Brain Pickings

A Sweet Celebration of Connection and Inner Softness in a Culture That Encourages Hard Individualism and Prickly Exteriors

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What a baby cactus can teach us about empathy, free will, and the art of finding one’s tribe.

A hug is such a simple act. But how anguishing when one is denied this basic exchange of human goodwill and kindness. Surely, one doesn’t even have to be human to feel the anguish of that denial. At first glance, this seems to be the premise behind Hug Me (public library) by animator-turned-children’s-book-author Simona Ciraolo — a sweet story about a young cactus named Felipe, who longs for such softness of contact in a family that sees emotional expression as a sign of weakness. Felipe runs away, looking for a new family to give him the affection he yearns for, but only finds heartbreak and rejection.

Felipe’s lonesomeness grows deeper when his first friend, a “bold, confident” giant yellow balloon who hovers over Felipe’s solitary patch of desert, succumbs to the inevitable outcome of the mismatched relationship. Even as he grieves his friend, Felipe is scolded for his emotional sensitivity rather than comforted with the very hug he needs.

Reaching his emotional tipping point, he finally departs to look for a new family, but quickly realizes that he is unwelcome everywhere and is left with nothing but his own company — not the self-elected art of solitude that can be so nourishing, but a forced lonesomeness that saddens the soul.

At last, Felipe finds a true friend in a little rock longing for affection amid a family as stiff and stern as his own, a kindred spirit whose cries for connection resonate in perfect unison with his own — a sweet finale reminding us that nothing dissolves loneliness like empathy and the awareness of shared experience.

There is, of course, a deeper allegorical undertone to the tale, beyond the surface interpretation of celebrating one’s inner softness in a culture that encourages a prickly exterior. A subtle undercurrent celebrates the spiritual homecoming of finding one’s tribe, the expansive embrace found in a kinship of souls. The story is also a celebration of free will, reminding us ever so gently that whatever our circumstances, we always have choices — and that our inability to see this is perhaps our gravest self-imposed limitation.

Hug Me comes from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us that lovely field guide of mythic monsters and the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton’s historic polar expedition.

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Nobel-Winning Playwright Eugene O’Neill on Happiness, Hard Work, and Success in a Letter to His Unmotivated Young Son

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“Any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy.”

By the time he was fifty, playwright Eugene O’Neill had just about every imaginable cultural accolade under his belt, including three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize. But the very tools that ensured his professional success — dogged dedication to his work, an ability to block out any distraction, razor-sharp focus on his creative priorities — rendered his personal life on the losing side of a tradeoff. Thrice married, he fathered three children with his first two wives. His youngest son, Shane, was a sweet yet troubled boy who worshipped his father but failed to live up to his own potential.

In the summer of 1939, as O’Neill completed his acclaimed play The Iceman Cometh, Shane was expelled from yet another school. Frustrated with the boy’s track record of such dismissals over the course of his academic career, O’Neill sent his 19-year-old son a magnificent letter epitomizing tough love, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the wonderful anthology that gave us Albert Einstein’s advice to his son on the secret to learning anything, Sherwood Anderson on the key to the creative life, Benjamin Rush on travel and life, Lincoln Steffens on the power of not-knowing, and some of history’s greatest motherly advice. While heavy on the love, O’Neill’s letter is also unflinchingly honest in its hard truths about life, success, and the key to personal fulfillment.

O’Neill doesn’t take long to cut to the idea that an education is something one claims, not something one gets. With stern sensitivity, he issues an admonition that would exasperate the archetypal millennial (that archetype being, of course, merely another limiting stereotype) and writes:

All I know is that if you want to get anywhere with it, or with anything else, you have got to adopt an entirely different attitude from the one you have had toward getting an education. In plain words, you’ve got to make up your mind to study whatever you undertake, and concentrate your mind on it, and really work at it. This isn’t wisdom. Any damned fool in the world knows it’s true, whether it’s a question of raising horses or writing plays. You simply have to face the prospect of starting at the bottom and spending years learning how to do it.

