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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

31 MARCH, 2015

Ongoingness: Sarah Manguso on Time, Memory, Beginnings and Endings, and the True Measure of a Life Filled with Aliveness

By:

“Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.”

Some of humanity’s most celebrated writers and artists have reaped, and extolled, the creative benefits of keeping a diary. For John Steinbeck, journaling was a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt; for Virginia Woolf, a way to “loosen the ligaments” of creativity; for André Gide, a conduit to “spiritual evolution”; for Anaïs Nin, who remains history’s most dedicated diarist, the best way to “capture the living moments.”

Joining the canon of insightful meta-diarists is Sarah Manguso with Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (public library) — a collection of fragmentary, piercing meditations on time, memory, the nature of the self, and the sometimes glorious, sometimes harrowing endeavor of filling each moment with maximum aliveness while simultaneously celebrating its presence and grieving its passage.

Looking back on the 800,000 words she produced over a quarter-century of journaling, Manguso produces an unusual meta-reflection that exudes the concise sagacity of Zen teachings and the penetrating insight of Marshall McLuhan’s “probes.” She becomes, in fact, a kind of McLuhan of the self, probing not the collective conscience but the individual psyche, yet extracting widely resonant human truth and transmuting it into enormously expansive wisdom.

Manguso traces the roots of her diaristic journey, which began as an almost compulsive hedge against forgetting, against becoming an absentee in her own life, against the anguishing anxiety that time was slipping from her grip:

I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

[…]

The trouble was that I failed to record so much.

I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time — there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.

[…]

I tried to record each moment, but time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.

So I tried to pay close attention to what seemed like empty time.

[…]

I wanted to comprehend my own position in time so I could use my evolving self as completely and as usefully as possible. I didn’t want to go lurching around, half-awake, unaware of the work I owed the world, work I didn’t want to live without doing.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s; found in Cartographies of Time. (Click image for more.)

And yet this process of chronicling her orientation to the moment soon revealed that the recording itself was an editorial act — choosing which moments to record and which to omit is, as Susan Sontag observed of the fiction writer’s task to choose which story to tell from among all the ones that could be told, about becoming a storyteller of one’s own life; synthesizing the robust fact of time into a fragmentary selection of moments invariably produces a work of fiction. As Manguso puts it, the diary becomes “a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget.”

But alongside this pursuit of the fullness of the moment Manguso found a dark underbelly — a kind of leaning forward into the next moment before this one has come to completion. This particularly Western affliction has immensely varied symptoms, but Manguso found that it her own life its most perilous manifestation was the tendency to hop from one romantic relationship to another, oscillating between beginnings and endings, unable to inhabit the stillness of the middles. She writes:

I’d become intolerant of waiting. My forward momentum barely stopped for the length of the touch.

I thought my momentum led to the next person, but in fact it only led away from the last person.

My behavior was an attempt to stop time before it swept me up. It was an attempt to stay safe, free to detach before life and time became too intertwined for me to write down, as a detached observer, what had happened.

Once I understood what I was doing, with each commitment I wakened slightly more from my dream of pure potential.

It was a failure of my imagination that made me keep leaving people. All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget.

I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I'll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

As her relationship to these markers of time changed, she became interested not in the “short tragic love stories” that had once bewitched her but in “the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, she no longer remembers quite how it began.” Eventually, she got married. Echoing Wendell Berry’s memorable meditation on marriage and freedom, she writes:

Marriage isn’t a fixed experience. It’s a continuous one. It changes form but is still always there, a rivulet under a frozen stream. Now, when I feel a break in the continuity of till death do us part, I think to myself, Get back in the river.

In a significant way, the stability of time inherent to such continuity was an experience foreign to Manguso and counter to the flow of impermanence that her diary recorded. This was a whole new way of measuring life not by its constant changes but by its unchanging constants:

In my diary I recorded what had changed since the previous day, but sometimes I wondered: What if I recorded only what hadn’t changed? Weather still fair. Cat still sweet. Cook oats in same pot. Continue reading same book. Make bed in same way, put on same blue jeans, water garden in same order … Would that be a better, truer record?

The record-keeping of truth, of course, is the domain of memory — and yet our memory is not an accurate recording device but, as legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks has pointed out over and over, a perpetually self-revising dossier. Manguso considers what full attentiveness to the present might look like when unimpeded by the tyranny of memory:

The least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it. With each recollection, the memory of it further degrades. The memory and maybe the fact of every kiss start disappearing the moment the two mouths part.

