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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

10 DECEMBER, 2014

Dial Up the Magic of This Moment: Philosopher Joanna Macy on How Rilke Can Help Us Befriend Our Mortality and Be More Alive

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“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.”

Few people have stood at the gates of hope — through world wars and environmental crises and personal loss — with more dignity, wisdom, and optimism than Joanna Macy during her six decades as a Buddhist scholar, environmental activist, and pioneering philosopher of ecology. Macy is also the world’s greatest translator-enchantress of Rainer Maria Rilke, in whose poetry she found refuge upon the sudden and devastating death of the love of her life after fifty-six years of marriage.

Indeed, our mortality, as well as our quintessential resistance to it, is a subject Rilke unravels frequently and with deeply comforting insight in Macy’s A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke (public library | IndieBound) — a sublime collection spanning from Rilke’s early poems to the last sonnet he wrote days before his death from leukemia, alongside fragments of his letters, diaries, and prose. The project is reminiscent of Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, but instead of an elevating thought for each day of the year culled from a different thinker, every day features a short Rilke reading.

Macy and her collaborator, Anita Barrows, explore Rilke’s singular consolations in the preface:

Rilke’s grasp of the transient nature of all things is critical to his capacity to praise and to cherish.

[…]

In the face of impermanence and death, it takes courage to love the things of this world and to believe that praising them is our noblest calling. Rilke’s is not a conditional courage, dependent on an afterlife. Nor is it a stoic courage, keeping a stiff upper lip when shattered by loss. It is courage born of the ever-unexpected discovery that acceptance of mortality yields an expansion of being. In naming what is doomed to disappear, naming the way it keeps streaming through our hands, we can hear the song that streaming makes.

[…]

His capacity to embrace the dark and to acknowledge loss brings comfort to the reader because nothing of life is left out. There is nothing that cannot be redeemed. No degree of hopelessness, such as that of prisoners, beggars, abandoned animals, or inmates of asylums, is outside the scope of the poet’s respectful attention. He allows us to see that the bestowal of such pure attention is in itself a triumph of the spirit.

[…]

Rilke would teach us to accept death as well as life, and in so doing to recognize that they belong together as two halves of the same circle.

In the book, Macy highlights one particularly poignant 1923 letter to the Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy, in which 48-year-old Rilke writes:

The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.

He adds:

I am not saying that we should love death, but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love. This is what actually happens in the great expansiveness of love, which cannot be stopped or constricted. It is only because we exclude it that death becomes more and more foreign to us and, ultimately, our enemy.

It is conceivable that death is infinitely closer to us than life itself… What do we know of it?

In the same letter, he admonishes against our crippling compulsion to deny death, which only impoverishes life:

Our effort, I suggest, can be dedicated to this: to assume the unity of Life and Death and let it be progressively demonstrated to us. So long as we stand in opposition to Death we will disfigure it. Believe me, my dear Countess, Death is our friend, our closest friend, perhaps the only friend who can never be misled by our ploys and vacillations. And I do not mean that in the sentimental, romantic sense of distrusting or renouncing life. Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love… Life always says Yes and No simultaneously. Death (I implore you to believe) is the true Yea-sayer. It stands before eternity and says only: Yes.

Rilke captures this even more beautifully, at once with astonishing intellectual precision and astonishing spiritual expansiveness, in his poetry. In a recent conversation with Krista Tippett on the always soul-stretching On Being, Macy discusses Rilke’s emboldening views on mortality and reads some of his poems on death and consciousness. Here is Macy reading Rilke’s “The Swan” — coincidentally, the poem that appears as the day’s reading in A Year with Rilke on the date of this recording, July 13:

THE SWAN

This laboring of ours with all that remains undone,
as if still bound to it,
is like the lumbering gait of the swan.

And then our dying — releasing ourselves
from the very ground on which we stood —
is like the way he hesitantly lowers himself

into the water. It gently receives him,
and, gladly yielding, flows back beneath him,
as wave follows wave,
while he, now wholly serene and sure,
with regal composure,
allows himself to glide.

