I watched them dying slowly at my desk, which I hardly left for the week after my birthday (dissertation drang). And what a magnificent way to go. They DID so much in those last days. Most flowers sit still and wilt gently. Not tulips! Tulips grow to double their height in the first two days in a vase. You can hear them moving at night when it’s quiet. The leaves squeak as they unfurl. They dance and overflow the vase, leaning over your work audaciously. Then the buds begin to open wider, wider still, the petals curling back gracefully, turning inside out to reveal ripe, full stamens, spilling a profusion of pollen, yellow stains all across your papers… exquisite, defiant contortion. What a wonderful birthday gift at 38 – the opportunity to meditate on living and aging with self-possession and purpose. Thank you Debs. x
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
— Anaïs Nin
David Foster Wallace was arguably one of the most brilliant American writers of his generation. In this excerpt from a speech he gave, first published on the Guardian website a week after his death in 2008, he reflects on the difficulties of daily life and ‘making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head’. Read it below the jump or listen to the audio recording here:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
If you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude – but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete …
A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real – you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues”. This is not a matter of virtue – it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home – you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job – and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: you have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.
Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your cheque or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc.
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.
Or if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just 20 stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks …
If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do – except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible car accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a much bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am – it is actually I who am in his way.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line – maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible – it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important – if you want to operate on your default setting – then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”
· Adapted from the commencement speech the author gave to a graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio. First published on the Guardian website.
This is an excerpt from a speech given by American writer George Saunders at Syracuse University recently, and well worth reading:
“Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.
So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.
But here’s something I do regret:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.
So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet.
It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?
Here’s what I think:
Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).
Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.
So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?
Well, yes, good question.
Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.
So let me just say this. There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.
Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well,everything.
One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”
And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.
When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can….
And this is actually O.K. If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.
Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”
Read the rest of George Saunders’ sage advice to graduates HERE.
swells and pounds me
I know nothing (now that I know you)
My face goes blank
My eyes go open gates
and the world can go (in them)
it can make us wealthy
and take away
I hold nothing (now that I hold you)
There’s no place to use our money where we live
The generous world suggests we live generously
so we lay
under low wide branches
of the oldest tree on the dune
or in the hay
where we will stay for so long without moving
that the careful birds finally relax
and make black nests in your black hair
and find ants walking around my unmoving feet
and we will only notice this play of the world
(that long moss is growing on us)
(that that wind has rewritten us)
(the give and take not stopping ever)
for only a moment
and then, having briefly noticed,
let the world roll on
through open gates
In a generous way
I give long walks to the dogs
I put commas and periods in song
I give closed eye to the day
I give peace to the long decay
(we do not need to fear dying)
— Written by Phil Elvrum, from the 2005 Mount Eerie album, “No Flashlight”: Songs of the Fulfilled Night
Let us not think that because we are less brutal, less violent, less inhuman than our opponents we will carry the day. Brutality, violence, and inhumanity have an immense prestige that schoolbooks hide from children, that grown men do not admit, but that everyone bows before. For the opposite virtues to have as much prestige, they must be actively and constantly put into practice. Anyone who is merely incapable of being as brutal, as violent, and as inhuman as someone else, but who does not practice the opposite virtues, is inferior to that person in both inner strength and prestige, and he will not hold out in a confrontation.
“If you think childlike, you’ll stay young. If you keep your energy going, and do everything with a little flair, you’re gonna stay young. But most people do things without energy, and they atrophy their mind as well as their body. You have to think young, you have to laugh a lot, and you have to have good feelings for everyone in the world, because if you don’t, it’s going to come inside, your own poison, and it’s over.”
— Jerry Lewis
“Give up to life your every action, every ounce of faith. Throw all your best energies, sincerely and disinterestedly, into life. Immerse yourself, living creatures that you are, in the live, pulsing tide of human existence, until you feel at one with it, until it floods through you, and you feel your individual personality as an atom within a body, a vibrating particle within a whole, a violin-string which receives and echoes all the symphonies of history; of that history which, in this way, you’re helping to create.”
– Antonio Gramsci
This was the commandment, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,’ but when the commandment is rightly understood it also says the converse, ‘Thou shalt love thyself in the right way.’ If anyone, therefore, will not learn… to love himself in the right way, then neither can he love his neighbour; he may perhaps, as we say, ‘for life and death’ cling to one or several human beings, but this is by no means loving one’s neighbour. To love one’s self in the right way and to love one’s neighbour are absolutely analogous concepts, are at bottom one and the same.
~ Søren Kierkegaard, from Works of Love (1847)
“It Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)” was a calypso song written by jazz musicians Melvin “Sy” Oliver and James “Trummy” Young, first recorded in 1939 by Jimmie Lunceford, Harry James, and Ella Fitzgerald.
