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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

11 NOVEMBER, 2014

Amanda Palmer on the Art of Asking and What Thoreau Teaches Us about Accepting Love

By:

“You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.”

“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it,” Lucinda Williams sang from my headphones into my heart one rainy October morning on the train to Hudson. “What seems cynicism is always a sign, always a sign…” I was headed to Hudson for a conversation with a very different but no less brilliant musician, and a longtime kindred spirit — the talented and kind Amanda Palmer. In an abandoned schoolhouse across the street from her host’s home, we sat down to talk about her magnificent and culturally necessary new book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (public library | IndieBound) — a beautifully written inquiry into why we have such a hard time accepting compassion in all of its permutations, from love to what it takes to make a living, what lies behind our cynicism in refusing it, and how learning to accept it makes possible the greatest gifts of our shared humanity.

I am partial, perhaps, because my own sustenance depends on accepting help. But I also deeply believe and actively partake in both the yin and the yang of that vitalizing osmosis of giving and receiving that keeps today’s creative economy alive, binding artists and audiences, writers and readers, musicians and fans, into the shared cause of creative culture. “It’s only when we demand that we are hurt,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating the circles of giving and receiving in 1942, but still seem woefully caught in the paradoxical trap of too much entitlement to what we feel we want and too little capacity to accept what we truly need. The unhinging of that trap is what Amanda explores with equal parts deep personal vulnerability, profound insight into the private and public lives of art, and courageous conviction about the future of creative culture.

The most urgent clarion call echoing throughout the book, which builds on Amanda’s terrific TED talk, is for loosening our harsh and narrow criteria for what it means to be an artist, and, most of all, for undoing our punishing ideas about what renders one a not-artist, or — worse yet — a not-artist-enough. Amanda writes of the anguishing Impostor Syndrome epidemic such limiting notions spawn:

People working in the arts engage in street combat with The Fraud Police on a daily basis, because much of our work is new and not readily or conventionally categorized. When you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand. And you feel stupid doing it.

There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to university, getting published, getting signed to a record label. But it’s all bullshit, and it’s all in your head. You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.

But in the history of creative genius, this pathology appears to be a rather recent development — the struggle to be an artist, of course, is nothing new, but the struggle to believe being one seems to be a uniquely modern malady. In one of the most revelatory passages in the book, Amanda points out a little-known biographical detail about the life of Henry David Thoreau — he who decided to live the self-reliant life by Walden pond and memorably proclaimed: “If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.” It is a detail that, today, would undoubtedly render Thoreau the target of that automatic privilege narrative as we point a finger and call him a “poser”:

Thoreau wrote in painstaking detail about how he chose to remove himself from society to live “by his own means” in a little 10-foot x 15-foot hand-hewn cabin on the side of a pond. What he left out of Walden, though, was the fact that the land he built on was borrowed from his wealthy neighbor, that his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson had him over for dinner all the time, and that every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought over a basket of freshly-baked goods for him, including donuts.

The idea of Thoreau gazing thoughtfully over the expanse of transcendental Walden Pond, a bluebird alighting onto his threadbare shoe, all the while eating donuts that his mom brought him just doesn’t jibe with most people’s picture of him of a self-reliant, noble, marrow-sucking back-to-the-woods folk-hero.

If Thoreau lived today, steeped in a culture that tells him taking the donuts chips away at his credibility, would he have taken them? And why don’t we? Amanda writes:

Taking the donuts is hard for a lot of people.

It’s not the act of taking that’s so difficult, it’s more the fear of what other people are going to think when they see us slaving away at our manuscript about the pure transcendence of nature and the importance of self-reliance and simplicity. While munching on someone else’s donut.

Maybe it comes back to that same old issue: we just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.

Try to picture getting angry at Einstein devouring a donut brought to him by his assistant, while he sat slaving on the theory of relativity. Try to picture getting angry at Florence Nightingale for snacking on a donut while taking a break from tirelessly helping the sick.

To the artists, creators, scientists, non-profit-runners, librarians, strange-thinkers, start-uppers and inventors, to all people everywhere who are afraid to accept the help, in whatever form it’s appearing,

Please, take the donuts.

To the guy in my opening band who was too ashamed to go out into the crowd and accept money for his band,

Take the donuts.

To the girl who spent her twenties as a street performer and stripper living on less than $700 a month who went on to marry a best-selling author who she loves, unquestioningly, but even that massive love can’t break her unwillingness to accept his financial help, please….

Everybody.

Please.

Just take the fucking donuts.