In her book In Praise of Mortality, Macy writes:

Rilke invites us to experience what mortality makes possible. It links us with life and all time. Ours is the suffering and ours is the harvest.

(Perhaps no text of Rilke’s captures this essential osmosis between Life and Death, light and darkness, better than his famous line, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”)

In another poem from Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus,” found in Macy’s Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, the poet casts his luminous gaze not directly at death but at the larger world of dark emotions and suffering, which he believed were essential to the creative spirit:

LET THIS DARKNESS BE A BELLTOWER

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

But the most emboldening wisdom of all — the most sorely needed consolation amid the daily darknesses we encounter both as individuals and, increasingly, as a society — comes from Macy herself. She affirms the idea that spiritual survival isn’t a matter of sheepish optimism or of eradicating our dark emotions but of simply showing up. Macy, at 81, tells Tippett:

I’m not insisting that we be brimming with hope — it’s OK not to be optimistic. Buddhist teachings say, you know, feeling that you have to maintain hope can wear you out, so just be present… The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here, and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world — because it will not be healed without that. That [is] what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.

[…]

How is the story going to end? And that seems almost orchestrated to bring forth from us the biggest moral strength, courage, and creativity. I feel because when things are this unstable, a person’s determination, how they choose to invest their energy and their heart and mind can have much more effect on the larger picture than we’re accustomed to think. So I find it a very exciting time to be alive, if somewhat wearing emotionally.

Macy goes on to discuss what Rilke’s poignant 1923 letter taught her, in the wake of her husband’s death, about our shared tussle with mortality. Her words and the spirit from which they spring are nothing short of breathtaking:

I’m everlastingly grateful that we were in love and stayed in love. Particularly, it was like falling in love all over again in our later years, so there was a lot of cherishing. But I found that that quote that I just read you — and it’s really engraved in the inside of my head — is true. It’s true and that’s why we’re changing all the time. He’s part of my world now. You become what you love. Orpheus became the world that Rilke sang to, and my husband, Fran, is spread out in this world that he loved.

So … you’re always asked to sort of stretch a little bit more — but actually we’re made for that. There’s a song that wants to sing itself through us. We just got to be available. Maybe the song that is to be sung through us is the most beautiful requiem for an irreplaceable planet or maybe it’s a song of joyous rebirth as we create a new culture that doesn’t destroy its world. But in any case, there’s absolutely no excuse for our making our passionate love for our world dependent on what we think of its degree of health, whether we think it’s going to go on forever. Those are just thoughts anyway. But this moment you’re alive, so you can just dial up the magic of that at any time.

A Year with Rilke is a sublime read in its entirety, as is Macy’s In Praise of Mortality. Complement Macy and Rilke’s shared wisdom on death with John Updike’s memorable insight and an unusual children’s book that embodies Rilke’s inclusion of death into life’s embrace, then listen to the full On Being episode and subscribe here for a steady stream of soul-expansion.

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10 DECEMBER, 2014

Elie Wiesel’s Timely Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech on Human Rights and Our Shared Duty in Ending Injustice

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“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

In 1986, at the age of fifty-eight, Romanian-born Jewish-American writer and political activist Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee called him a “messenger to mankind.” Wiesel lived up to that moniker with exquisite eloquence on December 10 that year — exactly ninety years after Alfred Nobel died — as he took the stage at Norway’s Oslo City Hall and delivered a spectacular speech on justice, oppression, and our individual responsibility in our shared freedom. The address was eventually included in Elie Wiesel: Messenger for Peace (public library | IndieBound).

Three decades later, Wiesel’s words ring with discomfiting timeliness as we are jolted out of our generational hubris, out of the illusion of progress, forced to confront the contemporary realities of racism, torture, and other injustice against the human experience. But alongside the reminder of how tragically we have failed Wiesel’s vision is also the promise of possibility reminding us what soaring heights of the human spirit we are capable of reaching if we choose to feed not our lowest impulses but our most exalted. Above all, Wiesel issues an assurance that these choices are not grandiose and reserved for those in power but daily and deeply personal, found in the quality of intention with which we each live our lives.

