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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

12 JUNE, 2013

Horizontal vs. Vertical Identity and How Love Both Changes Us and Makes Us More Ourselves

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“I do not accept subtractive models of love, only additive ones.”

It’s been said that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” But the opposite is also true — we blossom into who we are under the warming light of the love that surrounds us.

This beautiful osmosis is precisely what Andrew Solomon explores in Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (public library) — a fascinating and deeply moving meditation on our evolving definitions of family, our diverse dispositions toward parenthood, the enduring ideals of motherhood and fatherhood, and, perhaps above all, how the freedom of identity unites us in our differences.

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment, and especially on their children,” legendary psychoanalyst Carl Jung famously asserted, “than the unlived lives of the parents.” And, indeed, the propensity for projection in parents who want to see in their children better or unfulfilled versions of themselves, Solomon argues, is a dangerous byproduct of our selfish genes:

In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination. … [But] our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right from the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control. And yet we are our children; the reality of being a parent never leaves those who have braved the metamorphosis.

Solomon goes on to differentiate between vertical, or directly inherited, and horizontal, or independently divergent, identity:

Because of the transmission of identity from one generation to the next, most children share at least some traits with their parents. These are vertical identities. Attributes and values are passed down from parent to child across the generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms. Ethnicity, for example, is a vertical identity. Children of color are in general born to parents of color; the genetic fact of skin pigmentation is transmitted across generations along with a self-image as a person of color, even though that self-image may be subject to generational flux. Language is usually vertical, since most people who speak Greek raise their children to speak Greek, too, even if they inflect it differently or speak another language much of the time. Religion is moderately vertical: Catholic parents will tend to bring up Catholic children, though the children may turn irreligious or convert to another faith. Nationality is vertical, except for immigrants. Blondness and myopia are often transmitted from parent to child, but in most cases do not form a significant basis for identity— blondness because it is fairly insignificant, and myopia because it is easily corrected.

Often, however, someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity. Such horizontal identities may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors. Being gay is a horizontal identity; most gay kids are born to straight parents, and while their sexuality is not determined by their peers, they learn gay identity by observing and participating in a subculture outside the family. Physical disability tends to be horizontal, as does genius. Psychopathy, too, is often horizontal; most criminals are not raised by mobsters and must invent their own treachery. So are conditions such as autism and intellectual disability.

But Solomon wasn’t moved to consider these intricate issues until he had first-hand contact with a particular horizontal identity other than his own. In 1993, he was assigned to do a story on Deaf culture for The New York Times and immersed himself in the Deaf world — a world in which most deaf children are born to hearing parents, who often wish their children had full-range hearing and led “normal” lives. And yet he found himself in awe of the vibrant richness of Deaf identity as he visited Deaf theater performances, reading clubs, and beauty pageants.

Shortly thereafter, a friend of Solomon’s had a daughter diagnosed with dwarfism and “wondered whether she should bring up her daughter to consider herself just like everyone else, only shorter [or] whether she should make sure her daughter had dwarf role models.” Suddenly, a pattern revealed itself — a tendency for “normal” culture, including the parents of children with different horizontal identities, to try to subvert or even “cure” those identities — and it rang with painful familiarity for Solomon, who is himself gay. He writes:

I had been startled to note my common ground with the Deaf, and now I was identifying with a dwarf; I wondered who else was out there waiting to join our gladsome throng. I thought that if gayness, an identity, could grow out of homosexuality, an illness, and Deafness, an identity, could grow out of deafness, an illness, and if dwarfism as an identity could emerge from an apparent disability, then there must be many other categories in this awkward interstitial territory. It was a radicalizing insight. Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us. While each of these experiences can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.

But in families, Solomon argues, many parents tend to perceive their child’s horizontal identity as not only a problem to be fixed but a personal failure or even an affront. He observes:

Whereas families tend to reinforce vertical identities from earliest childhood, many will oppose horizontal ones. Vertical identities are usually respected as identities; horizontal ones are often treated as flaws.