But Thoreau, it turns out, got one thing right in his definition of success, which emanates from Amanda’s words a century and a half later:

The happiest artists I know are generally the ones who can manage to make a reasonable living from their art without having to worry too much about the next paycheck. Not to say that every artist who sits around the campfire, or plays in tiny bars, is “happier” than those singing in stadiums — but more isn’t always better. If feeling the connection between yourself and others is the ultimate goal it can be harder when you are separated from the crowd by a 30-foot barrier. And it can be easier to do — though riskier — when they’re sitting right beside you. The ideal sweet spot is the one in which the artist can freely share their talents and directly feel the reverberations of their artistic gifts to their community. In other words, it works best when everybody feels seen.

As artists, and as humans: If your fear is scarcity, the solution isn’t necessarily abundance.

But here is where it gets hairy. The strange and disorienting thing is that even the best-intentioned of us sometimes deploy the donuts dismissal in its various guises. As I took the above photo of Amanda with her new iPhone — the model released mere days earlier — I, a longtime and vocal proponent of undoing the toxic myth that being a true artist necessarily requires being a starving artist, was suddenly gripped with the anguishing sense that some part of me had instantly, almost automatically put on a Fraud Police hat. But why shouldn’t she, an artist supported directly by her audience, have the latest iPhone? Why should this trigger a twinge of questioning authenticity rather than a celebration of all the earned love from fans that makes it possible?

To think that we all do it is at once terrifying and comforting.

In fact, Amanda herself does it. In one of the most poignant passages in the book, she recalls doing this very thing to her own mother — a hardworking and accomplished freelance computer programmer in an era when women in the field frequently got raised eyebrows and rarely got raises. Amanda relays the conversation, which took place after two glasses of wine twenty years later:

You know, Amanda, one thing always bothered me. Something you said when you were a teenager.

Oh, no. I was a terrible teenager, an angst-fest of hormones and nihilism.

Um….what?

She can do this imitation of me as a teenager that makes me want to crawl under a table. She did it now.

You said: ‘MOM, I’m a REAL ARTIST. You’re NOT.’

Then she added, more kindly: You know you, Amanda, you were being a typical teenager.

I winced, and felt my neck tighten and my teeth grit down into mother-fight-or-flight mode.

She continued, But you know. You would say: ‘I’m an ARTIST…fuck you, mom! What do you know?! You’re just a computer programmer.’

[…]

And then my mother said something that absolutely demolished my defensiveness. I don’t think, in all the years I’ve known her, that I’ve ever heard her sound more vulnerable.

You know, Amanda, it always bothered me. You can’t actually see my art, but… I’m one of the best artists I know. It’s just… nobody can ever see the beautiful things I made. Because you can’t hang them in a gallery.

Then there was a pause.

I took in my own deep breath.

God, mom. Sorry.

And she laughed and her voice turned cheerful again.

Oh, don’t worry, sweetie. You were thirteen.

[…]

In all my rock-and-roll years of running around, supporting people,advocating for women, giving all these strangers and fans permission to “embrace their inner fucking artist,” to express themselves fully, to look at their work and lives as beautiful, unique creative acts, I’d somehow excluded my own mother.

[…]

I thought about her work that I couldn’t possibly comprehend, about the actual creative work she had done. All that delicate, handmade lace-like programming she did into the dead of night… and how insanely proud she felt when it worked, and the true… beauty of that. And the sadness, too, because nobody ever, you know, clapped for her at the end of the night.

The kind of work Amanda’s mother had been doing all those years is what so many artists — by the true, soul-bound definition — do every single day, the kind of work David Foster Wallace found at the heart of heroism as he wrote of the “minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” That a thirteen-year-old girl would dismiss her brilliant mother’s heroism says less about the girl and more about the culture.

This is what we do — we dismiss. And when we ordain ourselves as the Fraud Police, we are always thirteen — especially on the internet, the vast majority of which is inherently thirteen.

In this excerpt from our conversation, the full footage of which you can watch at the bottom, Amanda and I toss the proverbial donut back and forth as we explore how and why we do this — why we deny others the label “artist” and deny ourselves the donuts in order not to detract from our own artistness:

Amanda learned how to get off the nail during her early days working as a living statue in the streets of Boston to scrape together a living — work that was constantly dismissed by strangers and self-appointed Fraud Police officers as not-work, or not-real-enough work. That experience, which she recounts beautifully in her TED talk, gave her vital insight into the deepest trenches of the impulse that finally drives us to get off the nail and take the donuts:

As I moved through my life as a statue and later as a musician, I started to understand:

There’s a difference between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen.