Looking back on her own childhood, Manguso echoes Susan Sontag’s memorable protestation against the mnemonic violence of photography and writes:

When I was twelve I realized that photographs were ruining my memory. I’d study the photos from an event and gradually forget everything that had happened between the shutter openings. I couldn’t tolerate so much lost memory, and I didn’t want to spectate my life through a viewfinder, so I stopped taking photographs. All the snapshots of my life for the next twenty years were shot by someone else. There aren’t many, but there are enough.

For Manguso, memory and its resulting record became stubborn self-defense not only against forgetting but also against being forgotten — a special case of our general lifelong confrontation with mortality:

My life, which exists mostly in the memories of the people I’ve known, is deteriorating at the rate of physiological decay. A color, a sensation, the way someone said a single word — soon it will all be gone. In a hundred and fifty years no one alive will ever have known me.

Being forgotten like that, entering that great and ongoing blank, seems more like death than death.

[…]

I assumed that maximizing the breadth and depth of my autobiographical memory would be good for me, force me to write and live with greater care, but in the last thing one writer ever published, when he was almost ninety years old, he wrote a terrible warning.

He said he’d liked remembering almost as much as he’d liked living but that in his old age, if he indulged in certain nostalgias, he would get lost in his memories. He’d have to wander them all night until morning.

He responded to my fan letter when he was ninety. When he was ninety-one, he died.

I just wanted to retain the whole memory of my life, to control the itinerary of my visitations, and to forget what I wanted to forget.

Good luck with that, whispered the dead.

Upon arriving at a view of death reminiscent of Alan Watts’s, Manguso revisits the limiting fragmentation of life’s ongoingness into beginnings and endings:

The experiences that demanded I yield control to a force greater than my will — diagnoses, deaths, unbreakable vows — weren’t the beginnings or the ends of anything. They were the moments when I was forced to admit that beginnings and ends are illusory. That history doesn’t begin or end, but it continues.

For just a moment, with great effort, I could imagine my will as a force that would not disappear but redistribute when I died, and that all life contained the same force, and that I needn’t worry about my impending death because the great responsibility of my life was to contain the force for a while and then relinquish it.

Illustration by Komako Sakai for 'The Velveteen Rabbit.' Click image for more.

Then something happened — something utterly ordinary in the grand human scheme that had an extraordinary impact on Manguso’s private dance with memory and mortality: she became a mother. She writes:

I began to inhabit time differently.

[…]

I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.

My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.

[…]

Time kept reminding me that I merely inhabit it, but it began reminding me more gently.

As she awoke to this immutable continuity of life, Manguso became more acutely aware of those bewitched by beginnings. There is, of course, a certain beauty — necessity, even — to that beginner’s refusal to determine what is impossible before it is even possible. She writes:

My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it.

I used to value the truth of whether this student or that one would achieve the desired thing. I don’t value that truth anymore as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that one in two hundred of them will ever become what they feel they must become. I care only that I am able to witness their faith in what’s coming next.

But even that enlivening “untested hope” is a dialogic function of time and impermanence. Manguso captures the central challenge of memory, of attentiveness to life, of the diary itself:

The essential problem of ongoingness is that one must contemplate time as that very time, that very subject of one’s contemplation, disappears.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s assertion that “attention without feeling … is merely a report,” Manguso considers “the tendency to summarize rather than to observe and describe” and adds:

Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries. The originals become almost irretrievable.

Occasionally, a memory retains its stark original reality. Manguso recalls one particular incident from her son’s early childhood:

One day the baby gently sat his little blue dog in his booster seat and offered it a piece of pancake.

The memory should already be fading, but when I bring it up I almost choke on it — an incapacitating sweetness.

The memory throbs. Left alone in time, it is growing stronger.

The baby had never seen anyone feed a toy a pancake. He invented it. Think of the love necessary to invent that… An unbearable sweetness.

The feeling strengthens the more I remember it. It isn’t wearing smooth. It’s getting bigger, an outgrowth of new love.

Illustration by Komako Sakai for 'The Velveteen Rabbit.' Click image for more.

Perhaps there is an element of “untested hope” in journaling itself — we are drawn to the practice because we hope that the diary would safe-keep precisely such throbbing, self-strengthening memories; that, in recording the unfolding ways in which we invent ourselves into personhood, it would become a constant reassurance of our own realness, a grownup version of The Velveteen Rabbit, reminding us that “real isn’t how you are made [but] a thing that happens to you.” Bearing witness to the happening itself, without trying to fragment it into beginnings and endings, is both the task of living and the anguish of the liver.

Manguso captures this elegantly:

Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.

