Brain Pickings

The Art of Living: A 1924 Guide

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“Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts.”

The art of living has occupied such celebrated minds as Henry Miller, Leo Tolstoy, Ray Bradbury, Anaïs Nin, Viktor Frankl, Montaigne, and Steve Jobs. That’s precisely what Karl De Schweinitz explores in the first chapter of The Art of Helping People Out of Trouble (public library) — an early manifesto for social case work, originally published in 1924:

Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts. Being born and growing up are such common experiences that people seldom consider what they involve. As most readers of books pass from cover to cover, realizing not at all that the letters which form the words are the product of painstaking craftsmanship and that the imposition of the type upon the page, the composition of the title-piece, the binding of the volume, are the result of centuries of study and design, so also we take as a matter of course the miracle of being alive, and the comings and goings of the men and women about us.

At the crux of the art of living De Schweinitz places the skill of nimbleness and adaptation to circumstances, or what he calls “the fundamental question of adjustment”:

For man is not born into a world made to fit him like a custom tailored suit of clothes, or a house built to order. He enters a universe that was eons old before his appearance, and that in all likelihood will continue for eons after his departure an infinitely complex, eternally changing universe that evolves its processes unmindful of his presence. It sets the conditions. It is man who must do the fitting.

He offers a metaphor for the art of navigating life:

Man is like a canoeist directing his course through waves. One after another he meets them. They may be heavy and powerful or they may be light ruffles of a sunshiny day in midsummer. He must ride them all. To each one he must slant his craft, dipping his paddle at just the right moment, giving it just the right twist, putting just the right amount of force into the stroke. Each wave requires a decision. Let him fail in judgment, or in skill an d strength, and his canoe may ship water until it fills, or, in the lift of some great breaker, overturn immediately.

He goes on to consider various challenging adjustments across the different stages of life — from childhood to young adulthood, from health to illness — including a particularly prescient meditation on the evolution of marriage:

The adjustment to marriage involves an institution that, ever changing, is yet ever the same. It varies as human beings vary. In the homes of neighbors it may exist in the tradition of one hundred years ago and as a prophecy of what it may be to-morrow.

[…]

Marriage is the most complicated of adjustments. … Two individuals, two sets of likes and dislikes … two products of different inheritance and experience, must combine to give expression to a new entity, the family. It is the most intimate of relationships. In it there is no such thing as the impersonality which simplifies association with human beings in other situations. Always there is the intangible emotional factor, capable of thwarting every attempt at adjustment or of making easy the adaptation of personalities whose union would otherwise be impossible. Analyze it though one may, marriage will continue to escape definition.

De Schweinitz also considers women’s growing “adjustment” to single living — bear in mind, in 1924:

To chart a straight course through the shoals and reefs of single life, to attain to the happiness of dignified and affectionate friendships, to keep a sense of proportion and balance, to maintain a tolerance of temperament an attitude is truly an achievement. Yet women are making this adjustment, developing in the process richer personalities, and sounding new depths of understanding and appreciation.

He then goes on to explore work, making an eloquent case for avoiding work-work by finding your purpose and doing what you love:

Work is one of the most important of adjustments because it is chief among the mediums through which a man expresses his personality.

He illustrates the height of vocational bliss by citing Colas Breugnon, a character in a Dmitry Kabalevsky novel-turned-opera:

There is one old chum that never goes back on me, my other self, my friend — my work. How good it is to stand before the bench with a tool in my hand and then saw and cut, plane, shave, carve, put in a peg, file, twist and turn the strong fine stuff, which resists yet yields — soft smooth walnut, as soft to my fingers as fairy flesh; the rosy bodies or brown limbs of our wood-nymphs which the hatchet has stripped of their robe. There is no pleasure like the accurate hand, the clever big fingers which can turn out the most fragile works of art, no pleasure like the thought which rules over the forces of the world, and writes the ordered caprices of its rich imagination on wood, iron, and stone. … To serve my art the elves of sap push out the fair limbs of the trees, lengthen and fatten them until they are polished fit for my caresses. My hands are docile workmen, directed by their foreman, my old brain here, and he plays the game as I like it, for is he not my servant too? Was ever man better served than I?

De Schweinitz remarks:

Here was a well-adjusted workman. He had what every one needs: an employment in which his faculties had the freest possible play. Happy is that person who finds this in his pursuit of a livelihood. A man cannot expend too great pains in the search for appropriate employment. Sometimes it is a quest of years, involving many trials. The more encouragement, therefore, should we offer the youth who, after leaving school or college, experiments with a number of different occupations. Instead of being reminded of the dismal proverb about the rolling stone, he should be received with sympathy and with interest and should be helped to discover the best channel for self-expression and service.

But not all can enjoy the freedom Breugnon extols. To those confined to restrictive occupations, De Schweinitz offers a loophole:

Sometimes this means creating in [your] present employment the desired opportunity. Imagination and invention can often delve into their own environment and find the seeds of growth. There are, however, many jobs that are so mechanical, so limited in scope, and so monotonous in the activities which they require, that there is little hope for self-expression in them. Those who earn their living in such ways, if they cannot change their work, would seek place for the play of their faculties in an avocation. There are many examples of this. Hawthorne’s interest was writing, but he supported himself for years by clerkship in a customs house. A man may be an operative in a factory and yet may make the art of photography his work.

“On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Henry Miller famously wrote and, indeed, De Schweinitz concludes the chapter with an affirmation:

Event succeeds event; accidents, people, happenings, one after another come toward us. Each must be met and dealt with, and upon the manner of our ealing depends the issue of our lives. If successful, men say that we are happy. If unsuccessful, they say we are in trouble. For this process of adjustment is life, and the mastery of it is the art of living which, who that considers the stakes, will deny to be the greatest of all the arts.

Complement The Art of Helping People Out of Trouble with the 1949 gem How to Avoid Work, then wash down with the modern-day handbook for living, How To Stay Sane.

Public domain photographs via The Library of Congress

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