Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

03 SEPTEMBER, 2015

Grace Paley on Aging: A Poignant and Funny Meditation on the Consolations and Cultural Charades of Growing Older

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“The main thing is this — when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.”

“For old people,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her sublime meditation on aging and what beauty really means, “beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young… It has to do with who the person is.” But who is the person staring back at us from the mirror as the decades roll by? The mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of changes is, after all, one of the most interesting questions of philosophy. Perhaps the greatest perplexity of aging is how to fill with gentleness the void between who we feel we are on the inside and who our culture tells us is staring back from that mirror.

That’s what beloved writer Grace Paley (December 11, 1922–August 22, 2007) addresses with extraordinary humor and intellectual elegance in a 1989 piece titled “Upstaging Time,” found in Just As I Thought (public library) — the same indispensable nonfiction collection that gave us Paley’s astute advice to writers.

Paley, at sixty-seven, writes:

A couple of years ago a small boy yelled out as he threw a ball to a smaller boy standing near me, “Hey, dummy, tell that old lady to watch out.”

What? What lady? Old? I’m not vain or unrealistic. For the last twenty years my mirror seems to have reflected — correctly — a woman getting older, not a woman old. Therefore, I took a couple of the hops, skips, and jumps my head is accustomed to making and began to write what would probably become a story. The first sentence is: “That year all the boys on my block were sixty-seven.”

Then I was busy and my disposition, which tends to crude optimism anyway, changed the subject. Also, my sister would call, and from time to time she’d say, “Can you believe it? I’m almost seventy-eight. And Vic is going on eighty. Can you believe it?” No, I couldn’t believe it, and neither could anyone who talked to them or saw them. They’ve always been about fifteen years older than I, and still were. With such a sister and brother preceding me, it would seem bad manners to become old. My aging (the aging of the youngest) must seem awfully pushy to them.

[…]

I returned to my work and was able to write the next sentence of what may still become a story: “Two years later, two of the boys had died and my husband said, ‘Well, I’d better take this old-age business a little more seriously.’”

Illustration by Leonard Weisgard from a 1949 edition of Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

To manifest the needed seriousness, Paley considers some of the practicalities of that old-age business:

You may begin to notice that you’re invisible. Especially if you’re short and gray-haired. But I say to whom? And so what? All the best minorities have suffered that and are rising nowadays in the joy of righteous wrath.

[…]

You are expected to forget words or names, and you do. You may look up at the ceiling. People don’t like this. They may say, “Oh come on, you’re not listening.” You’re actually trying to remember their names.

While he could still make explanations, my father explained to me that the little brain twigs, along with other damp parts of the body, dry up, but that there is still an infinity of synaptic opportunities in the brain. If you forget the word for peach (“A wonderful fruit,” he said), you can make other pathways for the peach picture. You can attach it to another word or context, which will then return you to the word “peach,” such as “What a peachy friend,” or springtime and peach blossoms. This is valuable advice, by the way. It works. Even if you’re only thirty, write it down for later.

Paley returns to the subject thirteen years later, at eighty, in a magnificent short piece titled “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age,” originally written for the New Yorker in 2002 and included in Here and Somewhere Else: Stories and Poems by Grace Paley and Robert Nichols (public library) — a marvelous celebration of literature, love, and the love of literature by Paley and her husband, published a few months before she died at the age of eighty-five.

Paley writes:

My father had decided to teach me how to grow old. I said O.K. My children didn’t think it was such a great idea. If I knew how, they thought, I might do so too easily. No, no, I said, it’s for later, years from now. And besides, if I get it right it might be helpful to you kinds in time to come.

They said, Really?

My father wanted to begin as soon as possible.

[…]

Please sit down, he said. Be patient. The main thing is this — when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.

That’s a metaphor, right?

Metaphor? No, no, you can do this. In the morning, do a few little exercises for the joints, not too much. Then put your hands like a cup over and under the heart. Under the breast. He said tactfully. It’s probably easier for a man. Then talk softly, don’t yell. Under your ribs, push a little. When you wake up, you must do this massage. I mean pat, stroke a little, don’t be ashamed. Very likely no one will be watching. Then you must talk to your heart.

Talk? What?

Say anything, but be respectful. Say — maybe say, Heart, little heart, beat softly but never forget your job, the blood. You can whisper also, Remember, remember.

Complement Paley’s wholly rewarding Just As I Thought and Here and Somewhere Else with Meghan Daum on why we romanticize our imperfect younger selves, Henry Miller on growing old and the measure of a life well lived, and legendary cellist Pablo Casals, at ninety-thee, on the secret of creative vitality.

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03 SEPTEMBER, 2015

Tiny Creatures: The Marvelous World of Microbes, in an Illustrated Children’s Book

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A vibrant ode to science inspired by folk art.

