Brain Pickings

How We Become Who We Are: Meghan Daum on Nostalgia, Aging, and Why We Romanticize Our Imperfect Younger Selves

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“Life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally—and sometimes maddeningly—who we are.”

In her mind-bending meditation on what makes you and your young self the same person despite a lifetime of changes, philosopher Rebecca Goldstein pondered the philosophical conundrum of our “integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be.” Psychologists, meanwhile, have demonstrated that we’re woefully flawed at predicting the priorities of our future selves. Even so, Joan Didion was right to counsel in her classic essay on keeping a notebook that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” But the most confounding thing about our relationship with the evolution of our own selves is that we tend to romanticize our youth even if we don’t find the versions of ourselves that inhabited it “attractive company” at all.

This conundrum is one of the many human perplexities Meghan Daum, one of the finest essayists of our time, explores in The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (public library | IndieBound) — a magnificent collection of personal essays examining “the tension between primal reactions and public decorum” and aiming at “a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses,” driven by a valiant effort to unbridle those messy, complex experiences from the simplistic templates with which we address them, both privately and publicly.

Meghan Daum (Photograph: Laura Kleinhenz)

In the introduction, Daum echoes Zadie Smith’s piercing critique of our platitudes-paved road to self-actualization and laments the hijacking of our darker, more disquieting emotions by the happiness industrial complex:

For all the lip service we pay to “getting real,” we remain a culture whose discourse is largely rooted in platitudes. We are told — and in turn tell others — that illness and suffering isn’t a ruthless injustice, but a journey of hope. Finding disappointment in places where we’re supposed to find joy isn’t a sign of having different priorities as much as having an insufficiently healthy outlook. We love redemption stories and silver linings. We believe in overcoming adversity, in putting the past behind us, in everyday miracles. We like the idea that everything happens for a reason. When confronted with the suggestion that life is random or that suffering is not always transcendent we’re apt to not only accuse the suggester of rudeness but also pity him for his negative worldview. To reject sentimentality, or even question it, isn’t just uncivilized, it’s practically un-American.

In one of the collection’s most pause-giving essays, titled “Not What It Used to Be,” Daum reflects on the conflicted, paradoxical nostalgia we tend to place on our youth — nostalgia woven of an openness of longing, as the infinite possibilities of life stretch ahead, but also of many misplaced longings for the wrong things, the dangerous things, the dangerously safe things. Daum writes:

Most of us have unconscious disbeliefs about our lives, facts that we accept at face value but that still cause us to gasp just a little when they pass through our minds at certain angles. Mine are these: that my mother is dead, that the Vatican actually had it in itself to select a pope like Pope Francis, and that I am now older than the characters on thirtysomething. That last one is especially upending. How is it that the people who were, for me, the very embodiment of adulthood, who, with their dinner parties and marital spats and career angst represented the place in life I’d like to get to but surely never will, are on average six to eight years my junior? How did I get to be middle-aged without actually growing up?

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Maya Angelou’s unforgettable words on growing up, Daum adds:

Luckily, even some of the most confounding questions have soothingly prosaic answers. On the subject of growing up, or feeling that you have succeeded in doing so, I’m pretty sure the consensus is that it’s an illusion. Probably no one ever really feels grown-up, except for certain high school math teachers or members of Congress. I suspect that most members of AARP go around feeling in many ways just as confused and fraudulent as most middle school students. You might even be able to make a case that not feeling grown-up is a sign that you actually are, much as worrying that you’re crazy supposedly means you’re not.

Daum’s astonishment is especially resonant for those of us who compounded our dissatisfying college experience with the culturally inflicted guilt of feeling like not finding satisfaction there was a profound personal failure:

I managed to have such a mediocre time at a place that is pretty much custom designed for delivering the best years of your life. I’d like to say that I wasn’t the same person back then that I later became and now am. But the truth is that I was the exact same person. I was more myself then than at any other time in my life. I was an extreme version of myself. Everything I’ve always felt I felt more intensely. Everything I’ve always wanted, I wanted more. Everything I currently dislike, I downright hated back then. People who think I’m judgmental, impatient, and obsessed with real estate now should have seen me in college. I was bored by many of my classmates and irked by the contrived mischief and floundering sexual intrigues of dormitory life. I couldn’t wait to get out and rent my own apartment, preferably one in a grand Edwardian building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In that sense, I guess my college experience was just as intense as my husband’s. I just view that intensity negatively rather than nostalgically, which perhaps is its own form of nostalgia.

