I didn’t venture too far from the required reading, so I’m like, ‘Yeah, I recognize the name but haven’t read them, ya prick.’ So then I ask, ‘So what do they have to say about it’ and the guy gives a little answer which makes me wonder if he read the source texts or just the Stanford article or even that much. I just get so frustrated because he’s just name dropping.”
“Well nobody likes a name-dropper — ,” Mark was saying but stopped because Izzy said, “You know what you should do? Set him up. Study everyone on a subject he likes and casually bring it up when you are discussing with him. You let him name drop. Then you come back with, ‘Well what so-and-so actually said was,’ and then drop a few names of your own. Make him look so stupid. It’ll be like that bar scene in Good Will Hunting. (a la Ben Affleck) ‘How do you like me now?’”
“I don’t think that would be a very effective way to solve — ,” Mark tried again.
“Yeah like, I’ll just call him out on that crap. I’ll show that little twerp,” Blake responded, totally ignoring Mark’s rebuke. Blake and Izzy were on the edge of their seats talking through me. Scheming. I was balancing my chair on the back legs to give them some room. “Uncomfortable” didn’t quite capture the feeling. It was a paralyzing awkwardness that I found myself in the middle of.
“That’s enough!” Mark saved me. The pair of sadists silenced themselves. “On that note, I think it’s time for a smoke break.” He slipped a lighter out from his pocket and pulled the stogey from his hat, showing us like he was a magician demonstrating the realness of a prop. “We’ll continue our discussion in fifteen minutes.” The philosophers stood up, pulled out their own packs, and began tamping as they walked toward the door. I didn’t smoke but followed the crowd. I was intrigued that we would have a break when the session was only ninety minutes long.
Before we could funnel through the only exit out into the hallway, a man popped his head in the doorway and asked, “Is this the ‘Search for the Philosopher’s Stone’ meeting?” Our room number was hidden behind the open door.
Mark, the leader of the pack, answered him, “No, this is Philosophers Anonymous. ‘Search for the Stone’ meets down the hall.”
“Thanks,” the guy said and started walking away.
“You’re never going to find it!” Mark called after him.
The guy turned around. “The room?”
“No, the stone.”
The guy shook his head as he walked away.
We made it outside to the designated smoking area. Signs on the building read “No Smoking Within 50ft of Building.” The group apparently paid this sign no notice as butt-buckets were present around the cement picnic tables. Some of them stood. Others sat. All were smoking.
Bill shook a cigarette through the opening at the top of his soft-pack and presented it to me. The one he was smoking hung lazily in his lips, almost perpendicular, at the corner of his mouth. I said, “No, but thank you.” Bill gave me a “it’s your loss” look and with the twitch of his wrist the cigarette fell back into place inside the pack. Lips sucking cigarettes with long airy draws, interrupted by coughing, were the only sounds that could be heard. Nobody talked. They just sucked on their pacifiers. The dim, flashing exterior light shone through the clouds of smoke making hazy prisms. The whole scene was kind of sad.
Mark wasn’t among the sad scene. After he led us to the smoking area, he walked to his car and got in. It was a blue Ford Taurus. Mark turned the car on, cracked the window, and smoke began rolling out moments later. I could see him talking to himself; he talked with his hands waving in an animated fit. He even hit the steering wheel to really solidify his point. Mark was cooling off in his own way.
I didn’t hang out too long. Blake thought he was being sneaky, but I noticed when he pulled out a flask and took a swig. The stainless-steel flask caught a ray of light and flash a glint as he returned the drink into the interior pocket of his jacket. God, what had I got myself into? I let myself back into our room and refilled my coffee. One pot was empty and enough for a cup remained in the other. I decided that I would make some more. The filters and grounds were still there from when Mark made coffee earlier. I took the coffee pots down the hall to the nearest water fountain and filled them. After the cautious walk back, I carefully and slowly filled the reservoirs. I considered for a moment that someone might be upset that I made new pots without asking. The thought disappeared as the coffee maker began popping and spitting water through the grounds and into the first pot.
The only woman of the group had apparently finished her break and entered the room. I hadn’t actually noticed if she had been smoking. She skipped the coffee refill and went straight to her chair. I guessed that she was around twenty-four, but honestly, I was terrible at guessing those sorts of things. She had dark hair and light skin and was dressed in a band shirt and jeans.
“Is it always like this?” I asked her. I guess I was assuming that she was a regular. I was smiling at her as I talked. I hoped that I wasn’t smiling too much.
“I sure hope not. This isn’t what I was expecting at all.”
“This is your first meeting?”
“Yes. I thought there would be a debate about a topic, or a lecture or something — just not this.”
“This is my first time, too. I haven’t been enjoying myself so far.”
“Why are you sticking around, then?”
“I guess I’m hoping that it will get better. Anyway, I’m brewing some more coffee if you would care for some.” She smiled a cute dimpled smile but didn’t say anything. I thought about introducing myself but didn’t for the sake of anonymity.
Mark led the chain of smokers back inside. Some stopped for coffee. Others found their seats. The break, and perhaps the nicotine, was effective to still the rising tensions. “Let’s get back to it.” He scratched his head through his beanie, took it off, and put it back on in the proper place with his hair showing just across his forehead. Mark was composed once again. “So, we stopped with Izzy’s misdirected advice to Blake. Does anyone else have advice for Blake that would not involve humiliating the name-droppers he encounters?”
