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10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings

Fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.

10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings

I remember my first awareness of mortality as a child in Bulgaria. I was nine and my father was relaying an anecdote from his youth. I asked him when it had taken place. With unconcerned casualness, he replied: “About a decade ago.” I was astonished that people could segment their lives into blocks this big — my own life hadn’t yet lasted a decade. In realizing that “a decade ago” I hadn’t existed — the self I now so vividly experienced daily was then a nonentity — I also realized that in several more of those ten-year blocks, my dad, and eventually I, will cease to exist.

With dad, year 0
With dad, year 0

After one such time-block, I left Bulgaria for America, lured by the liberal arts education promise of being taught how to live. As the reality fell short of that promise, I began keeping my own record of what I was reading and learning outside the classroom in mapping this academically unaddressed terra incognita of being.

All the while, I was working numerous jobs to pay my way through school. What I was learning at night and on weekends, at the library and on the internet — from Plato to pop art — felt too uncontainably interesting to keep to myself, so I decided to begin sharing these private adventures with my colleagues at one of my jobs. On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as a plain-text email to seven friends. Halfway through my senior year of college, juggling my various jobs and academic course load, I took a night class to learn coding and turned the short weekly email into a sparse website, which I updated manually every Friday, then, eventually, every weekday.

The site grew as I grew — an unfolding record of my intellectual, creative, and spiritual development. At the time, I had no idea that this small labor of love and learning would animate me with a sense of purpose and become both my life and my living, nor that its seven original readers would swell into several million. I had no idea that this eccentric personal record, which I began keeping in the city where Benjamin Franklin founded the first subscription library in America, would one day be included in the Library of Congress archive of “materials of historical importance.”

And now, somehow, a decade has elapsed.

Because I believe that our becoming, like the synthesis of meaning itself, is an ongoing and dynamic process, I’ve been reluctant to stultify it and flatten its ongoing expansiveness in static opinions and fixed personal tenets of living. But I do find myself continually discovering, then returning to, certain core values. While they may be refined and enriched in the act of living, their elemental substance remains a center of gravity for what I experience as myself.

I first set down some of these core beliefs, written largely as notes to myself that may or may not be useful to others, when Brain Pickings turned seven (which kindred spirits later adapted into a beautiful poster inspired by the aesthetic of vintage children’s books and a cinematic short film). I expanded upon them to mark year nine. Today, as I round the first decade of Brain Pickings, I feel half-compelled, half-obliged to add a tenth learning, a sort of crowning credo drawn from a constellation of life-earned beliefs I distilled in a commencement address I delivered in the spring of 2016.

Here are all ten, in the order that they were written.

From year seven:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.

    Most important, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as important, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

From year nine:

  1. Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William Blake and her creative influences, talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
  2. Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture.

And as I round the decade:

  1. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively. Fight it in yourself, for this ungainly beast lays dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as nobler faculties and dispositions, but is categorically inferior. Unlike that great Rilkean life-expanding doubt, it is a contracting force. Unlike critical thinking, that pillar of reason and necessary counterpart to hope, it is inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually corrosive. Life, like the universe itself, tolerates no stasis — in the absence of growth, decay usurps the order. Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is infinitely easier and lazier than construction. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincerity and acting from a place of largehearted, constructive, rational faith in the human spirit, continually bending toward growth and betterment. This remains the most potent antidote to cynicism. Today, especially, it is an act of courage and resistance.

Since such a time machine of reflection would get nowhere without the substance that fueled it, here are ten of the things I most loved reading and writing about in this first decade of Brain Pickings:

  1. Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen

  2. Virginia Woolf on the Relationship Between Loneliness and Creativity

  3. Telling Is Listening: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Magic of Real Human Conversation

  4. James Baldwin on Freedom and How We Imprison Ourselves

  5. Cry, Heart, But Never Break: A Remarkable Illustrated Meditation on Loss and Life

  6. Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers

  7. James Gleick on How Our Cultural Fascination with Time Travel Illuminates Memory, the Nature of Time, and the Central Mystery of Human Consciousness

  8. The Magic of the Book: Hermann Hesse on Why We Read and Always Will

  9. Patti Smith on Time, Transformation, and How the Radiance of Love Redeems the Rupture of Loss

  10. What Makes a Person: The Seven Layers of Identity in Literature and Life


Walk Through Walls: Marina Abramović on Art, Fear, Taking Risks, and Pain as a Focal Lens for Presence

“Art must be life — it must belong to everybody.”