To illuminate that curious misplacing of nostalgia, Daum invokes an imaginary encounter between her present self and her older self — the concept behind an emboldening old favorite of letters by luminaries to their younger selves — in which Older Self ambushes Younger Self “like a goon sent in to settle a debt”:

At first, Younger Self is frightened and irritated (Older Self speaks harshly to her) but a feeling of calm quickly sets in over the encounter. Younger Self sits there rapt, as though receiving the wisdom of Yoda or of some musician she idolizes, such as Joni Mitchell. But Older Self is no Yoda. Older Self is stern and sharp. Older Self has adopted the emphatic, no-nonsense speaking style of formidable women with whom she worked in countless New York City offices before deciding she never again wanted to work anywhere but her own home (a place where, over the years, she has lost a certain amount of people skills and has been known to begin conversations as though slamming a cleaver into a side of raw beef). Older Self begins her sentences with “Listen” and “Look.” She says, “Listen, what you’re into right now isn’t working for you.” She says, “Look, do yourself a favor and get out of this situation right now. All of it. The whole situation. Leave this college. Forget about this boy you’re sleeping with but not actually dating. Stop pretending you did the reading for your Chaucer seminar when you didn’t and never will.”

To which Younger Self will ask, “Okay, then what should I do?” And of course Older Self has no answer, because Older Self did not leave the college, did not drop the boy, did not stop pretending to have read Chaucer. And the cumulative effect of all those failures (or missed opportunities, blown chances, fuckups, whatever) is sitting right here, administering a tongue-lashing to her younger self (which is to say herself) about actions or inactions that were never going to be anything other than what they were. And at that point the younger and older selves merge into some kind of floating blob of unfortunate yet inevitable life choices, at which point I stop the little game and nudge my mind back into real time and try to think about other things, such as what I might have for dinner that night or what might happen when I die. Such is the pendulum of my post-forty thoughts.

And yet the most paradoxical, most endearingly human thing is that most of us invariably fail to see our Younger Self as part of that amalgamated blob and instead romanticize it as the counterpoint to those “unfortunate yet inevitable life choices,” as our highest potentiality at a point before crumbling into the reality of necessary concessions and mediocrities. For all its cluelessness, for all its complicity in the making of our present dissatisfactions, we continue to worship youth — especially our own.

Reflecting on the disorienting fact — because that fact is always disorienting to those of whom it becomes factual — that nothing she ever does will ever be preceded by the word young again, Daum writes:

Any traces of precocity I ever had are long forgotten. I am not and will never again be a young writer, a young homeowner, a young teacher. I was never a young wife. The only thing I could do now for which my youth would be a truly notable feature would be to die. If I died now, I’d die young. Everything else, I’m doing middle-aged.

I am nostalgic for my twenties (most of them, anyway; twenty and twenty-one were squandered at college; twenty-four was kind of a wash, too) but I can tell you for sure that they weren’t as great as I now crack them up to be. I was always broke, I was often lonely, and I had some really terrible clothes. But my life was shiny and unblemished. Everything was ahead of me. I walked around with an abiding feeling that, at any given time, anything could go in any direction. And it was often true.

In a passage that makes one wonder whether contemporary adults are thrust into an illusory sense of youth by the constant stimulation and endless temptations of the internet, Daum describes the ceaseless fear of missing out — FOMO, as the Information Age has shorthanded it — that characterized her youth:

I didn’t want to miss anything. I wanted to stretch out over the city like a giant octopus. I wanted enough appendages to be able to ring every door buzzer simultaneously. There was some switch turned on in my brain that managed to make 90 percent of conversations feel interesting or useful or, if nothing else, worth referencing later if only by way of describing how boring this person was who I got stuck talking to.

And then, echoing Joan Didion’s memorable lament that “memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember,” she adds: “Or at least it’s easy to remember it that way.”

