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21 JANUARY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on the Vital Role of Boredom and “Fruitful Monotony” in the Conquest of Happiness

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“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Between the time Kierkegaard contemplated boredom and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips made his bewitching case for why the capacity for it is essential for a full life, Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) tussled with the subject more elegantly than any other thinker before or since. In a chapter titled “Boredom and Excitement” from his altogether indispensable 1930 classic The Conquest of Happiness (public library) — an effort “to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer” — he teases apart the paradoxical question of why, given how vital it is to our wholeness, we dread boredom as much as we do. Long before our present anxieties about how the age of distraction and productivity is thwarting our capacity for presence — a capacity essential for that very conquest of happiness — Russell shines timeless wisdom and remarkably timely insight on the deep-seated demons of human nature that keep us small and unhappy, and offers sage assurance for transcending them by bringing greater awareness to our own perilous pathologies.

With the same astounding prescience that defines most of his work, Russell writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

He makes an especially timely note of how the hedonic treadmill of consumerism becomes our chronic, and chronically futile, refuge for running from boredom:

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom. It is a noble ideal, and far be it from me to decry it, but I am afraid that like other ideals it is more difficult to achievement than the idealists suppose. After all, the mornings are boring in proportion as the previous evenings were amusing. There will be middle age, possibly even old age. At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty… Perhaps it is as unwise to spend one’s vital capital as one’s financial capital. Perhaps some element of boredom is a necessary ingredient in life. A wish to escape from boredom is natural; indeed, all races of mankind have displayed it as opportunity occurred… Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbors have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.

And yet Russell recognizes the vitalizing value of this greatly reviled state, outlining two distinct types of boredom:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

Our frantic flight from boredom, he admonishes, results in a paradoxical relationship with excitement, wherein we’re at once addicted to its intake and desensitized to its effects:

What applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement. A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

Indeed, the cultivation of this core capacity early in life fortifies the psychological immune system of the adult. Nearly a century before the iPad, which is now swiftly shoved in the screen-hungry hands of every toddler bored to disgruntlement, Russell writes:

The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements… and they do not realize the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.

DIY indoor boomerang from the vintage gem 'How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself.' Click illustration for more.

Instead, he exhorts parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself,” a testament to Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.” Russell writes:

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

Even humanity’s greatest works of literature, Russell points out, have boredom baked into their very substance — something he illustrates with an entertaining example all the more perfectly parodic of contemporary publishing:

All great books contain boring portions, and all great lives have contained uninteresting stretches. Imagine a modern American publisher confronted with the Old Testament as a new manuscript submitted to him for the first time. It is not difficult to think what his comments would be, for example, on the genealogies.

“My dear sir,” he would say, “this chapter lacks pep; you can’t expect your reader to be interested in a mere string of proper names of persons about whom you tell him so little. You have begun your story, I will admit, in fine style, and at first I was very favorably impressed, but you have altogether too much wish to tell it all. Pick out the highlights, take out the superfluous matter, and bring me back your manuscript when you have reduced it to a reasonable length.”

So the modern publisher would speak, knowing the modern reader’s fear of boredom. He would say the same sort of thing about the Confucian classics, the Koran, Marx’s Capital, and all the other sacred books which have proved to be bestsellers.

(Of course, it’s triply tragicomic to imagine what Russell might make of the listicle — today’s ultimate reactionary hedge against our fear of boredom.)

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' Kurt Vonnegut's favorite vintage Danish illustrated guide to sexuality. Click image for more.

He uses the most intimate of metaphors to illustrate the existential emptiness that such groping for fleeting excitement engenders:

Consider the difference between love and mere sex attraction. Love is an experience in which our whole being is renewed and refreshed as is that of plants by rain after drought. In sex intercourse without love there is nothing of this. When the momentary pleasure is ended, there is fatigue, disgust, and a sense that life is hollow. Love is part of the life of Earth; sex without love is not.

This, indeed, is both Russell’s most timeless and most devastatingly timely point — that our dread of boredom is a self-inflicted wound resulting from the singular modern violence of our break with nature. But here is the most striking part: The sight of a man walking down the street transfixed by a glowing rectangle, completely blind to the sky and deaf to the birds and hardened to the wind’s caress, would have been completely foreign to Russell. Many decades before such violent forms of severance from nature existed, he admonishes:

The special kind of boredom from which modern urban populations suffer is intimately bound up with their separation from the life of Earth. It makes life hot and dusty and thirsty, like a pilgrimage in the desert. Among those who are rich enough to choose their way of life, the particular brand of unendurable boredom from which they suffer is due, paradoxical as this may seem, to their fear of boredom. In flying from the fructifying kind of boredom, they fall a prey to the other far worse kind. A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

The Conquest of Happiness is a spectacular, existentially necessary read in its entirety. Complement it with Russell on human nature, his heartening message to descendants, and his ten commandments of teaching and learning.

