Brain Pickings

Alan Lightman on Our Yearning for Immortality and Why We Long for Permanence in a Universe of Constant Change

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A heartening perspective on mortality by way of the physics of the cosmos and the poetics of the night-blooming cereus cactus.

“We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms,” Alan Watts wrote in contemplating how our ego keeps us separate from the universe. “It is almost banal to say so,” Henry Miller observed, “yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.” But banal as it may be, it is also intolerably discomfiting to accept, which is why we retreat into our hallucination — we resist change, we long for immortality, and we cling to the notion of the self, despite its ever-changing essence, as anxious assurance of our own permanence in an impermanent universe.

Alan Lightman, a cosmic poet of the ages — something at least partially attested to by his position as MIT’s first professor to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities — explores this despairing paradox in “The Temporary Universe,” the third essay in his altogether mind-expanding collection The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library), which also gave us Lightman on science and spirituality and how dark energy sheds light on why we exist.

Alan Lightman (Photograph courtesy of MIT)

Lightman begins with the bittersweet beauty of a deeply human rite of passage: As he walked his eldest daughter down the aisle, “radiant in her white dress, a white dahlia in her hair,” she asked to hold his hand and something else, something heavy yet inescapable, gripped Lightman’s heart. He writes:

It was a perfect picture of utter joy, and utter tragedy. Because I wanted my daughter back as she was at age ten, or twenty. As we moved together toward that lovely arch that would swallow us all, other scenes flashed through my mind: my daughter in first grade holding a starfish as big as herself, her smile missing a tooth; my daughter on the back of my bicycle as we rode to a river to drop stones in the water; my daughter telling me the day after she had her first period. Now she was thirty. I could see lines in her face.

Aware of both the absurdity and the humanity of his feelings in that moment, Lightman considers the root of that wistfully familiar existential unease:

I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?

Nature, he argues, is unambiguous in her message — from the mayflies that “drop by the billions within twenty-four hours of birth” to the glaciers that “slowly but surely grind down the land” to our own flesh, just as slowly and surely sagging into agedness, order, with all its comforting familiarity, steadily descends into chaos. It is, after all, one of the laws of the universe:

Physicists call it the second law of thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself toward a condition of maximum disorder. It is a question of probabilities. You start from a situation of improbable order, like a deck of cards all arranged according to number and suit, or like a solar system with several planets orbiting nicely about a central star. Then you drop the deck of cards on the floor over and over again… Order has yielded to disorder. Repeated patterns to change. In the end, you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.

The Cat's Eye Nebula, one of the first planetary nebulae discovered, from 'Hubble: Imaging Space and Time.' Click image for more.

Lightman offers an example elemental to our embodied existence — our skeletal muscles:

With age, muscles slacken and grow loose, lose mass and strength, can barely support our weight as we toddle across the room. And why must we suffer such indignities? Because our muscles, like all living tissue, must be repaired from time to time due to normal wear and tear. These repairs are made by the mechano growth factor hormone, which in turn is regulated by the IGF1 gene. When that gene inevitably loses some tines … Muscle to flab. Vigor to decrepitude. Dust to dust.

And yet something about the human experience — the human condition, with its implied pathology of consciousness — causes us to tense against this natural progression with anguishing anxiety rather than resting into it with calm acceptance:

We continue to strive for youth and immortality, we continue to cling to the old photographs, we continue to wish that our grown daughters were children again.

This resistance to change, which takes on the proportions of agonizing aversion, isn’t reserved just for our physical bodies — we loathe the redesign of our favorite sites, the reorganization of our companies, the disposal of our childhood toys. This is also, perhaps, why a gobsmacking percentage of people refuse to believe Earth is more than 6,000 years old — something about the notion of all that has been and no longer is feels unbearable in its implicit testament to our own impending non-existence. And yet change is in the fundamental building block of Earth’s DNA. Lightman traces this back to the stars:

Over its 4.5-billion-year history, our own planet has gone through continuous upheavals and change. The primitive Earth had no oxygen in its atmosphere. Due to its molten interior, our planet was much hotter than it is now, and volcanoes spewed forth in large numbers. Driven by heat flow from the core of the Earth, the terrestrial crust shifted and moved. Huge landmasses splintered and glided about on deep tectonic plates. Then plants and photosynthesis leaked oxygen into the atmosphere. At certain periods, the changing gases in the air caused the planet to cool, ice covered the Earth, entire oceans may have frozen. Today, the Earth continues to change. Something like ten billion tons of carbon are cycled through plants and the atmosphere every few years — first absorbed by plants from the air in the form of carbon dioxide, then converted into sugars by photosynthesis, then released again into soil or air when the plant dies or is eaten. Wait around a hundred million years or so, and carbon atoms are recycled through rocks, soil, and oceans as well as plants.