Illustration from 'Lost in Translation' by Ella Frances Sanders, an illustrated compendium of untranslatable words from around the world. Click image for more.

But the sense she describes is a palpable, familiar one, perhaps best captured by the untranslatable Portuguese word saudade. Daum writes:

This was a time in my life when I was so filled with longing for so many things that were so far out of reach that at least once a day I thought my heart would implode from the sheer force of unrequited desire.

By desire I am not referring to apartments I wanted to occupy or furniture I wanted to buy or even people I was attracted to (well, I’m referring to those things a little) but, rather, a sensation I can only describe as the ache of not being there yet.

She revisits the imaginary encounter between her two selves and considers how gobsmacked Younger Self would be by the notion that a few decades later, she’d be reminiscing fondly about the cumulative timescape of the very things presently exasperating her:

I can imagine her looking at Older Self in horrified astonishment. “I’m going to be reminiscing about this?” she’d ask while the ATM spat out her card and flashed “insufficient funds” across the screen. “You’re telling me that when I’m forty-five I’ll be pining for the temp jobs and cheap shoes that now comprise my life? You’re telling me this is as good as it gets? You’re telling me, contrary to everything I tell myself, that it’s actually all downhill from here?”

To which I’d hope that Older Self would have the good sense to assure Younger Self that that is not what she is saying, that indeed things will only go up from here. Maybe not right away and certainly not without some deep valleys to offset the peaks (as well as a few sharp left turns, as long as we’re speaking in euphemisms) but with enough steadiness to suggest that whatever she is doing now more or less constitutes being on the right track.

What makes this imaginary exchange especially alluring as a thought experiment is precisely the fact that it’s fictional — fictional not because such a fold in the space-time continuum of personal identity is impossible in real life, but because it unfolds in a microscopic level every second of every minute of every day of our real lives. What makes the encounter fictional is the very idea of a static, all-knowing Older Self at any point in life — we are, indeed, “works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” and the dividing line between our past selves and our present ones is a constantly shifting one, not so much a line as a scatterplot of impressions clustering here and there to form some aspect of our present identity, only to disperse again into the ether of our fluid personhood and reassemble in a different formation on which we hang our daily fragment of identity.

But this, perhaps, is what Daum is ultimately getting at. She follows that alluring fiction to its inevitable, necessary end:

“Listen,” Older Self might say. “The things that right now seem permanently out of reach, you’ll reach them eventually. You’ll have a career, a house, a partner in life. You will have much better shoes. You will reach a point where your funds will generally be sufficient — maybe not always plentiful, but sufficient.”

But here’s what Older Self will not have the heart to say: some of the music you are now listening to — the CDs you play while you stare out the window and think about the five million different ways your life might go — will be unbearable to listen to in twenty years. They will be unbearable not because they will sound dated and trite but because they will sound like the lining of your soul. They will take you straight back to the place you were in when you felt that anything could happen at any time, that your life was a huge room with a thousand doors, that your future was not only infinite but also elastic. They will be unbearable because they will remind you that at least half of the things you once planned for your future are now in the past and others got reabsorbed into your imagination before you could even think about acting on them. It will be as though you’d never thought of them in the first place, as if they were never meant to be anything more than passing thoughts you had while playing your stereo at night.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Daum ends by reflecting on how we manage to romanticize such anguishing times by excising the anguish and framing into our memory only the sense of that octopoid reach into possibility:

Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.

With an eye toward the profound rift between who we think we’ll become and who we end up becoming, Daum concludes:

The problem, I now know, is that no one ever really feels wise, least of all those who actually have it in themselves to be so. The Older Self of our imagination never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become. Instead, it hovers in the perpetual distance like a highway mirage. It’s the destination that never gets any closer even as our life histories pile up behind us in the rearview mirror. It is the reason that I got to forty-something without ever feeling thirty-something. It is why I hope that if I make it to eighty-something I have the good sense not to pull out those old CDs. My heart, by then, surely would not be able to keep from imploding. My heart, back then, stayed in one piece only because, as bursting with anticipation as it was, it had not yet been strained by nostalgia. It had not yet figured out that life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.