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20 JANUARY, 2015

Mary Oliver on What Attention Really Means and Her Moving Eulogy to Her Soul Mate

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“Attention without feeling … is only a report.”

Mary Oliver is one of our era’s most beloved and prolific poets — a sage of wisdom on the craft of poetry and a master of its magic; a woman as unafraid to be witty as she is to wise. For more than forty years, Oliver lived on Cape Cod with the love of her life, the remarkable photographer Molly Malone Cook — one of the first staff photographers for The Village Voice, with subjects like Walker Evans and Eleanor Roosevelt, and a visionary gallerist who opened the first photography gallery on the East Coast, exhibited such icons as Ansel Adams and Berenice Abbott, and recognized rising talent like William Clift. (She was also, living up to her reputation as “a great Bohemian American,” the owner of a bookshop frequented by Norman Mailer and occasionally staffed by the filmmaker John Waters.)

Mary Oliver (b. 1935, right) with Molly Malone Cook (1925–2005) at the couple's home in Provincetown, Massachusetts

When Cook died in 2005 at the age of eighty, Oliver looked for a light, however faint, to shine through the thickness of bereavement. She spent a year making her way through thousands of her spouse’s photographs and unprinted negatives, mostly from around the time they met, which Oliver then enveloped in her own reflections to bring to life Our World (public library) — part memoir, part deeply moving eulogy to a departed soul mate, part celebration of their love for one another through their individual creative loves. Embraced in Oliver’s poetry and prose, Cook’s photographs reveal the intimate thread that brought these two extraordinary women together — a shared sense of deep aliveness and attention to the world, a devotion to making life’s invisibles visible, and above all a profound kindness to everything that exists, within and without.

Oliver — who refers to Cook simply as M. in most of her writings — reflects in the opening essay:

Though you have known someone for more than forty years, though you have worked with them and lived with them, you do not know everything. I do not know everything — but a few things, which I will tell. M. had will and wit and probably too much empathy for others; she was quick in speech and she did not suffer fools. When you knew her she was unconditionally kind. But also, as our friend the Bishop Tom Shaw said at her memorial service, you had to be brave to get to know her.

[…]

She was style, and she was an old loneliness that nothing could quite wipe away; she was vastly knowledgeable about people, about books, about the mind’s emotions and the heart’s. She lived sometimes in a black box of memories and unanswerable questions, and then would come out and frolic — be feisty, and bold.

Amish schoolroom, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Oliver writes of the affair Cook had in the late 1950s, shortly before they met:

She had … an affair that struck deeply; I believe she loved totally and was loved totally. I know about it, and I am glad… This love, and the ensuing emptiness of its ending, changed her. Of such events we are always changed — not necessarily badly, but changed. Who doesn’t know this doesn’t know much.

The following year, Cook met Oliver and they remained together, inseparable, for more than four decades. That encounter — which calls to mind the fateful first meetings that occasioned such iconic literary couples as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas or Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes — took place at Steepletop, the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, where Oliver had landed the day after her high school graduation at the age of seventeen and stayed for several years.

Inside the library at Steepletop, the home of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

One evening in 1959, when Oliver was twenty-four and Cook thirty-four, the young poet returned to the house and found the photographer sitting at the kitchen table with a friend. She describes their encounter with her signature elegance of unpeeling the mundane to reveal the momentous:

I took one look and fell, hook and tumble. M. took one look at me, and put on her dark glasses, along with an obvious dose of reserve. She denied this to her dying day, but it was true.

Isn’t it wonderful the way the world holds both the deeply serious, and the unexpectedly mirthful?

Mary Oliver in 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

It turned out that Oliver and Cook, in their regular lives beyond Steepletop, lived right across the street from each other in New York’s East Village. So they began to see one another “little by little,” and so their great love story began.

