Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘love’

19 MAY, 2014

Leo Buscaglia on Education, Industrialized Conformity, and How Stereotypes and Labels Limit Love

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“Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other.”

In the winter of 1969, shortly after a young woman he considered one of his brightest and most promising students committed suicide, Leo Buscaglia decided to deal with the flurry of confusion by starting an experimental class at the University of Southern California where he taught, exploring the most essential elements of existence — “life, living, sex, growth, responsibility, death, hope, the future.” The obvious common tangent, “the only subject which encompassed, and was at the core of all these concerns,” was love. So he simply called his course “Love Class.” While some of his fellow faculty members dismissed the subject as “irrelevant” and mocked its premise, the university agreed to let Buscaglia teach it on the condition that it be without course credit and he teach it free of salary in his spare time. Over the three years that followed, the course — not a scholarly or deeply philosophical study of love but “a sharing of some of the practical and vital ideas, feelings and observations” related to the human condition — earned Buscaglia the moniker “Dr. Love” and became one of the university’s most popular classes, drawing students of all ages and backgrounds. In 1972, Buscaglia published the most universal and important of those ideas in a slim and potent volume titled Love: What Life Is All About (public library).

The book opens with an adaptation of a magnificent lecture titled “Forward to Love,” which Buscaglia delivered in 1970 at a school in Texas, focusing on a more oblique and abstract but no less crucial aspect of love: how the laziness of stereotypes stifles its spirit and labels limit its transcendent power.

Buscaglia begins by looking at the nursery of social beliefs — the education system:

Education should be the process of helping everyone to discover his uniqueness, to teach him how to develop that uniqueness, and then to show him how to share it because that’s the only reason for having anything.

This might sound obvious — a tired truism, even — and yet it’s antithetical to how most formal education unfolds, even today, with its model of industrialized conformity. Buscaglia offers a poignant example:

[The art teacher] comes racing in from another class and has time only to nod to the teacher, turn around and say, “Boys and girls, today we are going to draw a tree.” She goes to the blackboard, and she draws her tree which is a great big green ball with a little brown base. Remember those lollipop trees? I never saw a tree that looked like that in my life, but she puts it up there, and she says, “All right, boys and girls, draw.” Everybody gets busy and draws.

If you have any sense, even at that early age, you realize that what she really wanted was for you to draw her tree, because the closer you got to her tree, the better your grade. If you already realized this in grade one, then you handed in a little lollipop, and she said, “oh, that’s divine.” But here’s Junior who really knows a tree as this little woman has never seen a tree in her life. He’s climbed a tree, he’s hugged a tree, he’s fallen out of a tree, he’s listened to the breeze blow through the branches. He really knows a tree, and he knows that a tree isn’t a lollipop! So he takes purple and yellow and orange and green and magenta crayons and he draws this beautiful freaky thing and hands it in. She takes one look and shrieks. “Brain damaged!”

Illustration from 'How To Be a Nonconformist' (click image for more)

To drive the point home, Buscaglia offers another illustrative tale titled The Animal School — a story he loves “because it’s so wild, yet so true”:

The animals got together in the forest one day and decided to start a school. There was a rabbit, a bird, a squirrel, a fish and an eel, and they formed a Board of Education. The rabbit insisted that running be in the curriculum. The bird insisted that flying be in the curriculum. The fish insisted that swimming be in the curriculum, and the squirrel insisted that perpendicular tree climbing be in the curriculum. They put all of these things together and wrote a Curriculum Guide. Then they insisted that all of the animals take all of the subjects. Although the rabbit was getting an A in running perpendicular tree climbing was a real problem for him; he kept falling over backwards. Pretty soon he got to be sort of brain damaged, and he couldn’t run any more. He found that instead of making an A in running, he was making a C and, of course, he always made an F in perpendicular tree climbing. The bird was really beautiful at flying, but when it came to burrowing in the ground, he couldn’t do so well. He kept breaking his beak and wings. Pretty soon he was making a C in flying as well as an F in burrowing, and he had a hellava time with perpendicular tree climbing. The moral of the story is that the animal who was valedictorian of the class was a mentally retarded eel who did everything in a halfway fashion. But the educators were all happy because everybody was taking all of the subjects, and it was called a broad-based education.

