Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

19 AUGUST, 2015

Simone Weil on Attention and Grace

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“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

“Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful elegy for her soul mate, “is only a report.” To fully feel life course through us, indeed, we ought to befriend our own attention, that “intentional, unapologetic discriminator.”

More than half a century before Oliver, another enchantress of the human spirit — the French philosopher Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943), a mind of unparalleled intellectual elegance and a sort of modern saint whom Albert Camus described as “the only great spirit of our times” — wrote beautifully of attention as contemplative practice through which we reap the deepest rewards of our humanity.

In First and Last Notebooks (public library) — the out-of-print treasure that gave us Weil on the key to discipline and how to make use of our suffering — she writes:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

This piercing thought comes fully abloom in Gravity and Grace (public library) — a posthumous 1952 collection of Weil’s enduring ideas, culled from her notebooks by Gustave Thibon, the farmer whom she entrusted with her writings before her untimely death.

Weil considers the superiority of attention over the will as the ultimate tool of self-transformation:

We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.

The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them… Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.

Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.

Weil turns to attention as the counterpoint to this graceless will — where the will contracts the spirit, she argues, attention expands it:

Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

Gravity and Grace is one of the most spiritually nourishing texts ever published. Complement it with Weil on temptation and true genius, then revisit writer Melissa Pritchard on art as a form of active prayer and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on reawakening our capacity for attention.

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18 AUGUST, 2015

The Inner Light of Creativity: Vivian Gornick on How One Blossoms into Being an Artist

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“I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an ‘I love you’ in the world could touch it.”

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in her exquisite letter to Sherwood Anderson, adding: “Making your unknown known is the important thing.” Over the years, I’ve kept coming back to this as the most piercing and perfect definition of what it means to be an artist — an idea E.E. Cummings echoed in asserting that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.” During a recent walk with a cellist friend, I was reminded of this sentiment and the immutable inquiry at its heart — when the banality of exterior metrics falls away, what is that singular interior orientation that sets the artist apart from the rest?

That’s what Vivian Gornick explores in a portion of her superb 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments (public library).

'Red and yellow sunflowers' (1920) by German-Danish painter and printmaker Emil Nolde (Courtesy of Nolde Foundation)

Gornick describes her first brush with the throbbing contour of the creative impulse during an impromptu visit to the Whitney Museum:

I walk through the door, turn to the wall nearest me, and come face to face with two large Nolde watercolors, the famous flowers. I’ve looked often at Nolde’s flowers, but now it’s as though I am seeing them for the first time: that hot lush diffusion of his outlined, I suddenly realize, in intent. I see the burning quality of Nolde’s intention, the serious patience with which the flowers absorb him, the clear, stubborn concentration of the artist on his subject. I see it. And I think, It’s the concentration that gives the work its power. The space inside me enlarges. That rectangle of light and air inside, where thought clarifies and language grows and response is made intelligent, that famous space surrounded by loneliness, anxiety, self-pity, it opens wide as I look at Nolde’s flowers.

That rectangle of air and light — an interior space wholly different from the illusory fetishes of exterior space against which Bukowski admonished when he wrote “baby, air and light and time and space / have nothing to do with it / and don’t create anything / except maybe a longer life to find / new excuses / for” — becomes Gornick’s recurring companion during the most electrifying moments of creative flow. She recounts a particularly formative period of her life, “a true beginning,” during which the rectangle took shape in her own art:

In the second year of my marriage the rectangular space made its first appearance inside me. I was writing an essay, a piece of graduate-student criticism that had flowered without warning into thought, radiant shapely thought. The sentences began pushing up in me, struggling to get out, each one moving swiftly to add itself to the one that preceded it. I realized suddenly that an image had taken control of me: I saw its shape and its outline clearly. The sentences were trying to fill in the shape. The image was the wholeness of my thought. In that instant I felt myself open wide. My insides cleared out into a rectangle, all clean air and uncluttered space, that began in my forehead and ended in my groin. In the middle of the rectangle only my image, waiting patiently to clarify itself. I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an “I love you” in the world could touch it. Inside that joy I was safe and erotic, excited and at peace, beyond threat or influence. I understood everything I needed to understand in order that I might act, live, be.