Chess players, Washington Square, New York City, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

But perhaps the greatest gift of their union was the way in which they shaped each other’s way of seeing and being with the world — the mutually ennobling dialogue between their two capacities for presence:

It has frequently been remarked, about my own writings, that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely… I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and well filled with a sense of my own thoughts, my own presence. I was eager to address the world of words — to address the world with words. Then M. instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles. I think of this always when I look at her photographs, the images of vitality, hopefulness, endurance, kindness, vulnerability… We each had our separate natures; yet our ideas, our influences upon each other became a reach and abiding confluence.

[…]

I don’t think I was wrong to be in the world I was in, it was my salvation from my own darkness. Nor have I ever abandoned it — those early signs that so surely lead toward epiphanies. And yet, and yet, she wanted me to enter more fully into the human world also, and to embrace it, as I believe I have. And what a gift [that she] never expressed impatience with my reports of the natural world, the blue and green happiness I found there. Our love was so tight.

'My first clam,' 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

To lose the love of one’s life is something few have dared to live in public — the most memorable such bravery being Joan Didion’s — but Oliver brings to death’s darkness her familiar touch of emboldening light:

The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention. I don’t say this without reckoning in the sorrow, the worry, the many diminishments. But surely it is then that a person’s character shines or glooms.

Oliver ends with a breath-stopping prose poem that brings full-circle her opening reflections on never fully knowing even those nearest to us — a beautiful testament to what another wise woman once wrote: “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.”

THE WHISTLER

All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden
I mean that for more than thirty years she had not
whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was
in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and
she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and
cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds war-
bled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.

Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she
said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can
still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled
through the house, whistling.

I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and an-
kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too.
And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin
to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with
for thirty years?

This clear, dark, lovely whistler?

Boy with telescope, New York Cruises, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Our World is a sublime read in its entirety — the kind that enters the soul like a deep breath and remains there as an eternal exhale. Complement it with Oliver on how rhythm sweetens life and her beautiful reading of her poem “Wild Geese.”

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20 JANUARY, 2015

Peanuts and the Quiet Pain of Childhood: How Charles Schulz Made an Art of Difficult Emotions

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“[Charlie Brown] reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human — both little and big at the same time.”

J.R.R. Tolkien adamantly asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Neil Gaiman has repeatedly championed the notion that children shouldn’t be protected from dark emotions, and yet such voices remain rare radicals in a culture that continues to treat the child’s inner world as desperately fragile and childhood itself as a one-dimensional idyll. What made Charles Schulz’s iconic Peanuts series so beloved was precisely its dimensional and complex view of childhood — something Schulz achieved by thrusting his characters into such unpopular yet essential circumstances of the soul as boredom and uncertainty. In Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (public library), writer David Michaelis traces how this singular creative genius originated in the complex experience of Schulz’s own early life.

Charles Schulz in 1956 (Photograph by Roger Higgins courtesy Library of Congress)

Unlike classic cartoon masters who made distraction their medium, Schulz filled his comic strips with suspended action and deliberate empty spaces, in which the characters — as well as the reader — confront the uncertainties and protracted desperations of life. Michaelis writes:

[Peanuts] was about people working out the interior problems of their daily lives without ever actually solving them. The absence of a solution was the center of the story.

[…]

The American assumption was that children were happy, and childhood was a golden time; it was adults who had problems with which they wrestled and pains that they sought to smooth. Schulz reversed the natural order of [assumptions] by showing that a child’s pain is more intensely felt than an adult’s, a child’s defeats the more acutely experienced and remembered. Charlie Brown takes repeated insults from Violet and Patty about the size of his head, which they compare with a beach ball, a globe, a pie tin, the moon, a balloon; and though Charlie Brown may feel sorry for himself, he gets over it fast. But he does not get visibly angry.

Such emotional resilience is perhaps what Schulz would have wished for himself had he had a chance to rewrite his own story — a story driven by quite the opposite disposition. Sparky, as he was known, had just started high school when his kindly and loving mother became ill with the cancer that would eventually take her life. On Monday, March 1, 1943, Dena Schulz called her son into her bedroom, said a calm goodbye, and died. That Saturday, young Charles was drafted into the army.

Illustration from 'Love Is Walking Hand in Hand,' 1965. Click image for more.

For the remainder of his life, whenever he was asked to recount his biographical timeline, he would begin not with his birth but with the day his mother died, which he always held as his “greatest tragedy” — a tragedy compounded by the deep dissatisfaction that even though he far surpassed his wildest childhood dreams of success and became the highest-paid cartoonist in the world, his mother never lived to see him publish anything.

