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Lewis Carroll on Happiness and How to Alleviate Our Discomfort with Change

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“There’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself.”

I am the frequent and fortunate recipient of wonderful letters from readers, many of whom share deeply personal stories of their struggles and triumphs. But few have moved me more than a recent one from a 61-year-old woman from Santa Fe, who has been living with Stage IV cancer for nearly twenty-six years — something she revealed not as a centerpiece of the letter, and not as self-pity or even a complaint, but as a mere factual report for context. She went on to describe all the enlivening ways she has found for leading a rich, creative, and rewarding life as she adjusted to her progressively diminishing physical faculties. Astounded at first by her resilience and optimism given the cards she had been dealt, I was reminded of a now-legendary 1978 adaptation theory study (PDF), which found that both lottery winners and people rendered paraplegic by an accident not only return to their baseline happiness level within a few months but also have similar baselines overall, regardless of whether they had great or terrible fortune.

And yet most of us find this difficult to believe because, despite what we may know about the psychology of resilience and our hardwired optimism bias, we dread change enormously. Change — be it negative, neutral, or even positive — is hard; more than that, it’s usually unwelcome — in no small part because we’re stitched together by our routines and rituals. But change is also how we stretch ourselves and grow, and in the tension between the resistance and the necessity lies one of the great paradoxes of the human condition.

The wisest advice I’ve ever encountered on how to assuage our deep discomfort with change comes from Lewis Carroll — a man of timeless and timely insight on so many facets of daily life: In his nine commandments of letter-writing we find guidelines to making modern digital communication more civil, and in his rules for digesting information we find solace for our present state of information overload.

Although Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland is a story about befriending the disorienting strangeness of change, he addressed the subject directly two decades later. In an August 1885 letter included in the altogether addictive The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download) — which also gave us Carroll’s three tips for overcoming creative block — he writes to a young friend named Isabel Standen, who had written to him lamenting her loneliness and unhappiness in a new environment:

I can quite understand, and much sympathize with, what you say of your feeling lonely, and not what you can honestly call “happy.” Now I am going to give you a bit of philosophy about that — my own experience is, that every new form of life we try is, just at first, irksome rather than pleasant. My first day or two at the sea is a little depressing; I miss [my usual] interests, and haven’t taken up the threads of interest here; and, just in the same way, my first day or two, when I get back [home], I miss the seaside pleasures, and feel with unusual clearness the bothers of business-routine. In all such cases, the true philosophy, I believe, is “wait a bit.” Our mental nerves seem to be so adjusted that we feel first and most keenly, the dis-comforts of any new form of life; but, after a bit, we get used to them, and cease to notice them; and then we have time to realize the enjoyable features, which at first we were too much worried to be conscious of.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Tove Jansson. Click image for more.

Almost a century before that famous adaptation theory study, Carroll illustrates his point with a strikingly similar example:

Suppose you hurt your arm, and had to wear it in a sling for a month. For the first two or three days the discomfort of the bandage, the pressure of the sling on the neck and shoulder, the being unable to use the arm, would be a constant worry. You would feel as if all comfort in life were gone; after a couple of days you would be used to the new sensations, after a week you perhaps wouldn’t notice them at all; and life would seem just as comfortable as ever.

So my advice is, don’t think about loneliness, or happiness, or unhappiness, for a week or two. Then “take stock” again, and compare your feelings with what they were two weeks previously. If they have changed, even a little, for the better you are on the right track; if not, we may begin to suspect the life does not suit you. But what I want specially to urge is that there’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself. Sit on the beach, and watch the waves for a few seconds; you say “the tide is coming in “; watch half a dozen successive waves, and you may say “the last is the lowest; it is going out.” Wait a quarter of an hour, and compare its average place with what it was at first, and you will say “No, it is coming in after all.” …

With love, I am always affectionately yours,

C.L. Dodgson

The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll is a treasure trove of humorous and heartening treats in its entirety. Complement it with Carroll on how to feed the mind, his four rules for digesting information, and the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland.

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Addiction to Truth: David Carr, the Measure of a Person, and the Uncommon Art of Elevating the Common Record

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“We all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

We spend our lives pulled asunder by the two poles of our potentiality — our basest nature and our most expansive goodness. To elevate oneself from the lowest end of that spectrum to the highest is the great accomplishment of the human spirit. To do this for another person is to give them an invaluable gift. To do it for a group of people — a community, an industry, a culture — is the ultimate act of generosity and grace.

