Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

16 JUNE, 2014

Albert Camus on Happiness and Love, Illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton

By:

“If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.”

In this new installment of the Brain Pickings artist series, I’ve once again teamed up with the wonderfully talented Wendy MacNaughton, on the heels of our previous collaborations on famous writers’ sleep habits, Susan Sontag’s diary highlights on love and on art, Nellie Bly’s packing list, Gay Talese’s taxonomy of New York cats, and Sylvia Plath’s influences. I asked MacNaughton to illustrate another of my literary heroes’ thoughts on happiness and love, based on my highlights from Notebooks 1951–1959 (public library) — the published diaries of French author, philosopher, and Nobel laureate Albert Camus, which also gave us Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

The artwork is available as a print on Society6 and, as usual, we’re donating 50% of proceeds to A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists. Enjoy!

If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.

When love ceases to be tragic it is something else and the individual again throws himself in search of tragedy.

Betrayal answers betrayal, the mask of love is answered by the disappearance of love.

For me, physical love has always been bound to an irresistible feeling of innocence and joy. Thus, I cannot love in tears but in exaltation.

The loss of love is the loss of all rights, even though one had them all.

Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.

It is not humiliating to be unhappy. Physical suffering is sometimes humiliating, but the suffering of being cannot be, it is life.

The end of their passion consists of loving uselessly at the moment when it is pointless.

At times I feel myself overtaken by an immense tenderness for these people around me who live in the same century.

I have not stopped loving that which is sacred in this world.

Get the print here.

For more literature-inspired art benefiting some favorite organizations, dive into the artist series visual archive. For more of MacNaughton’s own fantastic work, see her book Meanwhile in San Francisco and her illustrations for The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert and Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology.

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.





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.

09 JUNE, 2014

How We Grieve: Meghan O’Rourke on the Messiness of Mourning and Learning to Live with Loss

By:

“The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.”

John Updike wrote in his memoir, “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” And yet even if we were to somehow make peace with our own mortality, a primal and soul-shattering fear rips through whenever we think about losing those we love most dearly — a fear that metastasizes into all-consuming grief when loss does come. In The Long Goodbye (public library), her magnificent memoir of grieving her mother’s death, Meghan O’Rourke crafts a masterwork of remembrance and reflection woven of extraordinary emotional intelligence. A poet, essayist, literary critic, and one of the youngest editors the New Yorker has ever had, she tells a story that is deeply personal in its details yet richly resonant in its larger humanity, making tangible the messy and often ineffable complexities that anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows all too intimately, all too anguishingly. What makes her writing — her mind, really — particularly enchanting is that she brings to this paralyzingly difficult subject a poet’s emotional precision, an essayist’s intellectual expansiveness, and a voracious reader’s gift for apt, exquisitely placed allusions to such luminaries of language and life as Whitman, Longfellow, Tennyson, Swift, and Dickinson (“the supreme poet of grief”).

O’Rourke writes:

When we are learning the world, we know things we cannot say how we know. When we are relearning the world in the aftermath of a loss, we feel things we had almost forgotten, old things, beneath the seat of reason.

[…]

Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable.

[…]

When we talk about love, we go back to the start, to pinpoint the moment of free fall. But this story is the story of an ending, of death, and it has no beginning. A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.

In the days following her mother’s death, as O’Rourke faces the loneliness she anticipated and the sense of being lost that engulfed her unawares, she contemplates the paradoxes of loss: Ours is a culture that treats grief — a process of profound emotional upheaval — with a grotesquely mismatched rational prescription. On the one hand, society seems to operate by a set of unspoken shoulds for how we ought to feel and behave in the face of sorrow; on the other, she observes, “we have so few rituals for observing and externalizing loss.” Without a coping strategy, she finds herself shutting down emotionally and going “dead inside” — a feeling psychologists call “numbing out” — and describes the disconnect between her intellectual awareness of sadness and its inaccessible emotional manifestation:

It was like when you stay in cold water too long. You know something is off but don’t start shivering for ten minutes.

But at least as harrowing as the aftermath of loss is the anticipatory bereavement in the months and weeks and days leading up to the inevitable — a particularly cruel reality of terminal cancer. O’Rourke writes:

So much of dealing with a disease is waiting. Waiting for appointments, for tests, for “procedures.” And waiting, more broadly, for it—for the thing itself, for the other shoe to drop.

The hallmark of this anticipatory loss seems to be a tapestry of inner contradictions. O’Rourke notes with exquisite self-awareness her resentment for the mundanity of it all — there is her mother, sipping soda in front of the TV on one of those final days — coupled with weighty, crushing compassion for the sacred humanity of death:

Time doesn’t obey our commands. You cannot make it holy just because it is disappearing.

