Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

19 JUNE, 2013

Aung San Suu Kyi on Freedom from Fear

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“Fearlessness may be a gift, but perhaps most precious is [the] courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions.”

Reconstructionist Aung San Suu Kyi, born on June 19, 1945, is one of modern history’s greatest champions of peace, following in the footsteps of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance. In her 1991 essay “Freedom from Fear,” found in the altogether essential anthology Freedom from Fear: And Other Writings (public library), Suu echoes fellow reconstructionist Susan Sontag’s timeless words on courage and resistance as she explores the fundamental relationship between fear, courage, and human flourishing:

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.

[…]

Fearlessness may be a gift, but perhaps most precious is the courage acquired through endeavor, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions, courage that could be described as ‘grace under pressure’ — grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.

Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.

Touching on some of the deepest themes Viktor Frankl explored in his 1946 meditation on humanity’s search for meaning, Suu examines the heart of what makes us human:

The wellspring of courage and endurance in the face of unbridled power is generally a firm belief in the sanctity of ethical principles combined with a historical sense that despite all setbacks the condition of man is set on an ultimate course for both spiritual and material advancement. It is his capacity for self-improvement and self-redemption which most distinguishes man from the mere brute. At the root of human responsibility is the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitations and environmental impediments. It is man’s vision of a world fit for rational, civilized humanity which leads him to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.

A few months after this title essay in Freedom from Fear was published, Suu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Portrait by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists

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19 JUNE, 2013

Kierkegaard on Why Anxiety Powers Creativity Rather Than Hindering It

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“Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self… — one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever.”

“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer,” Anaïs Nin famously wrote. But what, exactly, is anxiety, that pervasive affliction the nature of which remains as drowning yet as elusive as the substance of a shadow? In his 1844 treatise The Concept of Anxiety (public library), Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) explains anxiety as the dizzying effect of freedom, of paralyzing possibility, of the boundlessness of one’s own existence — a kind of existential paradox of choice. He writes:

Anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit, and as such it has its place in psychology. Awake, the difference between myself and my other is posited; sleeping, it is suspended; dreaming, it is an intimated nothing. The actuality of the spirit constantly shows itself as a form that tempts its possibility but disappears as soon as it seeks to grasp for it, and it is a nothing that can only bring anxiety. More it cannot do as long as it merely shows itself. [Anxiety] is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite, whereas anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.

[…]

Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science can explain. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become.

He captures the invariable acuteness of anxiety’s varied expressions:

Anxiety can just as well express itself by muteness as by a scream.

Kierkegaard argues that, to paraphrase Henry Miller, on how we orient ourselves to anxiety depends the failure or fruitfulness of life:

In actuality, no one ever sank so deep that he could not sink deeper, and there may be one or many who sank deeper. But he who sank in possibility — his eye became dizzy, his eye became confused. . . . [W]hoever is educated by possibility is exposed to danger, not that of getting into bad company and going astray in various ways as are those educated by the finite, but in danger of a fall, namely, suicide. If at the beginning of education he misunderstands the anxiety, so that it does not lead him to faith but away from faith, then he is lost. On the other hand, whoever is educated [by possibility] remains with anxiety; he does not permit himself to be deceived by its countless falsification and accurately remembers the past. Then the assaults of anxiety, even though they be terrifying, will not be such that he flees from them. For him, anxiety becomes a serving spirit that against its will leads him where he wishes to go.

Core to this premise is the conception of anxiety as a dual force that can be both destructive and generative, depending on how we approach it. Like Nin herself observed in her reflection of why emotional excess is necessary for writing, Kierkegaard argues that anxiety is essential for creativity. Perhaps the most enduring and thoughtful interpretation of his treatment of the relationship between creativity and anxiety comes from legendary existential psychologist Rollo May’s The Meaning of Anxiety (public library), originally published in 1950:

We can understand Kierkegaard’s ideas on the relation between guilt and anxiety only by emphasizing that he is always speaking of anxiety in its relation to creativity. Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self, as well as creating in all the innumerable daily activities (and these are two phases of the same process) — one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever. Now creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living. If one does not do this, one is refusing to grow, refusing to avail himself of his possibilities; one is shirking his responsibility to himself. Hence refusal to actualize one’s possibilities brings guilt toward one’s self. But creating also means destroying the status quo of one’s environment, breaking the old forms; it means producing something new and original in human relations as well as in cultural forms (e.g., the creativity of the artist). Thus every experience of creativity has its potentiality of aggression or denial toward other persons in one’s environment or established patterns within one’s self. To put the matter figuratively, in every experience of creativity something in the past is killed that something new in the present may be born. Hence, for Kierkegaard, guilt feeling is always a concomitant of anxiety: both are aspects of experiencing and actualizing possibility. The more creative the person, he held, the more anxiety and guilt are potentially present.

Both The Concept of Anxiety and The Meaning of Anxiety endure as excellent reads in their entirety, timeless and increasingly timely in our age of anxious wonder.

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18 JUNE, 2013

How Inviting the Unknown Helps Us Know Life More Richly

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“The unknown was my encyclopedia. The unnamed was my science and progress.”

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” Rilke famously urged. “It is possible to live and NOT know,” Richard Feynman dissented in his memorable meditation on the responsibility of scientists. John Keats called for “negative capability” — that peculiar art of remaining in doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Debbie Millman advised to look both ways when lingering at the intersection of the known and the unknown. And yet we continue to grasp for the security of our comfort zones, the affirmation of our areas of expertise, the assurance of our familiar patterns — however badly they may need rewiring.

In an entry from April of 1945 found in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — which also gave us Nin on the meaning of life, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and how our objects define us — the beloved diarist and reconstructionist considers the vital importance of allowing for not-knowing in order to truly know the world in its fullest dimension, of using the unknown as a gateway to deeper presence and greater awareness:

It is possible I never learned the names of birds in order to discover the bird of peace, the bird of paradise, the bird of the soul, the bird of desire. It is possible I avoided learning the names of composers and their music the better to close my eyes and listen to the mystery of all music as an ocean. It may be I have not learned dates in history in order to reach the essence of timelessness. It may be I never learned geography the better to map my own routes and discover my own lands. The unknown was my compass. The unknown was my encyclopedia. The unnamed was my science and progress.

Five years later, in the fifth volume of her diaries, Nin would revisit and evolve this sentiment in her famous words on embracing the unfamiliar, writing:

It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.

In a testament to that rare and powerful intersection of the romantic, the intellectual, and the creative — the kind of love emanating from such celebrated creative couples as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, and Charles and Ray Eames — Henry Miller, Nin’s then-lover, echoes the same sentiment in his reflections on writing:

Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it.

For more of Nin’s timeless wisdom, see her insights on anxiety and love, the necessary fluidity of character, parenting and personal responsibility, and the magic of letterpress and handcraft.

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