Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

13 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Difference Between Routine and Ritual: How to Master the Balancing Act of Controlling Chaos and Finding Magic in the Mundane

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“The wonder of life is often most easily recognizable through habits and routines.”

William James, at the dawn of modern psychology, argued that our habits anchor us to ourselves. As someone equally fascinated by the daily routines of artists and with their curious creative rituals, and as a practitioner of both in my own life, I frequently contemplate the difference between the routine and ritual, these two supreme deities of habit. They seem to be different sides of the same coin — while routine aims to make the chaos of everyday life more containable and controllable, ritual aims to imbue the mundane with an element of the magical. The structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalizes us. A full life calls for both — too much control, and we become mummified; too little excitement and pleasurable discombobulation, and we become numb. After all, to be overly bobulated is to be dead inside — to doom oneself to a life devoid of the glorious and ennobling messiness of the human experience.

This equipoise of routine and ritual is, to me, one of the essential balancing acts of life — not unlike that of critical thinking and hope, or form and freedom.

In Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library) — her magnificent meditation on how we endure and find sanity in a crazy worldAnne Lamott captures this delicate dance elegantly:

Here’s the true secret of life: We mostly do everything over and over. In the morning, we let the dogs out, make coffee, read the paper, help whoever is around get ready for the day. We do our work. In the afternoon, if we have left, we come home, put down our keys and satchels, let the dogs out, take off constrictive clothing, make a drink or put water on for tea, toast the leftover bit of scone. I love ritual and repetition. Without them, I would be a balloon with a slow leak.

More than a pleasurable rhythm for everyday life, rituals cast an anchor of stability during turbulent times:

Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

And yet the most magical moments happen when life’s soft living body shakes free of the confining exoskeleton our routines impose. Lamott writes:

Beauty is a miracle of things going together imperfectly.

Still, structure and repetition are what keeps us whole:

You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next.

Without stitches, you just have rags.

And we are not rags.

But the true purpose of discipline — for this is the practice at the heart of routine — is to make room for the magical in the mundane. Paradoxically enough, it is an act of liberation rather than submission — routine grants us the stable platform within, from which we can begin not only to tolerate but perhaps even to enjoy the shaky messiness without.

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag.' Click image for more.

Lamott articulates this beautifully:

The search is the meaning, the search for beauty, love, kindness and restoration in this difficult, wired and often alien modern world. The miracle is that we are here, that no matter how undone we’ve been the night before, we wake up every morning and are still here. It is phenomenal just to be. This idea overwhelms some people. I have found that the wonder of life is often most easily recognizable through habits and routines.

[…]

Order and discipline are important to meaning for me. Discipline, I have learned, leads to freedom, and there is meaning in freedom. If you don’t do ritual things in order, the paper doesn’t read as well, and you’ll be thrown off the whole day. But when you can sit for a while at your table, reach for your coffee, look out the window at the sky or some branches, then back down at the paper or a book, everything feels right for the moment, which is maybe all we have.

Stitches is an immensely rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Lamott on grief and gratitude, the perils of perfectionism, the greatest gift of friendship, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing. For more on the magic of repetition and ritual, see the daily routines of celebrated writers and the psychology of the perfect creative routine.

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12 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O: Shel Silverstein’s Sweet Allegory for the Simple Secret of Love and the Key to Nurturing Relationships

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A gentle reminder that the best relationships don’t complete us but let us grow and become more fully ourselves.

The best children’s books, as Tolkien asserted and Sendak agreed, aren’t written for children; they are enjoyed by children, but they speak to our deepest longings and fears, and thus enchant humans of all ages. But the spell only works, as legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom memorably remarked, “if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit that he doesn’t know the answers to everything.”

Few storytellers have immunized us against our adult dullness, generation after generation, more potently than Shel Silverstein, one of the many beloved authors and artists — alongside Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, and dozens of others — whose genius Nordstrom cultivated under her compassionate and creatively uncompromising wing. In a letter from September of 1975, she wrote: “Shel promised me that it was in really good and almost final shape… I hope with all my heart that this is really the case.” Silverstein had gone to visit Nordstrom some weeks earlier and recited the story for her, which she found to be “very very good (in fact terrific).” “I hope he hasn’t messed it up,” she adds in the letter, “and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t.” Nordstrom’s intuition and her unflinching faith in her authors and artists was never misplaced.

