Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

21 MARCH, 2013

Henry Miller on the Mystery of the Universe and the Meaning of Life

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“This is the greatest damn thing about the universe. That we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it.”

More than merely one of the most memorable, prolific, and disciplined authors of the twentieth century, Henry Miller was also a champion of the wisdom of the heart, a poignant oracle of writing, a modern philosopher. But hardly anywhere does Miller’s spirit shine more brilliantly than in the 1974 gem This Is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn: Conversations with the Author from the Henry Miller Odyssey (public library) — not a book in the traditional sense, but “a transmutation, a reduction of the hours and hours of film and tape” that filmmaker Robert Snyder began recording in 1968 as the basis for the 1969 documentary The Henry Miller Odyssey. The book itself, as Snyder puts it, “is only a skimming of the film of the man” and “couldn’t be more than an invitation to the man’s work.”

Anchoring the biographical anecdotes are Miller’s many meditations on writing, creativity, and the meaning of life. Among the most poignant is this hand-written “memo to self,” dated 9/17/1918, in which Miller adds to other famous wisdom on the meaning of life:

What are we here for if not to enjoy life eternal, solve what problems we can, give light, peace and joy to our fellow-man, and leave this dear fucked-up planet a little healthier than when we were born.

The book ends with Miller’s grandest reflection on the eternal mystery of the universe, something great minds from Galileo to Montaigne to Neil deGrasse Tyson have pondered. He observes:

No matter what you touch and you wish to know about, you end up in a sea of mystery. You see there’s no beginning or end, you can go back as far as you want, forward as far as you want, but you never got to it, it’s like the essence, it’s that right, it remains. This is the greatest damn thing about the universe. That we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it. And it’s meant to be that way, do y’know. And there’s where our reverence should come in. Before everything, the littlest thing as well as the greatest. The tiniest, the horseshit, as well as the angels, do y’know what I mean. It’s all mystery. All impenetrable, as it were, right?

Complement This Is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn with Miller’s meditations on creative death and the art of living.

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19 MARCH, 2013

Stress As Metaphor

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“Stress signified hardship, and endurance was needed to deal with it. Now … we ‘work’ to overcome stress; we don’t suffer it.”

Modern neuroscience has strongly suggested that optimism might benefit physical health, and researchers are now confirming that psychoemotional stress might actually trigger physical inflammation in the body. Even back in 1934, they knew that the key to mastering life was the elimination of worries. F. Scott Fitzgerald set out to immunize his daughter Scottie against stress with an itemized list of the things in life to worry and not worry about. But what, exactly, is stress — and how did we come to think of it the way we do?

In One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea (public library), Dana Becker investigates the origins of our stress metaphors:

Stress has had many different meanings over the centuries, and because of this, the way we talk about ‘stress’ now bears only a shadow of a resemblance to the way people talked about stress long ago. At one time, stress was a name for ‘what was hard and had to be endured,’ as Robert Kugelmann has noted. Stress demanded strength and fortitude. The image that was often invoked was that of a ship tossed about by the stress of bad weather, and in that image Kugelmann sees the difference between the stress of then and the stress of now. The storm-tossed ship represented something that neither challenged the forces outside it nor was wholly separate from these forces. Stress was what ‘proved the strength, power, and virtue of the ship and crew.’ It was occasional, like wintery blasts that assailed that metaphorical ship; stress signified hardship, and endurance was needed to deal with it. Now, particularly in the middle class, we ‘work’ to overcome stress; we don’t suffer it. And stress is not considered a sometime thing in contemporary Western societies; it is believed to be constant.

Much like our early metaphors for memory, which likened the mind to the recording technologies of yore, Becker traces the metaphor for stress to yesteryear’s depictions of the body as a machine and an industrial apparatus:

Early engineering gave us the ideas of stress and strain, and from these followed the metaphor of the body as a machine with a finite store of energy and with parts that life could grind down. The 1949 edition of the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary defined stress completely without reference to human beings, as the ‘action of external forces; especially to overstrain.'; Today, the definition reads like this: ‘a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tensions and may be a factor in disease causation’ and ‘a state from a stress; especially one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.’ Stress now derives from physics, where it refers to the force that can transform material in ways that cause it to change its form or to break. In our vernacular, stress can be both a cause (‘It was stress that caused his heart attack’) and effect (‘When the plane was late I was so stressed out’). But although we refer to stress as both a force outside the person and an inner state, recently it is the inner state that has been getting the primary emphasis.