Echoing philosopher Joanna Macy’s recipe for dialing up the magic of the moment by befriending our mortality, Manguso adds:

The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing time will go on without me.

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.

She revisits her original tussle with time, memory, beginnings, and endings:

How ridiculous to believe myself powerful enough to stop time just by thinking.

[…]

Often I believe I’m working toward a result, but always, once I reach the result, I realize all the pleasure was in planning and executing the path to that result.

It comforts me that endings are thus formally unappealing to me — that more than beginning or ending, I enjoy continuing.

Seen in this way, the diary becomes not a bastion of memory but a white flag to forgetting, extended not in resignation but in celebration. Manguso writes:

I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.

[..]

Now I consider the diary a compilation of moments I’ll forget, their record finished in language as well as I could finish it — which is to say imperfectly.

Someday I might read about some of the moments I’ve forgotten, moments I’ve allowed myself to forget, that my brain was designed to forget, that I’ll be glad to have forgotten and be glad to rediscover as writing. The experience is no longer experience. It is writing. I am still writing.

And I’m forgetting everything. My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death. Just the vaguest memory of love, of participation in the great unity.

[…]

Time punishes us by taking everything, but it also saves us — by taking everything.

Complement Ongoingness, a spectacularly and unsummarizably rewarding read in its entirety, with Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity and Meghan Daum on how we become who we are.

Thanks, Dani

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31 MARCH, 2015

How to Love: Legendary Zen Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on Mastering the Art of “Interbeing”

By:

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.”

What does love mean, exactly? We have applied to it our finest definitions; we have examined its psychology and outlined it in philosophical frameworks; we have even devised a mathematical formula for attaining it. And yet anyone who has ever taken this wholehearted leap of faith knows that love remains a mystery — perhaps the mystery of the human experience.

Learning to meet this mystery with the full realness of our being — to show up for it with absolute clarity of intention — is the dance of life.

That’s what legendary Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (b. October 11, 1926) explores in How to Love (public library) — a slim, simply worded collection of his immeasurably wise insights on the most complex and most rewarding human potentiality.

Indeed, in accordance with the general praxis of Buddhist teachings, Nhat Hanh delivers distilled infusions of clarity, using elementary language and metaphor to address the most elemental concerns of the soul. To receive his teachings one must make an active commitment not to succumb to the Western pathology of cynicism, our flawed self-protection mechanism that readily dismisses anything sincere and true as simplistic or naïve — even if, or precisely because, we know that all real truth and sincerity are simple by virtue of being true and sincere.

At the heart of Nhat Hanh’s teachings is the idea that “understanding is love’s other name” — that to love another means to fully understand his or her suffering. (“Suffering” sounds rather dramatic, but in Buddhism it refers to any source of profound dissatisfaction — be it physical or psychoemotional or spiritual.) Understanding, after all, is what everybody needs — but even if we grasp this on a theoretical level, we habitually get too caught in the smallness of our fixations to be able to offer such expansive understanding. He illustrates this mismatch of scales with an apt metaphor:

If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.

Illustration from 'Hug Me' by Simona Ciraolo. Click image for more.

The question then becomes how to grow our own hearts, which begins with a commitment to understand and bear witness to our own suffering:

When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness.

Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.

And yet because love is a learned “dynamic interaction,” we form our patterns of understanding — and misunderstanding — early in life, by osmosis and imitation rather than conscious creation. Echoing what Western developmental psychology knows about the role of “positivity resonance” in learning love, Nhat Hanh writes:

If our parents didn’t love and understand each other, how are we to know what love looks like? … The most precious inheritance that parents can give their children is their own happiness. Our parents may be able to leave us money, houses, and land, but they may not be happy people. If we have happy parents, we have received the richest inheritance of all.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Nhat Hanh points out the crucial difference between infatuation, which replaces any real understanding of the other with a fantasy of who he or she can be for us, and true love:

Often, we get crushes on others not because we truly love and understand them, but to distract ourselves from our suffering. When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person.

Out of this incomplete understanding of ourselves spring our illusory infatuations, which Nhat Hanh captures with equal parts wisdom and wit:

Sometimes we feel empty; we feel a vacuum, a great lack of something. We don’t know the cause; it’s very vague, but that feeling of being empty inside is very strong. We expect and hope for something much better so we’ll feel less alone, less empty. The desire to understand ourselves and to understand life is a deep thirst. There’s also the deep thirst to be loved and to love. We are ready to love and be loved. It’s very natural. But because we feel empty, we try to find an object of our love. Sometimes we haven’t had the time to understand ourselves, yet we’ve already found the object of our love. When we realize that all our hopes and expectations of course can’t be fulfilled by that person, we continue to feel empty. You want to find something, but you don’t know what to search for. In everyone there’s a continuous desire and expectation; deep inside, you still expect something better to happen. That is why you check your email many times a day!

