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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

16 DECEMBER, 2014

Margaret Mead on Myth vs. Deception and What to Tell Kids about Santa Claus

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How to instill an appreciation of the difference between “fact” and “poetic truth,” in kids and grownups alike.

Few things rattle the fine line between the benign magic of mythology and the deliberate delusion of a lie more than the question of how, what, and whether to tell kids about Santa Claus. Half a century ago, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) — the world’s most influential cultural anthropologist and one of history’s greatest academic celebrities — addressed this delicate subject with great elegance, extending beyond the jolly Christmas character and into larger questions of distinguishing between myth and deception.

From the wonderful out-of-print volume Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library) — the same compendium of Mead’s answers to audience questions from her long career as a public speaker and lecturer, which also gave us her remarkably timely thoughts on racism and law enforcement and equality in parenting — comes an answer to a question she was asked in December of 1964: “Were your children brought up to believe in Santa Claus? If so, what did you tell them when they discovered he didn’t exist?”

Mead’s response, which calls to mind Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, is a masterwork of celebrating rational, critical thinking without sacrificing magic to reason:

Belief in Santa Claus becomes a problem mainly when parents simultaneously feel they are telling their children a lie and insist on the literal belief in a jolly little man in a red suit who keeps tabs on them all year, reads their letters and comes down the chimney after landing his sleigh on the roof. Parents who enjoy Santa Claus — who feel that it is more fun talk about what Santa Claus will bring than what Daddy will buy you for Christmas and who speak of Santa Claus in a voice that tells no lie but instead conveys to children something about Christmas itself — can give children a sense of continuity as they discover the sense in which Santa is and is not “real.”

With her great gift for nuance, Mead adds:

Disillusionment about the existence of a mythical and wholly implausible Santa Claus has come to be a synonym for many kinds of disillusionment with what parents have told children about birth and death and sex and the glory of their ancestors. Instead, learning about Santa Claus can help give children a sense of the difference between a “fact” — something you can take a picture of or make a tape recording of, something all those present can agree exists — and poetic truth, in which man’s feelings about the universe or his fellow men is expressed in a symbol.

Recalling her own experience both as a child and as a parent, Mead offers an inclusive alternative to the narrow Santa Claus myth, inviting parents to use the commercial Western holiday as an opportunity to introduce kids to different folkloric traditions and value systems:

One thing my parents did — and I did for my own child — was to tell stories about the different kinds of Santa Claus figures known in different countries. The story I especially loved was the Russian legend of the little grandmother, the babushka, at whose home the Wise Men stopped on their journey. They invited her to come with them, but she had no gift fit for the Christ child and she stayed behind to prepare it. Later she set out after the Wise Men but she never caught up with them, and so even today she wanders around the world, and each Christmas she stops to leave gifts for sleeping children.

But Mead’s most important, most poetic point affirms the idea that children stories shouldn’t protect kids from the dark:

Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.

Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is, sadly, long out of print — but it’s an immeasurable trove of Mead’s wisdom well worth the used-book hunt. Complement it with Mead’s beautiful love letters to her soulmate and the story of how she discovered the meaning of life in a dream.

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15 DECEMBER, 2014

The Moomin Guide to Identity and Belonging: Tove Jansson’s Vintage Philosophical Comics on Why We Join Groups and Seek Community

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“It’s rather difficult, when one has MANY friends, to show loyalty to them all at the same time…”

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) is one of the most imaginative and influential storytellers in modern history — an artist and writer of singular creative vision and a genius for rendering visible and comprehensible life’s subtlest nuances. She was Finland’s most revered literary celebrity and a recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, and yet she lived simply and worked in the same studio for forty-seven years alongside the love of her life, the great Finnish sculptor and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, who inspired Jansson’s endearing Too-ticky character. She had the courage and clarity of conviction to turn down Walt Disney’s commercial offer and instead built her own creative empire on a foundation of remarkable integrity and unflinching artistic vision. Neil Gaiman has called Jansson’s work “a surrealist masterpiece.”

