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12 JUNE, 2015

June 12, 1918: Einstein’s Divorce Agreement and the Messiness of the Human Heart

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“In the case of a divorce, I would grant you significant pecuniary advantages through particularly generous concessions.”

It is always astounding to observe the readiness with which posterity comments on the private lives of public figures — the more prominent the latter, the more cynical the former. Couple that with our lamentable but all too human tendency to appease our own insecurities about imperfection by pointing out the flaws — perceived flaws, rather, based on alleged and unscrutinized “facts” — of others, and you get one of the saddest sports in our culture: poking holes in genius through hubristic commentary on the flawed intimate relationships of luminaries. Couples like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are frequent fare for the simplistic opinions of cynics — people who never met the couple in question, much less were present at their kitchen table or in their bedroom.

The truth, of course, is that nobody really knows exactly what transpires between two hearts — including, more often than we like to admit, the two people in whose chests they beat. But one can get a far more accurate and nuanced impression of a relationship’s complexities by engaging with the first-hand realities of those involved, through their letters and journals and memoirs, than by simply borrowing the opinions of posterity’s self-appointed pundits.

Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić

Nowhere is this truer than in the life of “the quintessential modern genius” and thus the most alluring target for that cultural sport: Albert Einstein’s relationship with his first wife, the Serbian physicist Mileva Marić, is mired in various allegations that boil down to some version of Einstein as a selfish egomaniac. But reading their prolific correspondence, which includes a great many beautiful love letters early on and deeply sorrowful exchanges as their love begins, or even seeing the Alan Alda play based on that correspondence, leaves one acutely aware of how much more nuance and dimension there is to their relationship, as to any relationship.

Even then, we’ve hardly glimpsed a fragment of the couple’s private truth. But there emerges a distinct sense that the unraveling of their love was the case of two strong-willed, ambitious individuals, both of enormous intellect and emotional capacity, who in growing up together — they had met when Albert was seventeen and Mileva twenty-one — simply grew apart.

Wedding photograph of Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić, January 6, 1903

By 1912, the relationship was strained beyond repair. They separated in 1914, after eleven years of marriage and twenty-eight as a couple. Soon, Einstein grew an epistolary romance and fell in love with Elsa Löwenthal, his cousin. (This was far from uncommon in that era.) In 1916, he suggested a formal divorce, but after Mileva developed a heart condition and began suffering from fever attacks, he retracted the idea. “From now on, I’ll not trouble her any more with the divorce,” he wrote to a friend.

But tensions continued to rise and as Mileva’s condition improved, Einstein proposed divorce for the second time in January of 1918, in a letter found in Princeton University’s newly released digital archive of Einstein’s papers — which also gave us Einstein on the fickle nature of fame — and included in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 8: The Berlin Years: Correspondence, 1914–1918 (public library). What is most extraordinary is not only that he beseeches his wife for a divorce with such desperation as to practically bribe her, not only that he so readily offers his Nobel Prize money as part of the bribe, but that he does so three whole years before he actually got the Nobel Prize.

Dear Mileva,

The endeavor finally to put my private affairs in some state of order prompts me to suggest the divorce to you for the second time. I am firmly resolved to do everything to make this step possible. In the case of a divorce, I would grant you significant pecuniary advantages through particularly generous concessions.

  1. 9,000 M [$1,560 then, $26,000 now] instead of 6,000 M, with the provision that 2,000 of it be deposited annually for the benefit of the children.
  2. The Nobel Prize — in the event of the divorce and in the event that it is bestowed upon me — would be ceded to you in full a priori. Disposal of the interest would be left entirely to your discretion. The capital would be despited in Switzerland and placed in safe-keeping for the children. My payments named under (1) would then fall away and be replaced by an annual payment which together with that interest totals 8,000 M. In this case you would have 8,000 M at your free disposition.
  3. The widow’s pension would be promised to you in the case of a divorce.

Naturally, I would make such huge sacrifices only in the case of a voluntary divorce. If you do not consent to the divorce, from now on, not a cent about 6,000 M per year will be sent to Switzerland. Now I request being informed whether you agree and are prepared to file a divorce claim against me. I would take care of everything here, so you would have neither trouble nor any inconveniences whatsoever.

