Brain Pickings

The Price of Admission: Dan Savage on the Myth of “The One” and the Unsettling Secret of Lasting Love

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How the lies we tell each other can become our greatest springboard for self-transcendence.

“What is love but acceptance of the other, whatever he is,” Anaïs Nin wrote in a letter to her then-lover, Henry Miller. And yet that acceptance is a “dynamic interaction” which we seem to be increasingly unwilling to acquiesce, going to excessive lengths in our stubborn quest to avoid compromising. But as crappy as compromise can feel at the moment it is made, anyone in a long-term relationship can attest that it is the fertilizer of romance.

Three years before the release of his provocative compendium American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics (public library), writer and It Gets Better Project creator Dan Savage answers a reader’s question about romance deal-breakers and, in the process, offers some of the most important relationship advice you’ll ever get:

There is no settling down without some settling for. There is no long-term relationship not just putting up with your partner’s flaws, but accepting them and then pretending they aren’t there. We like to call it in my house “paying the price of admission.”

[…]

You can’t have a long-term relationship with someone unless you’re willing to identify the prices of admission you’re willing to pay — and the ones you’re not. But the ones you’re not — the list of things you’re not willing to put up with — you really have to be able to count [them] on one hand…

People, when they’re young, have this idea… “There’s someone out there who’s perfect for me”… “The one.”

“The one” does not fucking exist.

“The one” is a lie. But the beautiful part of the lie is that it’s a lie you can tell yourself.

Any long-term relationship that’s successful is really a myth that two people create together … and myths are built of lies, and there’s usually some kernel of truth…

When you think about it, you meet somebody for the first time, and they’re not presenting their warts-and-all self to you — they’re presenting their idealized self to you, they’re leading with their best. And then, eventually, you’re farting in front of each other. Eventually, you get to see the person who is behind that facade of their best, and they get to see the person your facade, your lie-self — this lie that you presented to them about who you really are. And what’s beautiful about a long-term relationship, and what can be transformative about it, is that I pretend every day that my boyfriend is the lie that I met when I first met him. And he does that same favor to me — he pretends that I’m that better person than I actually am. Even though he knows I’m not. Even though I know he’s not. And we then are obligated to live up to the lies we told each other about who we are — we are then forced to be better people than we actually are, because it’s expected of us by each other.

And you can, in a long-term relationship, really make your lie-self come true — if you’re smart, and you demand it of them, and you’re willing to give it to them… That’s the only way you become “the one” — it’s because somebody is willing to pretend you are. “The one” that they were waiting for, “the one” they wanted, their “one.” Because you’re not — nobody is. No two people are perfect for each other, ever, period — No two people are 100% sexually compatible, no two people are 100% emotionally compatible, no two people want the same things. And if you can’t reconcile yourself to that, you will have no relationships that last longer than two months.

And you know what? It’s not going to be their fault — it’s going to be your fault.

Complement with the psychology of how “positivity resonance” shapes the way we love and Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s 19th-century meditations on love and its demons.

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Anne Truitt on Resisting the Label “Artist” and the Difference Between Doing Art and Being an Artist

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“Artists have no choice but to express their lives.”

At the age of fifty-three, the influential artist Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) confronted the existential discomfort any creative person feels in facing a major retrospective of his or her work — the Corcoran Gallery of Art had just staged one of Truitt’s. A retrospective, she felt, forces upon the artist a finite definition — this is what your work is, this who you are. It attempts to make visible and static those invisible, ever-fluid forces that compel an artist to make art.

To tease out her unease, Truitt set out to explore the dimensions of her personality and her creative impulse in a diary, in which she wrote diligently for a period of seven years. It was eventually published as Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — an extraordinary, soul-stretching collection of meditations on the trials, triumphs, and self-transcendence of the creative life.

Truitt once described her art as concerned “with the limen of consciousness, with the threshold at which experience becomes just perceptible,” but it is in the privacy of the diary that she ventures past that threshold and into the furthest frontiers of the psyche — her psyche, the artist’s psyche, the universal human psyche. Trained as a psychologist and with only one year of formal education in art, Truitt made a decision to “ride out the jeopardy of art with as much courage and faith” as possible. From this unusual standpoint, she reaches depths of insight and self-awareness inaccessible to most artists — to most human beings — and pulls out of them luminous wisdom on the love, labor, and life of art.