The Unspeakable is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with Ursula K. Le Guin on the cultural hypocrisies of aging, Rebecca Mead on what George Eliot can teach us about the rewards of middle age, and Daniel Gilbert on how your present self’s illusions are limiting your future self’s happiness.

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In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by 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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Henri Rousseau’s Heartening Story of Success after a Lifetime of Rejection, Illustrated

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How a kind old man who spent his life in poverty, worked as a toll collector, and was entirely self-taught became one of the world’s greatest artists.

“People working in the arts engage in street combat with The Fraud Police on a daily basis,” Amanda Palmer wrote in her fantastic manifesto for the creative life, one of the best books of the year, “because much of our work is new and not readily or conventionally categorized.” Few artists in history have lived through this street combat with more dignity and resilience of spirit than French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau (May 21, 1844–September 2, 1910). Long before history came to celebrate him as one of the greatest artists of his era, long before he was honored by major retrospectives by such iconic institutions as the MoMA and the Tate Museum, long before Sylvia Plath began weaving homages to him into her poetry, he spent a lifetime being not merely dismissed but ridiculed. And yet Rousseau — who was born into poverty, began working alongside his plumber father as a young boy, still worked as a toll collector by the age of forty, and was entirely self-taught in painting — withstood the unending barrage of harsh criticism with which his art was met during his entire life, and continued to paint from a deep place of creative conviction, with an irrepressible impulse to make art anyway.

I was instantly taken with The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (public library | IndieBound) by writer Michelle Markel and illustrator Amanda Hall not only because I have a soft spot for beautifully illustrated biographies that introduce young readers to inspiring cultural icons — such as those of Pablo Neruda, Julia Child, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Maria Merian, and Jane Goodall — but also because it tells an emboldening real-life story, and a stunningly illustrated one, of remarkable resilience and optimism in the face of public criticism, of cultivating a center so solid and a creative vision so unflinching that no outside attack can demolish it and obstruct its transmutation into greatness.

Henri Rousseau wants to be an artist.
Not a single person has ever told him he is talented.
He’s a toll collector.
He’s forty years old.

But he buys some canvas, paint, and brushes, and starts painting anyway.

Rousseau’s impulse for art sprang from his deep love of nature — a manifestation of the very thing that seventeen-year-old Virginia Woolf intuited when she wrote in her diary that the arts “imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see”.

Unable to afford art lessons, Rousseau educated himself by going to the Louvre to study the paintings of his favorite artists and examining photographs, magazines, and catalogs to learn about the anatomy of the human body.

At the age of forty-one, he showed his work as part of a big art exhibition, but his art — vibrant, flat, seemingly childish — was met, as Markel writes, with “only mean things.” Even so, Rousseau saved the reviews and pasted them into his scrapbook.

With his voracious appetite for inspiration, Rousseau visited the World’s Fair, where he was especially enchanted by the exhibits of exotic lands. “They remind him of adventure stories he loved when he was a boy,” Markel writes. The vivid images haunted him for days, until he finally turned to the easel to exorcise his restless imagination.

He holds his paintbrush to the canvas. A tiger crawls out. Lightning strikes, and wind whips the jungle grass.

Sometimes Henri is so startled by what he paints that he has to open the window to let in some air.

But for all his earnest creative exuberance, he is met with derision.

Every year Henri goes back to the art exhibition to show new paintings. He fusses over the canvases and retouches them until the last minute.

And every year the art experts make fun of him. They say it looks like he closed his eyes and painted with his feet.

And yet Rousseau manages to embody Georgia O’Keeffe’s credo that “whether you succeed or not is irrelevant… making your unknown known is the important thing” — he continues to paint, to study nature, and to rejoice in the process itself.

One night, he dreams up a painting of which he is especially proud, depicting a lion looking over a sleeping gypsy with friendly curiosity.

Once again he takes his work to the art show. This time, perhaps, he’ll please the experts. His pulse races.

The experts say he paints like a child. “If you want to have a good laugh,” one of them writes, “go see the paintings by Henri Rousseau.”

By now Henry is used to the nasty critics. He knows his shapes are simpler and flatter than everyone else’s, but he thinks that makes them lovely.