Einstein ends with an endearing note about his elder son, Hans Albert, with whom he corresponded a great deal and once offered the secret to learning anything in a different letter. After a few well-wishing remarks about Mileva’s health, he writes:

Albert’s letters delight me exceedingly; fro them I see how well the boy is developing intellectually and in character… Kisses to the children.

Illustration from 'On a Beam of Light,' a children's book about Einstein's life. Click image for more.

Two months later, Einstein wrote to his Swiss friend Heinrich Zangger, perhaps his closest confidante at the time:

My wife and I now have quite a satisfactory relationship, despite my wanting to divorce… There is a lively exchange of letters between me and her; and now I believe that it works best if I discuss all matters openly with her.

On June 12, 1918, a divorce agreement was finally laid out, translating Einstein’s promise into legalese. The hypothetical but confidently awaited Nobel Prize money remains a centerpiece of the agreement, which includes the following clause:

Prof. Einstein shall instruct, in the event of a divorce and in case he receives the Nobel Prize, the [award money] to become the property of Mrs. Mileva Einstein and shall deposit this capital in trust at a Swiss bank.

He goes on to stipulate that in the event of Mileva’s death or remarriage, the award money should be transferred to their two sons instead.

Einstein in 1921

Mileva agreed and they divorced in 1919. In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his services to Theoretical Physics,” which were instrumental in catalyzing the rise of quantum physics. He received his prize money a year later and, being a man of his word, promptly transferred the funds to Mileva. Some years later, when their younger son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Einstein’s Nobel Prize paid for the young man’s towering and otherwise prohibitively expensive treatment.

Complement with Einstein on why we are alive, his legendary conversation with the Indian philosopher and fellow Nobel laureate Tagore, his little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on race and racial justice, and his answer to a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray.

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11 JUNE, 2015

24-Year-Old William Styron on Happiness, Presence, and the True Measure of Maturity, in a Letter to His Father

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“I’ll always hate the stupid and the bat-brained and the petty. But it doesn’t seem nearly so important anymore to hate, as try to understand.”

William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) is one of the most influential writers of the past century, a man as doggedly dedicated to the craft of writing as he was to his unflinching faith in the human ability to discern right from wrong and, based on that discernment, to act nobly, however difficult the choice might be. Nowhere does the wholehearted idealism for which he is most beloved shine more luminously than in a letter Styron sent to his father in the spring of 1949, found in Selected Letters of William Styron (public library) — the same marvelous compendium that gave us the young man, while still a senior at Duke, on why a college education is a waste of time for writers.

Right around the time Alan Watts was beginning to popularize Eastern philosophy in the West, formulating his enduring ideas on happiness and how to live with presence, 24-year-old Styron arrives at these eternal truths through incredibly insightful introspection, articulated with the intellectual elegance and pulsating prose of a great writer.

Having just moved to New York and settled into an apartment in Brooklyn, Styron begins with an endearing rant on rent — second only to Vonnegut’s — certain to delight and mildly infuriate any past or present New Yorker with its embedded testament to the collusion of time, capitalism, and rent gouging:

Dear Pop,

I am writing this letter from my new home in — you wouldn’t believe it — Brooklyn. I arrived in New York a little over a week ago, immediately began hunting around for an apartment, but found that places to live in are still terribly difficult to get, even though I had heard beforehand that things had loosened up somewhat. The last isn’t true at all. You’d think that everyone in the country had converged upon New York, and that each was making a concerted effort to get an apartment, room — even an alcove somewhere. I suppose that it all involves some terrifically complicated economic theory, but it still strikes me as being a gigantic sort of fraud — that one has to knock his brains out and pay away his soul to boot to be able to get a roof over his head and a minimum of the necessities of life.

Brooklyn by pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott from her series 'Changing New York.' Click image for more.

But such struggles, young Styron precociously intuits, feed the empathetic muscle that fortifies the heart of all idealism and creative purpose:

I guess it’s merely the fact that I’m politically naïve, and that the way to knowledge is mainly through experience — such experience as I am going through now. I suppose, too, that 99% of the radicals, so-called liberals, and Communists are only that way, not through any a priori, bookish idealism, but because they were broke once, or out in the rain, and had to turn to some politico-economic father confessor. Which from my point of view is all the more reason for bucking life as you see it — artistically speaking, that is — or accepting it, or making the most of it — writing about it faithfully, in the long run, and not getting mixed up with the soothsayers. I suppose that if you really catch hell from life — as an untouchable, say, or a sharecropper — your artistic instincts wither, and you become political. That’s natural enough. But Americans are political enough as it is. We’ve got nearly everything, and we still bitch about this and that at every turn.