The metaphor of this image-animating rectangle of creative electricity is astonishingly poignant today, nearly three decades later, in an era where we’ve grown transfixed by a very different — and in many ways opposite — kind of luminous rectangle. One is left to wonder, not without wistfulness, how the glowing screens into which we stare day and night, and through which we both consume and communicate so much of our experience of life, might be dimming the inner light of that interior rectangle where the wholeness of thought takes shape.

But the romance of this exultant rectangle, Gornick reminds us, coexists with the reality of the negative space surrounding it — a space rife with the artist’s atmospheric self-doubt, which animated Virginia Woolf and filled John Steinbeck’s diary. Reflecting on an especially intense period of work, Gornick captures the ebb and flow of these two states, always in an osmotic relationship:

I sat at the desk and I concentrated. I didn’t glaze over looking at the words, or stumble about in my chair reeling with fog and fatigue. Rather, I sat down each morning with a clear mind and hour after hour I worked. The rectangle had opened wide and remained open: in the middle stood an idea. A great excitement formed itself around this idea, and took hold of me. I began fantasizing over the idea, rushing ahead of it, envisioning its full and particular strength and power long before it had clarified. Out of this fantasizing came images, and out of the images a wholeness of thought and language that amazed me each time it repeated itself. At the end of the week I had a large amount of manuscript on my desk. On Friday afternoon I put away the work. On Monday morning I looked at it, and I saw that the pages contained merit but the idea was ill-conceived. It didn’t work at all. I’d have to abandon all that I had done. I felt deflated. The period of inspired labor was at an end. The murk and the vapor closed in on me again, the rectangle shriveled and I was back to eking out painfully small moments of clarity, as usual and as always. Still, it was absorbing to remember the hours I had put in while under the spell of my vision. I felt strengthened by the sustained effort of work the fantasizing had led to.

Fierce Attachments is a rich and deeply rewarding read in its totality. Complement it with Gornick on how to own your story and some of today’s most celebrated artists on what it means to be a great artist.

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17 AUGUST, 2015

Louise Bourgeois on Art, Integrity, the Trap of False Humility, and the Key to Creative Confidence

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“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer.”

French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010), nicknamed Spiderwoman for her iconic large-scale spider sculptures, is one of the most influential creative icons of the past century. She survived a traumatic childhood, which — as is often the case for great artists — became the raw material for a lifetime of art, and no less than a lifetime of creative tenacity is what it took for her to attain formal acclaim: Bourgeois had been informally admired in the art world for some time, but she was seventy-one when she received her first major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Celebrated as the founder of confessional art, she mistrusted words as an adequate medium for conveying one’s innermost ideas, yet she began keeping a diary at the age of twelve and never stopped. Dualities permeated her work — destruction and creation, anguish and happiness, violence and tenderness, loneliness and communion — but she was, above all, a woman of crystalline conviction and artistic integrity. Nowhere does this come more blazingly alive than in Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923–1997 (public library) — a remarkable and revelatory volume, which came about after curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist visited Bourgeois in her New York apartment in 1994 for a series of interviews; over the course of them he discovered a trove of previously unpublished notes, letters, fragments, speeches, and poetical writings by this enigmatic, luminous mind.

Bourgeois was also immensely insightful about the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of art, wise beyond her years since an early age — something best captured in the correspondence with her friend and fellow artist Colette Richarme. Although Bourgeois was seven years her friend’s junior, she often took on the role of a mentor and offered advice that was perhaps directed as much at herself as it was at Richarme. In a letter from March of 1938, 26-year-old Bourgeois — still an aspiring artist herself — writes:

You must put the essence of what you want to say into a painting. The rest is arbitrary. Chosen with discernment, but chosen, and choice involves elimination. Once the drawing is established and composed, you compose the other values in the same way.

A few years later, Bourgeois gives herself a more expansive version of the same advice in a barely punctuated passage from her diary:

A painting must not be a battlefield it must be a statement. Set out with something to say and not with the vague desire to say something. Things never simplify themselves they always complicate themselves on the way from the brain to the canvas. Set out, taking your precautions.