Then there was the question of the body — the object of so much social and personal anxiety in real life, suddenly stripped of control in the surreal experience of impending death. Reflecting on the initially disorienting experience of helping her mother on and off the toilet and how quickly it became normalized, O’Rourke writes:

It was what she had done for us, back before we became private and civilized about our bodies. In some ways I liked it. A level of anxiety about the body had been stripped away, and we were left with the simple reality: Here it was.

I heard a lot about the idea of dying “with dignity” while my mother was sick. It was only near her very end that I gave much thought to what this idea meant. I didn’t actually feel it was undignified for my mother’s body to fail — that was the human condition. Having to help my mother on and off the toilet was difficult, but it was natural. The real indignity, it seemed, was dying where no one cared for you the way your family did, dying where it was hard for your whole family to be with you and where excessive measures might be taken to keep you alive past a moment that called for letting go. I didn’t want that for my mother. I wanted her to be able to go home. I didn’t want to pretend she wasn’t going to die.

Among the most painful realities of witnessing death — one particularly exasperating for type-A personalities — is how swiftly it severs the direct correlation between effort and outcome around which we build our lives. Though the notion might seem rational on the surface — especially in a culture that fetishizes work ethic and “grit” as the key to success — an underbelly of magical thinking lurks beneath, which comes to light as we behold the helplessness and injustice of premature death. Noting that “the mourner’s mind is superstitious, looking for signs and wonders,” O’Rourke captures this paradox:

One of the ideas I’ve clung to most of my life is that if I just try hard enough it will work out. If I work hard, I will be spared, and I will get what I desire, finding the cave opening over and over again, thieving life from the abyss. This sturdy belief system has a sidecar in which superstition rides. Until recently, I half believed that if a certain song came on the radio just as I thought of it, it meant that all would be well. What did I mean? I preferred not to answer that question. To look too closely was to prick the balloon of possibility.

But our very capacity for the irrational — for the magic of magical thinking — also turns out to be essential for our spiritual survival. Without the capacity to discern from life’s senseless sound a meaningful melody, we would be consumed by the noise. In fact, one of O’Rourke’s most poetic passages recounts her struggle to find a transcendent meaning on an average day, amid the average hospital noises:

I could hear the coughing man whose family talked about sports and sitcoms every time they visited, sitting politely around his bed as if you couldn’t see the death knobs that were his knees poking through the blanket, but as they left they would hug him and say, We love you, and We’ll be back soon, and in their voices and in mine and in the nurse who was so gentle with my mother, tucking cool white sheets over her with a twist of her wrist, I could hear love, love that sounded like a rope, and I began to see a flickering electric current everywhere I looked as I went up and down the halls, flagging nurses, little flecks of light dotting the air in sinewy lines, and I leaned on these lines like guy ropes when I was so tired I couldn’t walk anymore and a voice in my head said: Do you see this love? And do you still not believe?

I couldn’t deny the voice.

Now I think: That was exhaustion.

But at the time the love, the love, it was like ropes around me, cables that could carry us up into the higher floors away from our predicament and out onto the roof and across the empty spaces above the hospital to the sky where we could gaze down upon all the people driving, eating, having sex, watching TV, angry people, tired people, happy people, all doing, all being –

In the weeks following her mother’s death, melancholy — “the black sorrow, bilious, angry, a slick in my chest” — comes coupled with another intense emotion, a parallel longing for a different branch of that-which-no-longer-is:

I experienced an acute nostalgia. This longing for a lost time was so intense I thought it might split me in two, like a tree hit by lightning. I was — as the expression goes — flooded by memories. It was a submersion in the past that threatened to overwhelm any “rational” experience of the present, water coming up around my branches, rising higher. I did not care much about work I had to do. I was consumed by memories of seemingly trivial things.

But the embodied presence of the loss is far from trivial. O’Rourke, citing a psychiatrist whose words had stayed with her, captures it with harrowing precision:

The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.

In another breathtaking passage, O’Rourke conveys the largeness of grief as it emanates out of our pores and into the world that surrounds us:

In February, there was a two-day snowstorm in New York. For hours I lay on my couch, reading, watching the snow drift down through the large elm outside … the sky going gray, then eerie violet, the night breaking around us, snow like flakes of ash. A white mantle covered trees, cars, lintels, and windows. It was like one of grief’s moods: melancholic; estranged from the normal; in touch with the longing that reminds us that we are being-toward-death, as Heidegger puts it. Loss is our atmosphere; we, like the snow, are always falling toward the ground, and most of the time we forget it.

Because grief seeps into the external world as the inner experience bleeds into the outer, it’s understandable — it’s hopelessly human — that we’d also project the very object of our grief onto the external world. One of the most common experiences, O’Rourke notes, is for the grieving to try to bring back the dead — not literally, but by seeing, seeking, signs of them in the landscape of life, symbolism in the everyday. The mind, after all, is a pattern-recognition machine and when the mind’s eye is as heavily clouded with a particular object as it is when we grieve a loved one, we begin to manufacture patterns. Recounting a day when she found inside a library book handwriting that seemed to be her mother’s, O’Rourke writes:

The idea that the dead might not be utterly gone has an irresistible magnetism. I’d read something that described what I had been experiencing. Many people go through what psychologists call a period of “animism,” in which you see the dead person in objects and animals around you, and you construct your false reality, the reality where she is just hiding, or absent. This was the mourner’s secret position, it seemed to me: I have to say this person is dead, but I don’t have to believe it.