Which is all by way of saying that though I somehow resent not being able to settle down in a cozy Greenwich Village apartment at $40 a month, I am still glad to be in Brooklyn in a clean and decent place…

Actually I hope I’m not giving the impression that I’m complaining, because this is a pretty nice place by anyone’s standards. It’s in an old weatherbeaten house overlooking Prospect Park. There are plenty of trees around, plenty of grass, and big windows to look at the grass through. I’m in an apartment on the ground floor — two rooms, bath, kitchen, all furnished, $70 a month — the rent being impossible were it not for the fact that I am — or will be in June — sharing the apartment with Bob Loomis of Duke, who is coming to N.Y. to get a job. Split, the rent will be $9 a week, utilities included, which isn’t bad.

Quite apart from the gobsmacking amusement of the then-and-now rent comparison — my own tiny apartment in Brooklyn, mere blocks from Styron’s, costs about fiftyfold as much — there is a deeper reward to his reflections, one found in the mindfulness with which he counters his complaints with an antidote of gratefulness.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Decades before Pico Iyer asserted that “what gives you lasting happiness is not the stuff you have but the use you make of it,” young Styron reflects on the real source of happiness, which has to do with mastering the art of presence, and the true measure of maturity, which requires learning how to be alone and savor one’s own company. He writes:

For some reason, although I’m not exactly ecstatic about the world and life in general, I’m very happy. I don’t know why that should be, as I’ve always thought of myself as an exceptionally melancholy person.* Maybe the melancholy was merely adolescent, and maybe, though I can’t really sense it, I’m growing up, or reaching an “adjustment,” as the psychologists say. Whatever it is, it’s nice.

It’s not love — love of a girl, that is, because I haven’t found her yet.** It’s not the excitement of being in New York, because I’ve been in New York before and now know how to take with a grain of salt its synthetic stimuli (though I still love New York). Actually I don’t know what it is. For the past four or five days I’ve been alone, not seeing anyone or talking to anyone I know except over the phone. Ordinarily this aloneness would have made me miserable, utterly wretched. But I haven’t minded it at all. I haven’t drunk hardly anything — a few beers, that’s all. And yet I’ve been quite content, suffused with a sort of pleasant well-being that demanded really nothing strenuous of myself, or of anyone else.

Perhaps it’s merely that I’ve gained a measure of Emerson’s self-reliance. Perhaps it’s just that, for some reason I can’t put my finger on, I feel surer of myself than I ever have before — more confident of my worth and my ultimate success, and less fearful of failure.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s wonderful notion of “a seizure of happiness,” Styron describes a quality of vibrant presence at the heart of his contentment:

Maybe — again for some reason I haven’t quite been able to analyze — I’m finding that life excites me, appeals to me in a way I’ve never felt before. I still have awful moments of despair, and I guess I always will, but they don’t seem to be as overpowering as in the past. I don’t take so much pleasure in my despondency any more; I try to throw my bleak moods off — which again perhaps is a sign that I’m growing up.

I don’t know how this novel will turn out. Naturally, I hope it’s good. But best of all is the fact that I’m not afraid of its being bad, literarily speaking, provided I know I’ve done my best. In the meantime I’m taking great pleasure in living, and in being alone without being a recluse. At night, after I’ve worked through the day, I walk up Church Avenue to Flatbush and thence down Flatbush, enjoying every minute of the walk.

Atlantic Terminal Tower, Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn. Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock from 'All the Buildings in New York.' Click image for more.

But his most heartening insight is the precocious awareness that kindness, selflessness, and empathic understanding are not merely a gift to others but, above all, a gift to ourselves. Nearly a decade before Jack Kerouac advised that you should “practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now” and three decades before Kurt Vonnegut admonished that “hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide,” Styron tells his father:

It’s somehow all of a sudden wonderfully exciting. Maybe it’s just forgetting one’s self for a minute, not trying to be smug and self-centered and aloof. And I’ve learned to do finally — at least with far less effort and self-consciousness — something that three or four years ago you told me was one of the touchstones of maturity: being nice to people even when they’re not nice to you… I’ll always hate the stupid and the bat-brained and the petty. But it doesn’t seem nearly so important anymore to hate, as try to understand.