In addition to her marvelously philosophical children’s books and her gorgeous vintage illustrations for special editions of such classics as The Hobbit in 1962 and Alice in Wonderland in 1966, Jansson also enlisted her iconic Moomin characters in a lesser-known but long-running London Evening News series of comic strips for grownups. To celebrate Jansson’s centennial, Drawn & Quarterly has collected the best of them — miraculously salvaged from rare scans-of-scans through a serendipitous twist of fate — in Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition (public library | IndieBound).

What makes Jansson’s comics timelessly delightful and particularly timely in today’s culture is that she addresses serious, often uncomfortable issues — uncertainty, heartbreak, mortality, natural disasters, our ample human imperfections — with great compassion and warmth, never chastising or preaching but instead celebrating the light in life and aiming its generous beam at the dark. There are no morality tales — life’s messiness is acknowledged, welcomed, and never forced into artificial tidiness. There is love, lots of it, and loneliness too — and, sometimes, the loneliness of love unrequited, but that too is welcomed with quiet consolation.

Tove Jansson in 1967 (photograph by Hans Gedda)

While all the twenty-one comics in this handsome centennial volume reveal various facets of Jansson’s spirit and creative vision, one in particular sang to me more mesmerically than all others. It captures the warm wisdom of her famous saying, “You are alone but that’s okay, we’re all alone.” — something she regularly offered not as a nihilistic lament but as affectionate assurance, one all the more sorely needed today.

Titled “Club Life in Moominvalley,” the story explores questions of identity, belonging, and our quintessential need for community. More than a century after her fellow Scandinavian Søren Kierkegaard’s piercing reflections on the individual vs. the crowd and why we conform, Jansson shines her gentle sagacity on the fine line between belonging to a group of kindred spirits and relinquishing our integrity in conforming.

One day, Moominpappa announces that he and his buddies have formed a Rebel Fathers Club. When Moominmamma — a rather feminist character in the series — inquires whether “rebel mothers” could join, she is unceremoniously declined.

With the classic in-group/out-group dynamic, the Fathers Club decides to define itself not by what it stands for but what it stands against. But they can’t pit themselves against the police because the police chief is an old friend of Moominpappa’s, and they can’t stand in opposition to the crime world because Stinky, the fuzzy perpetrator of Moominvalley mischief, is also an old friend. Eventually, they decide to form a rebel club for the sake thereof, rebelling nothing in particular, because “the important thing is, after all, to meet and have a good time” — “and wear a special tie.”

Moominmamma and her son, eager to join a club of their own, innocently agree to participate Stinky’s cryptic and obviously unwholesome plan, which requires that they don a disguise for a “meeting” in the middle of the night. “Their club hasn’t even a decent tie,” Moominmamma laments as she carries forth with the plan nonetheless. Once she arrives, it becomes clear that the club’s mission is to steal. “What sort of things do you steal for the poor?” charitable Moomintroll inquires, and Stinky responds that, like the Fathers Club, the Robbers Club has no particular focus — they’d steal anything. Moominmamma is reluctant and agrees to a “passive membership” at most, as Jansson pokes her subtle satire at our noncommittal tendencies of wanting to join causes but not wanting to do the work.

As passive members of the Robbers Club, Moominmamma and her son are asked to take a Fight Club-esque vow of silence: “May the ground open and devour me if I betray the club.” But when the police chief gets wind of the crime in the valley, Moominmamma finds herself in an ever-growing mesh of evasions, omissions, and almost-lies. (She is, after all, too charitable to explicitly lie — once again, Jansson winks at how we rationalize our actions.) When the chief asks if he can add Moominmamma to the crime-fighters club, she agrees once again only to a passive membership, only semi-aware of the conflict with her passive membership in Robbers Club.

After a series of misadventures involving the stolen cow, blackmail letters from Stinky, a valley-wide search for Moominmamma’s stolen bag, and various contradictory club-versus-club demands, she manages to steal her bag back with Stinky’s help — but it is still a crime and the police chief, who is rather hurt by the Moomins’ flip-flopping loyalties, must dispense punishment. He sentences the Moomins “to remain in all the clubs as active members for their whole lives!” — Jansson’s prescient comment on the absurdity of overzealous social networking and the punishing consequences of people-pleasing.