[…]

Acceptance isn’t necessarily something you can choose off a menu, like eggs instead of French toast. Instead, researchers now think that some people are inherently primed to accept their own death with “integrity” (their word, not mine), while others are primed for “despair.” Most of us, though, are somewhere in the middle, and one question researchers are now focusing on is: How might more of those in the middle learn to accept their deaths? The answer has real consequences for both the dying and the bereaved.

O’Rourke considers the psychology and physiology of grief:

When you lose someone you were close to, you have to reassess your picture of the world and your place in it. The more your identity is wrapped up with the deceased, the more difficult the mental work.

The first systematic survey of grief, I read, was conducted by Erich Lindemann. Having studied 101 people, many of them related to the victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942, he defined grief as “sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intensive subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.”

Tracing the history of studying grief, including Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous and often criticized 1969 “stage theory” outlining a simple sequence of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, O’Rourke notes that most people experience grief not as sequential stages but as ebbing and flowing states that recur at various points throughout the process. She writes:

Researchers now believe there are two kinds of grief: “normal grief” and “complicated grief” (also called “prolonged grief”). “Normal grief” is a term for what most bereaved people experience. It peaks within the first six months and then begins to dissipate. “Complicated grief” does not, and often requires medication or therapy. But even “normal grief” … is hardly gentle. Its symptoms include insomnia or other sleep disorders, difficulty breathing, auditory or visual hallucinations, appetite problems, and dryness of mouth.

One of the most persistent psychiatric ideas about grief, O’Rourke notes, is the notion that one ought to “let go” in order to “move on” — a proposition plentiful even in the casual advice of her friends in the weeks following her mother’s death. And yet it isn’t necessarily the right coping strategy for everyone, let alone the only one, as our culture seems to suggest. Unwilling to “let go,” O’Rourke finds solace in anthropological alternatives:

Studies have shown that some mourners hold on to a relationship with the deceased with no notable ill effects. In China, for instance, mourners regularly speak to dead ancestors, and one study demonstrated that the bereaved there “recovered more quickly from loss” than bereaved Americans do.

I wasn’t living in China, though, and in those weeks after my mother’s death, I felt that the world expected me to absorb the loss and move forward, like some kind of emotional warrior. One night I heard a character on 24—the president of the United States—announce that grief was a “luxury” she couldn’t “afford right now.” This model represents an old American ethic of muscling through pain by throwing yourself into work; embedded in it is a desire to avoid looking at death. We’ve adopted a sort of “Ask, don’t tell” policy. The question “How are you?” is an expression of concern, but as my dad had said, the mourner quickly figures out that it shouldn’t always be taken for an actual inquiry… A mourner’s experience of time isn’t like everyone else’s. Grief that lasts longer than a few weeks may look like self-indulgence to those around you. But if you’re in mourning, three months seems like nothing — [according to some] research, three months might well find you approaching the height of sorrow.

Another Western hegemony in the culture of grief, O’Rourke notes, is its privatization — the unspoken rule that mourning is something we do in the privacy of our inner lives, alone, away from the public eye. Though for centuries private grief was externalized as public mourning, modernity has left us bereft of rituals to help us deal with our grief:

The disappearance of mourning rituals affects everyone, not just the mourner. One of the reasons many people are unsure about how to act around a loss is that they lack rules or meaningful conventions, and they fear making a mistake. Rituals used to help the community by giving everyone a sense of what to do or say. Now, we’re at sea.

[…]

Such rituals … aren’t just about the individual; they are about the community.

Craving “a formalization of grief, one that might externalize it,” O’Rourke plunges into the existing literature:

The British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, the author of Death, Grief, and Mourning, argues that, at least in Britain, the First World War played a huge role in changing the way people mourned. Communities were so overwhelmed by the sheer number of dead that the practice of ritualized mourning for the individual eroded. Other changes were less obvious but no less important. More people, including women, began working outside the home; in the absence of caretakers, death increasingly took place in the quarantining swaddle of the hospital. The rise of psychoanalysis shifted attention from the communal to the individual experience. In 1917, only two years after Émile Durkheim wrote about mourning as an essential social process, Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” defined it as something essentially private and individual, internalizing the work of mourning. Within a few generations, I read, the experience of grief had fundamentally changed. Death and mourning had been largely removed from the public realm. By the 1960s, Gorer could write that many people believed that “sensible, rational men and women can keep their mourning under complete control by strength of will and character, so that it need be given no public expression, and indulged, if at all, in private, as furtively as . . . masturbation.” Today, our only public mourning takes the form of watching the funerals of celebrities and statesmen. It’s common to mock such grief as false or voyeuristic (“crocodile tears,” one commentator called mourners’ distress at Princess Diana’s funeral), and yet it serves an important social function. It’s a more mediated version, Leader suggests, of a practice that goes all the way back to soldiers in The Iliad mourning with Achilles for the fallen Patroclus.

