Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

03 JUNE, 2013

Space for Equality: NASA Joins the It Gets Better Project

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“It’s becoming the new normal — you’re being defined by your character and not by whom you love.”

When we lost pioneering astronaut Sally Ride in 2012, many knew that as she boarded the Space Shuttle Challenger in June of 1983, she became the first American woman in space and the nation’s youngest astronaut to ever launch into the cosmos. But few were aware that she was also America’s first lesbian astronaut in space — a quiet but powerful rebel of gender diversity on multiple levels in a field still dominated by rigid stereotypes and gender norms. At the time of her death, Ride had been with her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, for the past 27 years. And yet one can only imagine the pressures, both inward and outward, she had to withstand coming of age at a time of extreme orientation-based discrimination.

Hardly any movement has done more to alleviate the spectrum from crippling self-doubt to suicide that young queer people struggle with than the It Gets Better project, masterminded by Dan Savage and his husband of 18 years, Terry Miller. Since its conception in 2010, it has drawn thousands of brave people of various sexual orientations and gender identities, as well as a cohort of heterosexual supporters — from countless individuals to the staffers of organizations like Google, Apple and Etsy to the cast of popular TV shows like House and True Blood to President Obama himself — to face the camera and help struggling LGBTQ youth face themselves with dignity and inner peace. Thirty years after Ride boarded the Challenger, NASA joins the It Gets Better ranks with a heartening testament to the diversity of the LBGTQ community, with space agency staffers ranging from interns to managers, engineers to astronauts, and even NASA’s Chief of Staff.

It almost doesn’t matter anymore — it’s who I am; it’s one part of who I am and not everything that I am.

Complement with Dan Savage’s recently released and excellent American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics, discussed in brief here.

The Dish

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31 MAY, 2013

The Duality of the Adventurer’s Spirit: A 1929 Meditation on Our Core Contradictions

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“One third of all criminals are nothing but failed adventurers.”

“The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself … these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have,” Joss Whedon told graduating seniors in his fantastic 2013 Wesleyan commencement address. “This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. … If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace.”

In Twelve Against the Gods: The Story of Adventure (public library) — a 1929 collection of short and exquisitely written biographical essays on the lives of such famed adventurers as Alexander the Great, Casanova, Christopher Columbus, Napoleon, and Isadora Duncan — William Bolitho celebrates the contradictions and bipolar tensions that live inside and often drive even history’s most celebrated heroes:

In the titanic works and events of our day there is the same hostile co-operation of runaway and stay-at-home, the same cult-struggle with the same enigmatic goddess, who asks all and gives all. History has always treasured a catalogue of adventurers — she has not changed her ways, though she may not, for business reasons, be allowed to publish it.

These inner conflicts, he argues in a passage Anaïs Nin noted in the fifth volume of her diaries, are the core of the Adventurer’s spirit, and what sets the hero apart from the villain is the ability to channel this bipolar energy into a generative force rather than a destructive or self-destructive one:

The Adventurer is within us, and he contests for our favor with the social man we are obliged to be. These two sorts of life are incompatible; one we hanker for, the other we are obliged to. There is no other conflict so bitter as this, whatever the pious say, for it derives from the very constitution of human life which so painfully separates us from all other human beings. We, like the eagle, were born to be free. Yet we are obliged, in order to live at all, to make a cage of laws for ourselves and to stand on the perch. We are born as wasteful and unremorseful as tigers; we are obliged to be thrifty, or starve, or freeze. We are born to wander, and cursed to stay and dig. We are born adventurers. It is this double-mindedness of humanity that prevents a clear social excommunication of the adventurers. If he fails he is a mere criminal. One third of all criminals are nothing but failed adventurers. Society’s benefactors as well as pests. These are men betrayed by contradictions inside themselves, a social man at war with a free man.

Perhaps most poignant of all are Bolitho’s closing words, which, in addition to echoing Virginia Woolf’s meditation on imitation and the arts, remind us that as much as we may fall for reductionism, human character is irreducible and full of flux, a fluid self that warrants defending:

Life, that winged swift thing, has to be shot down and reposed by art, like a stuffed bird, before we can use it as a model. There is, therefore, in religion and ethics always art; personality has to be simplified, wired; both its incidents and its results theorized and coordinated before it can awake that only instinct working to our own advantage with which we are endowed: imitation.