Walk Through Walls: Marina Abramović on Art, Fear, Taking Risks, and Pain as a Focal Lens for Presence

“To make use … of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself,” Simone Weil wrote in contemplating how to make use of our suffering shortly before her untimely, heroic death in 1942. Weil, perhaps the closest thing we have to a modern secular saint, believed that approaching pain with consent rather than resistance was a creative act and a source of empowerment, subverting the given circumstances into one’s locus of agency.

In many ways, performance artist Marina Abramović (b. November 30, 1946) has plotted her trailblazing creative trajectory along the same vector of conviction, using pain — both externally inflicted and self-elected — as a creative medium, but using discipline as the mechanism of subversion. As she approaches her seventieth year, Abramović looks back on her unusual life in her magnificent memoir Walk Through Walls (public library).

Marina, age 4, with her father, Vojin
Marina, age 4, with her father, Vojin

Abramović writes unsentimentally about the trials and terrors of her childhood in Yugoslavia — about growing up in relative privilege amid the soul-draining drabness of communism; about being “materially comfortable but emotionally desolate”; about the brutality of her parents’ marriage, both of whom slept with loaded pistols on their bedside tables; about the constant beatings by her mother, a onetime army major with a steel hand and a steel heart, then director of the formidably named Museum of Art and Revolution. (I was struck by the astonishing number of parallels, both cultural and personal, between Abramović’s early life and my own — two lives lived a generation apart across the border of our neighboring countries.)

Marina, age 5, in Belgrade
Marina, age 5, in Belgrade

“This was the happiest time of my childhood,” Abramović recounts of her yearlong stay in a hospital at age six, after a persistent nosebleed required that she sleep sitting up in order not to choke on her own blood. The doctors first suspected leukemia, but a litany of tests revealed, as Abramović puts it, “something more mysterious… some kind of psychosomatic reaction” to her mother’s beatings. (We now know, of course, that there is nothing mysterious about such a reaction — as pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg would demonstrate three decades later, emotional stress affects our susceptibility to physical illness in a variety of ways, including manifestations this dramatic.) After seven-year-old Marina was sent home from the hospital, the beatings continued, with only slightly diminished frequency and severity.

It was around that time that Abramović, like young Jane Goodall, awakened to what would become her lifelong purpose. She writes:

I knew from the age of six or seven that I wanted to be an artist. My mother punished me for many things, but she encouraged me in this one way. Art was holy to her.


My first paintings were of my dreams. They were more real to me than the reality I was living in — I didn’t like my reality. I remember waking up, and the memory of my dreams was so strong that I would write them down, and then I would paint them, in just two very particular colors, a deep green and a night blue. Never anything else.

If fleshly brutality was the norm of her childhood, its specter haunted Marina since before she was born — she was named after a Russian soldier with whom her father had been in love during WWII, blown up by a grenade before his eyes. But there is something intensely enthralling about Abramović’s simple, matter-of-factly candor in surveying, without belaboring, the traumatic formative experiences despite which — and, to a large extent, because of which — she became the person and artist she is.

Abramović, age 14, wearing clothes she had made from curtains
Abramović, age 14, wearing clothes she had made from curtains

She recounts:

Deep shame, maximum self-consciousness. When I was young it was impossible for me to talk to people. Now I can stand in front of three thousand people without any notes, any preconception of what I’m going to say, even without visual material, and I can look at everyone in the audience and talk for two hours easily.

What happened?

Art happened.

Abramović, age 15, in Rovinj, Istria
Abramović, age 15, in Rovinj, Istria

Art became a life-straw for Abramović — a hedge against the loneliness and sadness of her home life. Amid her mother’s suffocating and punishing control, art became the one domain where she felt she had absolute freedom — the freedom of expression.