This quiet grief permeated his Peanuts. Embedded in Charlie Brown’s chronic blend of desperation and optimism is the rather adult realization that “being yourself is a very difficult game” — something illustrated by an exchange Michaelis cites:

“Would you like to have been Abraham Lincoln?” Patty asks Charlie Brown. “I doubt it,” he answers. “I have a hard enough time being just plain Charlie Brown.”

Being Schulz wasn’t easy, either. Friends, Michaelis found, felt that he “didn’t want to get too close to anybody” and described him as “hard to know, hard to understand.” But to Schulz himself — as to nearly all creators who suffuse their work with their whole selves — the best way to know him was to know his Peanuts characters. Michaelis quotes the cartoonist himself:

A cartoon is really a picture demonstrating one thought in the guise of another. If somebody reads my strip every day, they’ll know me for sure — they’ll know exactly what I am.

One of Schulz’s friends told Michaelis: “He liked to think of himself as a simple man, but he was not simple — he was enigmatic and complex.” To the dedicated reader, this was the charm of Peanuts — that from the simplicity of ordinary situations and mundane events springs the enormous complexity of life, and from the osmosis of the two comes the comforting assurance that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for satisfaction in our own mundane and manic lives.

For his part, Schulz was aware that his inner gloom was also the source of his outward light. Michaelis writes:

A more gregarious, more balanced person could not have created the long-suffering but unsinkable Charlie Brown; crabby, often venomous Lucy; philosophical Linus; tomboyish Peppermint Patty; single-minded Schroeder; and grandiose, self-involved Snoopy. “A normal person couldn’t do it,” [Schulz] had himself contended.

But to this I offer an important aside: It is essential that Schulz’s sentiment not be misinterpreted or warped by our era’s perilous “tortured genius” myth of creativity. Too often we infer a false causality in the ongoing cultural narrative on the relationship between creativity and inner demons — Schulz was able to create his cartoon universe not because of his deep unhappiness but despite it. Undoubtedly a great many people suffer daily the untimely and traumatic death of a beloved parent, and yet there is no other Peanuts; there are, however, countless people for whom such trauma turns into a lifetime of self-destructive anguish rather than one of tireless creation. That, perhaps, is the true gift of genius — to bring something meaningful to life despite how meaningless one’s own life may seem; to give some warmth to the world despite what the world may have coldly taken away.

Illustration from 'Love Is Walking Hand in Hand,' 1965. Click image for more.

Michaelis returns to Schulz’s genius of granting childhood its due dignity and, in doing so, offering a consolation for adulthood:

Children are not supposed to be radically dissatisfied. When they are unhappy, children protest — they wail, they whine, they scream, they cry — then they move on. Schulz gave these children lifelong dissatisfactions, the stuff of which adulthood is made.

Readers recognized themselves in “poor moon-faced, unloved, misunderstood” Charlie Brown — in his dignity in the face of whole seasons of doomed baseball games, his endurance and stoicism in the face of insults. He … reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human — both little and big at the same time.

Complement Schulz and Peanuts with Ray Bradbury on what Snoopy taught him about facing rejection, then revisit the best biographies of last year.

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20 JANUARY, 2015

How to Merge Money and Meaning: An Animated Field Guide to Finding Fulfilling Work in the Modern World

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The six psychological pillars of a satisfying life.

“To not have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself,” wrote Charles Bukowski in his magnificent letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit a soul-sucking day job to become a full-time writer. But the quest to find one’s calling is rarely easy — few people turn their childhood dreams into reality like Jane Goodall did or awaken one day early in life with Werner Herzog’s sense of “undivided duty” to propel them forward into a lifetime of fulfilling work. After all, even Van Gogh floundered to find his purpose.

When we find ourselves at the crossroads of safe and satisfying, we don’t always have the courage to let our inner life speak, much less to listen.

This terrific short animation based on philosopher Roman Krznaric’s How to Find Fulfilling Work (public library) — which I’ve previously covered at length — offers consolation to those who “have career crises, often on a Sunday evening,” by exploring the six pillars of finding a life-path that bridges money and meaning, sacrificing neither for the other:

A lack of confidence is at heart a misunderstanding of the way the world works. It’s an internalized feudalism, which imagines that only certain people — but not oneself — have the right, preordained, to get certain things.

Dive deeper here, then revisit the quirky vintage manifesto How to Avoid Work, the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer on how to define your own success, and this omnibus of ideas on how to find your purpose and do what you love.

For more such rapidly illuminating perspectives from The School of Life, see their excellent animations on what philosophy is for and what great books do for the soul.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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