This inward reorientation of the stress metaphor, Becker argues, is largely the result of the rising monoculture of liberal individualism, which places individual freedom and self-actualization at the heart of what it means to be human, all the while preserving and honoring the fluid self and negating the myth of fixed personality:

The ‘self’ has become something we can think and talk about — something we can even remake, if necessary. But individualism or no, the self is not separate from social expectations and norms; it can’t be considered apart from the way it is talked about and judged, as British psychologist Nikolas Rose has pointed out. Many of the events in our lives (marriage, unemployment, combat) are open to judgments about how we have coped with or adjusted to them, and these judgements are steeped in a psychological language that has slipped its middle-class moorings to become the currency of our time. … [At] other times in our history, when the stress concept didn’t exist, we couldn’t experience ourselves in the way that stress both describes and delimits.

In the rest of One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea, Becker, a professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College, goes on to argue that the concept of stress has become inflated to a deleterious degree over the past 40 years, critiquing our cultural tendency to approach stress management and the preservation of sanity as a matter of perpetual bandaging of symptoms rather than a deeper concern with understanding and healing the underlying causes.

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18 MARCH, 2013

How Not To Worry: A 1934 Guide to Mastering Life

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“We must gain victory, not by assaulting the walls, but by accepting them.”

As far as vintage finds go, they hardly get more fortuitous than You Can Master Life (public library) — a marvelous 1934 compendium of sort-of-philosophical, sort-of-self-helpy, at times charmingly dated, other times refreshingly timeless advice on cultivating “the power to think, to create, to influence and be influenced by others, and to love,” in the spirit of the 1949 gem How To Avoid Work.

Though written by a Christian pastor named James Gordon Gilkey and thus a little too God-heavy for these corners of the internet, the slim volume shares a good amount in common with Alain de Botton’s modern-day advocacy of the secular sermon. Take, for instance, Gilkey’s advice in a chapter titled “Breaking the Grip of Worry.” He cites a “Worry Table” created by one of the era’s humorists — most likely Mark Twain, who is often quoted, though never with a specific source, as having said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” The table was designed to distinguish between justified and unjustified worries:

On studying his chronic fears this man found they fell into five fairly distinct classifications:

  1. Worries about disasters which, as later events proved, never happened. About 40% of my anxieties.
  2. Worries about decisions I had made in the past, decisions about which I could now of course do nothing. About 30% of my anxieties.
  3. Worries about possible sickness and a possible nervous breakdown, neither of which materialized. About 12% of my worries.
  4. Worries about my children and my friends, worries arising from the fact I forgot these people have an ordinary amount of common sense. About 10% of my worries.
  5. Worries that have a real foundation. Possibly 8% of the total.

Gilkey then prescribes:

What, of this man, is the first step in the conquest of anxiety? It is to limit his worrying to the few perils in his fifth group. This simple act will eliminate 92% of his fears. Or, to figure the matter differently, it will leave him free from worry 92% of the time.

The concept of the worry table is strikingly reminiscent — and, one has to wonder, might have inspired — artist Andrew Kuo’s elaborate 2008 graphic My Wheel of Worry:

(Of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald intuited the basic premise of the table when he sent his daughter Scottie an itemized list of the things in life to worry and not worry about.)

In a later chapter, titled “Doing One’s Work Under Difficulties,” Gilkey offers some related advice which, on the one hand, bears that wise Buddhist-like mindset of living with sheer awareness but, on the other, makes a questionable case against introspection and the enormous enrichment of “living the questions”:

We should make ourselves stop trying to explain our own difficulties. Our first impulse is to try to account for them, figure out why what has happened did happen. Sometimes such an effort is beneficial: more often it is distinctly harmful. It leads to introspection, self-pity, and vain regret; and almost invariably it creates within us a dangerous mood of confusion and despair. Many of life’s hard situations cannot be explained. They can only be endured, mastered, and gradually forgotten. Once we learn this truth, once we resolve to use all our energies managing life rather than trying to explain life, we take the first and most obvious step toward significant accomplishment.

In the following chapter, “Learning to Adjust,” Gilkey revisits the subject through the lens of aging:

Only as we yield to the inexorable, only as we accept the situations which we find ourselves powerless to change, can we free ourselves from fatal inward tensions, and acquire that inward quietness amid which we can seek — and usually find — ways by which our limitations can be made at least partially endurable.

[…]

Why is [this] so difficult for most people? because most of us were told in childhood that the way to conquer a difficulty is to fight it and demolish it. That theory is, of course, the one that should be taught to young people. Many of the difficulties we encounter in youth are not permanent; and the combination of a heroic courage, a resolute will, and a tireless persistence will often — probably usually — break them down. But in later years the essential elements in the situation change. We find in our little world prison-walls which no amount of battering will demolish. Within those walls we must spend our day — spend them happily, or resentfully. Under these new circumstances we must deliberately reverse our youthful technique. We must gain victory, not by assaulting the walls, but by accepting them. Only when this surrender is made can we assure ourselves of inward quietness, and locate the net step on the road to ultimate victory.

Complement You Can Master Life with a contemporary counterpart of sorts, the wonderful and wonderfully useful How To Stay Sane, then wash down with a verse-by-verse neuropsychology reading of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

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