This is a madly infectious ska-pop version recorded in 1982.
We are motivated more by aversion to the unpleasant than by a will toward truth, freedom, or healing. We are constantly attempting to escape our life, to avoid rather than enter our pain, and we wonder why it is so difficult to be fully alive.
― Stephen Levine, from A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last
Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination.
Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.
― John Stuart Mill, Autobiography (1873). Read the rest of it HERE.
Refuse to fall down
If you cannot refuse to fall down,
refuse to stay down.
If you cannot refuse to stay down,
lift your heart toward heaven,
and like a hungry beggar,
ask that it be filled.
You may be pushed down.
You may be kept from rising.
But no one can keep you from lifting your heart
It is in the middle of misery
that so much becomes clear.
The one who says nothing good
came of this,
is not yet listening.
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, The Faithful Gardener: A Wise Tale About That Which Can Never Die**
**Debbie Pryor, thank you for this.
“The process of growth is, it seems, the art of falling down. Growth is measured by the gentleness and awareness with which we once again pick ourselves up, the lightness with which we dust ourselves off, the openness with which we continue and take the next unknown step, beyond our edge, beyond our holding, into the remarkable mystery of being.”
— Stephen Levine
You will find that you survive humiliation
And that’s an experience of incalculable value.
That is the worst moment, when you feel you have lost
The desires for all that was most desirable,
Before you are contented with what you can desire;
Before you know what is left to be desired;
And you go on wishing that you could desire
What desire has left behind. But you cannot understand.
How could you understand what it is to feel old?
We die to each other daily.
What we know of other people
Is only our memory of the moments
During which we knew them. And they have changed since then.
To pretend that they and we are the same
Is a useful and convenient social convention
Which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember
That at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.
There was a door
And I could not open it. I could not touch the handle.
Why could I not walk out of my prison?
What is hell? Hell is oneself.
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.
Half the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important.
They don’t mean to do harm — but the harm does not interest them.
Or they do not see it, or they justify it
Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle
To think well of themselves.
There are several symptoms
Which must occur together, and to a marked degree,
To qualify a patient for my sanitorium:
And one of them is an honest mind. That is one of the causes of their suffering.
To men of a certain type
The suspicion that they are incapable of loving
Is as disturbing to their self-esteem
As, in cruder men, the fear of impotence.
I must tell you
That I should really like to think there’s something wrong with me —
Because, if there isn’t, then there’s something wrong
With the world itself — and that’s much more frightening!
That would be terrible.
So, I’d rather believe there’s something wrong with me, that could be put right.
Everyone’s alone — or so it seems to me.
They make noises, and think they are talking to each other;
They make faces, and think they understand each other.
And I’m sure they don’t. Is that a delusion?
Can we only love
Something created in our own imaginations?
Are we all in fact unloving and unloveable?
Then one is alone, and if one is alone
Then lover and beloved are equally unreal
And the dreamer is no more real than his dreams.
I shall be left with the inconsolable memory
Of the treasure I went into the forest to find
And never found, and which was not there
And is perhaps not anywhere? But if not anywhere
Why do I feel guilty at not having found it?
Disillusion can become itself an illusion
If we rest in it.
Two people who know they do not understand each other,
Breeding children whom they do not understand
And who will never understand them.
There is another way, if you have the courage.
The first I could describe in familiar terms
Because you have seen it, as we all have seen it,
Illustrated, more or less, in lives of those about us.
The second is unknown, and so requires faith —
The kind of faith that issues from despair.
The destination cannot be described;
You will know very little until you get there;
You will journey blind. But the way leads towards possession
Of what you have sought for in the wrong place.
We must always take risks. That is our destiny.
If we all were judged according to the consequences
Of all our words and deeds, beyond the intention
And beyond our limited understanding
Of ourselves and others, we should all be condemned.
Only by acceptance of the past will you alter its meaning.
All cases are unique, and very similar to others.
Every moment is a fresh beginning.
Excerpted from T.S. Eliot’s 1949 play, The Cocktail Party
The subject experiences a sentiment of violent compassion with regard to the loved object each time he sees, feels, or knows the loved object is unhappy or in danger, for whatever reason external to the amorous relations itself.
1. “Supposing that we experienced the other as he experiences himself — which Schopenhauer calls compassion and which might more accurately be called a union within suffering, a unity of suffering — we should hate the other when he himself, like Pascal, finds himself hateful.” If the other suffers from hallucinations, if he fears going mad, I should myself hallucinate, myself go mad. Now, whatever the power of love, this does not occur: I am moved, anguished, for it is horrible to see those one loves suffering, but at the same time I remain dry, watertight. My identification is imperfect: I am a Mother (the other causes me concern), but an insufficient Mother; I bestir myself too much, in proportion to the profound reserve in which, actually, I remain. For at the same time that I “sincerely” identify myself with the other’s misery, what I read in this misery is that it occurs without me, and that by being miserable by himself, the other abandons me: if he suffers without me being the cause of his suffering, it is because I don’t count for him: his suffering annuls me insofar as it constitutes him outside of myself.
