Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

17 JUNE, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Your Ego and the Cosmic Perspective

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“All you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.”

There is hardly a greater cosmic sage of our age than astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In this sublime, characteristically eloquent short clip from BigThink, he echoes Ptolemy’s awe as he teases apart the misguided tension between our human ego and the immensity of the universe:

There’s something about the cosmic perspective, which for some people is enlightening and for other people it’s terrifying. For those who are terrified by it, they’re here on earth and they have a certain self-identity, and then they learn that earth is tiny and we’re in this void of interplanetary space and then there’s a star that we call the Sun and that’s kind of average and there’s a hundred billion other stars in a galaxy. And our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of 50 or 100 billion other galaxies in the universe. And with every step, every window that modern astrophysics has opened to our mind, the person who wants to feel like they’re the center of everything ends up shrinking. And for some people they might even find it depressing, I assert that if you were depressed after learning and being exposed to the perspective, you started your day with an unjustifiably large ego. You thought more highly of yourself than in fact the circumstances deserved.

So here’s what you do: You say, “I have no ego at all.” Let’s start that way. “I have no ego, no cause to puff myself up.” Now let’s learn about the cosmic perspective. Yeah, we’re on a planet that’s orbiting a star, and a star is an energy source and it’s giving us energy, and we’re feeling this energy, and life is enabled by this energy in this star. And by the way, there’s a hundred billion other stars that have other planets. There might be other life out there, could be like us. It’s probably not like us, but whatever it is, it’d be fascinating to find out who it is. Can we talk to them? Can we not? Are they more advanced? Are they less advanced? By the way, the atoms of our body are traceable to what stars do.

And all you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.

So those who see the cosmic perspective as a depressing outlook, they really need to reassess how they think about the world. Because when I look up in the universe, I know I’m small, but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me.

Curiously, the same can be said of life in New York — that tired complaint about being a tiny fish in an immense pond, a nobody in a crowd of somebodies, speaks to that same ego and its stubborn unwillingness to bask in the greater glory of it all rather than wallow in its own smallness. What Anaïs Nin memorably perceived of the self in New York — “Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power.” — is, in turn, equally and immutably true of the self in the universe.

If you haven’t yet read Tyson’s fantastic Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier — one of the best science books of 2012 — do yourself an existential favor.

Swiss Miss

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14 JUNE, 2013

Maya Angelou on Freedom: A 1973 Conversation with Bill Moyers

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“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”

In the early 1970s, revered interviewer Bill Moyers met reconstructionist Maya Angelou — beloved poet, memoirist, dramatist, actor, producer, filmmaker, civil rights activist, and one of the most influential literary voices of our time — at a dinner party in New York. As the two began talking, they realized they had grown up only a hundred miles apart in the South — he, a white boy in “the gentle and neighborly white world that opened generously to ambition and luck”; she, a black girl “in the tight and hounded other world of the South, whose boundaries black children crossed only in their imagination, and even then at intolerable risk”; “two strangers from the same but different place.”

This is what Moyers recalls as he sits down with Angelou on November 21, 1973 and proceeds to shepherd one of his legendary interviews, found in the altogether fantastic 1989 collection Conversations with Maya Angelou (public library).

After Moyers, a true celebrator of his guests, enumerates Angelou’s many accomplishments and accolades in a short biographical introduction, he smoothly glides into the uncomfortable but necessary, asking the author about the parallel struggles of being both black and female “in a society that doesn’t know who you are.” Her answer comes as a vital reminder that “identity is something that you are constantly earning … a process that you must be active in”:

Well, one works at it, certainly. Being free is as difficult and as perpetual — or rather fighting for one’s freedom, struggling towards being free, is like struggling to be a poet or a good Christian or a good jew or a good Moslem or a good Zen Buddhist. You work all day long and achieve some kind of level of success by nightfall, go to sleep and wake up in the next morning with the job still to be done. So you start all over again.