I found myself nodding in recognition at Gorer’s conclusions. “If mourning is denied outlet, the result will be suffering,” Gorer wrote. “At the moment our society is signally failing to give this support and assistance. . . . The cost of this failure in misery, loneliness, despair and maladaptive behavior is very high.” Maybe it’s not a coincidence that in Western countries with fewer mourning rituals, the bereaved report more physical ailments in the year following a death.

Illustration from 'The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

Finding solace in Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful meditation on our humanity, O’Rourke returns to her own journey:

The otherworldliness of loss was so intense that at times I had to believe it was a singular passage, a privilege of some kind, even if all it left me with was a clearer grasp of our human predicament. It was why I kept finding myself drawn to the remote desert: I wanted to be reminded of how the numinous impinges on ordinary life.

Reflecting on her struggle to accept her mother’s loss — her absence, “an absence that becomes a presence” — O’Rourke writes:

If children learn through exposure to new experiences, mourners unlearn through exposure to absence in new contexts. Grief requires acquainting yourself with the world again and again; each “first” causes a break that must be reset… And so you always feel suspense, a queer dread—you never know what occasion will break the loss freshly open.

She later adds:

After a loss, you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead. It doesn’t come naturally.

Among the most chilling effects of grief is how it reorients us toward ourselves as it surfaces our mortality paradox and the dawning awareness of our own impermanence. O’Rourke’s words ring with the profound discomfort of our shared existential bind:

The dread of death is so primal, it overtakes me on a molecular level. In the lowest moments, it produces nihilism. If I am going to die, why not get it over with? Why live in this agony of anticipation?

[…]

I was unable to push these questions aside: What are we to do with the knowledge that we die? What bargain do you make in your mind so as not to go crazy with fear of the predicament, a predicament none of us knowingly chose to enter? You can believe in God and heaven, if you have the capacity for faith. Or, if you don’t, you can do what a stoic like Seneca did, and push away the awfulness by noting that if death is indeed extinction, it won’t hurt, for we won’t experience it. “It would be dreadful could it remain with you; but of necessity either it does not arrive or else it departs,” he wrote.

If this logic fails to comfort, you can decide, as Plato and Jonathan Swift did, that since death is natural, and the gods must exist, it cannot be a bad thing. As Swift said, “It is impossible that anything so natural, so necessary, and so universal as death, should ever have been designed by Providence as an evil to mankind.” And Socrates: “I am quite ready to admit … that I ought to be grieved at death, if I were not persuaded in the first place that I am going to other gods who are wise and good.” But this is poor comfort to those of us who have no gods to turn to. If you love this world, how can you look forward to departing it? Rousseau wrote, “He who pretends to look on death without fear lies. All men are afraid of dying, this is the great law of sentient beings, without which the entire human species would soon be destroyed.”

And yet, O’Rourke arrives at the same conclusion that Alan Lightman did in his sublime meditation on our longing for permanence as she writes:

Without death our lives would lose their shape: “Death is the mother of beauty,” Wallace Stevens wrote. Or as a character in Don DeLillo’s White Noise says, “I think it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need?” It’s not clear that DeLillo means us to agree, but I think I do. I love the world more because it is transient.

[…]

One would think that living so proximately to the provisional would ruin life, and at times it did make it hard. But at other times I experienced the world with less fear and more clarity. It didn’t matter if I was in line for an extra two minutes. I could take in the sensations of color, sound, life. How strange that we should live on this planet and make cereal boxes, and shopping carts, and gum! That we should renovate stately old banks and replace them with Trader Joe’s! We were ants in a sugar bowl, and one day the bowl would empty.

A Perseid meteor over Joshua Tree National Park (Image: Joe Westerberg / NASA)

This awareness of our transience, our minuteness, and the paradoxical enlargement of our aliveness that it produces seems to be the sole solace from grief’s grip, though we all arrive at it differently. O’Rourke’s father approached it from another angle. Recounting a conversation with him one autumn night — one can’t help but notice the beautiful, if inadvertent, echo of Carl Sagan’s memorable words — O’Rourke writes:

“The Perseid meteor showers are here,” he told me. “And I’ve been eating dinner outside and then lying in the lounge chairs watching the stars like your mother and I used to” — at some point he stopped calling her Mom — “and that helps. It might sound strange, but I was sitting there, looking up at the sky, and I thought, ‘You are but a mote of dust. And your troubles and travails are just a mote of a mote of dust.’ And it helped me. I have allowed myself to think about things I had been scared to think about and feel. And it allowed me to be there — to be present. Whatever my life is, whatever my loss is, it’s small in the face of all that existence… The meteor shower changed something. I was looking the other way through a telescope before: I was just looking at what was not there. Now I look at what is there.”