With the hard-earned wisdom of his own experience as a Holocaust survivor, memorably recounted in his iconic memoir Night, Wiesel extols our duty to speak up against injustice even when the world retreats into the hideout of silence:

I remember: it happened yesterday or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.

I remember: he asked his father: “Can this be true?” This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?

And now the boy is turning to me: “Tell me,” he asks. “What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?”

And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

And then I explained to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.

Wiesel reminds us that even politically momentous dissent always begins with a personal act — with a single voice refusing to be silenced:

There is so much injustice and suffering crying out for our attention: victims of hunger, of racism, and political persecution, writers and poets, prisoners in so many lands governed by the Left and by the Right. Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free.

[…]

There is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person, … one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

This is what I say to the young Jewish boy wondering what I have done with his years. It is in his name that I speak to you and that I express to you my deepest gratitude. No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.

Complement with Viktor Frankl on the human search for meaning and Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize herself five years later, on freedom from fear, then revisit William Faulkner’s piercing Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the role of the writer as a booster of the human heart, Albert Camus’s beautiful letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher upon receiving the coveted accolade, and the story of why Jean Paul Sartre became the first person to decline the prestigious prize.

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In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by 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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02 DECEMBER, 2014

Dostoyevsky on Why There Are No Bad People

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“A true friend of mankind whose heart has but once quivered in compassion over the sufferings of the people, will understand and forgive all the impassable alluvial filth in which they are submerged, and will be able to discover the diamonds in the filth.”

Legendary Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) is best known as one of literary history’s titans, but he was also a brilliant entrepreneur and pioneer of self-publishing. Under the auspices of his enterprising wife Anna, Dostoyevsky overcame his ruinous gambling addiction to become Russia’s first self-published author. But it was the release of A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the same collection of his nonfiction and fiction writings that gave us Dostoyevsky’s memorable recollection of how he discovered the meaning of life in a dream — that turned him into a national brand.

In February of 1876, reflecting on the unanimous acclaim with which the first volume of the journal had been received, 55-year-old Dostoyevsky contemplates the paradox of people-pleasing and writes in the very diary whose success he is pondering:

I am interested only in the question: is it, or is it not, good that I have pleased everybody?

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

From this, under the heading “On the Subject That We All Are Good Fellows,” he springboards into an exquisite discussion of our deepest goodness, emanating a deep faith in the human spirit and a conviction that we are inherently good despite the badness we sometimes put on like an ill-fitting suit to impress by imitating those we mistake for impressive. A century before Isaac Asimov’s memorable invitation to optimism over cynicism about the human spirit, Dostoyevsky writes:

We are all good fellows — except the bad ones, of course. Yet, I shall observe in passing that among us, perhaps, there are no bad people at all — maybe, only wretched ones. But we have not grown up to be bad. Don’t scoff at me, but consider: we have reached the point in the past where, because of the absence of bad people of our own (I repeat: despite the abundance of all sorts of wretches), we used to be ready, for instance, to value very highly various bad little fellows appearing among our literary characters, mostly borrowed from foreign sources. Not only did we value them, but we slavishly sought to imitate them in real life; we used to copy them, and in this respect we were ready to jump out of our skins.

While much of Dostoyevsky’s discussion of such misplaced imitation pertains to that specific point in Russia’s cultural history, embedded in it is a broader reminder that, to borrow Eleanor Roosevelt’s memorable words, “when you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” In a remark particularly poignant in the context of Russia’s troubled present-day civic climate, Dostoyevsky considers the allure of imitating such villains:

We used to value and respect these evil people … solely due to the fact that they appeared as men of solid hate in contradiction to us Russians, who, as is well known, are people of very fragile hate, and this trait of ours we have always particularly despised. Russians are unable to hate long and seriously, and not only men but even vices — the darkness of ignorance, despotism, obscurantism and all the rest of these retrograde things. At the very first opportunity we are quick and eager to make peace… Please consider: why should we be hating each other? For evil deeds? — But this is a very slippery, most ticklish and most unjust theme — in a word, a double-edged one… Fighting is fighting, but love is love… We are fighting primarily and solely because now it is no longer a time for theories, for journalistic skirmishes, but the time for work and practical decisions.