O’Neill’s son seems to suffer from Fairy Godmother Syndrome — the same pathology afflicting many young people today, from aspiring musicians clamoring to be on nationally televised talent competitions that would miraculously “make” their career to online creators nursing hopes of being “discovered” with a generous nod from an established internet goddess or god. O’Neill captures this in a beautiful lament:

The trouble with you, I think, is you are still too dependent on others. You expect too much from outside you and demand too little of yourself. You hope everything will be made smooth and easy for you by someone else. Well, it’s coming to the point where you are old enough, and have been around enough, to see that this will get you exactly nowhere. You will be what you make yourself and you have got to do that job absolutely alone and on your own, whether you’re in school or holding down a job.

O’Neill points to finding one’s purpose, and the inevitable work ethic it requires, as the surest way to attain fulfillment in life:

The best I can do is to try to encourage you to work hard at something you really want to do and have the ability to do. Because any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy. But beyond that it is entirely up to you. You’ve got to do for yourself all the seeking and finding concerned with what you want to do. Anyone but yourself is useless to you there.

[...]

What I am trying to get firmly planted in your mind is this: In the really important decisions of life, others cannot help you. No matter how much they would like to. You must rely on yourself. That is the fate of each one of us. It can’t be changed. It just is like that. And you are old enough to understand this now.

And that’s all of that. It isn’t much help in a practical advice way, but in another way it might be. At least, I hope so.

Toward the end of the letter, O’Neill makes a sidewise remark that might well be his most piercing and universally valuable piece of wisdom:

I’m glad to know of your doing so much reading and that you’re becoming interested in Shakespeare. If you really like and understand his work, you will have something no one can ever take from you.

Complement Posterity with more enduring fatherly wisdom on life, including Ted Hughes on nurturing one’s eternal inner child, F. Scott Fitzgerald on what is worth worrying about in life, Charles Dickens on cultivating kindness, and Jackson Pollock on falling in love, then revisit Anton Chekhov — whose sensibility O’Neill’s is often likened to — on the eight qualities of cultured people in a letter of advice to his younger brother.

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Anne Truitt on Compassion, Humility, and How to Cure Our Chronic Self-Righteousness

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“Love … is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.”

Countless great minds have attested to the creative and psychological value of keeping a diary, but few have manifested that more beautifully than artist Anne Truitt — perhaps in large part because Truitt’s formal training as a psychologist before she turned to art gave her higher-order powers of introspection and self-awareness, which, coupled with an artist’s penchant for patient observation, produced a true masterwork of psychological insight.

In one particularly poignant sequence of diary entries Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — the same soul-stretching collection of reflections on the creative life that gave us Truitt on the difference between doing art and being an artist — she examines the art of humility and the perils of self-righteousness as a gateway to true human connection, the elixir that makes possible what Adrienne Rich would so memorably describe mere months later as “an honorable human relationship.”

In early August of 1974, 53-year-old Truitt recalls a symbolic moment from her childhood and considers how we inadvertently engineer our own myths, and not always healthy ones, by letting others define us:

As I work to understand my life, its scale seems to diminish, as a tree I gaze up into flattens when I walk up a mountain and look down on it. Humility is really more natural than pride, which seems to me always to involve a lie.

I remember when this lie began for me. I was in my mother’s bedroom, standing in front of a gold-bordered pier glass. It was early afternoon. The light was sunny. It was warm. I had on a white batiste undergarment, all one piece with a drop seat. The neck and arms were edged with narrow lace, and the same lace was on the ruffles gathered by elastic around my legs. I was being dressed for a party. My dress lay on the bed behind me, a translucent white cloud. My mother and my nurse were paying a new kind of attention to me, the same flavor of attention now paid to me at the openings of my exhibits. They were arranging my thin whitish blond hair into a “roach” curl, which was to run from the back of my head along its crown to the center of my forehead. They brushed my hair up, used a little water to hold it, and brushed again. The curl was totally artificial and had to be forced into being. Admonished to stand still, puzzled by their excited determination (very unlike the usual matter-of-fact tenor of the household), I addressed my image in the mirror.