Jansson’s finest line in the story — one of her signature packets of simply worded, instantly pause-giving wisdom, the kind one might expect from Winnie the Pooh — is a comment on precisely that:

It’s rather difficult, when one has MANY friends, to show loyalty to them all at the same time…

The full strip and the remaining twenty in Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition — a fine addition to both the year’s best art books and best philosophy books — are immensely rewarding, unfolding new layers of Jansson’s wit and wisdom uncovered with each reading. Complement this treasure with Jansson’s Moomin-channeled ode to uncertainty, presence, and self-reliance.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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12 DECEMBER, 2014

Being Mortal: A Surgeon on the Crossroads Between Our Bodies and Our Inner Lives and What Really Matters in the End

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How dying confers upon living “the courage to act on the truth we find.”

“I am not saying that we should love death,” wrote Rilke, perhaps humanity’s greatest sherpa of befriending our mortality, in a 1923 letter, “but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.” In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (public library | IndieBound), second-generation surgeon Atul Gawande grants Rilke’s undying words a new dimension in his sublime contribution to the canon of befriending mortality, which stretches from Montaigne’s meditation on death and the art of living to Sherwin Nuland’s foundational treatise on how we die to Alan Lightman’s wisdom on our paradoxical longing for immortality. In his part-memoir, part-manifesto, Gawande sets out to shed light on our contemporary experience of dying — an experience that, it warrants remembering, begins at birth — and on “what it’s like to be creatures who age and die, how medicine has changed the experience and how it hasn’t, where our ideas about how to deal with our finitude have got the reality wrong.”

Gawande opens by noting the profound rift between anatomy and mortality in his medical education, bespeaking medicine’s general failure to prepare physicians for the most difficult yet deeply humanizing part of human life: our exit from it. “How the process unfolds, how people experience the end of their lives, and how it affects those around them,” he recalls, “seemed beside the point.”

But one particular work forever changed Gawande’s worldview as a student — and it wasn’t a medical text. It wasn’t written by a doctor, but by Leo Tolstoy, whose contemplation of the meaning of existence remains among the most important pieces of human wisdom ever committed to words. The work that so moved Gawande, however, was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and the following passage in particular:

What tormented Ivan Ilyich most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and he only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result.

Illustration from 'The Flat Rabbit,' an unusual Scandinavian children's book that helps make sense of death. Click image for more.

His tuition, Gawande suggests, went toward a similar deception — medicine’s insistence on isolating the inner workings of the body from the rich and often difficult inner life it houses, especially when that bodily abode begins to fall apart. He writes:

Modern scientific capability has profoundly altered the course of human life. People live longer and better than at any other time in history. But scientific advances have turned the processes of aging and dying into medical experiences, matters to be managed by health care professionals. And we in the medical world have proved alarmingly unprepared for it.

Pointing out that over the past seven decades we have shifted from a culture where most deaths take place in the home to one where more than 80% occur in hospitals and nursing homes, Gawande laments our malignant attitude that casts death as a failure of both doctors and the dying:

Death, of course, is not a failure. Death is normal. Death may be the enemy, but it is also the natural order of things.

[…]

You become a doctor for what you imagine to be the satisfaction of the work, and that turns out to be the satisfaction of competence. It is a deep satisfaction very much like the one that a carpenter experiences in restoring a fragile antique chest or that a science teacher experiences in bringing a fifth grader to that sudden, mind-shifting recognition of what atoms are. It comes partly from being helpful to others. But it also comes from being technically skilled and able to solve difficult, intricate problems. Your competence gives you a secure sense of identity. For a clinician, therefore, nothing is more threatening to who you think you are than a patient with a problem you cannot solve.