Illustration from 'The Missing Piece Meets the Big O,' Shel Silverstein's minimalist allegory of true love. Click image for more.

Real, truthful love, he argues, is rooted in four elements — loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity — fostering which lends love “the element of holiness.” The first of them addresses this dialogic relationship between our own suffering and our capacity to fully understand our loved ones:

The essence of loving kindness is being able to offer happiness. You can be the sunshine for another person. You can’t offer happiness until you have it for yourself. So build a home inside by accepting yourself and learning to love and heal yourself. Learn how to practice mindfulness in such a way that you can create moments of happiness and joy for your own nourishment. Then you have something to offer the other person.

[…]

If you have enough understanding and love, then every moment — whether it’s spent making breakfast, driving the car, watering the garden, or doing anything else in your day — can be a moment of joy.

This interrelatedness of self and other is manifested in the fourth element as well, equanimity, the Sanskrit word for which — upeksha — is also translated as “inclusiveness” and “nondiscrimination”:

In a deep relationship, there’s no longer a boundary between you and the other person. You are her and she is you. Your suffering is her suffering. Your understanding of your own suffering helps your loved one to suffer less. Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters. What happens to your loved one happens to you. What happens to you happens to your loved one.

[…]

In true love, there’s no more separation or discrimination. His happiness is your happiness. Your suffering is his suffering. You can no longer say, “That’s your problem.”

Supplementing the four core elements are also the subsidiary elements of trust and respect, the currency of love’s deep mutuality:

When you love someone, you have to have trust and confidence. Love without trust is not yet love. Of course, first you have to have trust, respect, and confidence in yourself. Trust that you have a good and compassionate nature. You are part of the universe; you are made of stars. When you look at your loved one, you see that he is also made of stars and carries eternity inside. Looking in this way, we naturally feel reverence. True love cannot be without trust and respect for oneself and for the other person.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from 'Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People' by Monica Brown. Click image for more.

The essential mechanism for establishing such trust and respect is listening — something so frequently extolled by Western psychologists, therapists, and sage grandparents that we’ve developed a special immunity to hearing it. And yet when Nhat Hanh reframes this obvious insight with the gentle elegance of his poetics, it somehow bypasses the rational cynicism of the jaded modern mind and registers directly in the soul:

To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love. To know how to love someone, we have to understand them. To understand, we need to listen.

[…]

When you love someone, you should have the capacity to bring relief and help him to suffer less. This is an art. If you don’t understand the roots of his suffering, you can’t help, just as a doctor can’t help heal your illness if she doesn’t know the cause. You need to understand the cause of your loved one’s suffering in order to help bring relief.

[…]

The more you understand, the more you love; the more you love, the more you understand. They are two sides of one reality. The mind of love and the mind of understanding are the same.

Echoing legendary Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki’s memorable aphorism that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow,” Nhat Hanh considers how the notion of the separate, egoic “I” interrupts the dialogic flow of understanding — the “interbeing,” to use his wonderfully poetic and wonderfully precise term, that is love:

Often, when we say, “I love you” we focus mostly on the idea of the “I” who is doing the loving and less on the quality of the love that’s being offered. This is because we are caught by the idea of self. We think we have a self. But there is no such thing as an individual separate self. A flower is made only of non-flower elements, such as chlorophyll, sunlight, and water. If we were to remove all the non-flower elements from the flower, there would be no flower left. A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower can only inter-be with all of us… Humans are like this too. We can’t exist by ourselves alone. We can only inter-be. I am made only of non-me elements, such as the Earth, the sun, parents, and ancestors. In a relationship, if you can see the nature of interbeing between you and the other person, you can see that his suffering is your own suffering, and your happiness is his own happiness. With this way of seeing, you speak and act differently. This in itself can relieve so much suffering.

The remainder of How to Love explores the simple, profoundly transformative daily practices of love and understanding, which apply not only to romantic relationships but to all forms of “interbeing.” Complement it with John Steinbeck’s exquisite letter of advice on love to his teenage son and Susan Sontag’s lifetime of reflections on the subject, then revisit the great D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character.

