Getting dressed in the morning can provide enough material for a rich meditation. It is really a splendid opportunity for seeing the metaphorical significance of an otherwise humdrum activity. "A wise man," according to a Jewish proverb, "hears one word and understands two." I suppose a meditative man can look at one thing and see another.
Looking at my socks and shoes, lying lifeless on the floor, reminded me of the fundamental meaning of the word "preposterous." The Latin roots – prae (before) and posterius (after) – indicate that it is foolish to attempt reversing the natural order of things and put the cart before the horse. Some pundit with a fondness for puns once said that all the problems in modern philosophy stem from "putting Descartes before des horses." Pope John Paul II expressed the matter more philosophically when he corrected Descartes in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, by saying that "it is not thought which determines existence, but existence which determines thought."
St. Thomas summed up the spirit of wisdom by stating that it is simply putting things in the right order ("Sapientia est ordinare" – It belongs to wisdom to put things in order). God comes first and man comes next. To reverse the order is preposterous and ultimately leads to the loss of God. And so, not wanting to do something preposterous, I put my socks on before I put on my shoes and thus began my day by stepping into a world of order.
There is an old Russian adage that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. I wondered if I could beat the lie to Russia in a foot race. At any rate, my shoes were now on my own feet, thereby enabling me to keep my feet on the ground, even if my mind was still in the clouds.
The socks must precede the shoes. That is the way it is. In Spanish, the previous sentence reads, Eso si que es (which, when sounded out, spells SOCKS). Socks are like Smurfs. They conform. There is no distinction among socks between right and left. They conform comfortably to either foot. But shoes are different. The foot must conform to the shoe. Therefore, the right shoe goes on the right foot; the left shoe goes on the left foot. This presents a difficulty for little children. Socks are accommodating; shoes are stubborn. For the child, it is the beginning of a long apprenticeship of learning, a movement from doing things my way to doing things the right way.
Stepping into shoes is also stepping into a world of morality, a world where the difference between right and wrong is essential and indispensable. One cannot dance if one has two left feet. The child must learn to conform to an order that lies outside of himself or herself, though the child can express creativity in selecting the style of shoe he or she wants to wear.
"Our peace is in his will," said Dante, in his Divine Comedy (En la sua volontade è nostra pace). We can find neither peace nor comfort if we put our left foot in the shoe that is designed for the right. We need to put our best foot forward, but make sure that it is in the right shoe.
In French, the word for shoe is sabot. "Sabotage" results, according to the etymological meaning of the word, when a shoe is thrown into a delicate machine and prevents it from operating properly. We should wear our shoes on our feet and not throw them at anything (or anyone). Thoughts of civility began swirling throughout my mind.
A philosopher friend of mine, in keeping with his great sense of humor, placed the words "Eschew obfuscation" on his office door. I would amplify his witty phrase by suggesting that we can eschew discomfort by putting the right foot into the right shoe. If the shoe fits, we should wear it; if the road to our destiny conforms to our talents, we should take it.
While such thoughts were rambling through my brain, my wife, who is a light sleeper, turned to me and said, "You make a lot of noise." I thought I was being as quiet as a mouse, but a deeper wisdom had eluded me: I should dress in another room.
Dr. Donald DeMarco, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, is a member of the American Bio-ethics Advisory Commission and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.