In 1976, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (public library) was published — a minimalist, maximally wonderful allegory at the heart of which is the emboldening message that true love doesn’t complete us, even though at first it might appear to do that, but lets us grow and helps us become more fully ourselves. It’s a story especially poignant for those of us who have ever suffered from Savior Syndrome or Victim Syndrome and sought a partner to either fix or be fixed by, the result of which is often disastrous, always disappointing, and never salvation or true love.

Silverstein tells the tale of a lonely little wedge that dreams of finding a big circle into which it can fit, so that together they can roll and go somewhere. Various shapes come by, but none are quite right.

In these unbefitting rolling partners, one can’t help but recognize the archetypes implicated in failed friendships and romances — there are the damaged-beyond-repair (“some had too many pieces missing”), the overly complicated (“some had too many pieces, period”) the worshipper (“one put it on a pedestal and left it there”), the self-involved narcissist (“some rolled by without noticing”).

The missing piece tries to make itself more attractive, flashier — but that scares away the shy ones and leaves it ever lonelier.

At last, one comes along that fits just right, and the two roll on by blissfully.

But then, something strange starts happening — the missing piece begins to grow.

And just like in any relationship where one partner grows and the other remains static, things end in disappointment — and then they just end. The static circle moves along, looking for a piece that won’t grow.

At last, a shape comes by that looks completely different — it has no piece missing at all — and introduces itself as the Big O.

The exchange between the missing piece and the Big O is nothing short of breathstopping:

“I think you are the one I have been waiting for,” said the missing piece. “Maybe I am your missing piece.”

“But I am not missing a piece,” said the Big O. “There is no place you would fit.”

“That is too bad,” said the missing piece. “I was hoping that perhaps I could roll with you…”

“You cannot roll with me,” said the Big O, “but perhaps you can roll by yourself.”

This notion is utterly revelatory for the missing piece, doubly so when the Big O asks if it has ever tried. “But I have sharp corners,” the missing piece offers half-incredulously, half-defensively. “I am not shaped for rolling.”

But corners, the Big O assures it, can wear off — another elegant metaphor for the self-refinement necessary in our personal growth. With that, the Big O rolls off, leaving the missing piece alone once more — but, this time, with an enlivening idea to contemplate.

The missing piece goes “liftpullflopliftpullflop” forward, over and over, until its edges begin to wear off and its shape starts to change. Gradually, it begins to bounce instead of bump and then roll instead of bounce — rolling, like it always dreamt of doing with the aid of another, only all by itself.

And here comes Silverstein’s tenderest, most invigorating magic — when the missing piece becomes its well-rounded self, the Big O emerges, silently and without explanation. In the final scene, the two are seen rolling side by side, calling to mind Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s contribution to history’s greatest definitions of love: “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O is immeasurably wonderful in a way to which neither text nor pixel does any justice. Complement it with Wednesday, another minimalist and wholly wordless allegory for friendship, and Norton Juster’s vintage masterwork of poetic geometry, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, then treat yourself to this animated adaptation of Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and his touching duet with Johnny Cash.

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12 FEBRUARY, 2015

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the First Female Psychoanalyst, on Human Nature in Letters to Freud

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“The main thing is that life-faith is essentially and vitally present, by means of which we survive.”

Russian-born poet, essayist, and intellectual Lou Andreas-Salomé (February 12, 1861–February 5, 1937) created for herself a freedom that modern women have come to expect, at a time when such freedom was practically impossible. She became a philosopher in an era when women were neither expected nor even allowed to study philosophy and was a muse to Rilke, who wrote her passionate love letters and dedicated his Book of Hours to her, and to Nietzsche, who set down his ten rules for writers in a letter to her and whose Thus Spoke Zarathustra was largely inspired by her.