President Barack Obama awards Dr. Maya Angelou the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, on February 15, 2011, in Washington, D.C. (AP photo via NPR)

She addresses the laziness of stereotypes:

All you have to do is put a label on somebody. And then you don’t have to deal with the physical fact. You don’t have to wonder if they are waiting for the Easter bunny or love Christmas, or, you know, love their parents and hate small kids and are fearful of dogs. If you say, oh, that’s a junkie, that’s a nigger, that’s a kike, that’s a Jew, that’s a honkie, that’s a — you just — that’s the end of it.

When Moyers asks Angelou whether she sees the women’s liberation movement, reaching its most critical zenith at the time, as “a white woman’s fantasy,” she replies with a meditation on sociocultural history:

No, certainly not a fantasy. … A necessity. … They definitely need it. … [But it says] very little [to black women], I’m afraid. You see, white women have been made to feel in this society that they are superfluous. A white man can run his society.

[…]

The white American man makes the white American woman maybe not superfluous but just a little kind of decoration. Not really important to the turning around of the wheels.

Well, the black American woman has never been able to feel that way. No black American man at any time in our history in the United States has been able to feel that he didn’t need that black woman right against him, shoulder to shoulder — in that cotton field, on the auction block, in the ghetto, wherever. That black woman is an integral if not a most important part of the family unit. There is a kind of strength that is almost frightening in black women. It’s as if a steel rod runs right through the head down to the feet. And I believe that we have to thank black women not only for keeping the black family alive but the white family.

Later in the conversation, Angelou makes the curious assertion that Watergate is “the most positive thing that is happening in this country” (and it’s interesting to revisit her rationale four decades later, with a movement like Occupy), explaining:

I believe so. Because white Americans — you see, there was a period when white Americans were marching in Selma and marching to Washington, for the blacks they thought, you see. But the struggle due to Watergate is for the whites. It’s for their morality, for their integrity. It’s the first time since the early part of the nineteenth century that a great mass of whites have really been concerned about their own morality. In the early part of the nineteenth century there were whites who became Abolitionists and supported the Underground railroad, not because they loved blacks but because they loved truth. And not since that time — I mean all the World War II business, where we all got together and balled up string, and so forth, was for somebody else. It was for the Jews and Europe.

But suddenly — not so suddenly — in the United States the people are concerned about their own morality, their own continuation. … And that, I believe, will reflect in turn and in time on the black American struggle.

Presaging her timeless wisdom on home and belonging penned 35 years later, Angelou once again returns to the subject of freedom:

You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.

When Moyers asks Angelou what wisdom she’d share with a hypothetical young daughter — a question that would sprout the wonderful Letter to My Daughter more than three decades later — she offers:

I would say you might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever. In fact, it might even be necessary to confront defeat. It might be necessary, to get over it, all the way through it, and go on. I would teach her to laugh a lot. Laugh a lot at the — and the silliest things and be very, very serious. I’d teach her to love life, I can bet you that.

Moyers asks Angelou how, despite the devastating events of her life, she managed to “stay open to the world, open to hope,” and she reflects:

Well, I think you get to a place where you realize you have nothing to lose. Nothing at all. Then you have no reason to bind yourself. I had no reason to hold on. I found it stupid to hold on, to close myself up and hold within me nothing. So I decided to try everything, to keep myself wide open to human beings, all human beings — seeing them as I understand them to be, not as they wish they were, but as I understand them to be. Very truthfully — not idealistically, but realistically. And seeing that if this person knew better he would do better. That doesn’t mean that I don’t protect myself from his actions, you know.

(Exactly twenty years later, Angelou would come to capture this ethos in her wonderful children’s book, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, illustrated by the great Jean-Michel Basquiat.)

The interview closes by coming full-circle to the question of freedom, on which Angelou offers one final, poignant, counterintuitive but profound meditation:

Being free is being able to accept people for what they are, and not try to understand all they are or be what they are. … I think one of the most dangerous statements made in the United States, or descriptive phrases, is that it’s a melting pot. And look at the goo it’s produced.

Find more of Angelou’s enduring wisdom in the rest of Conversations with Maya Angelou, which features thirty-one more remarkable and revealing interviews with the celebrated author and modern sage.

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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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