This is what David Carr (September 8, 1956–February 12, 2015) did for us.

He called out what he saw as the product of our lesser selves. He celebrated that which he deemed reflective of our highest potential. And by doing so over and over, with passion and integrity and unrelenting idealism, he nudged us closer to the latter.

He wrote to me once, in his characteristic lowercase: “am missing you. how to fix?” Such was his unaffected sweetness. But, more than that, such was the spirit in which he approached the world — seeing what is missing, seeing what is lacking, and pointing it out, but only for the sake of fixing it. He was a critic but not a cynic in a culture where the difference between the two is increasingly endangered and thus increasingly precious. The caring bluntness of his criticism was driven by the rare give-a-shitness of knowing that we can do better and believing, unflinchingly, that we must.

This is what David Carr did for us — but only because he did it for himself first.

David Carr (Photograph: Chester Higgins Jr. courtesy of The New York Times

The test of one’s decency — the measure of a person — is the honesty one can attain with oneself, the depth to which one is willing to go to debunk one’s own myth and excavate the imperfect, uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary truth beneath. That’s precisely what Carr did in The Night of the Gun (public library) — an exquisitely rigorous, utterly harrowing and utterly heartening memoir of his journey from the vilest depths of crack addiction to his job at The New York Times, where he became the finest and most revered media reporter of our century, and how between these two poles he managed to raise his twin daughters as a single father. It’s the story of how he went from “That Guy, a dynamo of hilarity and then misery” to “This Guy, the one with a family, a house, and a good job.” It’s also a larger story reminding us that we each carry both capacities within us and must face the choice, daily, of which one to let manifest.

The story begins with Carr’s point of reluctant awakening upon being fired from his job as a newspaper reporter in Minneapolis:

For an addict the choice between sanity and chaos is sometimes a riddle, but my mind was suddenly epically clear.

“I’m not done yet.”

With his flair for the unsensationalist drama of real life, he recalls the aftermath of one particularly bad trip, which precipitated his journey out of the abyss:

Every hangover begins with an inventory. The next morning mine began with my mouth. I had been baking all night, and it was as dry as a two-year-old chicken bone. My head was a small prison, all yelps of pain and alarm, each movement seeming to shift bits of broken glass in my skull. My right arm came into view for inspection, caked in blood, and then I saw it had a few actual pieces of glass still embedded in it. So much for metaphor. My legs both hurt, but in remarkably different ways.

[…]

It was a daylight waterfall of regret known to all addicts. It can’t get worse, but it does. When the bottom arrives, the cold fact of it all, it is always a surprise. Over fifteen years, I had made a seemingly organic journey from pothead to party boy, from knockaround guy to friendless thug. At thirty-one, I was washed out of my profession, morally and physically corrupt, but I still had almost a year left in the Life. I wasn’t done yet.

It isn’t hard to see the parallels between that experience and the counterpoint upon which Carr eventually built his career and his reputation. His work as a journalist was very much about taking inventory of our cultural hangovers — the things we let ourselves get away with, the stories we tell ourselves and are told by the media about why it’s okay to do so, and the addiction to untruth that we sustain in the process.

David Carr with his daughter Erin

In fact, this dance between mythmaking and truth is baked into the book’s title — a reference to an incident that took place the night of that bad trip, during which Carr had behaved so badly that his best friend had to point a gun at him to keep him at bay. At least that’s the story Carr told himself for years, only to realize later upon revisiting the incident with a journalist’s scrutiny that the memory — like all memory — was woven of more myth than truth. He writes:

Recollection is often just self-fashioning. Some of it is reflexive, designed to bury truths that cannot be swallowed, but other “memories” are just redemption myths writ small. Personal narrative is not simply opening up a vein and letting the blood flow toward anyone willing to stare. The historical self is created to keep dissonance at bay and render the subject palatable in the present.

We are most concerned, he suggests, with making ourselves palatable to ourselves. (One need only look at Salinger’s architecture of personal mythology and the story of how Freud engineered his own myth for evidence.) But nowhere do we warp our personal narratives more than in our mythologies of conquering adversity — perhaps because to magnify the gap between who we were and who we are is to magnify our achievement of personal growth. Carr admonishes against this tendency:

The meme of abasement followed by salvation is a durable device in literature, but does it abide the complexity of how things really happened? Everyone is told just as much as he needs to know, including the self. In Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky explains that recollection — memory, even — is fungible, and often leaves out unspeakable truths, saying, “Man is bound to lie about himself.”

