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13 Life-Learnings from 13 Years of Brain Pickings

More fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.

On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as a plain-text email to seven friends. It was then, and continues to be, a labor of love and ledger of curiosity, although the mind and heart from which it sprang have changed — have grown, I hope — tremendously. At the end of the first decade, I told its improbable origin story and drew from its evolution the ten most important things this all-consuming daily endeavor taught me about writing and living — largely notes to myself, perhaps best thought of as resolutions in reverse, that may or may not be useful to others.

Now, as Brain Pickings turns thirteen — the age at which, at least in the Germanic languages, childhood tips to adolescence; the age at which I first competed in the European Math Olympics; the legal marriage age in my homeland; the number of British colonies that germinated the United States; the number of moons revolving around Neptune; a handsome prime number — I feel compelled to add three more learnings from the past three years, which have been in some ways the most difficult and in some ways the most beautiful of my life; the years in which I made the things of which I am proudest: created The Universe in Verse, composed Figuring, and finally published, after eight years of labor, A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

With dad, year 0
With dad, year 0

Here are the initial ten learnings, as published in 2016, which I continue to stand and live by:

  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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

And here are the three new additions, which refine some of the subtler ideas and ideals contemplated above:

  1. A reflection originally offered on the cusp of Year 11, by way of a wonderful poem about pi: Question your maps and models of the universe, both inner and outer, and continually test them against the raw input of reality. Our maps are still maps, approximating the landscape of truth from the territories of the knowable — incomplete representational models that always leave more to map, more to fathom, because the selfsame forces that made the universe also made the figuring instrument with which we try to comprehend it.
  2. Because Year 12 is the year in which I finished writing Figuring (though it emanates from my entire life), and because the sentiment, which appears in the prelude, is the guiding credo to which the rest of the book is a 576-page footnote, I will leave it as it stands: There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.
  3. In any bond of depth and significance, forgive, forgive, forgive. And then forgive again. The richest relationships are lifeboats, but they are also submarines that descend to the darkest and most disquieting places, to the unfathomed trenches of the soul where our deepest shames and foibles and vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be. Forgiveness is the alchemy by which the shame transforms into the honor and privilege of being invited into another’s darkness and having them witness your own with the undimmed light of love, of sympathy, of nonjudgmental understanding. Forgiveness is the engine of buoyancy that keeps the submarine rising again and again toward the light, so that it may become a lifeboat once more.

And since Brain Pickings is the public record of what I privately think and feel and worry and wonder about daily, here is a time machine of thought and feeling via thirteen of the pieces I have most enjoyed writing these past thirteen years:

  1. The More Loving One


  2. Big Wolf & Little Wolf: A Tender Tale of Loneliness, Belonging, and How Friendship Transforms Us


  3. How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life


  4. The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage


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


  6. Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair


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


  8. The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power


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


  10. Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert


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


  12. Salvation by Words: Iris Murdoch on Language as a Vehicle of Truth and Art as a Force of Resistance to Tyranny


  13. A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan


BP

Nature’s Lessons in Gender Equality, Gender Diversity, and True Love: The Male Pregnancy of the Seahorse and the Fearless Trans Fish of the Coral Seas

What the weird, wondrous, otherworldly animals of this precious planet can teach us about being better creatures ourselves.

Nature’s Lessons in Gender Equality, Gender Diversity, and True Love: The Male Pregnancy of the Seahorse and the Fearless Trans Fish of the Coral Seas

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston insisted nearly a century ago. “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

Over the long sweep of evolution, our fellow creatures have developed wondrous forms and faculties far superior to our own — from the strange splendor of the octopus, endowed with Earth’s most alien consciousness, to the olfactory prowess of the dog, capable of accessing layers of reality wholly hidden from us. (“Never say higher or lower,” Darwin scribbled in the margin of a book. “Say more complicated.”) To fathom the worlds of such creatures requires that we “shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place,” as Rachel Carson wrote in the pioneering 1937 essay that first invited the human imagination to consider this precious shared planet from the perspective of non-human creatures.

Art by Millie Marotta from A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals

But in the century since Carson and Beston, some of this world’s most extraordinary animals have been driven to near-extinction, vanishing from the biosphere, vanishing from the dictionary and from children’s imagination. Along with them vanish the voices we shall never hear — voices that can teach us a great deal about being better creatures ourselves.

Welsh illustrator and author Millie Marotta celebrates forty-three of these astounding creatures in A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals (public library) — a collection of short, stunningly illustrated encyclopedic “profiles” of wild and wondrous creatures: miniature dragons of the underworld, desert-dwelling fish, marsupial tree frogs, otters with a hundredfold more hairs in a square inch of fur than you have on your entire head, and the clandestine cousin of the extinct dodo. What emerges is a testament to naturalist Sy Montgomery’s conviction that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

Art by Millie Marotta from A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals

Some of Marotta’s creatures contain in their hard-wired biology subtle allegorical answers to some of our most pressing sociological concerns and aspirations — particularly around gender equality, gender identity, and gender diversity. From the seahorse — one of only three known species, along with the pipefish and the leafy seadragon, in which pregnancy is allotted to the male — we get a lesson in subverting traditional gender roles not only in child-rearing but in child-bearing, as well as a stubborn defense of true love (or what we might have to begin calling, nowadays, monoamory), almost at the price of survival. Marotta writes:

Many species of seahorse remain faithful to their mates throughout the breeding season, greeting each other each day in a courtship dance. Other pairs remain monogamous their entire lives, among them the tiger tail seahorse, so named for its distinctive stripy tail.