One could argue that black people face many disadvantages in the United States today, but there is little research into how gene expression could be altered to make the next generation of children born to black parents come out with straight, flaxen hair and creamy complexions. In modern America, it is sometimes hard to be Asian or Jewish or female, yet no one suggests that Asians, Jews, or women would be foolish not to become white Christian men if they could. Many vertical identities make people uncomfortable, and yet we do not attempt to homogenize them. The disadvantages of being gay are arguably no greater than those of such vertical identities, but most parents have long sought to turn their gay children straight. … Labeling a child’s mind as diseased — whether with autism, intellectual disabilities, or transgenderism — may reflect the discomfort that mind gives parents more than any discomfort it causes their child.

As we’ve observed the powerful role of language in other cultural change and social justice reform movements, the way we talk about these issues not only reflects but also shapes the way we think about them. Solomon calls for a necessary change in vocabulary by way of an apt analogy:

We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate that same way of being. This is a false dichotomy. In physics, the Copenhagen interpretation defines energy/ matter as behaving sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle, which suggests that it is both, and posits that it is our human limitation to be unable to see both at the same time. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac identified how light appears to be a particle if we ask a particle-like question, and a wave if we ask a wavelike question. A similar duality obtains in this matter of self. Many conditions are both illness and identity, but we can see one only when we obscure the other. Identity politics refutes the idea of illness, while medicine shortchanges identity. Both are diminished by this narrowness.

Physicists gain certain insights from understanding energy as a wave, and other insights from understanding it as a particle, and use quantum mechanics to reconcile the information they have gleaned. Similarly, we have to examine illness and identity, understand that observation will usually happen in one domain or the other, and come up with a syncretic mechanics. We need a vocabulary in which the two concepts are not opposites, but compatible aspects of a condition. The problem is to change how we assess the value of individuals and of lives, to reach for a more ecumenical take on healthy.

Having a child with a horizontal identity vastly different from that of the parent, Solomon argues, is a kind of magnifying mirror for the parent’s character and capacity as a human being:

Having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies; those who would be bad parents become awful parents, but those who would be good parents often become extraordinary.

But the dynamic flows both ways:

Parents’ early responses to and interactions with a child determine how that child comes to view himself. These parents are also profoundly changed by their experiences.

“Love can change a person,” Lemony Snicket wrote in Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid, “the way a parent can change a baby — awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.” But Solomon makes a case for precisely the inverse — that a child can change a parent, just as awkwardly and with just as much of a mess, through the power of love:

Self-acceptance is part of the ideal, but without familial and societal acceptance, it cannot ameliorate the relentless injustices to which many horizontal identity groups are subject and will not bring about adequate reform. … To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon. It is astonishing how often such mutuality has been realized — how frequently parents who had supposed that they couldn’t care for an exceptional child discover that they can. The parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.

What Solomon’s key point boils down to is a necessary and thoughtful addition to history’s most notable definitions of love. In the closing pages, he writes:

Some people are trapped by the belief that love comes in finite quantities, and that our kind of love exhausts the supply upon which they need to draw. I do not accept competitive models of love, only additive ones. My journey toward a family and this book have taught me that love is a magnifying phenomenon — that every increase in love strengthens all the other love in the world. . . .

In his stirring TED talk, Solomon paraphrases this already poignant sentiment even more beautifully:

I do not accept subtractive models of love, only additive ones.

Far From the Tree comes a decade after Solomon’s indispensable The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.

The Dish

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10 JUNE, 2013

Conjuring Cohesion and Purpose: How Ursula Nordstrom Cultivated Maurice Sendak’s Genius

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“That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos.”

The great Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928 — May 8, 2012) endures as one of the most beloved authors of literature for children the world has ever known, and yet without the care and support of legendary mid-century children’s book editor and reconstructionist Ursula Nordstrom, who brought to life such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964), he may have always remained the insecure young artist he once was. From Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — the same wonderful tome that gave us Nordstrom’s witty, wise, and prescient 1953 letter on the state of publishing — comes this remarkably heart-warming letter Nordstrom sent young Sendak, who had written her full of self-doubt as he was setting out to illustrate a children’s adaptation of Nikolenka’s Childhood by Tolstoy. Amidst the toxic mythology of the self-publishing era, the missive illustrates the life-changing role of an extraordinary editor who transcends her professional role to be part friend, part psychotherapist, part sage, and wholly the kind of extraordinary celebrator amplifying the author’s talent and lifting his spirit that made Nordstrom who she was and who any great editor ought to be.

