Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Wisdom in the Age of Information and the Importance of Storytelling in Making Sense of the World: An Animated Essay

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Thoughts on navigating the open sea of knowledge.

For my part in the 2014 Future of Storytelling Summit, I had the pleasure of collaborating with animator Drew Christie — the talent behind that wonderful short film about Mark Twain and the myth of originality — on an animated essay that I wrote and narrated, exploring a subject close to my heart and mind: the question of how we can cultivate true wisdom in the age of information and why great storytellers matter more than ever in helping us make sense of an increasingly complex world. It comes as an organic extension of the seven most important life-learnings from the first seven years of Brain Pickings. Full essay text below — please enjoy.

We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two. We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.

This barrage of readily available information has also created an environment where one of the worst social sins is to appear uninformed. Ours is a culture where it’s enormously embarrassing not to have an opinion on something, and in order to seem informed, we form our so-called opinions hastily, based on fragmentary bits of information and superficial impressions rather than true understanding.

“Knowledge,” Emerson wrote, “is the knowing that we can not know.”

To grasp the importance of this, we first need to define these concepts as a ladder of understanding.

At its base is a piece of information, which simply tells us some basic fact about the world. Above that is knowledge — the understanding of how different bits of information fit together to reveal some truth about the world. Knowledge hinges on an act of correlation and interpretation. At the top is wisdom, which has a moral component — it is the application of information worth remembering and knowledge that matters to understanding not only how the world works, but also how it should work. And that requires a moral framework of what should and shouldn’t matter, as well as an ideal of the world at its highest potentiality.

This is why the storyteller is all the more urgently valuable today.

A great storyteller — whether a journalist or editor or filmmaker or curator — helps people figure out not only what matters in the world, but also why it matters. A great storyteller dances up the ladder of understanding, from information to knowledge to wisdom. Through symbol, metaphor, and association, the storyteller helps us interpret information, integrate it with our existing knowledge, and transmute that into wisdom.

Susan Sontag once said that “reading sets standards.” Storytelling not only sets standards but, at its best, makes us want to live up to them, to transcend them.

A great story, then, is not about providing information, though it can certainly inform — a great story invites an expansion of understanding, a self-transcendence. More than that, it plants the seed for it and makes it impossible to do anything but grow a new understanding — of the world, of our place in it, of ourselves, of some subtle or monumental aspect of existence.

At a time when information is increasingly cheap and wisdom increasingly expensive, this gap is where the modern storyteller’s value lives.

I think of it this way:

Information is having a library of books on shipbuilding. Knowledge applies that to building a ship. Access to the information — to the books — is a prerequisite for the knowledge, but not a guarantee of it.

Once you’ve built your ship, wisdom is what allows you to sail it without sinking, to protect it from the storm that creeps up from the horizon in the dead of the night, to point it just so that the wind breathes life into its sails.

Moral wisdom helps you tell the difference between the right direction and the wrong direction in steering the ship.

A great storyteller is the kindly captain who sails her ship with tremendous wisdom and boundless courage; who points its nose in the direction of horizons and worlds chosen with unflinching idealism and integrity; who brings us somewhat closer to the answer, to our particular answer, to that grand question: Why are we here?

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09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Darkest, Most Controversial Yet Most Hopeful Children’s Book

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A moving cry for mercy, for light, and for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of hopeless darkness.

One of Maurice Sendak‘s most misunderstood qualities, yet also arguably the very same one that rendered him one of the most innovative and influential storytellers of all time, was his deep faith in children’s resilience and his unflinching refusal to allow the fears and self-censorship of grownups to sugarcoat the world for children, who he believed possess enormous emotional intelligence in processing the dark — an evolution of Tolkien’s assertion that there is no such thing as writing “for children,” which Sendak echoed in his final interview, indignantly telling Stephen Colbert: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!'”

But while many of Sendak’s books have been deemed controversial precisely out of this misunderstanding, from the banning of In the Night Kitchen to the outrage over his sensual illustrations of Melville, no book of his has drawn a thicker cloud of controversy than the 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (public library) — an unusual fusion of two traditional Mother Goose nursery rhymes, “In the Dumps” and “Jack and Gye,” reimagined and interpreted by Sendak’s singular sensibility, with enormously rich cultural and personal subtext.