Mark sat there for a second. He waited. No one said anything. He waited. Still, no one said anything. They felt like I did: ashamed — ashamed that they considered and perhaps silently cheered as Izzy riled us.
The woman began to say something. Everyone turned their gaze toward her. She really was a beautiful girl and she probably got attention like that anywhere she went. She said, “There will always be name-droppers out there, especially in philosophy. It comes with the territory. If they introduce a new name into the conversation, really try to get them to explain why that person’s philosophic thought is valuable right now, in that discussion. If they can’t explain, then they’re just name dropping, and you can ignore them because they clearly aren’t interested in discourse. If they can explain, you find yourself learning about new ideas. You can’t always write someone off as a name-dropper just because they know obscure philosophers. They may just be showing off, but you can’t know for sure until you ask them about it. You have to be humble and accept the fact that others might actually know more than you do.”
They hung on her every word. Her face shone as if a spotlight had been placed upon her. Mark gave the room a moment for the woman to continue or for a response to be given. He was apparently immune to the charms that had captivated the rest of us. When a response failed to come, Mark asked, “Well what do we think of this course of action? Blake, what do you think?”
Blake had obviously forgotten that he was the star of the show — this discourse was supposed to be for his direct benefit. Upon hearing his name, he gave Mark a “huh” look and said, “Oh, yeah, I could definitely try that out.” He gave a goofy nod to Mark and another to the woman. Blake might have been feeling the effects of his flask-drink.
It was a really practical response, I thought. Maybe I just agreed because the woman had said it. I didn’t have anything to add, though.
Seeing that Blake wasn’t interested in continuing this conversation, Mark appearing slightly agitated, decided to move on. He looked toward the woman and asked what her name was.
“Yes, my name is Catherine. Hello. I obtained my B.A. two years ago.”
“Hello, Catherine.” I chimed in too this time. I didn’t want to conform but apparently, I was.
“Hi. Honestly, I thought that this meeting would be something different,” Catherine began.
“Well, what were you expecting?”
“I thought it would be like the forums I went to in college. We would listen to a lecture, ask questions, discuss with one another — that sort of thing.”
“This is a support group,” Mark explained. “We focus on the problems associated with studying philosophy. We don’t actually discuss it. We prefer to refrain from ‘arguments’ altogether.” He turned his face toward the “Days Since Last Argument” board, suggesting that Catherine take notice of it, as well. “Is there anything we can help you out with?”
“You could help me get a job. Or a boyfriend. You could help me so I don’t feel so trapped inside my head.”
A woman breached the threshold of our room and walked in. When she wasn’t greeted, she asked, “Isn’t this ‘Dating for Philosophers’?” She looked confused and cautious, sensing the tension in the room.
Mark turned and faced her. He replied, “No this is ‘Philosophers A — .’”
He was cut off. “Hold on! There’s a ‘Dating for Philosophers’ group that meets here?” Izzy was quite enthusiastic about this new development. He sprung forward from his lackadaisical slouch to an upright straight-shouldered posture.
“Yes. Or there is supposed to be. I obviously have the wrong room.” Embarrassed, the woman turned and walked quickly out of the room and into the hallway.
“Maybe I can help you find it!” Izzy called. He jumped to his feet and followed her out. Right after, Blake and Bill were exiting the room, as well.
“Hey guys, we’re not done yet,” Mark pleaded. “Come back and sit down.” He was distraught and looked longingly at Catherine and myself. We were all that remained.
Catherine made a motion like she might go.
“Are you going, too?” I leaned her direction and asked her.
“I might as well. It can’t be worse than this place.” Mark took offense at that statement but let her go without saying anything.
“Well it’s just you and me,” Mark said, looking directly at me.
“I like what you’re doing here, Mark, but I think I’ll follow suit,” I said. “I’m sorry. Same time next week?”
“Yes.” Mark’s eyes seemed to be looking through me.
“Why don’t you come along, too?” I shot him a cheesy grin. “There will probably be too many guys, but it might be fun.”
He shook off his gaze and replied, “No, thanks. I’ll just clean up here and go home.”
“Okay,” I said. “See ya.”
I walked out of the room and spied one of our group down the hall. I began in that direction. As I walked, I thought about Mark. He was trying to help. I didn’t want to sit and talk to him one on one, though, like a therapy session. I thought that maybe he was the one that got the most benefit from those meetings. I kept walking. I sped up to catch the group.
Then we heard the gunshot. We all shuddered and looked back down the hall toward the sound. We knew where it came from. We knew what had happened. We rushed back to Room 115 to find Mark on the floor next to his chair, a puddle of blood and smoke fuming from his temple. Blood covered and dripped from his high-back armchair. Apparently, our walk-out was the final grievance in the mounting disappointment that was Mark’s life. Our disrespectful antics pushed him to the edge, and he jumped. Perhaps if Mark was given the opportunity to talk, he would have made us aware of those terrible feelings within him, but maybe he would have kept them all to himself, pushing his needs aside to help the rest of us. Maybe it’s the ones who never talk about it that need the most help.