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Posts Tagged ‘books’

23 MAY, 2012

The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning

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“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

The poet John Keats once described the ideal state of the psyche as negative capability — the ability “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” “The truth of life is its mystery,” echoed Joyce Carol Oates. This comfort with mystery and the unknown, indeed, is at the heart not only of poetic existence but also of the most rational of human intellectual endeavors, as many of history’s greatest scientific minds have attested. And yet, caught between the opinion culture we live in and our deathly fear of being wrong, we long desperately for absolutism, certitude, and perfect truth.

Originally published in 1993, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (public library) explores what’s arguably the most important dimension of what it means to be human — our inherent imperfection — and the many ways in which we violate it daily, delivering a constellation of wisdom and practical insight on how to live in a way that enables, rather than disempowers, our humanity.

Authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham describe the spirituality of imperfection as “a spirituality of not having all the answers, stories convey the mystery and the miracle — the adventure — of being alive.” Though much of the focus falls on the Alcoholics Anonymous program — hailed by many as one of the most important organized movements of the 20th century and criticized by some for its own imperfections — the book, which passes the skepticism radar even of someone as non-religious as myself, is really about cultivating our capacity for uncertainty, for mystery, for having the right questions rather than the right answers.

The problem with organized religions, Bill Wilson once complained, ‘is their claim how confoundedly right all of them are.’ The spirituality of imperfection … makes no claim to be ‘right.’ It is a spirituality more interested in questions than in answers, more a journey toward humility than a struggle for perfection.

The spirituality of imperfection begins with the recognition that trying to be perfect is the most tragic human mistake.

Adding to the ongoing discussion of the psychology and philosophy of spirituality, Kurtz and Ketcham observe:

We are not ‘everything,’ but neither are we ‘nothing.’ Spirituality is discovered in that space between paradox’s extremes, for there we confront our helplessness and powerlessness, our woundedness. In seeking to understand our limitations, we seek not only an easing of our pain but an understanding of what it means to hurt and what it means to be healed. Spirituality begins with the acceptance that our fractured being, our imperfection, simply is: There is no one to ‘blame’ for our errors — neither ourselves nor anyone nor anything else. Spirituality helps us first to see, and then to understand, and eventually to accept the imperfection that lies at the very core of our human be-ing. Spirituality accepts that ‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.’

Further:

This is not a spirituality for the saints or the gods, but for people who suffer from what the philosopher-psychologist William James called ‘torn-to-pieces- hood’ (his trenchant translation of the German Zerrissenheit). We have all known that experience, for to be human is to feel at times divided, fractured, pulled in a dozen directions … and to yearn for serenity, for some healing of our ‘torn-to-pieces-hood.’

Much has been written — and debated — about the science of storytelling in recent weeks, so this excerpt on spirituality and story is of particular note:

Without imperfection’s ‘gap between intentions and results,’ there would be no story.

[…]

Listening to stories and telling them helped our ancestors to live humanly — to be human. But somewhere along the way our ability to tell (and to listen to) stories was lost. As life speeded up, as the possibility of both communication and annihilation became ever more instantaneous, people came to have less tolerance for that which comes only over time. The demand for perfection and the craving for ever more control over a world that paradoxically seemed ever more out of control eventually bred impatience with story. As time went by, the art of storytelling fell by the wayside, and those who went before us gradually lost part of what had been the human heritage— the ability to ask the most basic questions, the spiritual questions.

It all circles back to our discomfort with the mysterious and the unanswered, highlighting the urgency of relaxing into rather than tensing against it:

We modern people are problem-solvers, but the demand for answers crowds out patience — and perhaps, especially, patience with mystery, with that which we cannot control. Intolerant of ambiguity, we deny our own ambivalences, searching for answers to our most anguished questions in technique, hoping to find an ultimate healing in technology. But feelings of dislocation, isolation, and off-centeredness persist, as they always have.