[…]

At some point in the future, new stars will cease being born. Slowly but surely, the stars of our universe are winking out. A day will come when the night sky will be totally black, and the day sky will be totally black as well. Solar systems will become planets orbiting dead stars. According to astrophysical calculations, in about a million billion years, plus or minus, even those dead solar systems will be disrupted from chance gravitational encounters with other stars. In about ten billion billion years, even galaxies will be disrupted, the cold spheres that were once stars flung out to coast solo through empty space.

In his characteristically elegant trapeze act of swinging between science and the humanities, Lightman turns to the Buddhist notion of anicca to make sense of our paradoxical predicament in the face of such cosmic evidence:

In Buddhism, anicca is one of the three signs of existence, the others being dukkha, or suffering, and anatta, or non-selfhood. According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, when the Buddha passed away, the king deity Sakka uttered the following: “Impermanent are all component things. They arise and cease, that is their nature: They come into being and pass away.” We should not “attach” to things in this world, say the Buddhists, because all things are temporary and will soon pass away. All suffering, say the Buddhists, arises from attachment.

Wryly adding that if he could “detach” from his daughter, he might feel better, Lightman considers the uncomfortably palpitating heart of the matter — the choice each of us has to make in contemplating change and eternity:

To my mind, it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us. I certainly have such a longing. Either I am delusional, or nature is incomplete. Either I am being emotional and vain in my wish for eternal life for myself and my daughter (and my wingtips), or there is some realm of immortality that exists outside nature.

The first option only offers one possible course of action — come to terms with it, and move on. It’s an unfair proposition, no doubt, but not a particularly difficult one — for, as Lightman puts it, “the human mind has a famous ability to create its own reality.” The second — the idea of nature’s incompleteness, perhaps even negligence — is the hotbed of many religious explanations. Lightman, who explored the tension between science and spirituality with unparalleled grace in another essay, writes:

Despite all the richness of the physical world — the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies—nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. Such exquisite stuff could not be made from matter, because all matter is slave to the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps this immortal thing that we wish for exists beyond time and space. Perhaps it is God. Perhaps it is what made the universe.

Of these two alternatives, I am inclined to the first. I cannot believe that nature could be so amiss. Although there is much that we do not understand about nature, the possibility that it is hiding a condition or substance so magnificent and utterly unlike everything else seems too preposterous for me to believe. So I am delusional. In my continual cravings for eternal youth and constancy, I am being sentimental. Perhaps with the proper training of my unruly mind and emotions, I could refrain from wanting things that cannot be. Perhaps I could accept the fact that in a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished, my “I-ness” dissolved in an infinite cavern of nothingness. But I cannot accept that fate even though I believe it to be true. I cannot force my mind to go to that dark place. “A man can do what he wants,” said Schopenhauer, “but not want what he wants.

'The Night-Blowing Cereus' by Robert John Thornton, 1799

To alleviate the weight of this insurmountable impossibility, Lightman proposes that we should reframe the question rather than lament the answer:

If against our wishes and hopes, we are stuck with mortality, does mortality grant a beauty and grandeur all its own? Even though we struggle and howl against the brief flash of our lives, might we find something majestic in that brevity? Could there be a preciousness and value to existence stemming from the very fact of its temporary duration? And I think of the night-blooming cereus, a plant that looks like a leathery weed most of the year. But for one night each summer its flower opens to reveal silky white petals, which encircle yellow lacelike threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone within the outer flower. By morning, the flower has shriveled. One night of the year, as delicate and fleeting as a life in the universe.

The Accidental Universe is absolutely spectacular in its entirety, each essay its own poetic whirlwind of physics and philosophy. Complement it with another Alan — Watts — on our illusory reality.

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How Diego Rivera Met the Fierce Teenage Frida Kahlo and Fell in Love with Her Years Later

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“I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life. And she would continue to be, up to the moment she died…”

There is something singularly mesmerizing about the fateful encounters that sparked epic, often turbulent, lifelong love affairs — take, for instance, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas or Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. But one of modern history’s most vibrant, passionate, and tumultuous loves is that between legendary artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the unusual and enchanting beginning of which is recounted first-hand in My Art, My Life: An Autobiography (public library) — a rare glimpse of Rivera’s inner life posthumously published in 1960, based on the interviews Gladys March conducted with the artist while shadowing him between 1944 and his death in 1957. March describes the book as “Rivera’s apologia: a self-portrait of a complex and controversial personality, and a key to the work of perhaps the greatest artist the Americas have yet produced.”