When you are looked at, your eyes can be closed. You suck energy, you steal the spotlight. When you are seen, your eyes must be open, and you are seeing and recognizing your witness. You accept energy and you generate energy. You create light.

One is exhibitionism, the other is connection.

Not everybody wants to be looked at.

Everybody wants to be seen.

The magical thing that happens when we choose to give and when we let ourselves receive is that we step into a widening circle of seeing. This, indeed, is what makes the book’s closing pages so powerful as Amanda recounts watching a living statue in the streets of Melbourne:

He was crouched in a gargoyle pose; his body was completely purple, in a costume that clung to his skin. His face was covered with an intricate handmade mask, which revealed just his eyes, and whose little glued-on mirrors made his muzzle look like more like a disco-ball. He was majestic, dragon-like, beautiful. When a stranger put money in his cup, he encouraged people to pat him as he made serpentine movements of pleasure. It was nearly dawn, and I wondered how long he’d been working there.

Jetlagged and tired from touring, she leans on a tree across the street and watches him as groups of drunken young people taunt and jeer at him. And then, she dials back the time machine of her own life-experience — for where else does empathy live? — and shares with him an exquisite moment of humanity:

As I crouched down and put in a two-dollar coin, I looked into his eyes. He stopped for a moment. Then he lowered his head.

It was odd. He froze in that position and I stayed there, on my bent knees, waiting to see what would happen.

Then his whole back started slowly shaking.

He raised his head back up and I looked into his eyes, which were brimming with tears.

We crouched there, for a moment, face to face.

I reached my hand out to touch his cheek, before taking him into my arms.

He buried his head in the crook of my neck, shaking and sobbing without a sound.

I closed my eyes. I tightened my arms around him. He tightened, too.

The drunken crowd who had just been tormenting him stared at us, and went silent.

We stayed, attached, on our knees, for what felt like two or three minutes.

I held him. He held me.

He finally raised his head and looked at me, through the slit in his mirrored mask, with his wet, red eyes. I hugged him, chest to chest, and felt his breath slow down.

I whispered in his ear, Get back to work.

The Art of Asking is an immeasurably heartening read from cover to cover. In this long and wide-ranging conversation, filmed by the wonderful Allan Amato, who also took the book cover photograph, Amanda and I meander across various facets of creative culture, the artist’s journey, and the uncomfortable art of accepting help, from what compassion really means to the soundest psychological strategies for handling self-appointed Fraud Police officers and capital-c Critics to the challenges of sharing a life with another human being, however great the love between the two.

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11 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Day Dostoyevsky Discovered the Meaning of Life in a Dream

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“And it is so simple… You will instantly find how to live.”

One November night in the 1870s, legendary Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) discovered the meaning of life in a dream — or, at least, the protagonist in his final short story did. The piece, which first appeared in the altogether revelatory A Writer’s Diary (public library) under the title “The Dream of a Queer Fellow” and was later published separately as The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, explores themes similar to those in Dostoyevsky’s 1864 novel Notes from the Underground, considered the first true existential novel. True to Stephen King’s assertion that “good fiction is the truth inside the lie,” the story sheds light on Dostoyevsky’s personal spiritual and philosophical bents with extraordinary clarity — perhaps more so than any of his other published works. The contemplation at its heart falls somewhere between Tolstoy’s tussle with the meaning of life and Philip K. Dick’s hallucinatory exegesis.

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

The story begins with the narrator wandering the streets of St. Petersburg on “a gloomy night, the gloomiest night you can conceive,” dwelling on how others have ridiculed him all his life and slipping into nihilism with the “terrible anguish” of believing that nothing matters. He peers into the glum sky, gazes at a lone little star, and contemplates suicide; two months earlier, despite his destitution, he had bought an “excellent revolver” with the same intention, but the gun had remained in his drawer since. Suddenly, as he is staring at the star, a little girl of about eight, wearing ragged clothes and clearly in distress, grabs him by the arm and inarticulately begs his help. But the protagonist, disenchanted with life, shoos her away and returns to the squalid room he shares with a drunken old captain, furnished with “a sofa covered in American cloth, a table with some books, two chairs and an easy-chair, old, incredibly old, but still an easy-chair.”

As he sinks into the easy-chair to think about ending his life, he finds himself haunted by the image of the little girl, leading him to question his nihilistic disposition. Dostoyevsky writes:

I knew for certain that I would shoot myself that night, but how long I would sit by the table — that I did not know. I should certainly have shot myself, but for that little girl.