2. Whereupon, a reversal: since the other suffers without me, why suffer in his place? His misery bears him far away from me, I can only exhaust myself running after him, without ever hoping to be able to catch up, to coincide with him. So let us become a little detached, let us undertake the apprenticeship of a certain distance. Let the repressed word appear which rises to the lips of every subject, once he survives another death: Let us live!
3. So I shall suffer with the other, but without pressure, without losing myself. Such behaviour, at once very affective and very controlled, very amorous and very civilised, can be given a name: delicacy; in a sense it is the “healthy” (artistic) form of compassion. (Ate is the goddess of madness, but Plato speaks of Ate’s delicacy: her foot is winged, it touches lightly.)
~ Roland Barthes, from A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments pp. 57-58
A review by Maria Popova, from brainpickings.org.
“[I] pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity,” Jack Kerouac professed in discussing his writing routine. But those of us who fall on the more secular end of the spectrum might need a slightly more potent sanity-preservation tool than prayer. That’s precisely what writer and psychotherapist Philippa Perry offers in How To Stay Sane (public library; UK), part of The School of Life’s wonderful series reclaiming the traditional self-help genre as intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living.
At the heart of Perry’s argument — in line with neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recent meditation on memory and how “narrative truth,” rather than “historical truth,” shapes our impression of the world — is the recognition that stories make us human and learning to reframe our interpretations of reality is key to our experience of life:
Our stories give shape to our inchoate, disparate, fleeting impressions of everyday life. They bring together the past and the future into the present to provide us with structures for working towards our goals. They give us a sense of identity and, most importantly, serve to integrate the feelings of our right brain with the language of our left.
We are primed to use stories. Part of our survival as a species depended upon listening to the stories of our tribal elders as they shared parables and passed down their experience and the wisdom of those who went before. As we get older it is our short-term memory that fades rather than our long-term memory. Perhaps we have evolved like this so that we are able to tell the younger generation about the stories and experiences that have formed us which may be important to subsequent generations if they are to thrive.
I worry, though, about what might happen to our minds if most of the stories we hear are about greed, war and atrocity.
Perry goes on to cite research indicating that people who watch television for more than four hours a day see themselves as far more likely to fall victim in a violent incident in the forthcoming week than their peers who watch less than two hours a day. Just like E. B. White advocated for the responsibility of the writer to “to lift people up, not lower them down,” so too is our responsibility as the writers of our own life-stories to avoid the well-documented negativity bias of modern media — because, as artist Austin Kleon wisely put it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.” Perry writes:
Be careful which stories you expose yourself to.
The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved. … If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up.
The trouble is, if we do not have a mind that is used to hearing good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.
Yet despite the adaptive optimism bias of the human brain, Perry argues a positive outlook is a practice — and one that requires mastering the art of vulnerability and increasing our essential tolerance for uncertainty:
You may find that you have been telling yourself that practicing optimism is a risk, as though, somehow, a positive attitude will invite disaster and so if you practice optimism it may increase your feelings of vulnerability. The trick is to increase your tolerance for vulnerable feelings, rather than avoid them altogether.
Optimism does not mean continual happiness, glazed eyes and a fixed grin. When I talk about the desirability of optimism I do not mean that we should delude ourselves about reality. But practicing optimism does mean focusing more on the positive fall-out of an event than on the negative. … I am not advocating the kind of optimism that means you blow all your savings on a horse running at a hundred to one; I am talking about being optimistic enough to sow some seeds in the hope that some of them will germinate and grow into flowers.
Another key obstruction to our sanity is our chronic aversion to being wrong, entwined with our damaging fear of the unfamiliar. Perry cautions:
We all like to think we keep an open mind and can change our opinions in the light of new evidence, but most of us seem to be geared to making up our minds very quickly. Then we process further evidence not with an open mind but with a filter, only acknowledging the evidence that backs up our original impression. It is too easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that being right is more important than being open to what might be.
If we practice detachment from our thoughts we learn to observe them as though we are taking a bird’s eye view of our own thinking. When we do this, we might find that our thinking belongs to an older, and different, story to the one we are now living.
We need to look at the repetitions in the stories we tell ourselves [and] at the process of the stories rather than merely their surface content. Then we can begin to experiment with changing the filter through which we look at the world, start to edit the story and thus regain flexibility where we have been getting stuck.
Complement How To Stay Sane with radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s 1948 list of the six rules for creative sanity.
“Life moves on, whether we act as cowards or heroes. Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realise it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy, and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognise it as such.”
~ Henry Miller
If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
~ E.B. White