Noting that the Russian people must recover from “two centuries of lack of habit of work,” he articulates the more universal and rather lamentable human tendency to deflect insecurity by lashing out:

The more incompetent one feels, the more eager he is to fight.

And yet Dostoyevsky approaches the problem with deep compassion rather than harsh judgment:

What, I may ask you, is there bad about it? — Only, that this is touching — and nothing more. Look at children: they fight precisely at the age when they have not yet learned to express their thoughts — exactly as well. Well, in this there is absolutely nothing discouraging; on the contrary, this merely proves to a certain extent our freshness and, so to speak, our virginity.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies.' Click image for more.

He observes how this tendency plays out in his own craft — something undoubtedly amplified today, when criticism is not only professionalized but also sensationalized for profit by the commercial media industrial complex:

In literature, because of the absence of ideas, people scold each other, using all invectives at once; this is an impossible and naïve method observed only among primitive peoples; but, God knows, even in this there is something almost touching: exactly that inexperience, that childish incompetence even in scolding in a proper manner.

But underneath such defensive insecurity and cynicism, Dostoyevsky argues, lies a deeper, most earnest yearning for goodness:

I am by no means jesting; I am not jeering: among us there is a widespread, honest and serene expectation of good (this is so, no matter what one might say to the contrary); a longing for common work and common good, and this — ahead of any egoism; this is a most naïve longing, full of faith devoid of any exclusive or caste tinge, and even if it does appear in paltry and rare manifestations, it comes as something unnoticeable, which is despised by everybody… And why should we be looking for “solid hate”? — The honesty and sincerity of our society not only cannot be doubted, but they even spring up into one’s eyes. Look attentively and you will see that … first comes faith in an idea, in an ideal, while earthly goods come after.

It is our responsibility as human beings, Dostoyevsky suggests, to peer past the surface insecurities that drive people to lash out and look for the deeper longings, holding up a mirror to one another’s highest ideals rather than pointing the self-righteous finger at each other’s lowest faults:

A true friend of mankind whose heart has but once quivered in compassion over the sufferings of the people, will understand and forgive all the impassable alluvial filth in which they are submerged, and will be able to discover the diamonds in the filth.

He urges that such compassion be granted to the Russian people, but in his words there is to be found an enduring case for all disenfranchised groups and harshly judged communities:

Judge [the people] not by those villainies which they frequently perpetrate, but by those great and holy things for which they long amidst the very villainy. Besides, the people are not composed of scoundrels only; there are also genuine saints — and what saints! They themselves are radiant and they illuminate the path for all of us!

More than a century before modern psychology exposed the creative mental gymnastics of how we rationalize our bad deeds, Dostoyevsky speaks to the perils of such rationalization:

Somehow, I am blindly convinced that there is no such villain or scoundrel among the Russian people who wouldn’t admit that he is villainous and abominable, whereas, among others, it does happen sometimes that a person commits a villainy and praises himself for it, elevating his villainy to the level of a principle, and claiming that l’ordre and the light of civilization are precisely expressed in that abomination; the unfortunate one ends by believing this sincerely, blindly and honestly.

With the wry caveat that he is “speaking only about serious and sincere people,” Dostoyevsky reiterates his appeal at the heart of his creed:

Judge [people] not by what they are, but by what they strive to become.

All of A Writer’s Diary is a trove of Dostoyevsky’s great sensitivity to the human experience and his enduring wisdom on literature and life. Complement it with Tolstoy and Gandhi’s little-known letters on why we hurt each other and Kierkegaard on why haters hate.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by 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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