[…]

You have to realize that you aren’t working in a blind way for the good of humanity in general. You have to set up a scale of objectives and values and work systematically.

In another letter to Richarme from early 1939, Bourgeois offers a timeless piece of advice on the trap of false humility and the key to creative confidence:

To convince others, you have to convince yourself; and a conciliatory or even an unduly understanding attitude — in that it is inevitably superficial — is not helpful to creativity.

In a letter penned shortly after she moved from Paris to New York at the age of twenty-nine, Bourgeois recounts the transformative experience of visiting a Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art — the very institution that would stage her own first retrospective more than four decades later:

There was an exhibition of 400 paintings by Picasso here (forty years’ work). It was so beautiful, and it revealed such genius and such a collection of treasures that I did not pick up a paintbrush for a month. Complete shutdown. I cleaned brushes, palettes, etc. and tidied everything.

[…]

I’ve seen some things recently that are so beautiful that I can’t find any strength or self-confidence.

Writing of a newly published monograph of Van Gogh’s work, which she had just received, Bourgeois echoes the same sentiment:

What wealth!! What can one add that is new when there is such genius around? If art is for personal satisfaction only, it is too much of a selfish pleasure.

Meanwhile, her native Paris was mere months away from being occupied by the Nazis — a constant backdrop of impending destruction and devastation which Bourgeois, like all artists creating in a wartime climate, had to reconcile with the creative impulse. In the same letter to Richarme, she laments:

I have been listening to political discussions, conversations whose sole aim is to conceal the frightful term “neutrality.” I assure you, it’s useful living abroad: it helps one to understand how propaganda and false information is circulated for whatever secret purposes.

That summer, writing again to her friend as Paris already lay occupied by the Nazis, Bourgeois captures the malady of American media that afflicts us in ever-proliferating forms to this day:

I don’t know what to say about the behavior of the Americans. On the whole they are irresponsible. The newspapers, without exception, are trying to mold public opinion. The news they carry is correct, but the slant they put on events is tendentious — or, most of the time, false.

Bourgeois saw art as the most potent counterpoint to society’s falsehoods — a supreme reach for truth, which she espoused in her own work and found in the work of the artists she most admired. Much like her compatriot André Gide, who extolled the creative value of sincerity, she believed earnestness and integrity were essential to true art. That is why she saw Picasso — an artist who never compromised in his art, a rare beacon of sincerity amid a culture of cynicism — as her “great master.” In a diary entry from March of 1939, she writes:

Picasso paints what is true; true movements, true feelings. He is sane and strong and simple and sensitive… Picasso is an enthusiast. He says so, and that is why his works are young. Skepticism is the beginning of decadence. It’s a form of abdication and bankruptcy.

Like many diarists — including her compatriot, the great painter Delacroix, who used his journal as a form of self-counsel — Bourgeois urges herself:

Never depart from the truth even though it seems banal at first… All movements painted by Picasso have been seen and felt; he is never theatrical. The Surrealists are theatrical. New York painting, the painting that wants to be or is fashionable, is theatrical. Theater is the image of life and Picasso sees life or rather reality! Keep your integrity. You will only count, for yourself and in your art, to the extent that you keep your integrity.

It is astounding how aptly this applies to writing, journalism, and the media industry as well — the very mecca of agenda-driven opinion-manipulation, which Bourgeois had previously lamented. So much of what passes for journalism, triply so in our day, is “theatrical” — from the customary clickbait of headline composition to the glaringly performative gimmicks of cat listicles. In this new context, Bourgeois’s words resonate as an even more powerful incantation for writers, artists, and journalists alike: “Keep your integrity.”

Louise Bourgeois: 'Self Portrait' / Cat. No. 324.2/VIII, variant, 2006 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

But integrity is something that takes place as much within the artist as it does around the artist — it is both a function of one’s interior personal commitment and, to borrow William Gibson’s marvelous term, of the “personal micro-culture” in which one immerses oneself. I have long believed that nothing sustains the creative spirit more powerfully than the sense of belonging to a circle of kindred spirits — something seen in such heartwarming affinities as those between Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, Mark Twain and Helen Keller, and Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak.