She begins by reminding young Sendak that there are many kinds of genius and an artist could benefit from a more dimensional definition:

August 21, 1961

Dear Maurice,

[…]

Your cabin by the lake, and your own boat, sound fine. Please remember that the moon will be full on Friday, the 25th, and take a look at it. It should be beautiful over Lake Champlain.

I loved your long letter and hope it clarified some things for you to write it. Sure, Tolstoy and Melville have a lot of furniture in their books and they also know a lot of facts (“where the mouth of a river is”) but that isn’t the only sort of genius, you know that. You are more of a poet in your writing, at least right now. Yes, Tolstoy is wonderful (his publisher asked me for a quote) but you can express as much emotion and “cohesion and purpose” in some of your drawings as there is in War and Peace. I mean that. You write and draw from the inside out — which is why I said poet.

Nikolenka's Childhood by Leo Tolstoy, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1963)

In assuaging Sendak’s anxiety about self-absorption, Nordstrom adds to history’s most memorable meditations on art in a sentiment philosopher Martha Nussbaum would come to echo in her admonition against despising one’s inner world, and offers an amusingly accurate micro-critique of Moby-Dick:

I was absorbed when I read you had “the sense of having lived one’s life so narrowly — with eyes and senses turned inward. An actual sense of the breadth of life does not exist in me. I am narrowly concerned with me… All I will ever express will be the little I have gleaned of life for my own purposes.” But isn’t that what every fine artist-writer ever expressed? If your expression is now more an impressionist one that doesn’t make it any less important, or profound. That whole passage in your letter was intensely interesting to me. Yes, you did live “with eyes and senses turned inward” but you had to. Socrates said “Know thyself.” And now you do know yourself better than you did, and your work is getting richer and deeper, and it has such an exciting, emotional quality. I know you don’t need and didn’t ask for compliments from me. These remarks are not compliments — just facts.

The great Russians and Melville and Balzac etc. wrote in another time, in leisure, to be read in leisure. I know what you mean about those long detailed rich novels — my god the authors knew all about war, and agriculture, and politics. But that is one type of writing, for a more leisurely time than ours. You have your own note to sound, and you are sounding it with greater power and beauty all the time. Yes, Moby Dick is great, but honestly don’t you see great gobs of it that could come out? Does that offend you, coming from a presumptuous editor? I remember lines of the most piercing beauty (after he made a friend there was something beautiful about “no more would my splintered hand and shattered heart be turned against the wolfish world.”) But there are many passages which could have been cut. But I wander…

In a beautiful passage that eloquently captures what we already know about genius — that without discipline and work ethic, creativity is a hapless muse, but also that emotional excess is critical for creativity — Nordstrom assures Sendak that the best cure for his creative block is simply showing up, again and again:

You wrote “my world is furniture-less. It is all feeling.” Well feeling (emotion) combined with an artist’s discipline is the rarest thing in the world. You love and admire the work of some other contemporary artists and writers today but really, think how few of them have any vigorous emotional vitality? What you have is RARE. You also wrote “Knowledge is the driving force that puts creative passion to work” — a true statement, and also very well put. But it would include self knowledge for some as well as knowledge of facts for others. (Is this English I’m writing? I need an editor.)

You reminded me that you are 33. I always think 29, but OK. Anyhow, aren’t the thirties wonderful? And 33 is still young for an artist with your potentialities. I mean, you may not do your deepest, fullest, richest work until you are in your forties. You are growing and getting better all the time. I hope it was good for you to write me the thoughts that came to you. It was very good for me to read what you wrote, and to think about your letter. I’m sorry you have writers cramp as you put it but glad that you’re putting down “pure Sendakian vaguery” (I think you invented that good word). The more you put down the better and I’ll be glad to see anything you want to show me. You referred to your “atoms worth of talent.” You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either. You have a vast and beautiful genius.

Like beloved novelist Isabel Allende, who famously asserted that what moves her to write is the desire to bring a sense of order to the chaos of life, Nordstrom reminds Sendak that this longing is the greatest blessing — even when it feels like a curse — of the creative artist:

You wrote “It would be wonderful to want to believe in God. The aimlessness of living is too insane.” That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos. The rest of us plain people just accept disorder (if we even recognize it) and get a bang out of our five beautiful senses, if we’re lucky. Well, not making any sense but will send this anyhow.