In one particularly poignant series of journal entries from the summer of 1974, Truitt exorcises the chronic resistance many artists have to the label of “artist” and the perils of letting others define you. On July 2 that year, she writes:

I do not understand why I seem able to make what people call art. For many long years I struggled to learn how to do it, and I don’t even know why I struggled. Then, in 1961, at the age of forty, it became clear to me that I was doing work I respected within my own strictest standards. Furthermore, I found this work respected by those whose understanding of art I valued. My first, instinctive reaction to this new situation was, if I’m an artist, being an artist isn’t so fancy because it’s just me. But now, thirteen years later, there seems to be more to it than that. It isn’t “just me.” A simplistic attitude toward the course of my life no longer serves.

The “just me” reaction was, I think, an instinctive disavowal of the social role of the artist. A life-saving disavowal. I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses. If artists embrace this view of themselves, they necessarily have to attend to its perpetuation. They have to live it out. Their time and energy are consumed for social purposes. Artists then make decisions in terms of a role defined by others, falling into their power and serving to illustrate their theories. The Renaissance focused this social attention on the artist’s individuality, and the focus persists today in a curious form that on the one hand inflates artists’ egoistic concept of themselves and on the other places them at the mercy of the social forces on which they become dependent. Artists can suffer terribly in this dilemma. It is taxing to think out and then maintain a view of one’s self that is realistic.

This dilemma, Truitt cautions, is compounded by the contradictions of commercial art and the conflicting forces of authenticity and pragmatism that often force upon artists the choice between creative authenticity and commercial success:

The pressure to earn a living confronts a fickle public taste. Artists have to please whim to live on their art. They stand in fearful danger of looking to this taste to define their working decisions. Sometime during the course of their development, they have to forge a character subtle enough to nourish and protect and foster the growth of the part of themselves that makes art, and at the same time practical enough to deal with the world pragmatically. They have to maintain a position between care of themselves and care of their work in the world, just as they have to sustain the delicate tension between intuition and sensory information.

This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that artists are, in this sense, special because they are intrinsically involved in a difficult balance not so blatantly precarious in other professions. The lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out to the public gaze.

But Truitt soon sees another angle of this living-out of the artist — living out not one’s role of being an “artist,” a performance of sorts, but living out one’s immutable experience of doing art:

The terms of the experience and the terms of the work itself are totally different. But if the work is successful — I cannot ever know whether it is or not — the experience becomes the work and, through the work, is accessible to others with its original force.

For me, this process is mysterious. It’s like not knowing where you’re going but knowing how to get there.

A few days later, in an entry reflecting on the work of the celebrated sculptor David Smith and, by extension, on all great art, Truitt writes:

He seemed never to forget that he was an artist. He just plain chose not to.

[…]

Artists have no choice but to express their lives. They have only, and that not always, a choice of process. This process does not change the essential content of their work in art, which can only be their life.

A month after her original resistant contemplation of the label “artist,” Truitt revisits the subject, exercising the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind with an acknowledgment that in order to unblock the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow, one must begin with a submission to the role of artist. On August 6, she writes:

In skirting the role of the artist, I now begin to think that I have made too wide a curve, that I have deprived myself of a certain strength. Indeed, I am not sure that I can grow as an artist until I can bring myself to accept that I am one.

Part of my intense discomfort this past year has been that I was pried out of my place there. I was attached to my secret burrow, which now begins to feel a little stale.

And also egotistic, confined, even imprisoning. I begin to see that by clinging to this position I was limiting what I had to handle in the world to what I could rationalize. As long as I stayed within my own definition of myself, I could control what I admitted into that definition. By insisting that I was “just me,” I held myself aloof. Let others claim to be artists, I said to myself, holding my life separate and unique, beyond all definition but my own.

[…]

The open being: I am an artist. Even to write it makes me feel deeply uneasy. I am, I feel, not good enough to be an artist. And this leads me to wonder whether my distaste for the inflated social definition of the artist is not an inverse reflection of secret pride. Have I haughtily rejected the inflation on the outside while entertaining it on the inside? In my passion for learning how to make true for others what I felt to be true for myself (and I cannot remember, except very, very early on, ever not having had this passion), I think I may have fallen into idolatry of those who were able to communicate this way. Artists.