Styron considers the ever-elusive art of balance in his closing lines, planting the seed for the beautiful credo that would come to define his literary legacy:

It’s incredible how one runs about frantically at times like a rat in a maze, not really knowing right from wrong (and often really not caring), victim of one’s own passions and instincts rather than master of one’s own soul. I suppose the proper thing to do is just to stop every now and then and say, Where am I heading? Actually, though I’m still much like the psychologist’s rat, I find myself asking myself that question almost too often. I suppose the very fact that I realize my indulgence in too much introspection is another sign (I hope) of maturity. Too much brooding is unhealthy and, although I still have my slumps, I’ve begun to realize that one of the great secrets is striking a balance between thought and action… Living, acting, thinking; not just vegetating neurotically, on one hand, or blundering about, on the other hand, like so many people do, like trapped flies. It’s a hard balance to strike, but I think it can be done, and that in this exciting-sorrowful age of ours it can make great literature.

Nineteen years later, Styron would win the Pulitzer Prize for transmuting that hard balance into great literature.

Selected Letters of William Styron is a trove of wisdom in its hefty totality. Complement it with young Hunter S. Thompson’s equally precocious, if bittersweet in hindsight, letter of advice on living a meaningful life and young Sylvia Plath’s breathtaking, and at least as bittersweet in hindsight, letters to her mother on living wholeheartedly.

* Decades later, Styron became painfully reacquainted with his melancholy nature and its deeper pathology — an experience he would come to recount in the 1990 masterwork Darkness Visible, perhaps the most powerful memoir of depression ever written.

** Styron did find the girl four years later in a young Baltimore poet named Rose Burgunder, who soon become Rose Styron and, after loving Bill until his dying day, brought to life this very collection of letters.

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09 JUNE, 2015

The Dalai Lama’s Daily Routine and Information Diet

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“To understand the Dalai Lama … perhaps it’s most useful to see him as a doctor of the soul.”

I think a great deal about the difference between routine and ritual as a special case of our more general and generally trying quest for balance — ripped asunder by the contrary longings for control and whimsy, we routinize daily life in order to make its inherent chaos more manageable, then ritualize it in order to imbue its mundanity with magic, which by definition violates the predictable laws of the universe. I suspect that our voracious appetite for the daily routines of cultural icons is fueled by a deep yearning to glean some insight on and practical help with this impossible balancing act, from people who seem to have mastered it well enough to lead happy, productive, creatively fruitful, and altogether remarkable lives.

Perhaps the most unexpected yet brilliant master of this elusive modern equilibrium is the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama by Manuel Bauer

In the altogether magnificent The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (public library), writer Pico Iyer — who has known the beloved spiritual leader since adolescence and, by the time he began writing this book, had visited him in his exile home for nearly thirty years — describes how the Dalai Lama begins each day:

[By] nine a.m. … the Dalai Lama himself had already been up for more than five hours, awakening, as he always does, at three-thirty a.m., to spend his first four hours of the day meditating on the roots of compassion and what he can do for his people, the “Chinese brothers and sisters” who are holding his people hostage, and the rest of us, while also preparing himself for his death.

Compressed into this humble and humbling morning routine is the entire Buddhist belief that life is a “joyful participation in a world of sorrows.” This daily rite of body and spirit is the building block of the Dalai Lama’s quiet and steadfast mission to, as Iyer elegantly puts it, “explore the world closely, so as to make out its laws, and then to see what can and cannot be done within those laws.” He writes:

To understand the Dalai Lama … especially if (as in my case) you come from some other tradition, perhaps it’s most useful to see him as a doctor of the soul.

As someone deeply invested in the crucial difference between information and wisdom, I was particularly fascinated by the Dalai Lama’s information diet — that is, what daily facts he chooses to fuse with ancient wisdom in his dedication to unraveling the nature of reality and making use of it in fortifying the soul. Iyer writes:

As a longtime student of real life, ruler of his people before the age of five, he listens every morning to the Voice of America, to the BBC East Asian broadcast, to the BBC World Service — even while meditating — and devours Time and Newsweek and many other news sources (I think of how the Buddha is often depicted with one hand touching the earth, in what Buddhists call the “witnessing the earth” gesture).

