Skip to content

As Fish in the Water: Orfilia Salazar Gutierrez “In Memoriam” (1933-2023)

Image by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Dear Mom:

You left us as you always lived. Calm, serene, confident. You were, in this way, very different from Rodrigo, your husband, my father. He was by nature visionary and enterprising, to the point of becoming impetuous, impatient, and even testy when things and events did not go as he had planned. Father represented the "prescriptive" element in the family, the forward thrust, the aspiration to the ideals and models that change and improve us. But, in the negative, Rodrigo was the anxio-genic element in the family. Even as adults—with him and his gaze—we did not feel relaxed. You, on the other hand, embodied the "descriptive" dimension of the family, summed up in the idea that "we are beautiful as we are today." You surely were the anxio-lytic component in the family, the relaxing element. So in you we immediately found peace, acceptance, inclusion, and sweetness. Two archetypes, two contrasting poles, which are difficult to put together. The German philosopher Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, applying this dichotomy to music, connected the forward thrust to Schönberg, visible for example in his opera "Moses and Aaron."[1] Then the second—stability—he connected to Stravinsky’s idea of music, like his ballet "The Firebird."[2]

Now that you are gone I can't help but reflect on the different archetypes that you two embodied and played throughout your lives—even in the final moments. Father left worried, unwillingly, and maybe even angry. You left serene, calm, and confident, without any recriminations. And I reflect on these two archetypes because these remain with us, still conditioning us and our families more than we think.

But the paradigm that won and predominated in the family, that marks its rhythm and destiny up to this day, is not yours, but Rodrigo's. Our family has become a typical "Achievement family."[3] The value of the family and its individual members is denoted by personal achievements, college degrees, professional seriousness, economic stability, books written, and success achieved. In this we might not complain because, although you had four children, you have in your children three doctors and three theologians. Not four, but six professions. Some produced more than what was required of them. In this we were also very biblical because the talents received, according to the gospel parable, must be increased. But at what cost? And in what ways, by doing so, have we become better? What have we lost instead? Humanly, what more do we have than others? Doesn't the Bible also say there is something different and more than this “gospel” of efficiency? Psalm 46 in fact seems to say, "Be still, do not move, do not undertake anything more."

But in paternal dominance, in this prescriptive and hard-working archetype, we are not the only ones. Franz Kafka in 1919, shortly before his death, wrote his well-known "Brief an den Vater" (Letter to the Father), which he never delivered to him and was published only posthumously. He was paralyzed by fear of his father, a fear of not being good enough for him. But Philip Roth, too, in his letter "Patrimony. A True Story," touches the chord of emotions just as strongly.[4] Not from fear, but instead from compassion for his 86-year-old Father. A father who, in his fight against a fatal brain tumor, would lose his traditional strength and vigor, the landmark of his family. But while contesting the paternal archetype, Kafka as much as Roth, they remained fascinated and imprisoned in it. Indeed, they do not write a "letter to the mother," but rather a "letter to the father," indirectly trying to sublimate the guilt of not being able to reflect that paternal consistency and efficiency.

So the cultural, as well as just familial, question is this: does a family go wrong if we fail to achieve that paternal archetype of success and efficiency? Or might it also go wrong even if we achieve it perfectly?

It is there that I can say we lacked a little more of mother. Not of mother as a refuge to offset the devastating but inexorable effects of the paternal efficiency paradigm. No. But of mother as a paradigm and cultural archetype with some true alternatives. One that equally challenges, resists, and critically confronts the enthusiasm, messianism, impetuosity, arrogance, and (yes) dictatorship of the paternal paradigm of efficiency.

Mothers cannot serve only as consolation centers to limit the failures produced by paternal bullying. This is why, in a politics of efficiency, procedures, and well-functioning policies, Martha Nussbaum reminds us to elevate the maternal archetype into a political program.[5] Today's politics is and will remain self-destructive if it does not include a good dose of the maternal archetype.

It is this maternal archetypical contribution that my dear mother was able to introduce into our family, and it has left some detectable traces. I briefly mention three of them.

1. An unobtrusive presence

You never imposed yourself forcefully, much less overbearingly, but were always present in family affairs. A family can easily become the clash between overbearing egos. Your unobtrusive presence extinguished the fuse of quarreling as it arose. With you there was no arguing because you always found a way to meet the other in his/her own territory. But this is only possible if there is a discrete presence that does not hoard all time and space. In you there was the virtue of a sober presence.

2. An unpretentious cure

However, this sobriety did not lead you to inactivity, much less indifference. On the contrary, it gave your continuous service a suave aroma of accompaniment. You were always there but it seemed as if you were not. Your care was not cumbersome. Most importantly, your care wasn’t centered on strategy but on the recipient.

3. An environment as a condition of life for others

The sobriety of your presence and unpretentious care created the conditions for a different kind of being in the world. Not one of self-assertion at any cost, less still that of conquering new territories, or even defending acquired spaces. You had everything because you had nothing, you were invaded by the meaning of life because you did not pretend to grasp it with pre-fabricated formulas. You always had the ideal place because every place was worthy. Your presence was the condition that guaranteed other presences.

You were our amniotic fluid. While in your womb the amniotic fluid allowed us to form and prepare ourselves to live outside. Once there, in the challenging weather of the external world, with autonomous entities, you still wanted to create a livable and welcoming environment in which we could move.

Thank you mom, for giving space for truly alternative categories to be put in tension with those that actually govern our lives—those that give us so much satisfaction and advantages but can also create so many devastating side effects.


Notes & References:

[1] Cf. "Schoenberg and Progress," in, Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music (London: Continuum, 2014), pp. 35-130.

[2] Cf. "Strawinsky and the Restoration," in, Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music (London: Continuum, 2014), pp. 133-206.

[3] For Achievement Family (Society), cf. Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).

[4] Philip Roth, Patrimony. A True Story (New York: Vintage, 1996).

[5] Martha Nussbaum, Political Emotions. Why Love Matters For Justice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013).


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Title image by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.