Bourgeois, too, intuited this deep connection between artistic integrity and creative kinship. In August of 1984, already well into her seventies, she writes in the diary:

I love all artists and I understand them (flock of deaf mutes in subway). They are my family and their existence keeps me from being lonely.

To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer… Audience is bullshit, unnecessary. Communication is rare; art is a language, like the Chinese language. Who gets it? The deaf mutes in the subway.

Reconciliation is the sweetest feeling.

Louise Bourgeois: 'Mercy Merci,' 1992 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

In another diary entry penned three years later, she revisits the subject with even more piercing poignancy:

You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love. That is why geometrically speaking the circle is a one.

Louise Bourgeois: Writings and Interviews is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover. Complement it with Georgia O’Keeffe on public opinion and what it means to be an artist, Denise Levertov on how great works of art are born, and Henry Miller on why good friends are essential for creative work.

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17 AUGUST, 2015

In Praise of Missing Out: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the Paradoxical Value of Our Unlived Lives

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“Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”

“In the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation,” Alain de Botton wrote in his meditation on Nietzsche and why a fulfilling life requires difficulty. “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Joan Didion wrote in contemplating the value of keeping a notebook. But we are just as well advised, it turns out, to keep on nodding terms with the people we could’ve been, the people we never were, the people who perished in the abyss between our ideal selves and our real selves. So argues psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (public library) — a fascinating read, acutely relevant to our culture so plagued by the fear of missing out that we’ve shorthanded it to “FOMO.”

Phillips — whom I’ve long considered the Carl Jung of our time, and who has written beautifully about such transfixing psychosocial complexities as how kindness became our forbidden pleasure, balance and the requisite excesses of life, and the necessity of boredom — examines the paradoxical relationship between frustration and satisfaction, exploring how our unlived lives illuminate the priorities, values, and desires undergirding the lives we do live.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Parker Palmer’s magnificent commencement address on the wholehearted life“If the unexamined life is not worth living,” he counseled graduates, “it’s equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining.” — Phillips writes:

The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad. We have to be aware of what is missing in our lives — even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available — because we can survive only if our appetites more or less work for us. Indeed, we have to survive our appetites by making people cooperate with our wanting. We pressurize the world to be there for our benefit. And yet we quickly notice as children — it is, perhaps, the first thing we do notice — that our needs, like our wishes, are always potentially unmet. Because we are always shadowed by the possibility of not getting what we want, we learn, at best, to ironize our wishes — that is, to call our wants wishes: a wish is only a wish until, as we say, it comes true — and, at worst, to hate our needs. But we also learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.

[…]

We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

Nowhere is this paradox more evident than in how we think of loves that never were — “the one that got away” implies that the getting away was merely a product of probability and had the odds turned out differently, the person who “got away” would have been The One. But Phillips argues this is a larger problem that affects how we think about every aspect of our lives, perhaps most palpably when we peer back on the road not taken from the fixed vantage point of our present destination:

We are always haunted by the myth of our potential, of what we might have it in ourselves to be or do… We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.

[…]

Our lives become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed, to possibilities refused, to roads not taken. The myth of our potential can make of our lives a perpetual falling-short, a continual and continuing loss, a sustained and sometimes sustaining rage.

Phillips argues that these unlived lives reveal themselves most obviously in our envy of others, the psychology of which Kierkegaard keenly observed a century and a half earlier, and in the demands we place on our children — an idea that furthers the parallel between Phillips with Jung, for it was the great Swiss psychiatrist who famously asserted that what most shapes children’s developing psychological reality are “the unlived lives of the parents.” But where Jung believed that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being,” Phillips suggests that it’s equally important to kindle a light in the darkness of non-being, of never-having-been:

We have an abiding sense, however obscure and obscured, that the lives we do lead are informed by the lives that escape us.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