And yet the Dalai Lama approaches his information diet like he does his meditation — as a deliberate practice. In that sense, “meaning diet” is far more accurate a term, for he is remarkably deliberate about which aspects of the Information Age to fold into his meaning-making mission and which to sidestep. He chooses, for instance, to avoid one of the most perilous byproducts of our era, which Susan Sontag presaged in 1977 in her famous admonition against “aesthetic consumerism.” Iyer writes:

In the Age of the Image, when screens are so much our rulers, anyone who wishes to grab our attention — and to hold it — does so by converting himself into a “human-interest story,” translating his life into a kind of fable…. Those who long to be entrusted with real consequences in our lives acquire that power increasingly by presenting themselves as fairy tales.

The Dalai Lama, by nature and training, is in the odd position of trying to do the opposite: he comes to us to tell us that he is real, as real as his country, bleeding and oppressed, and that he lives in a world far more complex than a two-year-old’s cries of “Good Tibetans, bad Chinese” (the Dalai Lama would more likely say, “Potentially good Tibetans, potentially good Chinese”).

The Dalai Lama by Manuel Bauer

At the heart of this message is a larger testament to the most essential characteristic of reality — something Alan Watts, who began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West when the Dalai Lama was still a teenager, captured memorably when he wrote: “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.”

Indeed, contacting this interconnectedness of all beings and all lives is the very impetus for the Dalai Lama’s morning routine and his information diet — a beautiful assurance that beneath our obsession with routine and ritual lies a deeper, more expansive longing for meaning, for orienting ourselves in this vibrating universe of interconnectedness that we call reality.

Iyer articulates this elegantly:

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a body (not difficult to do, since in part that is what you are). You have eyes, ears, legs, hands, and, if you are lucky, all of them are in good working order. You never, if you are sane, think of your finger as an independent entity (though you may occasionally say, “My toe seems to have a mind of its own”). You are never, in your right mind, moved to hit your own foot, let alone sever it; the only loser in such an exercise would be yourself.

[…]

This is all simplistic to the point of self-evidence. But when the Buddhist speaks of “interdependence” (the central Buddhist concept of shunyata, often rendered as “emptiness,” the Dalai Lama has translated as “empty of independent identity”), all he is really saying is that we are all a part of a single body, and to think of “I” and “you,” of the right hand’s interests being different from the left’s, makes no sense at all. It’s crazy to impede your neighbor, because he is as intrinsic to your welfare as your thumb is. It’s almost absurd to say you wish to get ahead of your colleague — it’s like your right toe saying it longs to be ahead of the left.

[…]

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is famous for his laughter, the sudden eruption of almost helpless giggles or a high-pitched shaking of the body. Seen from the vantage point of one who meditates several hours a day, traveling to the place where everything is connected, much of our fascination with surface or with division seems truly hilarious… Talking about friends and enemies is a little like holding on to this hair on your arm and claiming it as a friend, because you see it daily, and calling the hair on your back an enemy, because you never see it at all. Talking of how you are a Buddhist and therefore opposed to the Judeo-Christian teaching is like solemnly asserting that your right nostril is the source of everything good, and your left nostril a place of evil. The doctrine of “universal responsibility” is not only universal but obvious: it’s like saying that every part of us longs for our legs, our eyes, our lungs to be healthy. If one part suffers, we all do.

Suddenly, the Dalai Lama’s morning routine and his information diet are revealed in a whole new light of meaning — they are a form of self-empowerment in the journey toward shedding self-centeredness. (Lest we forget, as another great Buddhist teacher has put it, “you first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist.”)

Iyer writes:

Buddhists do not (or need not) seek solutions from outside themselves, but merely awakening within; the minute we come to see that our destinies or well-being are all mutually dependent, they say, the rest naturally follows (meditation sometimes seems the way we come to this perception, reasoning the way we consolidate it). If you believe this, human life offers you many more belly laughs daily, as the Dalai Lama exemplifies.

And there, with a good-humored smirk, Iyer reminds us that his perspective isn’t perched on a holier-than-thou branch in the tree of life but grounded in his reality as a Westerner and a writer, and thus a creature of ego trying to learn the very lesson he is channeling:

Why despair, indeed, when you can change the world at any moment by choosing to see that the person who gave your last book a bad review is as intrinsic to your well-being as your thumb is?