When breeding, the female deposits her eggs into the male’s brood pouch, found toward the bottom of his belly. He fertilizes them in his pouch, then keeps them there, safe and nourished, as they develop. After two to three weeks, hundreds of miniature, perfectly formed tiger tail seahorses burst out into the water. The babies, only 1 cm long, are immediately independent of their parents and drift away, at the mercy of the ocean currents.

Seahorses are rather inept at swimming, so when it comes to hunting they rely on stealth and disguise. Anchoring themselves to a piece of coral, and changing color to camouflage themselves from both predators and prey, they wait, toothless snout at the ready, to hoover up tasty brine shrimp as they drift by.

From the corpulent, fearless, luscious-lipped humphead wrasse of the Indo-Pacific coral seas — nature’s Orlando — we receive the ultimate affirmation of the transgender identity as a thoroughly natural mode of being.

Art by Millie Marotta from A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals

Marotta writes:

Among the coral reefs of the Red Sea, a young female humphead wrasse leaves her deep — water cave to feed. She hoovers up vast quantities of mollusks, crabs, lobsters, sea cucumbers… but she is also one of a few species that will tuck into the toxic crown-of-thorns starfish. This starfish eats growing corals, so in eating them the humphead wrasse is preserving her own habitat, which is already damaged by fishing methods involving dynamite and cyanide. As she hunts, she must keep an eye out for poachers: As one of the most expensive fish in Southeast Asia, she is vulnerable.

At about seven years old, she is almost ready to mate. By nine she has grown bigger than most females her age, and as she keeps growing her skin changes color, from rusty red orange to a vibrant greenish blue, and she loses her ovaries and develops testes. Incredibly, she changes sex and becomes the dominant male — known as a super male. He is a giant among his species — up to 6 ft long and a colossal 400 lbs in weight. That’s more than two average-sized men. Only the very largest of females have a chance to become super-males and mate — and they will stay male forever.

Complement the lovely Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals with Eve Ensler’s stirring letter to Mother Earth, sparked by the disappearance of 2.9 billion birds, and illustrator Jenni Desmond’s empathic picture-book invitations into the worlds of two other gravely endangered animals — the polar bear and the blue whale — then revisit this lyrical vintage chronicle of a year in the life of the majestic sperm whale and Sy Montgomery on what working with 13 animals taught her about being a good creature.

BP

Patti Smith’s Imaginative Remedy for Insomnia

Soporific shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Melville.

Patti Smith’s Imaginative Remedy for Insomnia

Given that it serves as the brain’s built-in therapy mechanism regulating our negative moods, given that it acts as the brain’s janitor sweeping away toxins responsible for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, sleep may be the closest thing we have a superpower — so much so that its importance is encoded into the 13 most important things I’ve learned about life. The clearest evidence of that importance comes from the extreme disruption of our functioning when sleep is taken away — the way we we grow unmoored from our own minds, adrift an arm’s reach from reality, unable to follow the ordinary threads that link one thought to the next, that fetch the right word, the needed memory.

Insomnia, then, is a particularly unforgiving and parasitic malfunction of consciousness that feeds on its host, feeds on our very sense of being. Of the many proposed but ultimately unprovable remedies for insomnia, from the folkloric to the clinical, by far the loveliest I’ve ever encountered comes from Patti Smith in Year of the Monkey (public library) — her unclassifiable and uncommonly poetic masterpiece at the borderline of dream and reality.

Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)
Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)

In the disorienting midst of the 2016 election news cycle, when “an insidious insomnia” slowly begins to claim her nights, Smith resorts to an old mental game by which she tricks herself to sleep — a kind of shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Herman Melville and reminiscent of a Zen parable. She writes:

I imagine myself a sailor in the time of the great whaling ships on a lengthy voyage. We are in the center of a violent storm and the captain’s inexperienced son catches his foot in a length of rope and is pulled overboard. Unflinching, the sailor leaps into the storm-tossed seas after him. The men throw down massive lengths of rope and the lad is brought to deck in the arms of the sailor and carried below.

The sailor is summoned to the quarterdeck and led to the captain’s inner sanctum. Wet and shivering, he eyes his surroundings with wonder. The captain, in a rare show of emotion, embraces him. You saved my son’s life, he says. Tell me how I can best serve you. The sailor, embarrassed, asks for a full measure of rum for each of the men. Done, says the captain, but what of you? After some hesitation the sailor answers, I have slept on galley floors, bunks and hammocks since a lad, it has been a long time since I have slept in a proper bed.

The captain, moved by the sailor’s humility, offers his own bed, then retires to the room of his son. The sailor stands before the captain’s empty bed. It has down pillows and a light coverlet. There is a massive leather trunk at its foot. He crosses himself, blows out the candles and succumbs to a rare and wholly enveloping sleep.