You see: though it was all the same to me, I felt pain, for instance. If any one were to strike me, I should feel pain. Exactly the same in the moral sense: if anything very pitiful happened, I would feel pity, just as I did before everything in life became all the same to me. I had felt pity just before: surely, I would have helped a child without fail. Why did I not help the little girl, then? It was because of an idea that came into my mind then. When she was pulling at me and calling to me, suddenly a question arose before me, which I could not answer. The question was an idle one; but it made me angry. I was angry because of my conclusion, that if I had already made up my mind that I would put an end to myself to-night, then now more than ever before everything in the world should be all the same to me. Why was it that I felt it was not all the same to me, and pitied the little girl? I remember I pitied her very much: so much that I felt a pain that was even strange and incredible in my situation…

It seemed clear that if I was a man and not a cipher yet, and until I was changed into a cipher, then I was alive and therefore could suffer, be angry and feel shame for my actions. Very well. But if I were to kill myself, for instance, in two hours from now, what is the girl to me, and what have I to do with shame or with anything on earth? I am going to be a cipher, an absolute zero. Could my consciousness that I would soon absolutely cease to exist, and that therefore nothing would exist, have not the least influence on my feeling of pity for the girl or on my sense of shame for the vileness I had committed?

From the moral, he veers into the existential:

It became clear to me that life and the world, as it were, depended upon me. I might even say that the world had existed for me alone. I should shoot myself, and then there would be no world at all, for me at least. Not to mention that perhaps there will really be nothing for any one after me, and the whole world, as soon as my consciousness is extinguished, will also be extinguished like a phantom, as part of my consciousness only, and be utterly abolished, since perhaps all this world and all these men are myself alone.

Beholding “these new, thronging questions,” he plunges into a contemplation of what free will really means. In a passage that calls to mind John Cage’s famous aphorism on the meaning of life — “No why. Just here.” — and George Lucas’s assertion that “life is beyond reason,” Dostoyevsky suggests through his protagonist that what gives meaning to life is life itself:

One strange consideration suddenly presented itself to me. If I had previously lived on the moon or in Mars, and I had there been dishonored and disgraced so utterly that one can only imagine it sometimes in a dream or a nightmare, and if I afterwards found myself on earth and still preserved a consciousness of what I had done on the other planet, and if I knew besides that I would never by any chance return, then, if I were to look at the moon from the earth — would it be all the same to me or not? Would I feel any shame for my action or not? The questions were idle and useless, for the revolver was already lying before me, and I knew with all my being that this thing would happen for certain: but the questions excited me to rage. I could not die now, without having solved this first. In a word, that little girl saved me, for my questions made me postpone pulling the trigger.

Just as he ponders this, the protagonist slips into sleep in the easy-chair, but it’s a sleep that has the quality of wakeful dreaming. In one of many wonderful semi-asides, Dostoyevsky peers at the eternal question of why we have dreams:

Dreams are extraordinarily strange. One thing appears with terrifying clarity, with the details finely set like jewels, while you leap over another, as though you did not notice it at all — space and time, for instance. It seems that dreams are the work not of mind but of desire, not of the head but of the heart… In a dream things quite incomprehensible come to pass. For instance, my brother died five years ago. Sometimes I see him in a dream: he takes part in my affairs, and we are very excited, while I, all the time my dream goes on, know and remember perfectly that my brother is dead and buried. Why am I not surprised that he, though dead, is still near me and busied about me? Why does my mind allow all that?

In this strange state, the protagonist dreams that he takes his revolver and points it at his heart — not his head, where he had originally intended to shoot himself. After waiting a second or two, his dream-self pulls the trigger quickly. Then something remarkable happens:

I felt no pain, but it seemed to me that with the report, everything in me was convulsed, and everything suddenly extinguished. It was terribly black all about me. I became as though blind and numb, and I lay on my back on something hard. I could see nothing, neither could I make any sound. People were walking and making a noise about me: the captain’s bass voice, the landlady’s screams… Suddenly there was a break. I am being carried in a closed coffin. I feel the coffin swinging and I think about that, and suddenly for the first time the idea strikes me that I am dead, quite dead. I know it and do not doubt it; I cannot see nor move, yet at the same time I feel and think. But I am soon reconciled to that, and as usual in a dream I accept the reality without a question.