Abramović, age 22, at her painting studio in Belgrade
Abramović, age 22, at her painting studio in Belgrade

At twenty-four, Abramović was still living at home with her mother — not at all uncommon in Eastern Europe — and still had to abide by a 10pm curfew. But she immersed herself in art, painted obsessively, and was admitted into Belgrade’s Academy of Fine Arts. She was the only woman in her art collective.

Abramović with her art collective, Group 70, at Belgrade's Student Cultural Center at age 24
Abramović with her art collective, Group 70, at Belgrade’s Student Cultural Center at age 24

Together, they would spend hours talking about “a way past painting: a way to put life itself into art.” This way became performance art, and Abramović threw herself wholeheartedly, wholebodily into it. By her mid-twenties, she had made a name for herself in Belgrade. In 1972, a Scottish curator traversed the Iron Curtain in search of original ideas for the famed Edinburgh Festival the following summer and was captivated by her work. He invited Abramović to show at the festival — an invitation into what was practically another world: the West.

Abramović arrived in Edinburg thrilled and terrified in equal measure. She recalls:

It was my first trip to the West as an artist. I felt like a very small fish in a very big pond.

The piece she chose to perform, titled Rhythm 10, was a play on a drinking game popular among Russian and Yugoslav peasants: The player spreads their fingers onto a wooden surface and, using a sharp knife, begins rapidly stabbing the wood in the gap between the fingers. Whenever they miss and knick or stab themselves, they take a shot; the more shots they take, the more they lose control and cut themselves — an exponentially accelerating machine for self-inflicted pain. Abramović’s piece subverted this mechanism by placing the artist at the locus of control — she would go through the rapid motions deliberately, using ten different knives in succession, so that whenever she stabbed herself, the pain would be a testament to absolute presence.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Amanda Palmer’s assertion that “wherever you don’t want to go, whatever that risk is, wherever the unsafe place is — that really is the gift that you have to give,” Abramović reflects on her initiation into her own self as an artist:

Some big part of me is thrilled by the unknown, by the idea of taking risks. When it comes to doing risky things, I don’t care. I just go for it.

That doesn’t mean I’m fearless. Quite the opposite. The idea of death terrifies me. When there is turbulence on an airplane, I shake with fear. I start composing my last will and testament. But when it comes to my work, I cast caution to the winds.


I could hardly breathe from the idea that I was going to do this. But I was also serious about what I was about to do, 100 percent committed. I was so serious about everything then! Yet I think I needed this gravity. Much later on, I read a statement of Bruce Nauman’s: “Art is a matter of life and death.” It sounds melodramatic, but it’s so true. This was exactly how it was for me, even at the beginning. Art was life and death. There was nothing else. It was so serious, and so necessary.

The determination that carried her through the performance embodies Nicole Krauss’s beautiful assertion that “bravery is always more intelligent than fear, since it is built on the foundation of what one knows about oneself: the knowledge of one’s strength and capacity, of one’s passion.” When she finished the piece, having gone through all ten knives, Abramović faced the white paper onto which she had performed it, “stained very impressively” with her own blood — the very blood that had been one of her biggest fears during her violent childhood. The self-harm was in a way self-healing. It was also her first awareness of what art does — its supreme power of self-transcendence, for artist and viewer alike, and a powerful channel of communion between the two. She writes:

The crowd stared, dead silent. And a very strange feeling came over me, something I had never dreamed of: It was as if electricity was running through my body, and the audience and I had become one. A single organism. The sense of danger in the room had united the onlookers and me in that moment: the here and now, and nowhere else.

That thing that each of us lives with, that you are your own little self privately — once you step into the performance space, you are acting from a higher self, and it’s not you anymore. It’s not the you that you know. It’s something else. There on the gymnasium floor of Melville College in Edinburgh, Scotland, it was as if I had become, at the same time, a receiver and transmitter of huge, Tesla-like energy. The fear was gone, the pain was gone. I had become a Marina whom I didn’t know yet.