This is the game I sometimes play when sleep is elusive, one that evolved from reading Melville, that takes me from the mat on the bathroom floor to my own bed, affording grateful slumber.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree.

Couple this tiny fragment of the wholly resplendent Year of the Monkey with Maurice Sendak’s antidote to insomnia, then revisit Smith on creativity, time, loss, and transformation, and her tribute to William Blake.

BP

Edward Weston on the Most Fruitful Attitude Toward Life, Art, and Other People

“I feel towards persons as I do towards art, — constructively.”

Edward Weston on the Most Fruitful Attitude Toward Life, Art, and Other People

Goethe believed that the only opinion worth voicing about the work and choices of others is one that springs from “a certain one-sided enthusiasm, or from a loving interest in the person and the work… All else is vanity.” A particularly corrosive species of vanity is the habit of self-comparison, which — depending on the degrees of narcissism and insecurity in the comparer — results either in self-inflation by diminishing the worth of the other or in despair by hyperfocus on the other’s visible achievements against their invisible struggles (for our deepest struggles are always invisible). At its worst, such vanity — such absence of sympathetic enthusiasm for other people and the world at large — festers into the most uncreative, unconstructive self-contraction of all: cynicism.

A lovely antidote to such vanity comes from the visionary photographer Edward Weston (March 24, 1886–January 1, 1958) in his journal, The Daybooks of Edward Weston: Volume II, California (public library) — the out-of-print 1966 treasure that also gave us Weston on the importance of cross-disciplinary curiosity in creative work.

Edward Weston (© Brett Weston Archive, International Center of Photography)

In 1927, after four creatively fertile years in Mexico, Weston returned to his old studio in California and found himself struggling for survival. In a particularly telling diary entry, he agonizes after his son loses a five-dollar bill — half of Weston’s earnings from a print sale. “Five dollars!” he exclaims in his daybook. “Enough for me to live on a week!” And yet a certain inner buoyancy lifted him up to begin what would become his most influential work — a radiance and generosity of spirit that extended not only to his work but to the world about him, imperfect as a world always is. On the first day of February in 1928, Weston writes:

I feel towards persons as I do towards art, — constructively. Find all the good first. Judge by what has been done, — not by omissions or mistakes. And look well into oneself! A life can well be spent correcting and improving one’s own faults without bothering about others.

In another entry penned on that summer, Weston contemplates what makes a great artist — and a great person — by reflecting on the most admired photographer of his time, Alfred Stieglitz, then writes:

It has come to me of late that comparing one man’s work to another’s, naming one greater or lesser, is a wrong approach.

The important and only vital question is, how much greater, finer, am I than I was yesterday? Have I fulfilled my possibilities, made the most of my potentialities?

What a marvellous world if all would, — could hold this attitude toward life.

Five years earlier, Georgia O’Keeffe — Stieglitz’s muse and lover, soon to be wife, soon to be one of the most visionary artists humanity has produced — had articulated this very sentiment even more poetically in her stunning letter of advice and assurance to Sherwood Anderson, who himself had begun painting after being inspired by O’Keeffe’s work:

Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you.

BP

Abraham Lincoln on Equality and the Slippery Slope of Exclusion

A prescient admonition against the infinite regress of “except.”

Abraham Lincoln on Equality and the Slippery Slope of Exclusion

“The North has always tried to establish its identity by cutting other people out and off,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their historic dialogue about identity, race, and belonging. “The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out.” Half a century later, this aspect of the Northern identity has become in a great sense the national identity of the country that calls itself by the name of an entire continent. Its rubric of exclusion has been mirrored across the world, in the various international nationalisms that have cropped up as the reactionary politics of regressive ideologies.

More than a century before Baldwin, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) issued a prescient admonition against this epidemic of divisiveness and exclusionary identity in a short, stirring letter to a friend, cited in These Truths (public library) — Jill Lepore’s masterwork of poetic scholarship, chronicling the complex and conflicted history of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln (Photograph by Abraham Byers)

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted legal freedom to more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans — a public triumph of human rights, and a private triumph for a man who had faced the artillery of brutal criticism for his idealism and his determination to make a willfully blind and belligerent nation see slavery for what it was: a “monstrous injustice.” Although his courageous approach to criticism helped him persevere in the public eye, privately he often despaired — never more bleakly than when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, allowing people within the two states to decide for themselves whether they wish to perpetrate slavery. Lincoln saw it as a colossal backward step for progress and a supreme betrayal of the Declaration of Independence — “progress in degeneracy,” a travesty of basic civil liberty, a travesty of basic morality, casting self-interest as the only inalienable right.

“Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of equal rights of men,” he wrote in a note to himself. “Ours began, by affirming those rights.” Devastated, incomprehending of how far his nation had fallen from its founding ideals, Lincoln followed the slippery moral slope of exclusion to its only logical conclusion in a chillingly prescient letter to a friend, penned in the summer of 1855:

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Complement with Zadie Smith on the see-saw of optimism and despair in cultural progress and philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of identity, then revisit Baldwin’s prophetic insight into divisiveness and its only cure.

BP

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