I am not an enthusiastic or adept liar. Even so, can I tell you a true story about the worst day of my life? No. To begin with, it was far from the worst day of my life. And those who were there swear it did not happen the way I recall, on that day and on many others. And if I can’t tell a true story about one of the worst days of my life, what about the rest of those days, that life, this story?

[…]

The power of a memory can be built through repetition, but it is the memory we are recalling when we speak, not the event. And stories are annealed in the telling, edited by turns each time they are recalled until they become little more than chimeras. People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived.

In this experience one finds the seed of Carr’s zero-tolerance policy for untruth — not only in his own life, but in journalism and the media world on which he reported. If anything, the mind-boggling archive of 1,776 articles he wrote for the Times was his way of keeping our collective memory accurate and accountable — an active antidote to the self-interested amnesia of cultural and personal mythmaking. He toiled tirelessly to keep truthful and honorable what Vannevar Bush — another patron saint of media from a different era — poetically called “the common record.”

David Carr with his daughter Meagan

Carr writes of the moment he chose sanity over chaos:

Slowly, I remembered who I was. Hope floats. The small pleasures of being a man, of being a drunk who doesn’t drink, an addict who doesn’t use, buoyed me.

So much of Carr’s character lives in this honest yet deeply poetic sentiment. He was, above all, an idealist. He understood that our addiction to untruths and mythologies spells the death of our ideals, and ideals are the material of the human spirit. He floated us by his hope. He was the E.B. White of twenty-first-century journalism — like White, who believed that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” Carr shaped for a living; like White, who believed that a writer should “lift people up, not lower them down,” Carr buoyed us with his writing.

In the remainder of The Night of the Gun, Carr goes on to chronicle how he raised his daughters “in the vapor trail of adults who had a lot of growing up to do themselves,” why he relapsed into alcoholism after fourteen years of sobriety and “had to spin out again to remember those very basic lessons” before climbing back out, and what it really means to be “normal” for any person in any life.

Toward the end, he writes:

You are always told to recover for yourself, but the only way I got my head out of my own ass was to remember that there were other asses to consider.

I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.

David Carr by Wendy MacNaughton

Am missing you now, David — we all are. How to fix?

Perhaps some breakages can’t be fixed, but I suppose the trick is indeed to be grateful — even when, and especially when, the caper does end; to be grateful that it had begun in the first place.

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The Difference Between Routine and Ritual: How to Master the Balancing Act of Controlling Chaos and Finding Magic in the Mundane

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“The wonder of life is often most easily recognizable through habits and routines.”

William James, at the dawn of modern psychology, argued that our habits anchor us to ourselves. As someone equally fascinated by the daily routines of artists and with their curious creative rituals, and as a practitioner of both in my own life, I frequently contemplate the difference between the routine and ritual, these two supreme deities of habit. They seem to be different sides of the same coin — while routine aims to make the chaos of everyday life more containable and controllable, ritual aims to imbue the mundane with an element of the magical. The structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalizes us. A full life calls for both — too much control, and we become mummified; too little excitement and pleasurable discombobulation, and we become numb. After all, to be overly bobulated is to be dead inside — to doom oneself to a life devoid of the glorious and ennobling messiness of the human experience.

This equipoise of routine and ritual is, to me, one of the essential balancing acts of life — not unlike that of critical thinking and hope, or form and freedom.

In Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library) — her magnificent meditation on how we endure and find sanity in a crazy worldAnne Lamott captures this delicate dance elegantly:

Here’s the true secret of life: We mostly do everything over and over. In the morning, we let the dogs out, make coffee, read the paper, help whoever is around get ready for the day. We do our work. In the afternoon, if we have left, we come home, put down our keys and satchels, let the dogs out, take off constrictive clothing, make a drink or put water on for tea, toast the leftover bit of scone. I love ritual and repetition. Without them, I would be a balloon with a slow leak.

More than a pleasurable rhythm for everyday life, rituals cast an anchor of stability during turbulent times:

Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

And yet the most magical moments happen when life’s soft living body shakes free of the confining exoskeleton our routines impose. Lamott writes:

Beauty is a miracle of things going together imperfectly.

Still, structure and repetition are what keeps us whole:

You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next.