O’Rourke goes on to reflect on this ground-shifting quality of loss:

It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.

In one of the most beautiful passages in the book, O’Rourke captures the spiritual sensemaking of death in an anecdote that calls to mind Alan Lightman’s account of a “transcendent experience” and Alan Watt’s consolation in the oneness of the universe. She writes:

Before we scattered the ashes, I had an eerie experience. I went for a short run. I hate running in the cold, but after so much time indoors in the dead of winter I was filled with exuberance. I ran lightly through the stripped, bare woods, past my favorite house, poised on a high hill, and turned back, flying up the road, turning left. In the last stretch I picked up the pace, the air crisp, and I felt myself float up off the ground. The world became greenish. The brightness of the snow and the trees intensified. I was almost giddy. Behind the bright flat horizon of the treescape, I understood, were worlds beyond our everyday perceptions. My mother was out there, inaccessible to me, but indelible. The blood moved along my veins and the snow and trees shimmered in greenish light. Suffused with joy, I stopped stock-still in the road, feeling like a player in a drama I didn’t understand and didn’t need to. Then I sprinted up the driveway and opened the door and as the heat rushed out the clarity dropped away.

I’d had an intuition like this once before, as a child in Vermont. I was walking from the house to open the gate to the driveway. It was fall. As I put my hand on the gate, the world went ablaze, as bright as the autumn leaves, and I lifted out of myself and understood that I was part of a magnificent book. What I knew as “life” was a thin version of something larger, the pages of which had all been written. What I would do, how I would live — it was already known. I stood there with a kind of peace humming in my blood.

A non-believer who had prayed for the first time in her life when her mother died, O’Rourke quotes Virginia Woolf’s luminous meditation on the spirit and writes:

This is the closest description I have ever come across to what I feel to be my experience. I suspect a pattern behind the wool, even the wool of grief; the pattern may not lead to heaven or the survival of my consciousness — frankly I don’t think it does — but that it is there somehow in our neurons and synapses is evident to me. We are not transparent to ourselves. Our longings are like thick curtains stirring in the wind. We give them names. What I do not know is this: Does that otherness — that sense of an impossibly real universe larger than our ability to understand it — mean that there is meaning around us?

[…]

I have learned a lot about how humans think about death. But it hasn’t necessarily taught me more about my dead, where she is, what she is. When I held her body in my hands and it was just black ash, I felt no connection to it, but I tell myself perhaps it is enough to still be matter, to go into the ground and be “remixed” into some new part of the living culture, a new organic matter. Perhaps there is some solace in this continued existence.

[…]

I think about my mother every day, but not as concertedly as I used to. She crosses my mind like a spring cardinal that flies past the edge of your eye: startling, luminous, lovely, gone.

The Long Goodbye is a remarkable read in its entirety — the kind that speaks with gentle crispness to the parts of us we protect most fiercely yet long to awaken most desperately. Complement it with Alan Lightman in finding solace in our impermanence and Tolstoy on finding meaning in a meaningless world.

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.





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.

03 JUNE, 2014

Leo Tolstoy on Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World

By:

“For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”

Shortly after turning fifty, Leo Tolstoy succumbed to a profound spiritual crisis. With his greatest works behind him, he found his sense of purpose dwindling as his celebrity and public acclaim billowed, sinking into a state of deep depression and melancholia despite having a large estate, good health for his age, a wife who had born him fourteen children, and the promise of eternal literary fame. On the brink of suicide, he made one last grasp at light amidst the darkness of his existence, turning to the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions for answers to the age-old question regarding the meaning of life. In 1879, a decade after War and Peace and two years after Anna Karenina, and a decade before he set out to synthesize these philosophical findings in his Calendar of Wisdom, Tolstoy channeled the existential catastrophe of his inner life in A Confession (public library) — an autobiographical memoir of extraordinary candor and emotional intensity, which also gave us Tolstoy’s prescient meditation on money, fame, and writing for the wrong reasons.

He likens the progression of his depression to a serious physical illness — a parallel modern science is rendering increasingly appropriate. Tolstoy writes:

Then occurred what happens to everyone sickening with a mortal internal disease. At first trivial signs of indisposition appear to which the sick man pays no attention; then these signs reappear more and more often and merge into one uninterrupted period of suffering. The suffering increases, and before the sick man can look round, what he took for a mere indisposition has already become more important to him than anything else in the world — it is death!