For Abramović, the experience was also a homecoming of sorts — using pain as a focal point of presence, she had attained a taste of that coveted freedom, the freedom of expression, which had first drawn her to art as a child. She reflects:

Listening to the wild applause from the audience, I knew I’d succeeded in creating an unprecedented unity of time present and time past with random errors.

I had experienced absolute freedom — I had felt that my body was without boundaries, limitless; that pain didn’t matter, that nothing mattered at all — and it intoxicated me. I was drunk from the overwhelming energy that I’d received. That was the moment I knew that I had found my medium. No painting, no object that I could make, could ever give me that kind of feeling, and it was a feeling I knew I would have to seek out, again and again and again.

Abramović performing Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, 1975
Abramović performing Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, 1975

But beyond the personal transcendence, Abramović approached her art as a gateway into the largest, most universal questions of meaning in human life. Looking back on a piece she performed at Copenhagen’s Charlottenborg Art Festival two years later, titled Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful — an ironic response to the communist-era “aesthetic presumption that art must be beautiful” and a revolt against the notion of art as vacant decoration — Abramović writes:

When it came to art, I only cared about content: what a work meant… I had come to believe that art must be disturbing, art must ask questions, art must predict the future. If art is just political, it becomes like newspaper. It can be used once, and the next day it’s yesterday’s news. Only layers of meaning can give long life to art — that way, society takes what it needs from the work over time.

This view of art — as a source of meaning, as a transmutation of pain into power, as a sublime medium of human connection through mutual vulnerability — would animate Abramović’s long and illustrious career. Thirty-five years after that initial knife-point revelation, she would experience the same sublime unity of spacetime in one of her most celebrated works, The Artist Is Present — an astonishing feat of body, spirit, and creative vitality, in which Abramović spent 736 hours sitting at a table on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art, in intense silence, as visitors ranging from children to public figures to the great love of her youth, the artist Ulay, sat across from her and shared communion in crystalline presence.

Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. Sitting across from her, Ulay. (Photograph: Scott Rudd)
Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. Sitting across from her, Ulay. (Photograph: Scott Rudd)

She reflects on how the project illuminated for her the meaning of art and its ultimate purpose:

During the final month, as this piece became one with life itself, I started to think intensely about the purpose of my existence. Eight hundred fifty thousand people in all had stood in the atrium, seventeen thousand on the final day alone. And I was there for everyone there, whether they sat with me or not. Suddenly, out of nowhere in the world, this overwhelming need had appeared. The responsibility was enormous.

I was there for everyone who was there. A great trust had been given to me — a trust that I didn’t dare abuse, in any way. Hearts were opened to me, and I opened my heart in return, time after time after time. I opened my heart to each one, then closed my eyes — and then there was always another. My physical pain was one thing. But the pain in my heart, the pain of pure love, was far greater.


The sheer quantity of love, the unconditional love of total strangers, was the most incredible feeling I’ve ever had. I don’t know if this is art, I said to myself. I don’t know what this is, or what art is. I’d always thought of art as something that was expressed through certain tools: painting, sculpture, photography, writing, film, music, architecture. And yes, performance. But this performance went beyond performance. This was life. Could art, should art, be isolated from life? I began to feel more and more strongly that art must be life — it must belong to everybody. I felt, more powerfully than ever, that what I had created had a purpose.

In the remainder of the thoroughly terrific Walk Through Walls, Abramović goes on to chronicle how the peculiar fragments of her life — her traumatic but eventually reconciliatory relationship with her mother, her cinematic twelve-year romance with Ulay, her survival of both poverty and privilege — converged into this mosaic of creative purpose. Complement it with some of the greatest artists of our time, including Abramović herself, on courage, creativity, criticism, and what success really means, then revisit Van Gogh on fear, risk-taking, and how inspired mistakes move us forward.


Explainer, Elucidator, Enchanter: A Gradation of Great Writing

A visual taxonomy to illuminate the difference between information, knowledge, and meaning.