Illustration from 'The Animal Fair' (click image for more)

Buscaglia’s most important point, however, is that such industrialized conformity transcends the education system and bleeds into our everyday lives, at all layers and levels of society — its product is a narrow definition of intelligence and ability, which results in a narrow field of belonging, which in turn casts everyone outside of it as a misfit. We then use these labels to produce culturally toxic stereotypes and polarities that say nothing about those being labeled and a great deal about those doing the labeling. Buscaglia writes:

How many kids have not been educated just because someone pinned a label on them somewhere along the line? Stupid, dumb, emotionally disturbed. I have never known a stupid child. Never! Never! I’ve only known children and never two alike. Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other. Black man. What’s a black man? I’ve never known two alike. Does he love? Does he care? What about his kids? Has he cried? Is he lonely? Is he beautiful? Is he happy? Is he giving something to someone? These are the important things. Not the fact that he is a black man or Jew or Dago or Communist or Democrat or Republican.

He goes on to share a rather unique experience from his own childhood:

I was born in Los Angeles, and my parents were Italian immigrants. A big family. Mama and Papa were obviously great lovers! They came from a tiny village at the base of the Italian Swiss Alps where everyone knew everyone. Everyone knew the names of the dogs, and the village priest came out and danced in the streets at the fiestas and got as drunk as everybody else. It was the most beautiful scene in the world and a pleasure to be raised by these people in this old way. But when I was taken, at five, to a public school, tested by some very official-looking person, the next thing I knew I was in a class for the mentally retarded! It didn’t matter that I was able to speak Italian and an Italian dialect. I also spoke some French and Spanish — but I didn’t speak English too well and so I was mentally retarded. I think the term now is “culturally disadvantaged.” I was put into the class for the mentally retarded, and I never had a more exciting educational experience in my life! Talk about a warm, pulsating, loving teacher. Her name was Miss Hunt, and I’m sure she was the only one in the school who would teach those “dumb” kids. She was a great bulbous woman. She liked me even if I smelled of garlic. I remember when she used to come and lean over me, how I used to cuddle! I did all kinds of learning for this woman because I really loved her. Then one day I made a tremendous mistake. I wrote a newspaper as if I were a Roman. I described how the gladiators would perform and so on. The next thing I knew I was being retested and was transferred to a regular classroom after which I was bored for the rest of my educational career.

He returns to the perilous effect of labels — something that Maya Angelou famously lamented — and reminds us that social forces are the cumulative result of our individual choices:

Labels are distancing phenomena — stop using them! And when people use them around you, have the gumption and the guts to say, “What and who are you talking about because I don’t know any such thing.” … There is no word vast enough to begin to describe even the simplest of man. But only you can stop it. A loving person won’t stand for it. There are too many beautiful things about each human being to call him a name and put him aside.

Buscaglia ends with a reminder of how our disembodied illusion of separateness contributes to our inability to inhabit our own selves and how the pathologically overlooked gift of human touch reconnects us not only with each other, but with our own deepest humanity:

We are constantly moving away from ourselves and others. The scene seems to be how far away you can get from another person, not how close you can get to them. I’m all for going back to the old-fashioned thing of touching people. My hand always goes out because when I touch somebody, I know they are alive. We really need that affirmation…

We need not be afraid to touch, to feel, to show emotion. The easiest thing in the world to be is what you are, what you feel. The hardest thing to be is what other people want you to be, but that’s the scene we are living in. Are you really you or are you what people have told you you are? And are you interested in really knowing who you are because if you are, it is the happiest trip of your life.