The classic symptoms of anhedonia engulfed him — he lost passion for his work and came to dismiss as meaningless the eternal fame he had once dreamt of. He even ceased to go out shooting with his gun in fear that he might be too tempted to take his own life. Though he didn’t acknowledge a “someone” in the sense of a creator, he came to feel that his life was a joke that someone had played on him — a joke all the grimmer for the awareness of our inescapable impermanence, and all the more despairing:

Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (they had come already) to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort? . . . How can man fail to see this? And how go on living? That is what is surprising! One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud! That is precisely what it is: there is nothing either amusing or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid.

[…]

Had I simply understood that life had no meaning I could have borne it quietly, knowing that that was my lot. But I could not satisfy myself with that. Had I been like a man living in a wood from which he knows there is no exit, I could have lived; but I was like one lost in a wood who, horrified at having lost his way, rushes about wishing to find the road. He knows that each step he takes confuses him more and more, but still he cannot help rushing about. It was indeed terrible. And to rid myself of the terror I wished to kill myself.

And yet he recognized that the inquiry at the heart of his spiritual malady was neither unique nor complicated:

My question … was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?” Differently expressed, the question is: “Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” It can also be expressed thus: “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”

Seeking to answer this seemingly simple yet paralyzingly profound question, Tolstoy first turned to science, but found that rather than recognizing and answering the question, science circumvented it and instead asked its own questions, then answered those. Most of all, he found it incapable of illuminating the infinite and instead reducing its questions and answers to finite. He writes:

These are all words with no meaning, for in the infinite there is neither complex nor simple, neither forward nor backward, nor better or worse.

[…]

One who sincerely inquires how he is to live cannot be satisfied with the reply — “Study in endless space the mutations, infinite in time and in complexity, of innumerable atoms, and then you will understand your life” — so also a sincere man cannot be satisfied with the reply: “Study the whole life of humanity of which we cannot know either the beginning or the end, of which we do not even know a small part, and then you will understand your own life.”

A century and a half before Alan Lightman tussled, elegantly, with the same paradox, Tolstoy captured the Catch-22 of the predicament:

The problem of experimental science is the sequence of cause and effect in material phenomena. It is only necessary for experimental science to introduce the question of a final cause for it to become nonsensical. The problem of abstract science is the recognition of the primordial essence of life. It is only necessary to introduce the investigation of consequential phenomena (such as social and historical phenomena) and it also becomes nonsensical. Experimental science only then gives positive knowledge and displays the greatness of the human mind when it does not introduce into its investigations the question of an ultimate cause. And, on the contrary, abstract science is only then science and displays the greatness of the human mind when it puts quite aside questions relating to the consequential causes of phenomena and regards man solely in relation to an ultimate cause.

He then turned to philosophy, but found himself equally disillusioned:

Philosophy not merely does not reply, but is itself only asking that question. And if it is real philosophy all its labour lies merely in trying to put that question clearly.

Instead of an answer, he finds in philosophy “the same question, only in a complex form.” He bemoans the inability of either science or philosophy to offer a real answer:

One kind of knowledge did not reply to life’s question, the other kind replied directly confirming my despair, indicating not that the result at which I had arrived was the fruit of error or of a diseased state of my mind, but on the contrary that I had thought correctly, and that my thoughts coincided with the conclusions of the most powerful of human minds.

Frustrated, Tolstoy answers his own question:

“Why does everything exist that exists, and why do I exist?” “Because it exists.”

It’s a sentiment that John Cage would second a century later (“No why. Just here.”) and George Lucas would also echo (“There is no why. We are. Life is beyond reason.”) — a proposition that comes closest to the spiritual tradition of Buddhism. And, indeed, Tolstoy turns to spirituality in one final and desperate attempt at an answer — first by surveying how those in his social circle lived with this all-consuming inquiry. He found among them four strategies for managing the existential despair, but none that resolved it:

I found that for people of my circle there were four ways out of the terrible position in which we are all placed. The first was that of ignorance. It consists in not knowing, not understanding, that life is an evil and an absurdity. From [people of this sort] I had nothing to learn — one cannot cease to know what one does know.

The second way out is epicureanism. It consists, while knowing the hopelessness of life, in making use meanwhile of the advantages one has, disregarding the dragon and the mice, and licking the honey in the best way, especially if there is much of it within reach… That is the way in which the majority of people of our circle make life possible for themselves. Their circumstances furnish them with more of welfare than of hardship, and their moral dullness makes it possible for them to forget that the advantage of their position is accidental … and that the accident that has today made me a Solomon may tomorrow make me a Solomon’s slave. The dullness of these people’s imagination enables them to forget the things that gave Buddha no peace — the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death, which today or tomorrow will destroy all these pleasures.