The Open Road is an illuminating read in its totality, propelled by Iyer’s deeply pleasurable prose. Complement it with Iyer on what Leonard Cohen knows about the art of stillness and his superb On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, in which he recounts the experience of shadowing the Dalai Lama in order to capture his inner light:

On Being is one of these nine favorite podcasts for a fuller life — do your soul a favor and subscribe.

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08 JUNE, 2015

On Being Too Much for Ourselves: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Balance and the Necessary Excesses of Life

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“There are situations in which it is more dangerous to keep your balance than to lose it.”

“Something is always born of excess,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in June of 1945 as she contemplated the value of emotional excess, adding: “Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.” And yet our compulsive pursuit of balance — take, for instance, the tyrannical notion of work/life balance — is predicated on eradicating “excess,” pitting it as a counterpoint rather than a complement to equilibrium and inner wholeness.

That paradoxical relationship is what the celebrated psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips examines in On Balance (public library) — a marvelous collection of essays on “the balancing acts that modern societies involve us in,” exploring the many myths that bedevil our beliefs about balance and impede our pursuit of it.

With an eye to John Stuart Mill’s 1834 proclamation that “there seems to be something singularly captivating in the word balance, as if, because anything is called a balance, it must, for that reason, be necessarily good,” Phillips writes:

The people we fall in love with we find singularly captivating, as are any of the people (or ideas) that inspire us, for better or for worse. What is strange about Mill’s simple observation is that it is the singularly captivating that tends to make us lose our balance. Mill intimates with his peculiar logic that the idea of balance can unbalance us.

Like anger, beneath which David Whyte has so poetically observed lies an indication of what really matters to us, these unbalancing acts, Phillips argues, are a vital and indicative part of our aliveness:

We should not, perhaps, underestimate our wish to lose our balance, even though it’s often easier to get up than to fall over. Indeed, the sign that something does matter to us is that we lose our steadiness.

Phillips considers the necessary excess of optimism and why an artificial balance is sometimes more dangerous than surrendering to such “singularly captivating” loss of steadiness:

We can only be really realistic after we have tried our optimism out. It is not always clear in which areas of our lives it is realistic (or even optimistic) to aspire to the balanced view; or indeed in which parts of our lives the balanced view helps us to get the lives that we want. Balancing acts are entertaining because they are risky, but there are situations in which it is more dangerous to keep your balance than to lose it.

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli from 'Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical' by Noémie Révah. Click image for more.

In one of the most rousingly and rewardingly unbalancing essays in the book, titled “On Being Too Much for Ourselves,” Phillips considers an especially anguishing aspect of our relationship with excess, fueled largely by our pathological busyness. Phillips, who has previously explored the crucial role of “fertile solitude” in cultivating self-reliance, writes:

It is not unusual for us to feel that life is too much for us. And it is not unusual to feel that we really should be up to it; that there may be too much to cope with — too many demands — but that we should have the wherewithal to deal with it. Faced with the stresses and strains of everyday life it is easy now for people to feel that they are failing; and what they are failing at, one way or another, is managing the ordinary excesses that we are all beset by: too much frustration, too much bad feeling, too little love, too little success, and so on. One of the things people most frequently say in psychoanalysis is, ‘Perhaps I am overreacting, but . . .’; and one of the commonest complaints today is about feeling too much or feeling too little. I want to suggest that we are simply too much for ourselves, but that this too-muchness is telling us something important… My proposition is that it is impossible to overreact. That when we call our reactions overreactions what we mean is just that they are stronger than we would like them to be. In other words, we sometimes call ourselves and other people excessive as a way of invalidating or tempering the truths we tell ourselves or that other people tell us. It is impossible to overreact.

Our choice of language often betrays our repressed reactions more than we realize, but never more so than in Freudian slips — those awkward moments when our words inadvertently reveal what we mean but didn’t intend to say. Phillips considers this particularly common and colorful example of overreaction:

When we make Freudian slips we try to cover our tracks by claiming that we have said more than we mean, when in fact we have meant more than we had wanted to say… We may feel like we are saying too much, but we may be saying just the right amount; adding things to the conversation that are worth talking about and trying out. We can’t decide not to make Freudian slips; but even when we use ordinary language intentionally, we often say more than we intend. If I say to you that I am a great admirer of your work, I am telling you about my greatness as well as yours; when I say, “See you tomorrow,” I am assuming I know what isn’t going to happen in the interim. Our language, without which we couldn’t imagine our lives, is too much for us in the sense that it can surprise us: we hear in it — and we say in it — more than we intend to. And more than we attend to.