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27 MARCH, 2015

A Seizure of Happiness: Mary Oliver on Finding Magic in Life’s Unremarkable Moments

By:

How to revel in the “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Nearly a century before modern neuroscience presented the uncomfortable finding that mind-wandering is making us unhappy, Bertrand Russell contemplated the conquest of happiness and pointed to the immense value of “fruitful monotony” — a certain quality of presence with the ordinary rhythms of life. The diaries and letters of humanity’s greatest minds are strewn with such instances of finding happiness in simple everyday moments, but no one captures the humble grace of presence better than Mary Oliver in one particularly bewitching passage from her altogether enchanting Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (public library).

Mary Oliver in 1964. Photograph by Molly Malone Cook from Oliver's 'Our World.' Click image for more.

With Thoreau’s attentiveness to the outer world and Rilke’s attentiveness to the inner, Oliver writes:

On the windless days, when the maples have put forth their deep canopies, and the sky is wearing its new blue immensities, and the wind has dusted itself not an hour ago in some spicy field and hardly touches us as it passes by, what is it we do? We lie down and rest upon the generous earth. Very likely we fall asleep.

[…]

Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and — it was the most casual of moments — as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conditions of this total, effortless surrender to happiness parallel the “flow” state typical of creative work.

Oliver, who has extolled the urgency of belonging to the world as the supreme act of aliveness, writes:

Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity — the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it was a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from 'Sidewalk Flowers,' a visual ode to living with presence in the modern urban world. Click image for more.

Indeed, this immersive attentiveness to the casual, unremarkable, yet remarkably enlivening moments of life is the raw material of Oliver’s genius, of her singular gift for bridging that vast abyss between the mind and the heart. (“Attention without feeling,” she wrote in her beautiful memoir, “is merely a report.”) She considers how the unremarkable becomes the screen against which the remarkable shines its luminous beam:

My story contains neither a mountain, nor a canyon, nor a blizzard, nor hail, nor spike of wind striking the earth and lifting whatever is in its path. I think the rare and wonderful awareness I felt would not have arrived in any such busy hour. Most stories about weather are swift to describe meeting the face of the storm and the argument of the air, climbing the narrow and icy trail, crossing the half-frozen swamp. I would not make such stories less by obtaining anything special for the other side of the issue. Nor would I suggest that a meeting of individual spirit and universe is impossible within the harrowing blast. Yet I would hazard this guess, that it is more likely to happen to someone attentively entering the quiet moment, when the sun-soaked world is gliding on under the blessings of blue sky, and the wind god is asleep. Then, if ever, we may peek under the veil of all appearances and partialities. We may be touched by the most powerful of suppositions — even to a certainty — as we stand in the rose petals of the sun and hear a murmur from the wind no louder than the sound it makes as it dozes under the bee’s wings. This, too, I suggest, is weather, and worthy of report.

Long Life, which also gave us Oliver on how habit gives shape to our inner lives, is exquisite and enlivening in its entirety. Complement it with Oliver’s gorgeous reading of “Wild Geese,” her moving remembrance of her soul mate, and her playful meditation on the magic of punctuation.

If you haven’t yet devoured Oliver’s wonderfully wide-ranging On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, give yourself this seizure of happiness:

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25 MARCH, 2015

Reinventing the Secular Sermon: Remarkable Commencement Addresses by Nora Ephron, David Foster Wallace, Ira Glass, and More

By:

How to live life “on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

We live in an era where religion is, thank “god,” increasingly being displaced by culture and secular thought. And yet, secular education and the arts have a great deal to learn from religion as a mode of seeding values of good-personhood and disseminating ideas about the meaning of life. The contemporary secular equivalent of the sermon — religion’s most potent ideological delivery mechanism, that compact packet of wisdom on how to be a decent human being and lead a good life — is the commencement address. This singular genre of intergenerational hand-me-down advice accomplishes something no other form of modern communication does — it inverts our culture’s skewed balance of cynicism and hope and fosters what Oscar Wilde called a “temperament of receptivity” to deliver messages we would dismiss as trite in any other context; here, however, we know that trite means vitally true — it means hard-earned, life-tested, experience-proven truths about the simplest yet most difficult tenets of existence.

Now, some of the greatest commencement addresses of all time have been neatly packaged in Way More than Luck: Commencement Speeches on Living with Bravery, Empathy, and Other Existential Skills (public library) — a compendium of timeless wisdom including classics like David Foster Wallace’s indispensable This Is Water, delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, and Norah Ephron’s piercing 1996 Wellesley College speech, as well as contemporary masterworks of the commencement genre by This American Life host Ira Glass, writer Michael Lewis, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, artist and educator Debbie Millman, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, actor Bradley Whitford, and more.