If The Spirituality of Imperfection reminds you of Brené Brown’s excellent The Gifts of Imperfection, it’s for good reason — both go to the heart of our deepest conditioning, the kind of personal and cultural narratives we’ve come of age believing yet ones that keep us from fully inhabiting our own selves.

Thanks, Kirstin

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22 MAY, 2012

Book Spine Poetry vol. 5: The Meaning of Life

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Stumbling on happiness in pursuit of the unknown.

National Poetry Month might be over, but the celebration of book spine poetry doesn’t have to be. The latest installment tackles The Big One — the meaning of life.

The books:

Catch up on all previous book spine poems: The Future, Get Smarter, This is New York, and Music.

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22 MAY, 2012

Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See

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The art-science of walking the fine line between keen and crass.

Since its inception in 1925, The New Yorker has garnered remarkable reverence as much for its editorial style as it has for its inimitable covers, a singular medium for political and sociocultural visual satire matched perhaps only by Al Jaffee’s legendary MAD magazine fold-ins. In Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See, Françoise Mouly, New Yorker art director of nearly two decades, offers exactly what it says on the tin — a delicious forbidden taste of the art that didn’t quite nail it, or nailed it a bit too hard.

From Monica Lewinsky with a lollipop to Osama Bin Laden appraising proposed designs for the new World Trade Center, the images come from a slew of beloved New Yorker regulars, including Brain Pickings favorites Christoph Niemann, R. Crumb, and Art Spiegelman (who happens to be Mouly’s partner), and explore — some might say, exploit — our most deep-seated cultural conceits, our grandest fears, our most irrational beliefs, and our greatest unspoken truths. What emerges is a fascinating and unprecedented glimpse of the creative process behind the art of walking the fine line between the humorous and the haughty, the keen and the crass, the unapologetic and the too unapologetic.

Before arriving at the right character set to poke fun at our fears of terrorism -- two Arab men -- Barry Blitt tried the idea with two children and two businessmen. Ultimately, the idea was scrapped -- the reference to the mild DIY explosive, despite the viral fame of the Mentos + Diet Coke mixing experiments, was deemed too obscure for the magazine's audience.

Art Spiegelman winked at Norman Rockwell's 'Freedom from Want' to comment on anti-Muslim violence.

Immediately preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christoph Niemann captured the anti-French sentiments sweeping America.

After Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was assaulted by white NYPD officers in 1997, Harry Bliss zeroed in on then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's semi-secret paranoia.

Though Art Spiegelman didn't make the cover cut with this 1993 sketch, he and Mouly made it into the family's Christmas card that year.

Much of what makes the book special — and, no doubt, what makes New Yorker covers sing — is Mouly’s relationship with the artists, whom she consistently encourages not to self-sensor or hold anything back. There emerges a kind of “fail better” mentality, underpinned by her conviction that even the most outrageous idea may serve as a gateway to an inspired, publishable line of thinking.

The book’s companion site offers a weekly cover contest, the entries to which have been surprisingly excellent. My favorite, by writer and illustrator Ella German, came last week, themed “The Gays,” in light of the recent historic moment for marriage equality, but also referencing Maurice Sendak, who had passed away the previous week. Though far from a gay rights activist, Sendak lived as an openly gay man with his partner of half a century. The two never had the opportunity to marry.

What Here At The New Yorker did for the magazine’s editorial voice on its 50th anniversary in 1975, Blown Covers has done for its brand of visual satire, offering a rare glimpse of Oz behind the curtain. And to those whose first blush might be that Oz is better off unseen and omnipotent, Mouly offers the following lens in this interview on Imprint:

One could have to do with demystifying, making the process more predictable. But I actually think that it’s so rich and so interesting that it’s actually even more interesting if you have a sense of how the images are thought about, rather than less. It doesn’t explain anything because it still is genius when somebody gets the right idea.

Images courtesy of Abrams Books

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