The third escape is that of strength and energy. It consists in destroying life, when one has understood that it is an evil and an absurdity. A few exceptionally strong and consistent people act so. Having understood the stupidity of the joke that has been played on them, and having understood that it is better to be dead than to be alive, and that it is best of all not to exist, they act accordingly and promptly end this stupid joke, since there are means: a rope round one’s neck, water, a knife to stick into one’s heart, or the trains on the railways; and the number of those of our circle who act in this way becomes greater and greater, and for the most part they act so at the best time of their life, when the strength of their mind is in full bloom and few habits degrading to the mind have as yet been acquired…

The fourth way out is that of weakness. It consists in seeing the truth of the situation and yet clinging to life, knowing in advance that nothing can come of it. People of this kind know that death is better than life, but not having the strength to act rationally — to end the deception quickly and kill themselves — they seem to wait for something. This is the escape of weakness, for if I know what is best and it is within my power, why not yield to what is best? … The fourth way was to live like Solomon and Schopenhauer — knowing that life is a stupid joke played upon us, and still to go on living, washing oneself, dressing, dining, talking, and even writing books. This was to me repulsive and tormenting, but I remained in that position.

Finding himself in the fourth category, Tolstoy beings to question why he hadn’t killed himself. Suddenly, he realizes that a part of him was questioning the very validity of his depressive thoughts, presenting “a vague doubt” as to the certainty of his conclusions about the senselessness of life. Humbled by the awareness that the mind is both puppet and puppet-master, he writes:

It was like this: I, my reason, have acknowledged that life is senseless. If there is nothing higher than reason (and there is not: nothing can prove that there is), then reason is the creator of life for me. If reason did not exist there would be for me no life. How can reason deny life when it is the creator of life? Or to put it the other way: were there no life, my reason would not exist; therefore reason is life’s son. Life is all. Reason is its fruit yet reason rejects life itself! I felt that there was something wrong here.

And he discovers the solution not in science or philosophy or the life of hedonism, but in those living life in its simplest and purest form:

The reasoning showing the vanity of life is not so difficult, and has long been familiar to the very simplest folk; yet they have lived and still live. How is it they all live and never think of doubting the reasonableness of life?

My knowledge, confirmed by the wisdom of the sages, has shown me that everything on earth — organic and inorganic — is all most cleverly arranged — only my own position is stupid. And those fools — the enormous masses of people — know nothing about how everything organic and inorganic in the world is arranged; but they live, and it seems to them that their life is very wisely arranged! . . .

And it struck me: “But what if there is something I do not yet know? Ignorance behaves just in that way. Ignorance always says just what I am saying. When it does not know something, it says that what it does not know is stupid. Indeed, it appears that there is a whole humanity that lived and lives as if it understood the meaning of its life, for without understanding it could not live; but I say that all this life is senseless and that I cannot live.

Awake to what Stuart Firestein would call “thoroughly conscious ignorance” some 130 years later, Tolstoy sees his own blinders with new eyes:

In the delusion of my pride of intellect it seemed to me so indubitable that I and Solomon and Schopenhauer had stated the question so truly and exactly that nothing else was possible — so indubitable did it seem that all those milliards consisted of men who had not yet arrived at an apprehension of all the profundity of the question — that I sought for the meaning of my life without it once occurring to me to ask: “But what meaning is and has been given to their lives by all the milliards of common folk who live and have lived in the world?”

I long lived in this state of lunacy, which, in fact if not in words, is particularly characteristic of us very liberal and learned people. But thanks either to the strange physical affection I have for the real laboring people, which compelled me to understand them and to see that they are not so stupid as we suppose, or thanks to the sincerity of my conviction that I could know nothing beyond the fact that the best I could do was to hang myself, at any rate I instinctively felt that if I wished to live and understand the meaning of life, I must seek this meaning not among those who have lost it and wish to kill themselves, but among those milliards of the past and the present who make life and who support the burden of their own lives and of ours also. And I considered the enormous masses of those simple, unlearned, and poor people who have lived and are living and I saw something quite different. I saw that, with rare exceptions, all those milliards who have lived and are living do not fit into my divisions, and that I could not class them as not understanding the question, for they themselves state it and reply to it with extraordinary clearness. Nor could I consider them epicureans, for their life consists more of privations and sufferings than of enjoyments. Still less could I consider them as irrationally dragging on a meaningless existence, for every act of their life, as well as death itself, is explained by them. To kill themselves they consider the greatest evil. It appeared that all mankind had a knowledge, unacknowledged and despised by me, of the meaning of life. It appeared that reasonable knowledge does not give the meaning of life, but excludes life: while the meaning attributed to life by milliards of people, by all humanity, rests on some despised pseudo-knowledge.

He considers the necessary irrationality of faith and contemplates its unfair ask of forsaking reason:

Rational knowledge presented by the learned and wise, denies the meaning of life, but the enormous masses of men, the whole of mankind receive that meaning in irrational knowledge. And that irrational knowledge is faith, that very thing which I could not but reject. It is God, One in Three; the creation in six days; the devils and angels, and all the rest that I cannot accept as long as I retain my reason.