After wishing young Maurice a wonderful vacation and signing, Nordstrom ends the letter with an infinitely heartening postscript:

You know one of these days you’ll go back to Old Potato*, or a version of that situation, and it will have “cohesion and purpose” and will have so many universal emotions within its relatively simple framework. Love, fear, acceptance, rejection, re-assurance, and growth. No more for now.

Two years later, Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, for which he remains best-known and which Nordstrom edited, was published.

Dear Genius, which brims with Nordstrom’s legendary heart and wit, features much more of her correspondence with Sendak — who, fittingly, drew Nordstrom’s portrait on the cover of the book. Complement it with Sendak’s posthumous love letter to the world, his unreleased drawings and intaglio prints, this illustrated adaptation of Terry Gross’s moving conversation with the author, and the very last interview with him — by Colbert, no less.

* Sendak’s uncompleted manuscript for a novel set in Brooklyn about the friendship between a little boy nicknamed “Old Potato” and a gentle solitary man who lived in the neighborhood.

Painting by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

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07 JUNE, 2013

How We Spend Our Days Is How We Spend Our Lives: Annie Dillard on Presence Over Productivity

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“The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less.”

The meaning of life has been pondered by such literary icons as Leo Tolstoy (1904), Henry Miller (1918), Anaïs Nin (1946), Viktor Frankl (1946), Italo Calvino (1975), and David Foster Wallace (2005). And though some have argued that today’s age is one where “the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning,” there’s an unshakable and discomfiting sense that, in our obsession with optimizing our creative routines and maximizing our productivity, we’ve forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.

From The Writing Life (public library) by Annie Dillard — a wonderful addition to the collected wisdom of beloved writers — comes this beautiful and poignant meditation on the life well lived, reminding us of the tradeoffs between presence and productivity that we’re constantly choosing to make, or not:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

She goes on to illustrate this existential tension between presence and productivity with a fine addition to history’s great daily routines and daily rituals:

The most appealing daily schedule I know is that of a turn-of-the-century Danish aristocrat. He got up at four and set out on foot to hunt black grouse, wood grouse, woodcock, and snipe. At eleven he met his friends, who had also been out hunting alone all morning. They converged “at one of these babbling brooks,” he wrote. He outlined the rest of his schedule. “Take a quick dip, relax with a schnapps and a sandwich, stretch out, have a smoke, take a nap or just rest, and then sit around and chat until three. Then I hunt some more until sundown, bathe again, put on white tie and tails to keep up appearances, eat a huge dinner, smoke a cigar and sleep like a log until the sun comes up again to redden the eastern sky. This is living…. Could it be more perfect?”

Dillard juxtaposes the Danish aristocrat’s revelry in everyday life with the grueling routine of a couple of literary history’s most notorious self-disciplinarians:

Wallace Stevens in his forties, living in Hartford, Connecticut, hewed to a productive routine. He rose at six, read for two hours, and walked another hour—three miles—to work. He dictated poems to his secretary. He ate no lunch; at noon he walked for another hour, often to an art gallery. He walked home from work—another hour. After dinner he retired to his study; he went to bed at nine. On Sundays, he walked in the park. I don’t know what he did on Saturdays. Perhaps he exchanged a few words with his wife, who posed for the Liberty dime. (One would rather read these people, or lead their lives, than be their wives. When the Danish aristocrat Wilhelm Dinesen shot birds all day, drank schnapps, napped, and dressed for dinner, he and his wife had three children under three. The middle one was Karen.)

[…]

Jack London claimed to write twenty hours a day. Before he undertook to write, he obtained the University of California course list and all the syllabi; he spent a year reading the textbooks in philosophy and literature. In subsequent years, once he had a book of his own under way, he set his alarm to wake him after four hours’ sleep. Often he slept through the alarm, so, by his own account, he rigged it to drop a weight on his head. I cannot say I believe this, though a novel like The Sea-Wolf is strong evidence that some sort of weight fell on his head with some sort of frequency — but you wouldn’t think a man would claim credit for it. London maintained that every writer needed a technique, experience, and a philosophical position.

At the heart of these anecdotes of living is a dynamic contemplation of life itself:

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call Pasteur’s life a good one, or Thomas Mann’s?

The Writing Life is sublime in its entirety, the kind of book that stays with you for lifetimes.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

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