The rest of Buscaglia’s Love: What Life Is All About, an exquisite addition to these must-read books on the psychology of love, goes on to explore our ancient quest to define it, the notion that it’s a learned phenomenon, the interplay between love and strength, the responsibilities of love, and more. Complement it with Van Gogh on love, Stendhal on its seven stages, and the science of how “limbic revision” rewires the brain in love.

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07 MAY, 2014

Vincent van Gogh on Art and the Power of Love in Letters to His Brother

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“Whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!”

“You can only go with loves in this life,” Ray Bradbury memorably proclaimed. Whether love be bewitching or tormenting, whether pondered by the poets or scrutinized by the scientists, one thing is for certain — it is art’s most powerful and enduring muse, fuel for the creative process more potent than anything the world has known. A poignant testament to this, and a fine addition to history’s most beautiful reflections on love, comes from iconic painter Vincent van Gogh in My Life & Love Are One (public library) — a lovely slim 1976 book that traces “the magic and melancholy of Vincent van Gogh” by culling his thoughts on love, art, and turmoil from his letters to his brother Theo, which were originally published in 1937 as the hefty tome Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh. The title comes from a specific letter written during one of the painter’s periods of respite from mental illness, in which he professes to his brother: “Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one.”

In one letter, Van Gogh extols the grounding, self-soothing quality of love’s intrinsic wisdom:

Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people.

It was certainly an armor he needed — he lived his life in poverty, and the residents of the town where he settled in his final years petitioned to have him evicted from the artist commune he shared with Paul Gauguin and two other artists, on account of his madness. He soon moved into an asylum, where he continued to paint. Another letter to Theo rings with the paradoxical poignancy of desperation and resilience:

What am I in the eyes of most people? A good-for-nothing, an eccentric and disagreeable man, somebody who has no position in society and never will have. Very well, even if that were true, I should want to show by my work what there is in the heart of such an eccentric man, of such a nobody.

'Self-Portrait with Straw Hat' by Vincent van Gogh, winter 1887/1888

And what a heart it was. In a different letter, Vincent relays to Theo the consciousness-expanding capacity of love — which Kierkegaard so eloquently captured — at the dawn of a new love affair:

Since the beginning of this love I have felt that unless I gave myself up to it entirely, without any restriction, with all my heart, there was no chance for me whatever, and even so my chance is slight. But what is it to me whether my chance is slight or great? I mean, must I consider this when I love? No, no reckoning; one loves because one loves. Then we keep our heads clear, and do not cloud our minds, nor do we hide our feelings, nor smother the fire and light, but simply say: Thank God, I love.

To be sure, Van Gogh has the prudence to recognize that friendship is at least as great a gift as romantic love. In another letter, he tells Theo:

Do you know what frees one from this captivity? It is every deep serious affection. Being friends, being brothers, love, these open the prison by supreme power, by some magic force. Where sympathy is renewed, life is restored.

And in another still:

Love a friend, love a wife, something, whatever you like, but one must love with a lofty and serious intimate sympathy, with strength, with intelligence, and one must always try to know deeper, better, and more.

This all-inclusive approach to love — this casting of a wide net of affections — is something Van Gogh believed wholeheartedly, and something Ray Bradbury would come to echo a century and a half later in telling aspiring writers, “I want your loves to be multiple.” Vincent writes to Theo:

It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!

And later:

The best way to know God is to love many things.

Van Gogh sees the human capacity for love as integral to the creative process:

In order to work and to become an artist one needs love. At least, one who wants sentiment in his work must in the first place feel it himself, and live with his heart.

Van Gogh's first sketchbook from 'The Secret Museum.' Click image for details.

Indeed, it is this capacity for love — for living from one’s heart — that sustains the artist through struggle and rejection. In another letter, Van Gogh writes:

I believe more and more that to work for the sake of the work is the principle of all great artists: not to be discouraged even though almost starving, and though one feels one has to say farewell to all material comfort.