So to think myself an artist was self-idolatry. In a clear wind of the company of artists this summer, I am gently disarmed. We are artists because we are ourselves.

Daybook is a spectacular read in its entirety, with wisdom on everything from the role of daily routine and environment to the relationship between mental health and creativity. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life and Anna Deavere Smith’s superb Letters to a Young Artist.

Thanks, Dani

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The Psychology of Our Willful Blindness and Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril

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How to counter the gradual narrowing of our horizons.

“Keep your baby eyes (which are the eyes of genius) on what we don’t know,” pioneering investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote in a beautiful 1926 letter of life-advice to his baby son. And yet the folly of the human condition is precisely that we can’t know what we don’t know — as E.F. Schumacher elegantly put it in his guide for the perplexed, “everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see.” What obscures those transformative unknowns from view are the unconscious biases that even the best-intentioned of us succumb to.

In Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (public library), serial entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan examines the intricate, pervasive cognitive and emotional mechanisms by which we choose, sometimes consciously but mostly not, to remain unseeing in situations where “we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.” We do that, Heffernan argues and illustrates through a multitude of case studies ranging from dictatorships to disastrous love affairs to Bernie Madoff, because “the more tightly we focus, the more we leave out” — or, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz put it in her remarkable exploration of exactly what we leave out in our daily lives, because “attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator.”

The concept of “willful blindness,” Heffernan explains, comes from the law and originates from legislature passed in the 19th century — it’s the somewhat counterintuitive idea that you’re responsible “if you could have known, and should have known, something that instead you strove not to see.” What’s most uneasy-making about the concept is the implication that it doesn’t matter whether the avoidance of truth is conscious. This basic mechanism of keeping ourselves in the dark, Heffernan argues, plays out in just about every aspect of life, but there are things we can do — as individuals, organizations, and nations — to lift our blinders before we walk into perilous situations that later produce the inevitable exclamation: How could I have been so blind?

Heffernan explores the “friendly alibis” we manufacture for our own inertia — the same ones fueling the “backfire effect” that explains why it’s so hard for us to change our minds. She writes in the book:

Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious, dangerous, or absurd and there’s much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia. And money has the power to blind us, even to our better selves.

Illustration from 'How To Be a Nonconformist,' 1968. Click image for more.

One of the subtlest yet most pervasive manifestations of our willful blindness is our choice of mates. Data from 25 million online dating site questionnaires reveal that “we mostly marry and live with people very like ourselves” — a finding that Heffernan points out always annoys people:

We all want to feel that we have made our own choices, that they weren’t predictable, that we aren’t so vain as to choose ourselves, and that we are freer spirits, with a broader, more eclectic range of taste than the data imply. We don’t like to feel that we’re blind to the allure of those who are not like us; we don’t like to see how trapped we are inside our own identity.

[…]

We like ourselves, not least because we are known and familiar to ourselves. So we like people similar to us — or that we just imagine might have some attributes in common with us. They feel familiar too, and safe. And those feelings of familiarity and security make us like ourselves more because we aren’t anxious. We belong. Our self-esteem rises. We feel happy. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently.

And yet, she notes, our minds work much like the dating site algorithms — we scan life for matches and, when we find one, we relish the feel-good affirmation. It’s just one manifestation of our soft spot for “filter bubbles,” exploited by everything from Amazon’s book recommendation engines to the elaborate audience-tailoring of modern media. (Heffernan touches on the big-picture disservice in the media’s insidious practice of narrowing our horizons for profit, rather than expanding them in the public interest: “[Media companies] know that when we buy a newspaper or a magazine, we aren’t looking for a fight… The search for what is familiar and comfortable underlies our media consumption habits in just the same way as it makes us yearn for Mom’s mac ’n’ cheese.”) She captures the dark side:

The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.

Remarkably, these blind spots turn out to have a physical foundation in the brain. Heffernan quotes neurologist Robert Burton, who studies the biological basis of bias and why our brains tend to reject information that broadens our outlook:

Neural networks don’t give you a direct route from, say, a flash of light straight to your consciousness. There are all kinds of committees that vote along the way, whether that flash of light is going to go straight to your consciousness or not. And if there are enough ‘yes’ votes, then yes you can see it. If there aren’t, you could miss it.