The book opens with artist, author, and Design Matters host Debbie Millman’s 2013 San Jose State University commencement address, which was originally and exclusively published right here on Brain Pickings. She writes:

For most of my adult life, I traveled a safe path. I remember in vivid detail the moment I began my journey: August 1983, the hot muggy summer of David Bowie’s Modern Love and Synchronicity by the Police.

A few months after I graduated college, I stood on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Bleeker Street in New York City, wearing pastel blue trousers, a hot pink V-neck tee shirt, and bright white Capezio oxfords. I lingered at the intersection, peering deep into my future, and contemplated the choice between the secure and the uncertain, between the creative and the logical, between the known and the unknown. I dreamed of being a successful artist, but inasmuch as I knew what I wanted, I felt compelled to consider what was reasonable in order to ensure my economic security. Even though I wanted what my best friend once referred to as the whole wide world, I thought it was prudent to compromise. I told myself it was more sensible to aspire for success that was realistically attainable, perhaps even failure-proof. It never once occurred to me that I could succeed at what I dreamed of.

As I look back on this decision nearly thirty years later, I try to soothe myself with this rationale. I grew up in an atmosphere of emotional and financial disarray, so my impulse as a young woman was to be tenaciously self-sufficient. As a result, I’ve lived within a fairly fixed set of possibilities.

Her decision, Millman points out, is far from uncommon — most of us, in one form or another, limit our own possibilities. But what begins as a reasonable and voluntary self-protection mechanism often gathers exponential momentum that ends up dragging us down life-paths further and further from our dreams:

I discovered these common, self-imposed restrictions are rather insidious, though they start out simple enough. We begin by worrying that we aren’t good enough, that we’re not smart enough or talented enough to get what we want. And then we voluntarily live in this paralyzing mental framework, rather than confront our own role in this self-fulfilling paralysis. Just the possibility of failing turns into something self-fulfilling. We begin to believe that these personal restrictions are in fact fixed limitations of the world. We go on to live our lives, all the while wondering what we can change and how we can change it. And we calculate and re-calculate when we’ll be ready to do the things that we really want to do. And we dream. If only. If only. One day. Someday.

But then, Millman argues, we meet “someone more courageous” than we are, a person who “didn’t determine what was impossible before it was possible,” and something in us is reawakened. (The very purpose of a commencement speaker, after all, is to be such an awakening example of that courageous someone, a preemptive living proof that there is hope for transcending those self-imposed limitations.) Turning to Robert Frost’s famous proclamation, Millman transmutes the secret of a great poem into the secret of a great life:

The grand scheme of a life — maybe, just maybe — is not about knowing or not knowing, choosing or not choosing. Perhaps what is truly known can’t be described or articulated by creativity or logic, science or art. Perhaps it can be expressed by the most authentic and meaningful combination of the two: poetry.

As Robert Frost once wrote, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.”

I recommend the following course of action for those, like you, who are just starting out, or who, like me, may be re-configuring midway through. Heed the words of Robert Frost. Start with a big fat lump in your throat. Start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, a crazy lovesickness, and run with it. If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love. And don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can. Imagine immensities. Don’t compromise and don’t waste time. In order to strive for a remarkable life, you have to decide that you want one. Start now. Not twenty years from now. Not thirty years from now. Not two weeks from now. Now.

Dick Costolo (Photograph by Joi Ito)

That same year, Twitter CEO and former improv comedian Dick Costolo took the podium at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He recounts moving to Chicago, young and broke, hoping to get into the legendary improv comedy group Second City, the yellow-brick road to Saturday Night Live and “ultimate fame and glory.” Eventually, he got to study with the acclaimed director Martin Demont. He shares one exchange with Demont that shaped his approach to life:

Steve Carell was out on stage improvising something. I was backstage and I came up with this amazing line and I thought, “I’ve gotta get out there and get this line out.” So I went out on stage and started trying to move the scene in the direction of what I wanted to say, and Martin stops the scene and says to the whole class (but really he was talking to me): “You can’t plan a script. The beauty of improv is you’re experiencing it in the moment. If you try to plan what the next line is going to be, you’re just going to be disappointed when the other people don’t do or say what you want them to, and you’ll stand there frozen.” He stopped everyone in the room and said, “Be in this moment.”

This became a powerful parable for how over-planning limits our happiness — a lesson that reemerged in a different guise when “the Internet happened” around the same time. Recognizing it as an “extensible structure with amazing possibilities,” Costolo dove in and helped build a number of companies over the years that followed, including Twitter. He illustrates how not planning a script enabled this humble startup to become a global force:

When [Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey] sent out his first tweet — “just setting up my twttr” — he didn’t plan for President Obama to declare victory on that platform in the 2012 election. None of us at Twitter thought that during the earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, that our platform would be a great alternative means of communication if mobile networks were spotty in the aftermath. Certainly none of us even hoped, let alone considered, that our platform would be used to help organize protests across the Middle East and Egypt during the Arab Spring.