“You are mostly not you,” microbial ecologist Rob Knight wrote in his fascinating exploration of the human microbiome, in which he pointed out that only 1% of the genes in our bodies are human and the remaining 99% are microbial. It’s a staggering realization even for grownups, so how are tiny humans to grapple with these tiny organisms and their enormous impact on us and the rest of life? That’s what zoologist and children’s book author Nicola Davies explores in Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes (public library), with gorgeous art by English illustrator Emily Sutton — a marvelous addition to the best children’s books celebrating science.

The book is a clever exercise in scale, enlisting our human solipsism in understanding life-forms radically different from us by placing them in a comparative human context — for instance, a single drop of seawater can contain up to twenty million microbes, which Davies points out is about the same as the number of residents of New York State, and a teaspoon of soil can be populated by a billion microbes, comparable to the number of humans populating all of India.

Young readers are invited to explore the astonishing diversity of microbes in both form and function, not only relative to us — some make us sick, and some make us healthy — but relative to one another.

Sutton’s sensibility was greatly influenced by a single visit to the American Folk Art Museum in New York, which left her enchanted with the aesthetic of folk art. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her vibrant illustrations call to mind beloved mid-century creative duo Alice and Martin Provensen, who honed their craft on countless folk tales and fables.

Complement Tiny Creatures with a grownup tale of how microbes are redefining what it means to be human, then treat yourself and the young human in your life to more stimulating science books for kids, including a coloring book about evolution, the story of how Persian polymath Ibn Sina shaped modern medicine, and an allegory of quantum physics based on Alice in Wonderland.

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02 SEPTEMBER, 2015

Rising Strong: Brené Brown on the Physics of Vulnerability and What Resilient People Have in Common

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“If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.”

“There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” Vladimir Nabokov famously proclaimed. Today, hardly anyone embodies this sentiment more fully than Brené Brown, who came of age as a social scientist in an era when the tyranny of facts trivialized the richness of fancy and the human experience was squeezed out of the qualitative in the service of the quantitative, the two pitted as polarities. But like Susan Sontag, who recognized how polarities limit and imprison us, Brown defied these dogmatic dichotomies and went on to become what she calls a “researcher-storyteller” — a social scientist who studies the complexities and nuances of the human experience with equal regard for data and story, enriching story with data and ennobling data with story in a quest to “find knowledge and truth in a full range of sources.”

In Rising Strong (public library), Brown builds upon her earlier work on vulnerability to examine the character qualities, emotional patterns, and habits of mind that enable people to transcend the catastrophes of life, from personal heartbreak to professional collapse, and emerge not only unbroken but more whole.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of 'The Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

To be sure, this isn’t another iteration of “fail forward,” that tired and trendy (but far from new) cultural trope of extolling failure as a stepping stone to success — Brown’s research is about what happens in the psyche and the spirit when we are in the thick of the failure itself, facedown in the muddy stream, gasping for air; about what those who live from a deep place of worthiness have in common; about the choices involved in living a wholehearted life and the consequences of those choices in rising from our facedown moments to march forward.

Brown writes:

While vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling experiences we long for — love, belonging, joy, creativity, and trust, to name a few — the process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.

Brown argues that we live in “a Gilded Age of Failure,” where we fetishize recovery stories for their redemptive ending, glossing over the large swaths of darkness and struggle preceding it. (Some time ago, I too lamented this cultural tendency in my seven most important learnings from the first seven years of Brain Pickings.) This, Brown points out, does a disservice to the essence of grit, which has been shown to be a primary trait of those who succeed in life. She writes:

Embracing failure without acknowledging the real hurt and fear that it can cause, or the complex journey that underlies rising strong, is gold-plating grit. To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important — toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.

Although we live in a culture of perfectionism where our idealized selves become our social currency, we know, at least on some level, that risk-taking, failure, and success are inextricably linked. Brown captures this elegantly:

If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of 'The Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

Brown considers the trifecta of resilience her research has uncovered:

The most transformative and resilient leaders that I’ve worked with over the course of my career have three things in common: First, they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.

Another common denominator Brown found across those able to rise strong from their facedown moments is an active engagement with the creative impulse, whatever the medium — a physical practice integrating the intellectual, the emotional, and the spiritual:

Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands. We are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration — it is how we fold our experiences into our being… The Asaro tribe of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea has a beautiful saying: “Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.”

Yet another commonality among the resilient is some form of spiritual life rooted in love and belonging — be it communion with nature or a meditation practice or the reverence of art or the divinity of solitude. Brown, who comes from “a long line of folks who believe that fishing is church” and had her first taste of spiritual transcendence in the wilderness of Lake Travis as a child, writes:

Our expressions of spirituality are as diverse as we are. When our intentions and actions are guided by spirituality — our belief in our interconnectedness and love — our everyday experiences can be spiritual practices. We can transform teaching, leading, and parenting into spiritual practices. Asking for and receiving help can also be spiritual practices. Storytelling and creating can be spiritual practices, because they cultivate awareness.

