Brain Pickings

Maya Angelou’s Beautiful Letter to Her Younger Self

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“Be courageous, but not foolhardy.”

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all,” the late and great Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their extraordinary 1973 conversation.

The theme of home and belonging is central to Angelou’s work — to her spirit — and is also at the heart of her beautiful contribution to Ellyn Spragins’s 2006 anthology What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self (public library), which also gave us Naomi Wolf’s spectacular no-bullshit letter to her younger self.

Angelou writes:

Dear Marguerite,

You’re itching to be on your own. You don’t want anybody telling you what time you have to be in at night or how to raise your baby. You’re going to leave your mother’s big comfortable house and she won’t stop you, because she knows you too well.

But listen to what she says:

When you walk out of my door, don’t let anybody raise you — you’ve been raised.

You know right from wrong.

In every relationship you make, you’ll have to show readiness to adjust and make adaptations.

Remember, you can always come home.

You will go home again when the world knocks you down — or when you fall down in full view of the world. But only for two or three weeks at a time. Your mother will pamper you and feed you your favorite meal of red beans and rice. You’ll make a practice of going home so she can liberate you again — one of the greatest gifts, along with nurturing your courage, that she will give you.

Be courageous, but not foolhardy.

Walk proud as you are,

Maya

Two years later, in 2008, Angelou would revisit the theme of home and belonging in her breathtaking letters to the daughter she never had.

What I Know Now features more contributions by such extraordinary women as Madeleine Albright, Roz Chast, and Ingrid Newkirk. Complement this particular gem with Maya Angelou on identity and the meaning of life

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Walt Whitman’s Raunchy Ode to New York City

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“Give me the streets of Manhattan!”

New York City is not want for homages and celebrations — the deeply personal, the illustrated, the photographic, the cartographic, even the canine and the feline. But the most beautiful are invariably the poetic.

From the wonderful 1987 collection New York Observed: Artists and Writers Look at the City (public library) — a compendium of lore and perspectives on Gotham dating back to 1650 and featuring such luminaries as Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and dozens more, edited by Barbara Cohen, Seymour Chwast and Steven Heller — comes a succulent love letter to the city from 48-year-old Walt Whitman. Penned in 1867, more than a decade after his iconic Leaves of Grass was published, the short poem compresses in a few lines Whitman’s boundless capacity for exaltation and embodies the “expression of primal joy” that defines his writing.

Allen Crawford from 'Whitman Illuminated.' Click image for more.

GIVE ME THE SPLENDID SILENT SUN

Keep your splendid silent sun,

Keep your woods, O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods,

Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-fields and orchards

Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum;

Give me faces and streets — give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs!

Give me interminable eyes — give me women — give me comrades and lovers by the thousand!

Let me see new ones every day — let me hold new ones by the hand every day!

Give me such shows — give me the streets of Manhattan!

Complement New York Observed, which is delightful in its entirety, with the best books on Gotham and famous writers’ diary entries about the city, then revisit the wonderful Whitman Illuminated.

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A “Dynamic Interaction”: Leo Buscaglia on Why Love Is a Learned Language

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From developmental psychology to Timothy Leary, a reframing of love as deliberate mastery rather than magical thinking.

Love might be one of the most quintessential capacities of the human condition. And yet, for all our poetic contemplation, psycho-scientific dissection, and anthropological exploration of it, we greatly underestimate the extent to which this baseline capacity — much like those for language, motion, and creativity — is a dynamic ability to be mastered and cultivated rather than a static state to be passively beheld. Despite what we know about the value of “deliberate practice” in attaining excellence in any endeavor, the necessary toil of mastery, and the psychology of what it takes to acquire new habits, we remain gobsmackingly naive about the practice of love, approaching it instead with the magical-thinking expectation that we’re born excellent at it.

That disconnect is precisely what Leo Buscaglia considers in one of the most stimulating chapters in Love: What Life Is All About (public library) — that slim and potent volume based on his 1969 course at the University of Southern California, which also gave us Buscaglia on education, conformity, and how labels limit us.

Citing famous cases, both folkloric and factual, of human children raised by animals outside civilization, Buscaglia notes that just like we “learn” to be human, we also learn to love. He points to the research of various psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, anthropologists, and educators, who have indicated that love is a “learned response, a learned emotion,” and laments a fundamental cultural disconnect:

Most of us continue to behave as though love is not learned but lies dormant in each human being and simply awaits some mystical age of awareness to emerge in full bloom. Many wait for this age forever. We seem to refuse to face the obvious fact that most of us spend our lives trying to find love, trying to live in it, and dying without ever truly discovering it.

And yet, Buscaglia argues, this dreary destiny is self-made and thus avoidable through the choices we make, in how much of ourselves we invest in learning love. He observes a startling paradox that bespeaks how we, as a culture, cripple ourselves in the journey to love — if one wanted to learn about cars, one would “without question study about automobiles”; if one wanted to become a gourmet cook, one would “certainly study the art of cooking, perhaps even attend a cooking class.” But when it comes to love, Buscaglia points out, we expect the skill of it will magically bestow itself upon us. “No mechanic or cook,” he writes, “would ever believe that by ‘willing’ the knowledge in his field, he’d ever become an expert in it.”

He writes:

Love is a learned, emotional reaction. It is a response to a learned group of stimuli and behaviors. Like all learned behavior, it is [affected] by the interaction of the learner with his environment, the person’s learning ability, and the type and strength of the reinforcers present; that is, which people respond, how they respond and to what degree they respond, to his expressed love.

Love is a dynamic interaction, lived every second of our lives, all of our lives.