There’s no escaping the tragedy of life, which is that we are all aging from the day we are born. One may even come to understand and accept this fact. My dead and dying patients don’t haunt my dreams anymore. But that’s not the same as saying one knows how to cope with what cannot be mended. I am in a profession that has succeeded because of its ability to fix. If your problem is fixable, we know just what to do. But if it’s not? The fact that we have had no adequate answers to this question is troubling and has caused callousness, inhumanity, and extraordinary suffering.

This experiment of making mortality a medical experience is just decades old. It is young. And the evidence is it is failing.

[…]

You don’t have to spend much time with the elderly or those with terminal illness to see how often medicine fails the people it is supposed to help. The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit. They are spent in institutions—nursing homes and intensive care units—where regimented, anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life. Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the basic comforts they most need. Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to their very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers.

Piece from Candy Chang's global art project 'Before I Die.' Click image for more.

And yet Gawande extracts the promising potential beneath this cultural failure:

I have the writer’s and scientist’s faith … that by pulling back the veil and peering in close, a person can make sense of what is most confusing or strange or disturbing.

To be sure, Gawande brings a singular lineage of perspectives to this issue — an accomplished practitioner of Western medicine, he was born to parents, both doctors, who immigrated to America from different parts of India. He recalls visiting his paternal grandfather in India — “a dignified man, with a tightly wrapped white turban, a pressed, brown argyle cardigan, and a pair of old-fashioned, thick-lensed, Malcolm X-style spectacles” — when he was older than a hundred. Gawande paints the stark contrast between how his grandfather’s culture handled human finitude and how his own does:

He was surrounded and supported by family at all times, and he was revered — not in spite of his age but because of it. He was consulted on all important matters— marriages, land disputes, business decisions — and occupied a place of high honor in the family. When we ate, we served him first. When young people came into his home, they bowed and touched his feet in supplication.

In America, he would almost certainly have been placed in a nursing home. Health professionals have a formal classification system for the level of function a person has. If you cannot, without assistance , use the toilet, eat, dress, bathe, groom, get out of bed, get out of a chair, and walk — the eight “Activities of Daily Living” — then you lack the capacity to live safely on your own.

Gawande turns to Plato’s dialogue Laches — a text written nearly two millennia ago — for enduring guidance on how to cultivate a healthier relationship with our mortality. In the ancient text, Laches and Socrates go on to propose, then dismiss one by one, a series of definitions of courage, from “a certain endurance of the soul” to “knowledge of what is to be feared or hoped, either in war or in anything else.” They come up with no definitive answer, but Gawande argues that the reader arrives at an implicit one, which he synthesis beautifully:

Courage is strength in the face of knowledge of what is to be feared or hoped. Wisdom is prudent strength.

He considers how the notion of courage illuminates the ultimate act of showing up that is dying:

At least two kinds of courage are required in aging and sickness. The first is the courage to confront the reality of mortality — the courage to seek out the truth of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped. Such courage is difficult enough. We have many reasons to shrink from it. But even more daunting is the second kind of courage — the courage to act on the truth we find. The problem is that the wise course is so frequently unclear. For a long while, I thought that this was simply because of uncertainty. When it is hard to know what will happen, it is hard to know what to do. But the challenge, I’ve come to see, is more fundamental than that. One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes are what should matter most.

Gawande’s most emboldening point is that reframing our relationship with death, as well as our treatment of the dying, confers greater freedom upon life and more dignity upon the living:

Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be.

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

[…]

If to be human is to be limited, then the role of caring professions and institutions — from surgeons to nursing homes — ought to be aiding people in their struggle with those limits. Sometimes we can offer a cure, sometimes only a salve, sometimes not even that. But whatever we can offer, our interventions, and the risks and sacrifices they entail, are justified only if they serve the larger aims of a person’s life.

In the remainder of Being Mortal, which lives at the intersection of science and philosophy, Gawande goes on to illustrate these ideas with practical examples of better, less limiting, and more dignified models of caring for the elderly and easing our exit from being. Complement it with philosopher Joanna Macy on how death helps us dial up the magic of life.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.