Get on the Ground: A Reflection for Russell Ippolito’s Memorial Service at Westchester Community College
Over the last five years I had the good fortune of talking with Russ almost every week on Thursday evenings. We both had Thursday night classes and would wrap up the day with a little philosophical conversation. As many of you know, Russ was very interested in philosophy and had studied it at Columbia. He always worked philosophical angles into his classes and we often talked about philosophy in relation to law.
But of all these interesting conversations, there is one that has had a powerful and ongoing impact on me. This conversation goes back about five years, around the time my son Max was born. Russ and I were talking about fatherhood and he said to me, in a very earnest way, the following statement:
Make sure you get on the ground.
He explained. He said that adults have a tendency to stay too much in our adult world when it comes to children. We don’t get to their level enough. We sometimes have a tendency to play it safe, smile from on high, love from afar, and avoid the dirt. He told me to get on the ground and this statement would come to mind often when faced with invitations to, well, get on the ground from my son. His words helped me avoid compromising my role as a parent. My son has been a beneficiary of Russ’ inspiring imperative. But this statement, get on the ground, is certainly one that connects to Russ’ general outlook. He was always able to get on the ground with his students for example. He was willing to get involved on their level and relate to them with no pretensions. Indeed, the statement captures much of what Russ was about in his relations with his family, his work, and his community.
But the statement has an even wider scope. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote the following in his book The Wanderer and His Shadow (#51):
“The ability to be small. – One has still to be as close to the flowers, the grass and the butterflies as is a child, who is not so very much bigger than they are. We adults, on the other hand, have grown up high above them and have to condescend to them; I believe the grass hates us when we confess our love for it. – He who wants to partake of all good things must know how to be small at times.”
All good things, Nietzsche says, require getting on the ground. All good things demand that we try to embrace them without the myopias of our accomplishments, degrees, age, pride, and so on. Russ’ statement has had a direct effect on how I relate to my son and he will live on through that positive influence. I offer it to you today as a living memory that should inspire us all to continue relating to all good things in ways that are profoundly grounded and thus profoundly human.