Phillips looks at how our early childhood — those “years of intense feeling” — shapes our aversion to excess and gives rise to our compulsive quest for composure, control, and intentional organization with which to disguise our deep inner shame of being seen as “overreacting”:

We have all had the experience, as children, of being too much for someone; of making someone feel things that they didn’t want to feel… Everyone starts with the experience of being too much for someone else; not only with that experience, but with that experience somewhere in the mix of who one is. Before we acquire the limiting and limited excesses of language we have lived with the excesses of need. If, even only occasionally as a child, you are too much for your parents — which then means you are too much for yourself — what can you do?

Illustration by Emily Hughes from 'Wild.' Click image for more.

What we do, Phillips points out, is begin to see this excess as badness — we aren’t simply “too much,” but too much of something undesirable, uncomfortable-making, and ultimately dangerous:

The child who experiences himself as being too much for his parents — all children to some extent — experiences himself as in some way harming them. And as the child’s survival depends upon his parents, or those who look after him, this puts him in mortal danger. For this reason alone it is very difficult for the child — and for the adult that he will become — to think of his too-muchness as anything other than a problem. And yet, of course, parents are there to absorb, and be absorbed in, their children’s excesses (and vice versa). Indeed, people know that they are in a relationship when they become a problem to each other (or, to put it slightly differently, if you want to have a relationship with someone you have to become a problem for them).

Nin, it turns out, was right after all — great excess is necessary for great works of art, and what greater an art than that of human relationships? Phillips captures this necessary too-muchness beautifully:

We are too much for ourselves because there is far more to us — we feel more — than we can manage.

The piercing precision of insight in the example with which Phillips illustrates this took my breath away, for one of my most vivid childhood memories is a newscast in my grandparents’ living room announcing the death of Princess Diana, which instantly sent me into an inexplicable spiral of sobbing grief for a stranger’s tragic fate. Phillips, however, argues this experience is quite explicable for the very same reasons — it bespeaks the uncomfortable too-muchness of our emotional capacity:

People didn’t overreact to the death of Diana; through the death of Diana they recognized just how much grief they were bearing, how much loss they had suffered in their lives, how they felt about the fate of young women in our culture. Indeed, grief, rather like sexuality, reminds us just how much we are too much for ourselves, how intense our loves and longings really are.

[…]

We are too much for ourselves — in our hungers and our desires, in our griefs and our commitments, in our loves and our hates — because we are unable to include so much of what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves. The whole idea of ourselves as excessive exposes how determined we are to have the wrong picture of what we are like, of how fanatically ignorant we are about ourselves.

It is in adolescence, Phillips argues, that we first begin to play with the boundaries of excess, feeling out what we might be capable of and contemplating — sometimes experiencing — its consequences. Indeed, that precipice of maturity is itself “singularly captivating” in both promise and peril. Phillips writes:

Adolescence — when children begin to have the physical capacity to murder and conceive — is our more conscious initiation into those very excesses that make us who we are; and, of course, who we might become. Adolescents are excessive compared with the children they once were and the adults they are supposed to become. But adolescence, at least for modern people, seems to be peculiarly difficult to grow out of.

Instead of growing out of it, Phillips argues, we come to fetishize it — something glaringly evident in our youth-centric, youthfulness-obsessed culture, where a dignified relationship with aging is increasingly elusive. That cult, Phillips suggests, springs from envying the very excesses of adolescence:

The contemporary idealization of adolescence is telling us something about how we manage our complicated feelings about being too much for ourselves.

[…]

Excessive behavior, in other words, is not so much something we grow out of as something we grow into.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

And with this he returns to the essential what-to-do question of living with our all too human, all too vital imbalances:

Perhaps “excess” is a word we use to reassure ourselves that we can be something other than excessive. If we start off by being, at least some of the time, too much for other people, and become, in adolescence, definitively too much for other people, so much so that we have to leave them, and then become adults who are unavoidably too much for ourselves, what is to be done? Well, one thing that can be done is to find someone we are not too much for…

On Balance is a pleasurably discombobulating read in its totality. Complement it with Phillips on why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life, Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility, and David Whyte on the true meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak.

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