Now I am being buried in the earth. Every one leaves me and I am alone, quite alone. I do not stir… I lay there and — strange to say — I expected nothing, accepting without question that a dead man has nothing to expect. But it was damp. I do not know how long passed — an hour, a few days, or many days. Suddenly, on my left eye which was closed, a drop of water fell, which had leaked through the top of the grave. In a minute fell another, then a third, and so on, every minute. Suddenly, deep indignation kindled in my heart and suddenly in my heart I felt physical pain. ‘It’s my wound,’ I thought. ‘It’s where I shot myself. The bullet is there.’ And all the while the water dripped straight on to my closed eye. Suddenly, I cried out, not with a voice, for I was motionless, but with all my being, to the arbiter of all that was being done to me.

“Whosoever thou art, if thou art, and if there exists a purpose more intelligent than the things which are now taking place, let it be present here also. But if thou dost take vengeance upon me for my foolish suicide, then know, by the indecency and absurdity of further existence, that no torture whatever that may befall me, can ever be compared to the contempt which I will silently feel, even through millions of years of martyrdom.”

I cried out and was silent. Deep silence lasted a whole minute. One more drop even fell. But I knew and believed, infinitely and steadfastly, that in a moment everything would infallibly change. Suddenly, my grave opened. I do not know whether it had been uncovered and opened, but I was taken by some dark being unknown to me, and we found ourselves in space. Suddenly, I saw. It was deep night; never, never had such darkness been! We were borne through space and were already far from the earth. I asked nothing of him who led me. I was proud and waited. I assured myself that I was not afraid, and my heart melted with rapture at the thought that I was not afraid. I do not remember how long we rushed through space, and I cannot imagine it. It happened as always in a dream when you leap over space and time and the laws of life and mind, and you stop only there where your heart delights.

The 1845 depiction of a galaxy that inspired Van Gogh’s 'The Starry Night,' from Michael Benson's 'Cosmigraphics.' Click image for more.

Through the thick darkness, he sees a star — the same little star he had seen before shooing the girl away. As the dream continues, the protagonist describes a sort of transcendence akin to what is experienced during psychedelic drug trips or in deep meditation states:

Suddenly a familiar yet most overwhelming emotion shook me through. I saw our sun. I knew that it could not be our sun, which had begotten our earth, and that we were an infinite distance away, but somehow all through me I recognized that it was exactly the same sun as ours, its copy and double. A sweet and moving delight echoed rapturously through my soul. The dear power of light, of that same light which had given me birth, touched my heart and revived it, and I felt life, the old life, for the first time since my death.

He finds himself in another world, Earthlike in every respect, except “everything seemed to be bright with holiday, with a great and sacred triumph, finally achieved” — a world populated by “children of the sun,” happy people whose eyes “shone with a bright radiance” and whose faces “gleamed with wisdom, and with a certain consciousness, consummated in tranquility.” The protagonist exclaims:

Oh, instantly, at the first glimpse of their faces I understood everything, everything!

Conceding that “it was only a dream,” he nonetheless asserts that “the sensation of the love of those beautiful and innocent people” was very much real and something he carried into wakeful life on Earth. Awaking in his easy-chair at dawn, he exclaims anew with rekindled gratitude for life:

Oh, now — life, life! I lifted my hands and called upon the eternal truth, not called, but wept. Rapture, ineffable rapture exalted all my being. Yes, to live…

Dostoyevsky concludes with his protagonist’s reflection on the shared essence of life, our common conquest of happiness and kindness:

All are tending to one and the same goal, at least all aspire to the same goal, from the wise man to the lowest murderer, but only by different ways. It is an old truth, but there is this new in it: I cannot go far astray. I saw the truth. I saw and know that men could be beautiful and happy, without losing the capacity to live upon the earth. I will not, I cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of men… I saw the truth, I did not invent it with my mind. I saw, saw, and her living image filled my soul for ever. I saw her in such consummate perfection that I cannot possibly believe that she was not among men. How can I then go astray? … The living image of what I saw will be with me always, and will correct and guide me always. Oh, I am strong and fresh, I can go on, go on, even for a thousand years.

[…]

And it is so simple… The one thing is — love thy neighbor as thyself — that is the one thing. That is all, nothing else is needed. You will instantly find how to live.

A century later, Jack Kerouac would echo this in his own magnificent meditation on kindness and the “Golden Eternity.”

A Writer’s Diary is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Tolstoy on finding meaning in a meaningless world and Margaret Mead’s dreamed epiphany about why life is like blue jelly.

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10 NOVEMBER, 2014

Rewriting the Book of Belonging: Anne Lamott on the True Gift of Friendship and the Uncomfortable Art of Letting Yourself Be Seen

By:

“Trappings and charm wear off… Let people see you.”

