Brain Pickings

Do Not Despise Your Inner World: Advice on a Full Life from Philosopher Martha Nussbaum

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“Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger.”

When he was twenty-one, artist and writer James Harmon stumbled into a bookstore and found himself mesmerized by a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the central concerns in which — love, fear, art, doubt, sex — resonated powerfully with his restless young mind and inspired him to envision what advice to young people might look like a century after Rilke. So he set out to create an antidote to the “toxic cloud of tepid-broth wisdom” found in books “with the shelf life of a banana” that the contemporary publishing world peddled and reached out to some of the most “outspoken provocateurs, funky philosophers, cunning cultural critics, social gadflies, cyberpunks, raconteurs, radical academics, literary outlaws, and obscure but wildly talented poets. The result, a decade in the making and the stubborn survivor of ample publishing pressure to grind it into precisely the kind of mush Harmon was determined to avoid, is Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — an anthology of thoughtful, honest, brave, unfluffed advice from 79 cultural icons, including Mark Helprin, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and William S. Burroughs.

One of the most poignant letters comes from philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who makes an eloquent case for the importance of cultivating a rich inner life by celebrating emotional excess as a generative force, embracing vulnerability, not fearing feelings, and harnessing the empathic power of storytelling.

Martha Nussbaum as a college freshman

Do not despise your inner world. That is the first and most general piece of advice I would offer… Our society is very outward-looking, very taken up with the latest new object, the latest piece of gossip, the latest opportunity for self-assertion and status. But we all begin our lives as helpless babies, dependent on others for comfort, food, and survival itself. And even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve. As we grow, we all develop a wide range of emotions responding to this predicament: fear that bad things will happen and that we will be powerless to ward them off; love for those who help and support us; grief when a loved one is lost; hope for good things in the future; anger when someone else damages something we care about. Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions, and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them. Perhaps males, in our society, are especially likely to be ashamed of being incomplete and dependent, because a dominant image of masculinity tells them that they should be self-sufficient and dominant. So people flee from their inner world of feeling, and from articulate mastery of their own emotional experiences. The current psychological literature on the life of boys in America indicates that a large proportion of boys are quite unable to talk about how they feel and how others feel — because they have learned to be ashamed of feelings and needs, and to push them underground. But that means that they don’t know how to deal with their own emotions, or to communicate them to others. When they are frightened, they don’t know how to say it, or even to become fully aware of it. Often they turn their own fear into aggression. Often, too, this lack of a rich inner life catapults them into depression in later life. We are all going to encounter illness, loss, and aging, and we’re not well prepared for these inevitable events by a culture that directs us to think of externals only, and to measure ourselves in terms of our possessions of externals.

What is the remedy of these ills? A kind of self-love that does not shrink from the needy and incomplete parts of the self, but accepts those with interest and curiosity, and tries to develop a language with which to talk about needs and feelings. Storytelling plays a big role in the process of development. As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves. As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories — in literature, film, visual art, music — that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world. So my second piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: Read a lot of stories, listen to a lot of music, and think about what the stories you encounter mean for your own life and lives of those you love. In that way, you will not be alone with an empty self; you will have a newly rich life with yourself, and enhanced possibilities of real communication with others.

Complement with some timeless meditations on the meaning of life from other cultural icons.

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