In a recent conversation with a friend, I found myself struggling to convey the hierarchy of good writing, particularly of good science writing — a hierarchy experienced so concretely in the act of reading but inexpressible as soon as one tries to dismantle the magic of enthralling prose. The difference between good writing and great writing is always palpable and rarely articulable, but the stakes are even higher in science writing, where the standards of truth and beauty are such that the precise and the poetic must converge in order to yield both comprehension and enchantment.

Since my recent diagrammatic taxonomy of platonic relationships had helped me map the multiple levels of friendship, I decided to use a similar visual taxonomy to concretize this intuitive gradation of writing.


Explainers make information clear and comprehensible. Good textbooks are the work of good explainers.

Elucidators go beyond explanation and into illumination — they transmute information into understanding by revealing the interconnectedness of the universe and integrating various bits of knowledge into a larger framework of comprehension. At their best, they embody what pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff addressed in his beautiful 1978 meditation on the poetics of curiosity, in which he discussed the crucial difference between explanation and understanding.

Enchanters do all of the above, but go beyond the realm of knowledge and into the realm of wisdom. They don’t work merely toward superior levels of understanding, but toward a wholly different order of meaning — an embodiment of Schopenhauer’s famous distinction between talent and genius, in which he asserted that talent hits a target no one else can hit, whereas genius hits a target no one else can see.

Enchanters bend the beam of illumination through a singular lens that furnishes something richer and greater than the sum total of knowledge — a kaleidoscopic view of previously hidden layers of reality, or an integration of previously fragmented insights and shards of awareness. The result is nothing less than a firmer grasp of one’s place in the universe, producing in turn a transcendent enlargement of being.

The greatest enchanters are creators of distinctive aesthetics — of writing, of storytelling, of thought itself. Among them are writers like Oliver Sacks, James Gleick, Diane Ackerman, Alan Lightman and Janna Levin, and trailblazing storytellers like Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab.

Complement with Oliver Sacks on the curious psychology of writing and William Zinsser on the art of science communication, then revisit this growing library of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft.


Joseph Brodsky on the Greatest Antidote to Evil

“What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.”

Joseph Brodsky on the Greatest Antidote to Evil

“One has to assume that every man is a thinking reed and a noble nature, even if only part-time,” Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt in their poignant correspondence about good, evil, and human nature. Looking back on ten years of Brain Pickings and the ten most important things I learned in this decade of reading, writing, and living, I not only agree with McCarthy wholeheartedly, but would raise her and insist that we must assume a basic human goodness in everyone, as an existential imperative. And yet evil undeniably exists. So how do we reconcile these parallel truths and continue to live with radiance not only undimmed by the existence of darkness but defiantly intent on increasing the world’s store of light?

That’s what the Nobel-winning Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (May 24, 1940–January 28, 1996) explored when he faced the Williams College graduating class of 1984. A century after his compatriot Dostoyevsky made his case for why there are no people — a century that had seen two world wars and Russia’s descent into a communist dictatorship — Brodsky considers evil and its most powerful antidote. The speech, eventually included in the 1987 Brodsky anthology Less Than One: Selected Essays (public library), has only swelled in timeliness in the decades since, as we watch evil attempt to grab power and we strain every nasty nerve to counter it.

Joseph Brodskly
Joseph Brodskly

Brodsky addresses the next generation:

No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil. I mean here not a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, a palpable social reality that you in no way can control. No amount of good nature or cunning calculations will prevent this encounter. In fact, the more calculating, the more cautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this rendezvous, the harder its impact. Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” That, of course, indicates its secondary nature, but the comfort one may derive from this observation gets dulled by its frequency.

In a sentiment informed in large part by his longing for a counterpoint to the dictatorial communist groupthink that had consumed his homeland, as it had mine, Brodsky adds:

The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin — not even by a minority.