In a section titled An Apparition of Frida, Rivera describes his first encounter with the fierce teenage Kahlo while painting his first significant mural, Creation, at the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City in 1922. Kahlo was one of only thirty-five female students at the prestigious institution.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1933 (Photograph by Martin Munkácsi)

While painting, I suddenly heard, from behind one of the colonial pillars in the spacious room, the voice of an unseen girl.

Teasingly, she shouted, “On guard, Diego, Nahui is coming!”

Nahui was the Indian name of a talented woman painter who was posing for one of the auditorium figures.

The invisible voice continued to play pranks on Rivera until it finally presented itself in the mischievous flesh: One night, as Rivera was painting up on the scaffolding and his then-wife Guadalupe “Lupe” Marín was working below, they heard loud commotion coming from a group of students pushing against the auditorium door. Rivera describes the moment, which he would only later, in hindsight, come to recognize as pivotal in his life:

All at once the door flew open, and a girl who seemed to be no more than ten or twelve* was propelled inside.

She was dressed like any other high school student but her manner immediately set her apart. She had unusual dignity and self-assurance, and there was a strange fire in her eyes. Her beauty was that of a child, yet her breasts were well developed.

She looked straight up at me. “Would it cause you any annoyance if I watched you at work?” she asked.

“No, young lady, I’d be charmed,” I said.

She sat down and watched me silently, her eyes riveted on every move of my paint brush. After a few hours, Lupe’s jealousy was aroused, and she began to insult the girl. But the girl paid no attention to her. This, of course, enraged Lupe the more. Hands on hips, Lupe walked toward the girl and confronted her belligerently. The girl merely stiffened and returned Lupe’s stare without a word.

Visibly amazed, Lupe glared at her a long time, then smiled, and in a tone of grudging admiration, said to me, “Look at that girl! Small as she is, she does not fear a tall, strong woman like me. I really like her.”

The girl stayed about three hours. When she left, she said only, “Good night.” A year later I learned that she was the hidden owner of the voice which had come from behind the pillar and that her name was Frida Kahlo. But I had no idea that she would one day be my wife.

'Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days…' A page from Kahlo's handwritten love letters to Rivera. Click image for more.

It wasn’t until several years later that the two crossed paths again. In another section of the book, titled Frida Becomes My Wife, Rivera recounts how their passionate epic, in the true sense of the word, love affair began:

I was at work on one of the uppermost frescoes at the Ministry of Education building one day, when I heard a girl shouting up to me, “Diego, please come down from there! I have something important to discuss with you!”

I turned my head and looked down from my scaffold.

On the ground beneath me stood a girl of about eighteen. She had a fine nervous body, topped by a delicate face. Her hair was long; dark and thick eyebrows met above her nose. They seemed like the wings of a blackbird, their black arches framing two extraordinary brown eyes.

As he climbed down the scaffolding, Frida made no attempt to conceal her spirited attitude and fierce ambition, telling Rivera:

I didn’t come here for fun. I have to work to earn my livelihood. I have done some paintings which I want you to look over professionally. I want an absolutely straightforward opinion, because I cannot afford to go on just to appease my vanity. I want you to tell me whether you think I can become a good enough artist to make it worth my while to go on. I’ve brought three of my paintings here. Will you come and look at them?

Rivera agrees and follows her into a cubicle under the staircase, where she has stowed her paintings. His recollection captures the ineffable magic of a rare occurrence — that priceless precipice of creative communion where one artist is humbled by another, a recognition that inevitably blossoms into love:

She turned each of them, leaning against the wall, to face me. They were all three portraits of women. As I looked at them, one by one, I was immediately impressed. The canvases revealed an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity. They showed none of the tricks in the name of originality that usually mark the work of ambitious beginners. They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own. They communicated a vital sensuality, complemented by a merciless yet sensitive power of observation. It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.

Kahlo, however, having been warned of Rivera’s reputation as a ladies’ man, is skeptical of the noticeable enthusiasm in his face and immediately scolds him “in a harshly defensive tone”:

I have not come to you looking for compliments. I want the criticism of a serious man. I’m neither an art lover nor an amateur. I’m simply a girl who must work for her living.

Rivera is smitten — intellectually, creatively and, though he doesn’t yet realize it, romantically. He simply notes:

I felt deeply moved by admiration for this girl.

'Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain…' A page from Kahlo's handwritten love letters to Rivera. Click image for more.