Here’s the amazing thing about what I’ve observed from those things. Not only can you not plan the impact you’re going to have, you often won’t recognize it even while you’re having it.

[…]

The impact is what others frame for you and the world after it happens. The present is only what you’re experiencing and focused on right now.

Echoing Steve Jobs’s legendary 2005 Stanford commencement address“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” — Costolo reflects on Twitter’s unexpected journey and his own unscripted career outcome:

You cannot draw that path looking forward. You can’t draw any path looking forward. You have to figure out what you love to do and what you have conviction about, and go do that.

He exhorts graduates to unmoor themselves from the system of external expectations that is formal education — a special kind of societal script — and plunge into the uncomfortable but infinitely rewarding task of writing their own ongoing, open-ended internal scripts:

You are no longer meeting and exceeding expectations. There are no expectations; there’s no script. When you’re doing what you love to do, you become resilient, because you create that habit. You create the habit of taking a gamble on yourself and making courageous choices in service of what you love.

If, on the other hand, you do what you think is expected of you or what you’re supposed to do, and chaos ensues — as it surely will — you will look to external forces for what to do next, because that will be the habit you have created for yourself. You’ll be standing there frozen on the stage of your own life. If you’re just filling a role, you will be blindsided.

Michel Uslan (Photograph by Robert Sciarrino)

Speaking at Indiana University Bloomington in 2006, Batman / Dark Knight franchise originator and executive producer Michael Uslan echoes what college-aged André Gide’s rules of conduct penned a century and a half earlier — “One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it.” — and counsels graduates:

You must knock on doors until your knuckles bleed. Doors will slam in your face; I guarantee it. You must pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go back and knock again. It’s the only way to achieve your goals in life.

This calls to mind Adrienne Rich’s spectacular 1977 Douglass College commencement address, in which she argued that an education is not something you get, but something you claim. An opportunity, Uslan seems to suggest, is equally something you actively claim rather than passively get.

Bradley Whitford (Photograph by Frank Franklin II)

Bradley Whitford, perhaps best-known for his role as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on The West Wing, opens his 2004 University of Wisconsin–Madison address by lamenting the quintessential commencement challenge of speaking to “a big, distracted crowd that thinks they know everything about everything.” (This, indeed, might explain one of the most prevalent commencement-address tropes — the speaker’s admission of not remembering who spoke at his or her own graduation many years earlier. Perhaps part of our youthful arrogance is the tendency to dismiss as irrelevant any information with which we aren’t sufficiently familiar — like, say, a prominent but unknown to us cultural figure tasked with delivering a commencement address — and bar it from entering our long-term memory.)

Whitford shares his six most important life-learnings, which he dubs “Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned on My Way to a Humiliating Audition”:

Number One: Fall in love with the process and the results will follow. You’ve got to want to act more than you want to be an actor. You’ve got to want to do whatever you want to do more than you want to be whatever you want to be, want to write more than you want to be a writer, want to heal more than you want to be a doctor, want to teach more than you want to be a teacher, want to serve more than you want to be a politician. Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.

Number Two: Very obvious: do your work. When faced with the terror of an opening night on Broadway, you can either dissolve in a puddle of fear or you can get yourself ready. Drown out your inevitable self-doubt with the work that needs to be done. Find joy in the process of preparation.

Number Three: Once you’re prepared, throw your preparation in the trash. The most interesting acting and the most interesting living in this world have the element of surprise and of genuine, honest discovery. Be open to that.

This third piece of advice parallels what we now know about the role of “effective surprise” in creativity, including the supreme creative act of forging one’s life-path. Whitford, like Costolo, admonishes against the tendency to peg our sense of arrival on having fulfilled external expectations:

You’ve all spent the majority of your lives in school, where your work is assigned to you and you’re supposed to please your teachers.

The pressure to get into wonderful institutions like this is threatening to create a generation of what I call hiney-kissing requirement-fulfillers. You are all so much more than that. You’ve reached the wonderful and terrifying moment where you must be your own guide. Listen to the whispers inside you.

Whitford offers the fourth of his learnings:

You are capable of more than you think. If you’ve ever smashed a mosquito on your arm, there is a murderous Richard III inside you. If you’ve ever caught your breath at the sight of someone dipping their toes into Lake Mendota in the late afternoon sun over at the Union, you, too, have Romeo’s fluttering heart.