Twelve Against the Gods, if you can find a surviving copy, is well worth a read, not only for the enlightening histories but also for Bolitho’s timeless observations on the most enduring and universal aspects of human nature. Complement it, if you haven’t already, with Whedon’s spectacular speech.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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30 MAY, 2013

Remoralizing Marriage: Dan Savage in Conversation with Andrew Sullivan at NYPL

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How marriage equality is fortifying the “equality” part rather than compromising the “marriage” part.

At a recent event from the terrific LIVE from the NYPL series held at the central branch of New York Public Library, Andrew Sullivan — one of my favorite people on and off the internet — took the stage to have a wide-ranging, funny, poignant, unabashedly honest conversation with celebrated sex columnist and LGBT rights advocate Dan Savage, mastermind of the monumentally heartening It Gets Better Project. (Meanwhile, twenty years ago this month, Andrew authored the seminal essay “The Politics of Homosexuality.”). The event at once a celebration of the release of Savage’s new book, American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics (public library), and a timely response to the height of today’s cultural heat around the antiquated legislature banning marriage equality.

In fact, among the conversation’s finest points is their discussion of what marriage is and stands for, from its dark roots as an institution for the oppression of women — one Susan Sontag famously termed “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings” — to its aspiration of celebrating the deepest of human bonds, the kind that ultimately warmed Darwin’s rational heart. As Andrew brilliantly puts it, marriage equality, when closely examined, is an effort not to demoralize marriage but to remoralize it, to bring it closer to its ideals of a union of equals and further from its pathologies. Transcribed highlights below.

On how the promise of marriage equality is in fact reexamining and fortifying the “equality” part, ridding it of its historical baggage, rather than compromising the “marriage” part:

AS: What you’re doing, I think, is actually remoralizing — you’re not demoralizing. You’re saying that the morals that these structures have sustained are actually no longer moral, they’re actually forcing people to be cruel to one another, they’re forcing people to be miserable…

DS: …particularly women to be miserable, and to be enslaved. You know, harking back to traditional marriages in Western families, those were lousy times to be the female in the marriage.

On what the case of Andrew’s parents, who divorced after 49 years of marriage, tells us about the toxic and deceptive ideal of “till death do us part”:

DS: If your mother had been hit by a bus on the way to the lawyer [to divorce your father], everyone would have gone, “Oh, 49 years together — they had a successful marriage.” But 49 years and then they part — that’s an “unsuccessful marriage.” Because we define success in marriage as death … doesn’t matter how miserable you were, doesn’t matter whether it was fulfilling, doesn’t matter if it was an abusive relationship or one of sexual deprivation and lifelong misery and resentment and abuse — if somebody’s getting buried and you’re still married, awesome. And I don’t think that’s a workable definition of marriage when people have access to divorce courts and lawyers.

On how the option of divorce actually makes the marriages that do endure richer and more actively loving:

There’s something about realizing that marriage is opt-in — which it is now, marriage is always opt-in, at any moment you can opt out — it’s almost like you have to earn your partner’s presence in your life. … You cannot take them for granted in a way that you could when it was one woman, one man, for life.

In American Savage, which is excellent in its entirety and a necessary tool of contemporary cultural literacy, Savage explores the subject further:

Defenders of “traditional marriage,” circa 1750, not 1950, objected to anyone marrying for something so unstable as a feeling, Stephanie Coontz argues in Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, no one married for love. You married for property if you were a man; you were married off as property if you were a woman. Couples married to cement alliances. Princes married to unite kingdoms; peasants married to bring small parcels of land together. But marriage wasn’t something you did back then. Marriage was something that was done to you: Young, marriage-age adults (or preadolescents) didn’t have the power or judgment to craft marriage contracts, negotiate alliances, identify the best acreage in the village. Their families — their fathers or eldest male relatives — did that for them.

Much as the advice business is geared toward the needs of women … traditional marriage arrangements were geared toward the needs of men. Historically monogamy wasn’t imposed on or expected from men. Traditionally men (and “traditionally married” men) had concubines; men had multiple wives; men had mistresses; men had access to sex workers. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century— as marriage was redefined from an inherently sexist and oppressive institution to something more egalitarian (i.e., women could own property; they weren’t property)— that monogamous expectations were imposed on men, with often disastrous results. Men aren’t good at it, as anyone who has read a newspaper over the last ten years can attest (Edwards, John; Sanford, Mark; Vitter, David; Petraeus, David, et al.). But rather than extend the same license to women that men have always enjoyed— you can get some on the side, now and then, if you must, but be discreet— we’ve imposed on men the same limitations that women have always endured.

Complement with the wonderful Gay in America project and some heart-warming illustrated marriage equality for kids.

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