Beyond having written one of the finest books on writing ever published, Anne Lamott embraces language and life with equal zest, squeezing from the intersection wisdom of the most soul-stretching kind. Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (public library | IndieBound) shines a sidewise gleam at Lamott’s much-loved meditations on why perfectionism kills creativity and how we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing to explore the boundless blessings of our ample imperfections, from which our most expansive and transcendent humanity springs.

In an especially enchanting essay titled “The Book of Welcome,” Lamott imagines a scripture that was never written, a set of guidances and assurances that would avail us of haven from one of our most anguishing pathologies — the sense that we fall short, that we are undeserving of happiness, that we are unlovable and undesired; a sense instilled in many of us by “not having been cherished for who we are, by certain tall, anxiously shut-down people in our childhood homes.” She writes:

The welcome book would have taught us that power and signs of status can’t save us, that welcome — both offering and receiving — is our source of safety. Various chapters and verses of this book would remind us that we are wanted and even occasionally delighted in, despite the unfortunate truth that we are greedy-grabby, self-referential, indulgent, overly judgmental, and often hysterical.

Somehow that book “went missing”… We have to write that book ourselves.

Illustration from 'Hug Me' by Simona Ciraolo. Click image for more.

We write that book, Lamott suggests, in large part through our friendships — those delicate yet supremely secure embraces of welcome, woven of what Emerson memorably termed “truth and tenderness.” We nurture these voluntary relationships to heal from the involuntary ones that failed to nurture us when we were coming unto ourselves. Lamott writes:

The reality is that most of us lived our first decades feeling welcome only when certain conditions applied: we felt safe and embraced only when the parental units were getting along, when we were on our best behavior, doing well in school, not causing problems, and had as few needs as possible. If you needed more from them, best of luck.

[…]

They liked to think their love was unconditional. That’s nice. Sadly, though, the child who showed up at the table for meals was not the child the parents had set out to make. They seemed surprised all over again. They’d already forgotten from breakfast.

The parental units were simply duplicating what they’d learned when they were small. That’s the system.

It wasn’t that you got the occasional feeling that you were an alien or a chore to them. You just knew that attention had to be paid constantly to their moods, their mental health levels, their rising irritation, and the volume of beer consumed. Yes, there were many happy memories marbled in, too, of picnics, pets, beaches. But I will remind you now that inconsistency is how experimenters regularly drive lab rats over the edge.

Illustration from 'Little Boy Brown.' Click image for more.

And when “the system” does eventually drive us over the edge, we drop — if we’re lucky, if we allow ourselves to fall with grace — into the ungrabby, ungreedy, wholly welcoming arms of those we learn to call friends. Lamott recounts her own crash when, in her thirties, she got sober:

A few women in the community reached out to me. They recognized me as a frightened lush. I told them about my most vile behavior, and they said, “Me too!” I told them about my crimes against the innocent, especially me. They said, “Ditto. Yay. Welcome.” I couldn’t seem to get them to reject me. It was a nightmare and then my salvation.

It turns out that welcome is solidarity. We’re glad you’re here, and we’re with you. This whole project called you being alive, you finding joy? Well, we’re in on that.

Allowing that, Lamott observes, is a massive undertaking, a “big adjustment” that requires a “rebalancing of the soul.” But once we do, the book of welcome rewrites your story:

Trappings and charm wear off… Let people see you. They see your upper arms are beautiful, soft and clean and warm, and then they will see this about their own, some of the time. It’s called having friends, choosing each other, getting found, being fished out of the rubble. It blows you away, how this wonderful event ever happened — me in your life, you in mine.

Two parts fit together. This hadn’t occurred all that often, but now that it does, it’s the wildest experience. It could almost make a believer out of you. Of course, life will randomly go to hell every so often, too. Cold winds arrive and prick you: the rain falls down your neck: darkness comes. But now there are two of you: Holy Moly.

A master of the touchpoint between wit and wisdom, Lamott adds to the poignant a wink of the playful:

The two nonnegotiable rules are that you must not wear patchouli oil — we’ll still love you, but we won’t want to sit with you — and that the only excuse for bringing your cell phone to the dinner table is if you’re eagerly waiting to hear that they’ve procured an organ for your impending transplant.

Small Victories is an enormously ennobling read in its entirety. Complement it with Lamott on how to handle those who refuse to welcome us, then revisit Aristotle on the art of human connection, Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than erotic love, and C.S. Lewis on true friendship.

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