In the remainder of Rising Strong, Brown goes on to explore the principles and practices of psychoemotional resilience through a tapestry of research findings and real human stories. Complement it with Parker Palmer on the six pillars of the wholehearted life, Cheryl Strayed on the art of living with opposing truths, and David Whyte on the true meaning of heartbreak, then treat yourself to this magnificent On Being conversation with Brown about her work and the insights it has furnished:

Hope is a function of struggle.

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02 SEPTEMBER, 2015

Bruce Lee on the Power of Repose and the Strength of Yielding

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“One should be in harmony with, and not rebellion against, the strength of the opponent.”

When he emigrated from Hong Kong to America in 1959, Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) adapted the ancient Chinese conceptual martial art Wing Chun into his own version, Jun Fan Gung Fu, literally translated as “Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu,” and popularized it in America. Over the course of his short life, he became not only a trailblazing martial artist but a modern philosopher whose ideas on personal development and the cultivation of character have continued to inspire generations.

On his ascent to superstardom, Lee was too poor to afford long-distance phone calls. Instead, he turned to letters not only as a medium for keeping in touch with his loved ones and collaborators but also as a creative sandbox for fleshing out the ideas that informed his philosophy. Those letters are now collected in Bruce Lee: Letters of the Dragon (public library) — the most direct record of the views, beliefs, and ideals that shaped Lee’s enduring legacy.

In a 1964 letter to Taky Kumura, his first student and one of his dearest friends, 24-year-old Lee outlines the learning process of gung fu. Under the heading “Self-cultivation,” he considers the essential purpose of leisure in spiritual development and writes:

The point where [one is] to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and, that being determined, a calm unperturbedness may be attained too. To that calmness there will succeed a tranquil repose. In that repose there may be careful deliberation, and that deliberation will be followed by the attainment of the desired end.

Wishing to cultivate oneself, one first rectifies his heart.

Wishing to rectify his heart, one seeks to be sincere in his thoughts.

Wishing to be sincere in his thoughts, one first extends to the utmost of his knowledge — such extension of knowledge lies in the investigation of things.

Only in repose, Lee points out, can the mind begin to investigate the nature of things, empty itself of interferences, and learn not to let external triggers induce internal states of fear, anger, sorrow, and anxiety. He writes of this contemplative space:

A gung fu man rests therein, and because he rests, he is at peace. Because he is at peace, he is quiet. One who is at peace and is quiet, no sorrow or harm can enter; therefore his inner power remains whole and his spirit intact.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Under the captions “NO MIND” and “NO THOUGHT,” Lee adds:

Discard all thoughts of reward, all hopes of praise and fears of blame, all awareness of one’s bodily self. And, finally, [close] the avenues of sense perception and let the spirit out, as it will.

The highest skill operates on an unconscious level.

Sincere thought means thought of concentration (quiet awareness). The thought of a distracted mind cannot be sincere. Man’s mind and his behavior are one, his inner thought and outer expression cannot contradict each other. Therefore a man should set up his right principle and this right mind (principle) will influence his action.

Under the heading “Yielding,” he writes:

Yielding will overcome anything superior to itself; its strength is boundless.

The yielding will has a reposeful ease, soft as downy feathers — a quietude, a shrinking from action, an appearance of inability to do (the heart is humble, but the work is forceful). Placidly free from anxiety one acts in harmony with the opponent’s strength. One does not move ahead but responds to the fitting influence.

In a sentiment he would later hone into his famous metaphor for resilience, Lee adds:

Nothing in the world is more yielding and softer than water; yet it penetrates the hardest. Insubstantial, it enters where no room is. It is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded.

Illustration by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Click image for more.

Under the heading “Law of Non-Interfering,” Lee elaborates on this philosophy of yielding as an act of strength:

One should be in harmony with, and not rebellion against, the strength of the opponent.

[…]

The strongest is he that makes use of his opponent’s strength — be the bamboo tree which bends toward the wind; and when the wind ceases, it springs back stronger than before.

Writing to his editor at Black Belt magazine on September 2 of that year, Lee draws a graphic representation of this idea and elaborates on the notion of strength and suppleness as complementary rather than contradictory forces:

Just as an object needs a subject, the person in attack is not taking an independent position but is acting as an assistant. After all, you need your opponent to complete the other half of a whole.

The gentleness/firmness is one inseparable force of one unceasing interplay of movement. If a person riding a bicycle wishes to go somewhere, he cannot pump on both [of] the pedals at the same time or not pump on them at all. In order to move forward he has to pump on one pedal and release the other. So the movement of going forward requires this “oneness” of pumping and releasing, and vice versa, each being the cause of the other.

Bruce Lee: Letters of the Dragon is a trove of timeless wisdom in its entirety. Complement it with the great Zen master D.T. Suzuki on what freedom really means, Aldous Huxley on the necessity of integrating mind and body in education, and a biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk and his philosopher father in conversation about the true measure of personal strength.

Donating = Loving

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