Without stitches, you just have rags.

And we are not rags.

But the true purpose of discipline — for this is the practice at the heart of routine — is to make room for the magical in the mundane. Paradoxically enough, it is an act of liberation rather than submission — routine grants us the stable platform within, from which we can begin not only to tolerate but perhaps even to enjoy the shaky messiness without.

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag.' Click image for more.

Lamott articulates this beautifully:

The search is the meaning, the search for beauty, love, kindness and restoration in this difficult, wired and often alien modern world. The miracle is that we are here, that no matter how undone we’ve been the night before, we wake up every morning and are still here. It is phenomenal just to be. This idea overwhelms some people. I have found that the wonder of life is often most easily recognizable through habits and routines.

[…]

Order and discipline are important to meaning for me. Discipline, I have learned, leads to freedom, and there is meaning in freedom. If you don’t do ritual things in order, the paper doesn’t read as well, and you’ll be thrown off the whole day. But when you can sit for a while at your table, reach for your coffee, look out the window at the sky or some branches, then back down at the paper or a book, everything feels right for the moment, which is maybe all we have.

Stitches is an immensely rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Lamott on grief and gratitude, the perils of perfectionism, the greatest gift of friendship, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing. For more on the magic of repetition and ritual, see the daily routines of celebrated writers and the psychology of the perfect creative routine.

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Mozart’s Magnificent Love Letter to His Wife

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“If people could see into my heart I should almost feel ashamed.”

It’s hardly surprising that humanity’s most beautiful minds — the creative visionaries who bequeath us with the finest works of art, music, and literature — should also be the ones who author the most bewitching love letters, that highest form of what Virginia Woolf called “the humane art.” One particularly heartwarming specimen of the genre comes from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756–December 5, 1791) — doubly so for the unusual start of the romance that would become the love of his life.

In late 1777, Mozart fell in love with Aloysia Weber — one of four daughters in a highly musical family. Despite the early cultivation of his talent, he was only just beginning to find self-actualization; she, on the other hand, was already a highly successful singer. (A century later, another great composer — Tchaikovsky — would tussle with the same challenge.) Despite her initial interest, Aloysia ultimately rejected his advances.

Over the next few years, Mozart established himself not only as the finest keyboard player in Vienna, but also as a promising young composer. When the father of the family died in 1782, the Webers began renting their house to lodgers to make ends meet. Young Mozart moved in, and soon fell in love with Constanze — the third Weber daughter.

On August 4, 1782, the two were married and remained together, very much in love, until Mozart’s death nine years later.

Shortly before his sudden death, in a letter from September of 1790 found in Love Letters of Great Men (public library) — a collection of romantic correspondence featuring Lord Byron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Voltaire, Leo Tolstoy, and dozens more lovers of letters — Mozart writes to Constanze from Frankfurt, where he had gone seeking gainful employment to remedy the family’s financial downturn:

Dearest little Wife of my heart!

If only I had a letter from you, everything would be all right…

Dearest, I have no doubt that I shall get something going here, but it won’t be easy as you and some of our friends think. — It is true, I am known and respected here; but, well — No — let us just see what happens. — In any case, I do prefer to play it safe, that why I would like to conclude this deal with H… because I would get some money into my possession without having to pay any out; all I would have to do then is work, and I shall be only too happy to do that for my little wife.

After a getting a few more practical matters out of the way, Mozart fully surrenders to the poetical:

I get all excited like a child when I think about being with you again — If people could see into my heart I should almost feel ashamed. Everything is cold to me — ice-cold. — If you were here with me, maybe I would find the courtesies people are showing me more enjoyable, — but as it is, it’s all so empty — adieu — my dear — I am Forever

your Mozart who loves you
with his entire soul.

But even lovelier than the signature is the part that comes after it. Mozart violates in the most endearing of ways Lewis Carroll’s rule about postscript and writes:

PS. — while I was writing the last page, tear after tear fell on the paper. But I must cheer up — catch — An astonishing number of kisses are flying about — The deuce! — I see a whole crowd of them. Ha! Ha!… I have just caught three — They are delicious… I kiss you millions of times.

Complement this gem from Love Letters of Great Men with other masterworks of the genre, including the exquisite letters of Vladimir Nabokov to his wife Véra, Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera, Oscar Wilde to Bosie, and Franz Kafka to Felice Bauer.

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