But here’s the thing: What does your brain like? What gets the “yes” vote? It likes the stuff it already recognizes. It likes what is familiar. So you will see the familiar stuff right away. The other stuff may take longer, or it may never impinge on your consciousness. You just won’t see it.

Burton illustrates this with a beautiful, if unsettling, metaphor:

Imagine the gradual formation of a riverbed. The initial flow of water might be completely random — there are no preferred routes in the beginning. But once a creek is formed, water is more likely to follow this newly created path of least resistance. As the water continues, the creek deepens and a river develops.

Over the course of our lives, our accumulation of experiences, relationships, and ideas shapes the proverbial riverbed of the mind, and the water begins to flow with less and less resistance, which in turn produces a sense of certainty and ease that only deepens the riverbed. (In the excellent A General Theory of Love, these coteries of gradually encoded information patterns are elegantly described as “attractors”.) Heffernan contemplates the repercussions:

Our blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions that we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values. And what’s most frightening about this process is that as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and greater certainty. We think we see more — even as the landscape shrinks.

Hardly anywhere is our willful blindness more unrelenting than in love. The old adage that “love is blind,” it turns out, has strong psychological roots:

When we love someone, we see them as smarter, wittier, prettier, stronger than anyone else sees them. To us, a beloved parent, partner, or child has endlessly more talent, potential, and virtue than mere strangers can ever discern. Being loved, when we are born, keeps us alive; without love for her child, how could any new mother manage or any child survive? And if we grow up surrounded by love, we feel secure in the knowledge that others believe in us, will champion and defend us. That confidence — that we are loved and therefore lovable — is an essential building block of our identity and self-confidence. We believe in ourselves, at least in part, because others believe in us and we depend mightily on their belief. As human beings, we are highly driven to find and to protect the relationships that make us feel good about ourselves and that make us feel safe.. Those mirrors confirms our sense of self-worth. Love does the same thing … and that seems to be just as true even if our love is based on illusion. Indeed, there seems to be some evidence not only that all love is based on illusion — but that love positively requires illusion in order to endure.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from 'Jane, the Fox, and Me' by Fanny Britt, a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre. Click image for more.

Because of how integral love is to our sense of identity — lest we forget: “Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” — we are remarkably averse to seeing anything that threatens that sense by pulling the virtues of our loved ones into question.

The most harrowing example of this blindness, Heffernan points out, is in families damaged by child abuse. Some 700,000 cases of child abuse are reported each year — and this is one of the most underreported forms of violence in society for a variety of reasons — which makes it impossible to imagine how so many families can be blind to the tragedy within. And yet, Heffernan notes, imagining and acknowledging such a devastating idea requires of non-perpetrating parents and guardians to question their own reality to such a degree that many find unconscious escape in their “willful blindness.”

She returns to the broader phenomenon:

Nations, institutions, individuals can all be blinded by love, by the need to believe themselves good and worthy and valued. We simply could not function if we believed ourselves to be otherwise. But when we are blind to the flaws and failings of what we love, we aren’t effective either… We make ourselves powerless when we pretend we don’t know. That’s the paradox of blindness: We think it will make us safe even as it puts us in danger.

And yet willful blindness, Heffernan argues, isn’t a fatal diagnosis of the human condition — it may be our natural, evolutionarily cultivated tendency, but it is within our capability to diffuse it with the right combination of intention and attention. She reflects on the heartening evidence to which the various studies reviewed in the book point:

The most crucial learning that has emerged from this science is the recognition that we continue to change right up to the moment we die. Every experience and encounter, each piece of new learning, each relationship or reassessment alters how our minds work. And no two experiences are the same. In his work on the human genome, the Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner reminds us that even identical twins will have different experiences in different environments and that that makes them fundamentally different beings. Identical twins develop different immune systems. Mental practice alone can change how our brains operate. The plasticity and responsiveness of our minds is what makes each of us most remarkable… We aren’t automata serving the master computer in our heads, and our capacity for change can never be underestimated.

[…]

We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it. Like Lear, we can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?

Willful Blindness is a provocative and necessary read from cover to cover. Complement it with NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain and Rebecca Solnit’s manifesto for welcoming the unknown.

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