At the age of fifty, suddenly seeing the human problems she had previously examined through the lens of philosophy now best addressed by the young science of psychology, Andreas-Salomé became the world’s first female psychoanalyst. In the fall of 1911, she attended the Weimar Psycho-Analytical Congress and befriended Freud, whom she had first met a decade and a half earlier, soon becoming at once his muse, his disciple, and his intellectual peer. “Hoping that one day I shall have the opportunity of having a private conversation with you,” Freud wrote to her shortly after they met. The dream was consummated in their ensuing prolific correspondence, collected in Sigmund Freud and Lou Andreas-Salomé: Letters (public library), where the two discussed each other’s papers and patients, exchanged views on everything from narcissism to anxiety to masturbation, traded perspectives on working methods, and pondered the psychology of the artist. They graced each other not only with admiring friendship — she addressed him by “Dear Professor” and he thanked her for the “pertinent and stimulating discussion” — but also with the assuring kinship of a shared dedication to the deepest human concerns: love, creativity, spirituality, death, the meaning of life.

But as much as their correspondence reveals a deep mutuality of values and ideas, it also sheds light on some meaningful psychological contrasts, the starkest of which is their divergent perspectives on human nature and the dominant hues of the human spirit. And what more powerful and poignant a trigger for contemplating these issues than bearing witness to humanity at its worst? In one of her earliest letters to Andreas-Salomé, penned on the cusp of WWI as two of his sons had entered the army, a pessimistic Freud writes:

I do not doubt that mankind will survive even this war, but I know for certain that for me and my contemporaries the world will never again be a happy place. It is too hideous. And the saddest thing about it is that it is exactly the way that we should have expected people to behave from our knowledge of psycho-analysis. Because of this attitude to mankind I have never been able to agree with your blithe optimism. My secret conclusion has always been: since we can only regard the highest present civilization as burdened with an enormous hypocrisy, it follows that we are organically unfitted for it. We have to abdicate, and the Great Unknown, He or It, lurking behind Fate will someday repeat this experiment with another race.

But decades later, as that “experiment” was indeed repeated in another world war, Freud’s views would change as he tussles with the subject in his little-known correspondence with Einstein — a change perhaps precipitated by Andreas-Salomé’s unflinching optimism about the human spirit. Indeed, in her response to Freud, she argues for the inherent duality of good and evil in each of us and for the choice we have, as individuals and a civilization, as to which half we feed — a choice that is essentially the ur-divide between hope and cynicism:

At one point it touches both your and my attitude to the distress of our time and what you called my optimism, which now seems so sadly shipwrecked. And yet I believe that behind every individual human activities and the territory which can be reached through psycho-analysis there lies an abyss where the most valuable and nastiest impulses inextricably condition each other and render impossible any final judgment. This remarkable mixture remains a fact not only for the once surmounted stage of earliest development (of the race as well as of the individual), but ever anew and for everyone this remarkable unity is a fact — calculated to cast down the arrogant, but also to exalt the lowly of heart. It is true that this makes no difference to our loathing for or our delight in a particular piece of human conduct, and a time like the present can consequently deal a death-blow to joy and confidence; but nevertheless one knows from oneself that one can only go on living in such an ultimate faith, and the same ought to apply to everyone else. Ought to: but of course it doesn’t, not in these days. However the fact that it ought to … that alone helps me a little.

In another letter, Andreas-Salomé adds:

The main thing is that life-faith is essentially and vitally present, by means of which we survive.

But these ideas about human nature predate Andreas-Salomé’s foray into psychoanalysis and crystallized decades earlier, during her days as a poet and philosopher. In fact, they shine most brightly in an 1882 poem titled “Hymn to Life,” which so inspired Nietzsche — her lover at the time — that he set it to music. The sentiment at its heart reverberates through her letters to Freud many years later.

HYMN TO LIFE

Surely, a friend loves a friend the way
That I love you, enigmatic life —
Whether I rejoiced or wept with you,
Whether you gave me joy or pain.
I love you with all your harms;
And if you must destroy me,
I wrest myself from your arms,
As a friend tears himself away from a friend’s breast.

I embrace you with all my strength!
Let all your flames ignite me,
Let me in the ardor of the struggle
Probe your enigma ever deeper.

To live and think millennia!
Enclose me now in both your arms:
If you have no more joy to give me —
Well then—there still remains your pain.

The whole of Sigmund Freud and Lou Andreas-Salomé: Letters is a forgotten treasure of formative ideas on the human psyche. Complement it with Rilke on the tenacity of the human spirit and Tolstoy’s little-known correspondence with Gandhi on love, violence, and why we hurt each other.

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