For Van Gogh, this heart-first approach to art and life was the root of all that is worthy. In another letter to Theo, he articulates what might well be his deepest underlying credo:

Do you know that it is very, very necessary for honest people to remain in art? Hardly anyone knows that the secret of beautiful work lies to a great extent in truth and sincere sentiment.

Though long out of print, surviving copies of My Life & Love Are One are still findable and very much worth the hunt. Complement it with a peek inside Van Gogh’s never-before-revealed sketchbooks, then revisit Susan Sontag on love.

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01 MAY, 2014

How to Turn Down a Marriage Proposal Like Charlotte Brontë

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A bold defiance of oppressive gender ideals, packaged as the ultimate it’s-not-you-it’s-me gentle letdown.

“There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage,” George Bernard Shaw asserted in his 1908 meditation on the subject. “We look for communion, and are turned away,” Denise Levertov wrote in her poem “The Ache of Marriage.” Bridging the thinking of dangerous nonsense and the turning away is the marriage proposal — and its considered refusal.

From Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library) — Anna Holmes’s magnificent collection spanning centuries of missives, which also gave us Simone de Beauvoir’s exquisite breakup letter and this moving breakup moment from the Vietnam War — comes an outstanding contribution to the genre from none other than Charlotte Brontë.

On the last day of February in 1839, eight years before Jane Eyre was published, Brontë received a letter of marriage proposal from Henry Nussey, a Sussex curate whose sister Ellen was one of her close friends. Brontë’s reply, written on March 5, 1839, is nothing short of brilliant — assertive yet generous, unambiguous yet kind, and a masterwork of the it’s-not-you-it’s-me model. She essentially spells out why she would make a terrible mate by the era’s standards for what a good wife means — “her character should not be too marked, ardent and original” — channeling with equal parts humility and dignity her quiet confidence in being the antithesis of these qualities.

My dear Sir

Before answering your letter, I might have spent a long time in consideration of its subject; but as from the first moment of its reception and perusal I determined on which course to pursue, it seemed to me that delay was wholly unnecessary.

You are aware that I have many reasons to feel gratified to your family, that I have peculiar reasons for affection towards one at least of your sisters, and also that I highly esteem yourself. Do not therefore accuse me of wrong motives when I say that my answer to your proposal must be a decided negative. In forming this decision — I trust I have listened to the dictates of conscience more than to those [of] inclination; I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you — but I feel convinced that mine is not the sort of disposition calculated to form the happiness of a man like you. It has always been my habit to study the character of those amongst whom I chance to be thrown, and I think I know yours and can imagine what description of woman would suit you for a wife. Her character should not be too marked, ardent and original — her temper should be mild, her piety undoubted, her spirits even and cheerful, and her “personal attractions” sufficient to please your eye and gratify your just pride. As for me, you do not know me, I am not this serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose — you would think me romantic and [eccentric -- you would] say I was satirical and [severe]. [However, I scorn] deceit and I will never for the sake of attaining the distinction of matrimony and escaping the stigma of an old maid take a worthy man whom I am conscious I cannot render happy.

[…]

Farewell—! I shall always be glad to hear from you as a friend

Believe me
Yours truly
C Brontë

Brontë remained unwedded until a year before her death, when she married Arthur Bell Nichols, her father’s curate, who had been in love with her for years. (“Currer Bell,” the male pseudonym she had used to secure unbiased consideration of her works with publishers, was based on Nichols’s middle name.) One has to wonder whether Jane Eyre would’ve ever come to life, and gone on to inspire generations, had Brontë succumbed to the era’s oppressive standards of female domesticity.

Hell Hath No Fury is an enchanting read in its totality, featuring letters from both ordinary lovers across the ages and such cultural icons as Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton, Queen Elizabeth, Zelda Fitzgerald, Anne Boleyn, and Virginia Woolf. Ten years later, Holmes followed it up with the equally, if very differently, delightful The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things.

For more meditations on marriage, see Charles Darwin’s endearing list of its pros and cons and Susan Sontag’s youthful rant.

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