Echoing Anna Deavere Smith on the importance of listening in a culture of speaking, Whitford continues:

Number Five: Listen. It is the most difficult thing an actor can do, and it is the most riveting. You can’t afford to spend your life like a bad actor stumbling through a predetermined performance that is oblivious to the world around you. We can’t afford it either. Listening isn’t passive. It is an act of liberation that will connect you to the world with compassion and be your best guide as you navigate the choppy waters of love, work, and citizenship.

And finally, Number Six: Take action. Every story you’ve ever connected with, every leader you’ve ever admired, every puny little thing that you’ve ever accomplished is the result of taking action. You have a choice. You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life. Action is the antidote to apathy and cynicism and despair. You will inevitably make mistakes. Learn what you can and move on. At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble.

Speaking to the 1996 graduating class at Wellesley College, her own alma mater, Nora Ephron begins by offering some perspective on where the world was thirty-four years earlier, when she was sitting in one of those seats herself — an era when “if you needed an abortion, you drove to a gas station in Union, New Jersey, with $ 500 in cash in an envelope, and you were taken, blindfolded, to a motel room and operated on without an anesthetic”; when women were asked to, and complied without so much as a second thought, to strip and have their “posture pictures” taken; when there was a mandatory class called Fundamentals, Fundies, in which women were actually “taught how to get in and out of the back seat of the car.” Ephron, a master at the art of rhetorical buildup where no detail is superfluous to the ultimate point, writes:

Why am I telling you this? It was a long time ago, right? Things have changed, haven’t they? Yes, they have. But I mention it because I want to remind you of the undertow, of the specific gravity. American society has a remarkable ability to resist change, or to take whatever change has taken place and attempt to make it go away.

In a sentiment that has aged lamentably well in the two decades since — a fact that speaks equally to Ephron’s genius and to our culture’s tectonic, toxically reluctant pace of change — she adds:

Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, “Don’t take it personally,” but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged… The acquittal of O. J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you — whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.

Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.

There is, of course, the mandatory David Foster Wallace classic, delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 and considered the beloved author’s only public talk directly addressing his views on the meaning of life. The speech, the original delivery of which you can hear in full here, is strewn with his singular gems of deeply irreverent, deeply urgent wisdom. Among them:

I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

But for all of his antiauthoritarian incisiveness, Wallace reveals himself once again as a sensitive soul concerned with the essential currency of the human experience — kindness:

Please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Jonathan Safran Foer (Photograph by Graeme Mitchell)

This theme of kindness — for what else is there? — recurs throughout most commencement addresses, but nowhere with more timely poignancy than in the speech Jonathan Safran Foer delivered at Middlebury College in 2013. He recounts finding himself on a Brooklyn park bench across from a teenage girl who was crying into her phone. As she sobbed “I know, I know, I know… Mama, I know,” he wondered about what portion of the fragile human experience she was coming to know. Reflecting on his inner tussle with whether to try comforting her or to continue staring into his own device pretending not to have noticed, Foer considers how technology has come to mediate our experience of who we are to one another, as people bearing witness to crying strangers:

It is harder to intervene than not to, but it is vastly harder to choose to do either than to retreat into the scrolling names of one’s contact list, or whatever one’s favorite iDistraction happens to be. Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat.

He chronicles how we got to this paradoxical place:

Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.

But then a funny thing happened: We began to prefer the diminished substitutes.

Foer traces our sliding scale of communicational convenience — making a phone call is easier than traversing space across time to meet someone in person; leaving a voicemail is easier than investing in the cognitive and emotional tennis match of a two-way conversation; sending an email is easier still, for it removes the emotional undertones of vocal inflection and enables us to deliver an even more sterile one-way message; texting reduces whatever complexity of meaning there might have remained in an email to mere information, distilled to a bare minimum of sentiment. (There is something to be said, too, for the demise of correspondence, which ushered in the death of mutual response and the rise of mutual reaction.) Foer considers the outcome of this process:

As the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.

[…]

I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.

He returns to the encounter with the sobbing girl, which precipitated his concerned contemplation:

Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word, or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.

[…]

Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.

Complement Way More than Luck with some of the genre’s greatest secular sermons not included in the book: Joseph Brodsky on winning at the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and hate (Fredonia College, 1978), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Neil Gaiman on courage and the creative life (University of the Arts, 2012), Patti Smith on learning to count on yourself (Pratt University, 2010), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), and Anna Quindlen’s undelivered Villanova address on the secret to a happy life.

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