Created at the piercing pinnacle of the AIDS plague and amid an epidemic of homelessness, it is a highly symbolic, sensitive tale that reads almost like a cry for mercy, for light, for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of incomprehensible heartbreak and grimness. It is, above all, a living monument to hope — one built not on the denial of hopelessness but on its delicate demolition.

On a most basic level, the story follows a famished black baby, part of a clan of homeless children dressed in newspaper and living in boxes, kidnapped by a gang of giant rats. Jack and Guy, who are strolling nearby and first brush the homeless kids off, witness the kidnapping and set out to rescue the boy. But the rats challenge them to a rigged game of bridge, with the child as the prize. After a series of challenges that play out across a number of scary scenes, Jack and Guy emerge victorious and save the boy with the help of the omniscient Moon and a mighty white cat that chases the rats away.

But the book’s true magic lies in its integration of Sendak’s many identities — the son of Holocaust survivors, a gay man witnessing the devastation of AIDS, a deft juggler of darkness and light.

St. Paul’s Bakery and Orphanage, where the story is set, is a horrible place reminiscent of Auschwitz. In the game of bridge, “diamonds are trumps,” a phrase with a poignant double meaning, subtly implicating the avarice of the world’s diamond-slingers and Donald Trumps in the systemic social malady of homelessness — something reflected in the clever wordplay of the book’s title itself, suggesting that homelessness isn’t limited to the homeless but is a problem we’re all in together, equally responsible for its solution.

Jack and Guy appear like a gay couple, and their triumph in rescuing the child resembles an adoption, two decades before that was an acceptable subject for a children’s book. “And we’ll bring him up / As other folk do,” the final pages read — and, once again, a double meaning reveals itself as two characters are depicted with wings on their backs, lifting off into the sky, lending the phrase “we’ll bring him up” an aura of salvation. In the end, the three curl up as a makeshift family amidst a world that is still vastly imperfect but full of love.

We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are thumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Without walls

Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do

In many ways, this is Sendak’s most important and most personal book. In fact, Sendak would resurrect the characters of Jack and Guy two decades later in his breathtaking final book, a posthumously published love letter to the world and to his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. Jack and Guy, according to playwright Tony Kushner, a dear friend of Sendak’s, represented the two most important people in the beloved illustrator’s life — Jack was his real-life brother Jack, whose death devastated Sendak, and Guy was Eugene, the love of Sendak’s life, who survived him after half a century of what would have been given the legal dignity of a marriage had Sendak lived to see the dawn of marriage equality. (Sendak died thirteen months before the defeat of DOMA.)

All throughout, the book emanates Sendak’s greatest lifelong influence — like the verses and drawings of William Blake, Sendak’s visual poetry in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy is deeply concerned with the human spirit and, especially, with the plight of children.

Complement this many-layered gem with more of Sendak’s lesser-known work, including his beautiful posters celebrating the joy of reading, his unreleased drawings, his formative, rare vintage illustrations for William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and his provocative art for Melville’s Pierre.

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08 SEPTEMBER, 2014

C.S. Lewis on True Friendship

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“Friendship … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.”

“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” Emerson marveled in his exquisite meditation on friendship. But what, exactly, is at the heart of this “just and firm encounter”?

In his insightful 1960 book The Four Loves (public library), C.S. Lewis picks up where Aristotle left off and examines the differences between the four main categories of intimate human bonds — affection, the most basic and expressive; Eros, the passionate and sometimes destructive desire of lovers; charity, the highest and most unselfish spiritual connection; and friendship, the rarest, least jealous, and most profound relation.

In one of the most beautiful passages, he considers how friendship differs from the other three types of love by focusing on its central question: “Do you see the same truth.”

Lewis writes:

Lovers seek for privacy. Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between them and the herd, whether they want it or not.

[...]

In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. This love (essentially) ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past and connections. At home, besides being Peter or Jane, we also bear a general character; husband or wife, brother or sister, chief, colleague, or subordinate. Not among our Friends. It is an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds. Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.

Hence (if you will not misunderstand me) the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love. I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.

The Four Loves is a superb read in its entirety, provocative at times but invariably thoughtful throughout. Complement it with Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love and a curious history of the convergence of the two in “romantic friendship,” then revisit Lewis on suffering and what free will really means, the secret of happiness, the key to authenticity in writing, and his ideal daily routine.

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