So when she insists on his honest opinion regarding whether she has what it takes to become a professional artist or whether she should pursue another line of work, he answers resolutely:

In my opinion, no matter how difficult it is for you, you must continue to paint.”

Vowing to follow his advice, Kahlo asks him one last favor — to come to her place the following Sunday and look at the rest of her paintings. It is only after providing her address that she tells Rivera her name — a revelation that stops him dead in his tracks as he remembers two important pieces of information about how he had come to know that name. The first was relayed to him by a good friend, then-director of the National Preparatory School where Kahlo went, who had identified her as the leader of a “band of juvenile delinquents” and had even considered quitting his job out of frustration with Kahlo’s mischief. The second is the memory of their first encounter at the Creation mural years earlier, that brave twelve-year-old girl who had stood up for herself without a shadow of fear or self-doubt. Rivera describes the exhilarating exchange that followed:

I said, “But you are…”

She stopped me quickly, almost putting her hand on my mouth in her anxiety. Her eyes acquired a devilish brilliancy.

Threateningly, she said, “Yes, so what? I was the girl in the auditorium, but that has absolutely nothing to do with now. You still want to come Sunday?”

I had a great difficulty not answering, “More than ever!” But if I showed my excitement she might not let me come at all. So I only answered, “Yes.”

Then, after refusing my help in carrying her paintings, Frida departed, the big canvases jiggling under her arms.

The following Sunday, Rivera promptly presented himself at the address Kahlo had given him, only to find her engaged in an appropriately fearless and mischievous activity:

In the top of a high tree, I saw Frida in overalls, starting to climb down. Laughing gaily, she took my hand and ushered me through the house, which seemed to be empty, and into her room. Then she paraded all her paintings before me. These, her room, her sparkling presence, filled me with a wonderful joy.

I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life. And she would continue to be, up to the moment she died, twenty-seven years later.

'I ask for it, I get it, I sing, sang, I’ll sing from now on our magic — love…' A page from Kahlo's handwritten love letters to Rivera. Click image for more.

A few days later, the two kissed for the first time and Rivera “began courting her in earnest.” Although she was eighteen and he twice her age, neither of them “felt the least bit awkward.” Four years later, on August 21, 1929, they were married in a civil ceremony by the Mayor of Coyoacán, one of Mexico City’s sixteen boroughs, who proclaimed the merger “an historical event.” Kahlo was 22 and Rivera 42. They remained together until Kahlo’s death in July of 1954. Despite having an open marriage where each had multiple affairs — for the bisexual Kahlo, the most notable were those with French singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker and Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky — both Kahlo and Rivera maintained that they were the love of each other’s life.

My Art, My Life: An Autobiography is a fascinating read in its candid, often scandalous entirety. Complement it with Kahlo’s exquisite handwritten love letters to Rivera.

* In factuality, Kahlo was two weeks shy of her 15th birthday

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I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo: A Charming Illustrated Ode to Courage and Confidence

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Why true heroism feeds on humility.

Courage, Seth Godin reminded us in his spectacular conversation with Debbie Millman about vulnerability, is about “dancing with the fear” — not about making the fear ago away. “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Joan Didion memorably wrote. And yet, with our Pavlovian voraciousness for constant positive reinforcement, we hang our self-respect on external validation all too often and keep ourselves small by people-pleasing, afraid of what others might think. It’s a toxic habit of mind and spirit that starts early and rarely relents, which is what makes I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo! (public library) especially wonderful — a lovely illustrated parable of courage, confidence, and what happens when we construct our identity around how others perceive us.

Written by Jill Esbaum and illustrated by Australian artist Gus Gordon, who also gave us the immeasurably delightful Herman and Rosie, it tells the story of a brave cow named Nadine who boasts being afraid of nothing and parades her fearlessness across various adventures as her friends look on admiringly.

One day, Nadine finds herself in the woods with her two friends, enjoying every bit of the venturesome exploration. But when night falls, Nadine suddenly finds herself alone and, to her own surprise, afraid. Terrified.

She takes the touch of her own tail for a dangerous intruder and jolts into a rocket-like run for her life, falling off a cliff and into a creek.

Miraculously, her friends are there, having spent hours wandering through the woods lost.

They mistake Nadine’s frightened foray for a courageous mission to find and save them, so they gush over her heroism as she comes to realize that bravery is not about being unafraid but about having the confidence to withstand the fear.

Complement I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo! with a similarly-spirited story from a very different folkloric tradition, the Indian gem Alone in the Forest, then revisit Gordon’s touching debut, Herman and Rosie.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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