Buscaglia puts the premise poetically yet unambiguously in seven postulates:

One cannot give what he does not possess. To give love you must possess love.

One cannot teach what he does not understand. To teach love you must comprehend love.

One cannot know what he does not study. To study love you must live in love.

One cannot appreciate what he does not recognize. To recognize love you must be receptive to love.

One cannot have doubt about that which he wishes to trust. To trust love you must be convinced of love.

One cannot admit what he does not yield to. To yield to love you must be vulnerable to love.

One cannot love what he does not dedicate himself to. To dedicate yourself to love you must be forever growing in love.

This growth, Buscaglia argues, is a process both active and interactive:

Love is an emotion, that is true. But it is also a “response” to an emotion and, therefore, an “active” expression of what is felt. Love is not learned by osmosis. It is actually acted out and acted upon.

The process begins in childhood, as we absorb the picture of the world we are fed and emulate the psychoemotional tools we observe — something psychiatric trio Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explored with remarkable dimension decades later in their excellent A General Theory of Love. Buscaglia writes:

In order to exist at some level of comfort, [the child] must accept what is offered, often without questions. In fact, he has few questions for he has little knowledge and nothing to compare it to. He is spoon-fed his world, handed the tools to meet its requirements and the symbols with which to organize it. He is even taught what things are significant, what sounds to listen for and what they mean, and what is valueless. In other words, he is taught to be a particular type of human lover. To be loved in return, he need but listen, see and respond as others do. It is a simple matter but the cost to his individuality is great.

Buscaglia applies Timothy Leary’s notion of developmental “imprinting” — the idea that a child’s acquisition of language and words serves as a “freezing of external awareness” — to love:

[According to Leary] each time a parent or society teaches a child a new symbol he is given both an intellectual and an emotional content for the symbol. The content is limited by the attitudes and feelings of his parents and society. This process begins too early for the child to have much to say about what words will mean for him. Once “frozen,” the attitudes and feelings toward the object or person to which the words refer become very stable, in many cases irreversible. Through words, then, the child is given not only content but attitude. His attitudes of love are so formed. A sort of map is set up, Leary continues, which is static and upon which all subsequent learning of attitudes and awareness take place. The child’s “map” will be determined by how closely the symbols resemble the facts and how they are taken in, assimilated, analyzed and reinforced through experience. The important language for establishing behavior, relationships, action, attitudes, empathy, responsibility of love, trust, caring, joy, response — the language of love, in other words, will thus be set.

The formal education system, Buscaglia argues, only compounds the problem with its propensity for “‘feeding in’ rather than a ‘leading out,’” coercing the child to accept the ideas of love as defined by his or her teachers. Buscaglia laments the distorted, backwards model of love instilled in us by culture and commerce since childhood:

Neither the love of self — what educators call self-respect — nor love of others — responsibility and love for his fellow man — can ever be taught in our present educational system. Teachers are too busy “managing” to be “creating.” As Albert Einstein said, “It is nothing short of a miracle that instruction today has not strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. For this delicate little plant lies mostly in need of freedom without which it will fall into rack and ruin and die without fail.”

So the individual, now fully grown, leaves our schools confused, lonely, alienated, lost, angry, but with a mind full of isolated, meaningless facts which together are laughingly called an education. He knows neither who he is, where he is or how he got there. He has no concept of where he’s going, how to arrive there nor what he’ll do when he gets there. He has no idea what he has, what he wants, nor how to develop it. In essence, he’s a type of robot — old before his time, living in the past, confused by the present, frightened by the future, much like the teachers who made him.

Nowhere along the way has he been directly exposed to love as a learned phenomenon. What he has learned of love he has come upon indirectly, by chance or by trial and error. His greatest exposure and often his only teaching has been through the commercial mass media which has always exploited love for its own ends.

[…]

You are assured that love means running together through a meadow, lighting two cigarettes in the dark or applying a deodorant daily. You are given the idea that love just “happens,” and usually at first sight. You don’t have to work at love — love requires no teacher — you just fall into love — if you follow the right rules, and play the “game” correctly.

The result of this, Buscaglia argues, is a singular and pervasive psychoemotional crippling. And yet there is hope — active, dynamic, elastic hope for mastering this all-important skill that is learned like any other:

Most of us never learn to love at all. We play at love, imitate lovers, treat love as a game. Is it any wonder so many of us are dying of loneliness, feel anxious and unfulfilled, even in seemingly close relationships, and are always looking elsewhere for something more which we feel must certainly be there? “Is that all there is?” the song asks.

There is something else. It’s simply this — the limitless potential of love within each person eager to be recognized, waiting to be developed, learning to grow.

It’s never too late to learn anything for which you have a potential. If you want to learn to love, then you must start the process of finding out what it is, what qualities make up a loving person and how these are developed. Each person has the potential for love. But potential is never realized without work. This does not mean pain. Love, especially, is learned best in wonder, in joy, in peace, in living.

Love: What Life Is All About is a glorious read in its entirety — a dimensional synthesis of the insights Buscaglia and his students arrived at over the three years he taught his USC course on love, prompted by the tragic and discombobulating suicide of one of his brightest students. Buscaglia goes on to explore, in a fashion both philosophical and practically useful yet not the least bit self-helpy, such facets of love as its biological basis, its deterrents, its agelessness, and its relationship with personal responsibility. Complement it with these essential reads on the psychology of love and some timeless wisdom on it by Susan Sontag, Vincent van Gogh, and Albert Camus.

Vintage postcards courtesy of the New York Public Library archives

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