Bearskin by Maurice Sendak, from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Brodsky believes the most robust mode of resistance to evil is what he irreverently refers to as “the famous business of turning the other cheek” — those verses from the Sermon on the Mount, which influenced the three titans of nonviolence: Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, who discussed these principles in their fantastic forgotten correspondence about violence and human nature, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who built upon them his ethic of love and nonviolent resistance. In a passage of acute timeliness today, Brodsky considers why these timeless tenets of unrelenting goodwill have fallen out of favor in the modern world:

The fact that the world today is what it is suggests, to say the least, that this concept is far from being cherished universally. The reasons for its unpopularity are twofold. First, what is required for this concept to be put into effect is a margin of democracy. This is precisely what 86 percent of the globe lacks. Second, the common sense that tells a victim that his only gain in turning the other cheek and not responding in kind yields, at best, a moral victory, i.e., quite immaterial. The natural reluctance to expose yet another part of your body to a blow is justified by a suspicion that this sort of conduct only agitates and enhances Evil; that moral victory can be mistaken by the adversary for his impunity.

In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s incisive ideas on agency and victimhood, and one which Brodsky would expand upon four years later in what remains the greatest commencement address of all time, he adds:

The moral victory itself may not be so moral after all, not only because suffering often has a narcissistic aspect to it, but also because it renders the victim superior, that is, better than his enemy. Yet no matter how evil your enemy is, the crucial thing is that he is human; and although incapable of loving another like ourselves, we nonetheless know that evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.

(Or, as the case has been in the overwhelming majority of human history, when one man starts to think that he is better than one woman — or, even more alarmingly, than the whole of womankind.)

Brodsky argues that such warping of intention and outcome arises from a misinterpretation and misapplication of the Sermon on the Mount. He cites three verses in particular, tied by moral and logical cohesion:

But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Brodsky peers into the deeper implication:

The meaning of these lines is anything but passive for it suggests that evil can be made absurd through excess; it suggests rendering evil absurd through dwarfing its demands with the volume of your compliance, which devalues the harm. This sort of thing puts a victim into a very active position, into the position of a mental aggressor. The victory that is possible here is not a moral but an existential one.

Art by Shaun Tan from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy talesr

Writing two decades after Susan Sontag’s abiding admonition against interpretation, Brodsky considers the perils of our long cross-cultural history of misinterpreting these verses and reappropriating their intended meaning:

Ethics based on this faultily quoted verse have changed nothing in post-Gandhi India, save the color of its administration. From a hungry man’s point of view, though, it’s all the same who makes him hungry. I submit that he may even prefer a white man to be responsible for his sorry state if only because this way social evil may appear to come from elsewhere and may perhaps be less efficient than the suffering at the hand of his own kind. With an alien in charge, there is still room for hope, for fantasy.

Similarly in post-Tolstoy Russia, ethics based on this misquoted verse undermined a great deal of the nation’s resolve in confronting the police state. What has followed is known all too well: six decades of turning the other cheek transformed the face of the nation into one big bruise, so that the state today, weary of its violence, simply spits at that face. As well as at the face of the world.

Ever the master of nuance, Brodsky uses this cautionary tale of misconstruing the notion of turning the other cheek to returns to his central point about countering evil:

I must admit that I feel somewhat uneasy talking about these things: because turning or not turning that other cheek is, after all, an extremely intimate affair. The encounter always occurs on a one-to-one basis. It’s always your skin, your coat and cloak, and it is your limbs that will have to do the walking. To advise, let alone to urge, anyone about the use of these properties is, if not entirely wrong, indecent. All I aspire to do here is to erase from your minds a cliché that harmed so many and yielded so little. I also would like to instill in you the idea that as long as you have your skin, coat, cloak, and limbs, you are not yet defeated, whatever the odds are.

Complement this particular portion of Brodsky’s wholly terrific Less Than One with Maya Angelou on courage and facing evil and Plato’s abiding wisdom on how to negotiate our parallel capacities for good and evil, then revisit Brodsky on how to develop your taste in reading and his six rules for playing the game of life like a winner.

Find other enduringly ennobling commencement addresses in this ongoing archive, which includes masterpieces like Toni Morrison on the rewards of true adulthood (Wesleyan, 2004), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Teresita Fernandez on what it really means to be an artist (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013), Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and our human responsibility (Fredonia College, 1978), Tom Wolfe on the rise of the pseudo-intellectual (Boston University, 2000), and Parker Palmer on the six pillars of the meaningful life (Naropa University, 2015).


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