It is precisely by recognizing our existential incompleteness and our inherent insufficiency, by embracing the fact that we are a cosmic accident, that we can begin to feel the fullness of life — but this is hard to do, Phillips points out, in a culture predicated on inflating the specialness of the self as a singular unit aimed at optimizing and making maximally productive the lived life:

Because we are nothing special — on a par with ants and daffodils — it is the work of culture to make us feel special; just as parents need to make their children feel special to help them bear and bear with — and hopefully enjoy — their insignificance in the larger scheme of things. In this sense growing up is always an undoing of what needed to be done: first, ideally, we are made to feel special; then we are expected to enjoy a world in which we are not… When people realize how accidental they are, they are tempted to think of themselves as chosen. We certainly tend to be more special, if only to ourselves, in our (imaginary) unlived lives.

So it is worth wondering what the need to be special prevents us seeing about ourselves — other, that is, than the unfailing transience of our lives; what the need to be special stops us from being. This, essentially, is the question psychoanalysis was invented to address: what kind of pleasures can sustain a creature that is nothing special? Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life — the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life — the unlived life became a haunting presence in a life legitimated by nothing more than the desire to live it. For modern people, stalked by their choices, the good life is a life lived to the full. We become obsessed, in a new way, by what is missing in our lives; and by what sabotages the pleasures that we seek.

To mitigate the wistful vestiges this existential neverland lodges in our psyche, Phillips argues, we create and hold on to various possible selves and possible lives — pockets of possibility that exist no matter how remote the probability of realizing them might be. These improbable possibles, Phillips asserts, come to both reveal and shape who we really are:

We make our lives pleasurable, and therefore bearable, by picturing them as they might be; it is less obvious, though, what these compelling fantasy lives — lives of, as it were, a more complete satisfaction — are a self-cure for. Our solutions tell us what our problems are; our fantasy lives are not — or not necessarily — alternatives to, or refuges from, those real lives but an essential part of them… There is nothing more obscure than the relationship between the lived and the unlived life. (Each member of a couple, for example, is always having a relationship, wittingly or unwittingly, with their partner’s unlived lives; their initial and initiating relationship is between what they assume are their potential selves.) So we may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening.

With an eye to the philosophy of Albert Camus, Phillips writes:

There is a gap between what we want and what we can have, and that gap … is our link, our connection, to the world… This discord, this supposed mismatch, is the origin of our experience of missing out.

And yet, just like “our solutions tell us what our problems are,” the most ideal of these missed-out-on experiences reveal a great deal about the realest aspects of our lives. In one of many poignant parenthetical asides — one that calls to mind Umberto Eco on why imaginary places captivate us so — Phillips writes:

Our utopias tell us more about our lived lives, and their privations, than about our wished-for lives.

1516 map of Thomas More's island of Utopia, discussed in 'Legendary Lands' by Umberto Eco. Click image for more.

The paradox — and the most important point — is that it is through the privation of not getting what we want, as Nietzsche memorably argued more than a century earlier, that we arrive at the promise of satisfaction:

In our unlived lives we are always more satisfied, far less frustrated versions of ourselves… Our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration; if we can’t let ourselves feel our frustration — and, surprisingly, this is a surprisingly difficult thing to do — we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us pleasure… That frustration is where we start from; the child’s dawning awareness of himself is an awareness of something necessary not being there. The child becomes present to himself in the absence of something he needs.

But it is through our frustrations that we come to know our wants, against the light of which the contour of our personhood is shaded in:

The more we frustrate ourselves in wanting something, the more we value our desire for it… Waiting too long poisons desire, but waiting too little pre-empts it; the imagining is in the waiting… Wanting takes time; partly because it takes some time to get over the resistances to wanting, and partly because we are often unconscious of what it is that we do want. But the worst thing we can be frustrated of is frustration itself; to be deprived of frustration is to be deprived of the possibilities of satisfaction.

Missing Out is an unmissable read in its totality, exploring how the osmosis of frustration and satisfaction illuminates our romantic relationships, our experience of success and failure, and much more. Complement it with Dr. Seuss’s recently revealed parable of FOMO and Meghan Daum on how we become who we are, then revisit Phillips on kindness, balance, and the essential capacity for “fertile solitude.”

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