I had never, to my recollection, seen myself before. I looked all right to myself in general; my feeling for my body seemed pretty well matched by what I saw. In fact, I was interested and would have been glad to have been left alone to look. But the chirps about the curl went on and on, and I began to feel uncomfortable. Something was being added to me. They wanted me to be more, and the “more” was the curl. I began to want the curl too, and I remember the first sick feeling of anxiety as they worked to get it to stick there. My healthy self felt whole without it, and recognized quite clearly that I was being made a fool of. But I was fascinated by being praised. The whole room danced with how cute I was. I knew I had done nothing except to stand there. I hadn’t made the hair to begin with, much less the curl. But there it was; I began to want to please in order to get praise. I began to participate in the lie that I was something special, to take that role, to accept what I did not want and did not even think right for myself, in order to taste the sickly sweet flavor of praise.

I remember turning around from the mirror to the bed as they lifted the dress and held it out for me to step into. I held my head stiff with pride.

[...]

The roach curl is the earliest remembered strand of a web I wove to add on to what I was, what others wanted me to be. The idea that I must meet arbitrary requirements caught fire from my clear recognition that I was very small and powerless; and it coalesced into the fear that if I failed to meet these mysterious requirements I would be abandoned.

Truitt observes that we turn the same tendency outward, in how we relate to and assess others, indulging a dangerous and presumptuous compulsion to impose on their identity our own shoulds, adding to history’s most elegant definitions of love:

Unless we are very, very careful, we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves. This indifference can be, in its extreme, a form of murder and seems to me a rather common phenomenon. We claim autonomy for ourselves and forget that in so doing we can fall into the tyranny of defining other people as we would like them to be. By focusing on what we choose to acknowledge in them, we impose an insidious control on them. I notice that I have to pay careful attention in order to listen to others with an openness that allows them to be as they are, or as they think themselves to be. The shutters of my mind habitually flip open and click shut, and these little snaps form into patterns I arrange for myself. The opposite of this inattention is love, is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.

[...]

Compassion is one of the purest springs of love.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy,' an unusual story about compassion and love. Click image for more.

Recounting another childhood memory, Truitt reflects on the cruelty of judgmental opinions, which seem to come to us almost automatically — something all the more palpably true half a century later, in our present age when people feel increasingly entitled to passing public judgment on others, in a culture where it’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. This tragic automation of the human psyche, Truitt suggests, is constantly conditioned by peer pressure — one that good-personhood requires we actively counter:

Why didn’t Miss Perry marry Mr. Lockhart, who sat in the sun outside his hardware store all day? And I could make people laugh by saying, “Because he’s too fat,” tickling myself with pleasure while feeling sick because I never passed him without feeling deep compassion, so short on his little stool, so round a cannonball of stomach resting on his patiently parted knees. Why doesn’t she marry him, I asked myself in a different part of myself, feeling the sere waste of their lives, his resignation to his lonely stool, hers to her sewing machine and to her stolid, passive mother.

The judgments I copied, then learned to make as I observed others make them, with just enough of myself in them to make them amusing or interesting contributions to conversation, began as fragments. It took time and effort to make them fit into cohesive plaques of personality that would be hailed with little cries of recognition and appreciation. It was a lot more difficult than the curl, but the effect was the same: I had to hold myself stiff, but I got the praise. And saved myself from being outcast.

In a diary entry two days later, Truitt revisits the subject of self-righteousness, distilling with piercing poignancy the essence of compassion and empathy:

I have always been mystified by the speed with which people condemn one another. Feeling as righteous as Christ chastising the money-changers in the temple, they cast their fellows into the outer darkness of their disapproval. This seems to give them intense pleasure. Whenever I am tempted by this pleasure, I remember some impulse in myself that could have led me, granted certain circumstances, into the condemned position. This has caused me to distrust the part of myself that would relish self-righteousness.

Daybook is rich and revelational beyond words from cover to cover. Complement this particular excerpt with Anna Deavere Smith on the discipline of not letting others define you and Anne Lamott on how we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing.

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