Everything he earns by giving music lessons, he spends on art supplies. But he lives by Thoreau’s definition of success.

His home is a shabby little studio, where one pot of stew must last the whole week. But every morning he wakes up and smiles at his pictures.

At sixty-one, Rousseau is still living in poverty, but happily paints his jubilant junglescapes. He continues to hope for critical acclaim and continues to be denied it, cruelly, by the “experts,” one of whom even says that “only cavemen would be impressed by his art.”

At last, Rousseau, already an old man, gets a break — but the recognition comes from a new generation of younger artists, who befriend him and come to admire his work. More than his talent and his stomach for criticism, however, one comes to admire his immensely kind and generous heart.

Whenever Henri has money to spare, and stages a concert in his little studio, all the artists come. Along with the grocer, locksmith, and other folks from the neighborhood, they listen to Henri’s students and friends play their musical instruments. Henri gives the shiniest, reddest apples to the children.

Eventually, even Picasso pays heed and throws old Henri a banquet, at which “the old man sits upon a makeshift throne” playing his violin as people dance and celebrate around him, his heart floating “like a hot-air balloon above the fields.”

At the end of his life, Rousseau paints his masterwork “The Dream” and finally becomes successful by a public standard as the critics, at last, grant him acclaim. But the beautiful irony and the ennobling message of the story is that he was successful all along, for he had found his purpose — a feat with which even Van Gogh struggled for years — and filled each day with the invigorating joy of making his unknown known.

A hundred years later, the flowers still blossom, the monkeys still frolic, and the snakes keep slithering through Henri’s hot jungles. His paintings now hang in museums all over the world. And do you think experts call them “foolish,” “clumsy,” or “monstrous”? Mais non! They call them works of art.

By an old man,
by a onetime toll collector,
by one of the most gifted self-taught artists in history:
Henri Rousseau

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau is absolutely wonderful from cover to cover. Complement it with Ray Bradbury on weathering the storm of rejection and Picasso on why you should never compromise in your art.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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Albert Einstein on the Fickle Nature of Fame, the Real Rewards of Work, and the “Whole Buffoonery” of the Cultural Establishment

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“Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow, that is the fate of people whom—God knows why—the bored public has taken possession of.”

Albert Einstein was a master of articulating his convictions with mesmerizing precision in his letters — he counseled his son on the secret to learning anything, explained to a colleague the secret of his genius, wisely answered a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray, assured another who feared that her gender would hold her back, and corresponded with Freud about the deepest truths of violence, peace, and human nature.

Now, thanks to Princeton University’s newly released archive of Einstein papers, one of Einstein’s most perceptive, prescient opinions comes to light.

In 1922, Einstein decided to join the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, even though he indicated in his letters — not without snark — that he wasn’t entirely certain of its purpose. Meanwhile, his Swiss friend Heinrich Zangger, a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Zurich, had written to express his vexation over the petty politics of the scientific world. In a June 18, 1922, letter to his friend, Einstein addresses the general posturing of the establishment and the fickle nature of fame — a sentiment that resonates at even higher frequencies of truth in the context of today’s conveyor belt of celebrity and the sandcastles that pass for the ivory towers of contemporary culture:

Dear friend Zangger,

You wrote me affectionately and at length, and some of it I was even — able to read. Don’t take any heed, if [anyone] is placing obstacles in your path. You always have pleasure in doing your thing well; it must give you independence from the whole buffoonery into which we have been born. I have largely attained this independence. Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow, that is the fate of people whom — God* knows why — the bored public has taken possession of.

Decades later, the great Richard Feynman — the scientist-sage of a new generation — would come to echo this in his spirited opprobrium of honors. And yet Einstein was both right and wrong — as disposable as most objects of hero-worship may be, here we are admiring a great mind a century after his heyday. One can’t help but wonder, then, who the Einsteins of today are and whether, in a culture that increasingly confuses being noticed for being notable, any of our present idols will stand the test of time to have their emails quoted by future generations.

Complement the wholly absorbing Princeton archive with Einstein on fairy tales and education, why we are alive, and his soul-stretching conversation with the Indian philosopher Tagore.

Photograph of Albert Einstein colorized by Mads Madsen

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.