My position was terrible. I knew I could find nothing along the path of reasonable knowledge except a denial of life; and there — in faith — was nothing but a denial of reason, which was yet more impossible for me than a denial of life. From rational knowledge it appeared that life is an evil, people know this and it is in their power to end life; yet they lived and still live, and I myself live, though I have long known that life is senseless and an evil. By faith it appears that in order to understand the meaning of life I must renounce my reason, the very thing for which alone a meaning is required…

A contradiction arose from which there were two exits. Either that which I called reason was not so rational as I supposed, or that which seemed to me irrational was not so irrational as I supposed.

And therein he finds the error in all of his prior reasoning, the root of his melancholia about life’s meaninglessness:

Verifying the line of argument of rational knowledge I found it quite correct. The conclusion that life is nothing was inevitable; but I noticed a mistake. The mistake lay in this, that my reasoning was not in accord with the question I had put. The question was: “Why should I live, that is to say, what real, permanent result will come out of my illusory transitory life — what meaning has my finite existence in this infinite world?” And to reply to that question I had studied life.

The solution of all the possible questions of life could evidently not satisfy me, for my question, simple as it at first appeared, included a demand for an explanation of the finite in terms of the infinite, and vice versa.

I asked: “What is the meaning of my life, beyond time, cause, and space?” And I replied to quite another question: “What is the meaning of my life within time, cause, and space?” With the result that, after long efforts of thought, the answer I reached was: “None.”

In my reasonings I constantly compared (nor could I do otherwise) the finite with the finite, and the infinite with the infinite; but for that reason I reached the inevitable result: force is force, matter is matter, will is will, the infinite is the infinite, nothing is nothing — and that was all that could result.

[…]

Philosophic knowledge denies nothing, but only replies that the question cannot be solved by it — that for it the solution remains indefinite.

Having understood this, I understood that it was not possible to seek in rational knowledge for a reply to my question, and that the reply given by rational knowledge is a mere indication that a reply can only be obtained by a different statement of the question and only when the relation of the finite to the infinite is included in the question. And I understood that, however irrational and distorted might be the replies given by faith, they have this advantage, that they introduce into every answer a relation between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no solution.

So that besides rational knowledge, which had seemed to me the only knowledge, I was inevitably brought to acknowledge that all live humanity has another irrational knowledge — faith which makes it possible to live. Faith still remained to me as irrational as it was before, but I could not but admit that it alone gives mankind a reply to the questions of life, and that consequently it makes life possible.

Tolstoy notes that, whatever the faith may be, it “gives to the finite existence of man an infinite meaning, a meaning not destroyed by sufferings, deprivations, or death,” and yet he is careful not to conflate faith with a specific religion. Like Flannery O’Connor, who so beautifully differentiated between religion and faith, Tolstoy writes:

I understood that faith is not merely “the evidence of things not seen”, etc., and is not a revelation (that defines only one of the indications of faith, is not the relation of man to God (one has first to define faith and then God, and not define faith through God); it is not only agreement with what has been told one (as faith is most usually supposed to be), but faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life in consequence of which man does not destroy himself but lives. Faith is the strength of life. If a man lives he believes in something. If he did not believe that one must live for something, he would not live. If he does not see and recognize the illusory nature of the finite, he believes in the finite; if he understands the illusory nature of the finite, he must believe in the infinite. Without faith he cannot live…

For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.

And yet the closer he examines faith, the more glaring he finds the disconnect between it and religion, particularly the teachings of the Christian church and the practices of the wealthy. Once again, he returns to the peasants as a paragon of spiritual salvation, of bridging the finite with the infinite, and once again seeing in their ways an ethos most closely resembling the Buddhist philosophy of acceptance:

In contrast with what I had seen in our circle, where the whole of life is passed in idleness, amusement, and dissatisfaction, I saw that the whole life of these people was passed in heavy labour, and that they were content with life. In contradistinction to the way in which people of our circle oppose fate and complain of it on account of deprivations and sufferings, these people accepted illness and sorrow without any perplexity or opposition, and with a quiet and firm conviction that all is good. In contradistinction to us, who the wiser we are the less we understand the meaning of life, and see some evil irony in the fact that we suffer and die, these folk live and suffer, and they approach death and suffering with tranquility and in most cases gladly…

In complete contrast to my ignorance, [they] knew the meaning of life and death, labored quietly, endured deprivations and sufferings, and lived and died seeing therein not vanity but good…

[…]

I understood that if I wish to understand life and its meaning, I must not live the life of a parasite, but must live a real life, and — taking the meaning given to live by real humanity and merging myself in that life — verify it.

A Confession is a remarkable read in its entirety. Complement it with Tolstoy’s subsequent opus of philosophical inquiry, A Calendar of Wisdom, and this rare recording of him reading from the latter, exploring the object of life shortly before his death.

Also see more meditations on the meaning of life from Carl Sagan, Maya Angelou, Richard Feynman, David Foster Wallace, John Steinbeck, Anaïs Nin, George Lucas, and Viktor Frankl.

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.





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.