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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

An Occasion for Unselfing: Iris Murdoch on Imperfection as Integral to Goodness and How the Beauty of Nature and Art Leavens Our Most Unselfish Impulses

“The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself… to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”

An Occasion for Unselfing: Iris Murdoch on Imperfection as Integral to Goodness and How the Beauty of Nature and Art Leavens Our Most Unselfish Impulses

To recognize that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives is to step outside the self, beyond its particular conceptions of beauty — which includes, of course, moral beauty — and walking beside it with humble, nonjudgmental curiosity about the myriad other selves afoot on their own paths, propelled by their own ideals of the Good.

Such recognition requires what the great moral philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) termed unselfing — a difficult, triumphant act for which, Murdoch argues in her 1970 masterpiece The Sovereignty of Good (public library), nature and art uniquely train us.

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

A century and a half after Emerson observed that “the question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things,” Murdoch defines what we commonly call beauty as “an occasion for ‘unselfing’” — an occasion most readily experienced in our communion with nature and our contemplation of art. She writes:

Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.

Art from Trees at Night, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Oliver Sacks would come to echo the sentiment decades later in his observation that meeting nature on its own terms and timescales broadens our perspective by effecting “a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life.” But this unselfing, Murdoch cautions, cannot come by through a straining of the will, for the will is a clenching of the very self which true beauty decondition; rather, it comes as a gladsome relaxing of the spirit, of our essential nature, into the shared pulse of existence:

A self-directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. More naturally, as well as more properly, we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1926 edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (Available as a print.)

This “self-forgetful pleasure” calls to mind Jeanette Winterson’s wonderfully paradoxical notion of active surrender as the crucible of our joy in art and the fulcrum for art’s transforms power over the self. But while there is a distinct difference between how nature and art each effect unselfing, Murdoch argues that what separates great art from the bad and the mediocre is precisely this capacity for stripping down the self rather than inflating the ego — a notion evocative of Tolstoy’s insistence that “a real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.” Murdoch writes of this dissolution of the self in the presence of great art:

The experience of art is more easily degraded than the experience of nature. A great deal of art, perhaps most art, actually is self-consoling fantasy, and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer’s consciousness. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of what is great can have its effect. Art, and by “art” from now on I mean good art, not fantasy art, affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent. Both in its genesis and its enjoyment it is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession. It invigorates our best faculties and, to use Platonic language, inspires love in the highest part of the soul. It is able to do this partly by virtue of something which it shares with nature: a perfection of form which invites unpossessive contemplation and resists absorption into the selfish dream life of the consciousness.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse: The Astronomy of Walt Whitman. (Available as a print.)

And yet, Murdoch argues, any real understanding of goodness is necessarily an embrace of imperfection — something philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in many ways Murdoch’s only worthy intellectual heir, would argue brilliantly a generation later in her incisive case for the intelligence of emotions. Murdoch writes:

The concept of Good… is a concept which is not easy to understand partly because it has so many false doubles, jumped-up intermediaries invented by human selfishness to make the difficult task of virtue look easier and more attractive: History, God, Lucifer, Ideas of power, freedom, purpose, reward, even judgment are irrelevant. Mystics of all kinds have usually known this and have attempted by extremities of language to portray the nakedness and aloneness of Good, its absolute for-nothingness. One might say that true morality is a sort of unesoteric mysticism, having its source in an austere and unconsoled love of the Good. When Plato wants to explain Good he uses the image of the sun. The moral pilgrim emerges from the cave and begins to see the real world in the light of the sun, and last of all is able to look at the sun itself.

[…]

We may also speak seriously of ordinary things, people, works of art, as being good, although we are also well aware of their imperfections. Good lives as it were on both sides of the barrier and we can combine the aspiration to complete goodness with a realistic sense of achievement within our limitations.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to the legacy of the Romantics, who married nature and art in their model of happiness and transcendence, Murdoch returns to the notion of unselfing and the beautiful tessellation of possibility and limitation that defines our nature:

The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. “Good is a transcendent reality” means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is. It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.

The Sovereignty of Good is an immensely insightful read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Robinson Jeffers on nature and moral beauty and Oliver Sacks on the healing power of gardens, then revisit Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny, the key to great storytelling, and her uncommonly beautiful love letters.

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Playful and Profound Letter-Poem to Children About the Power of Books and Why We Read

“…for every book contains a world.”

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Playful and Profound Letter-Poem to Children About the Power of Books and Why We Read

When asked in the Proust Questionnaire about his idea of perfect happiness, David Bowie answered simply: “Reading.” But the question of why we read unlatches as many responses as there are flavors of human happiness. Some memorable and poetic answers have come from Hermann Hesse, Rebecca Solnit, Neil Gaiman, C.S. Lewis, and Proust himself.

A thoroughly original and most delightful one comes from the irreplaceable Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) in her contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — which, as far as I am aware, was her last published piece of original writing at the time the book alighted on the world.

Written in verse, in the voice of an aged dragon — “second cousin once removed” of Smaug, Tolkien’s iconic antagonist from The Hobbit — and illustrated by her longtime friend and collaborator Charles Vess, the letter-poem emanates Le Guin’s signature warm wisdom, syncopating the playful and the profound.

Original art by Charles Vess for Ursula K. Le Guin’s contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Zoe Bedrick.

Dear Reader,

Most dragons don’t know how to read. They hiss and fume and guard their hoard. A tasty knight is what they need
For dinner (they spit out the sword),
Then go to sleep on heaps of treasure. They’ve no use for the written word.
But I learned early to take pleasure
In reading tales and poetry,
And soon I knew that I preferred
Reading a book to fighting knights.
I lived on apple pie and tea,
Which a kind lady made for me,
And all my days and half my nights
Were spent in reading story-books,
A life more thrilling than it looks.
Now that I’m old and cannot see
To read, the lady’s youngest child
Comes every day to read to me,
A cheerful child named Valentine.
We’re both as happy as can be
Among the treasures I have piled
In heaps around my apple tree.
No other dragon watches curled
Around such riches as are mine,
My Word-hoard, my dear Library:
For every book contains a world!

       Yours truly,
       Bedraug (Smaug’s Second Cousin Once Removed)

For more tastes of A Velocity of Being — a labor of love eight years in the making, with all proceeds benefiting our local public library system (lest we forget, Le Guin herself passionately championed the sacredness of public libraries) — savor select letters by Alain de Botton, Jacqueline Woodson, and Jane Goodall, then revisit Le Guin on literature as the operating instructions for life, writing as falling in love, the power of storytelling to transform and redeem, and her timeless hymn to time.

BP

Every Atom Belonging to Me as Good Belongs to You: Whitman’s Immortal Words, Illustrated in Stunning Cyanotype

A charitable celebration of art, science, our shared belonging.

Every Atom Belonging to Me as Good Belongs to You: Whitman’s Immortal Words, Illustrated in Stunning Cyanotype

“Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Walt Whitman wrote in one of his profoundest verses, in a golden age of science and social change, yet an era at least as divisive as ours. The sentiment became a focal point for Figuring and inspiration for The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — the special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse, taking place on Governors Island on October 26, 2019.

In the generous spirit of the show — an immense labor of love, with everyone involved donating their time and talent to the celebration of art, science, and community — artist Lia Halloran has painted a stunning cyanotype incarnation of Whitman’s ennobling words, which we are making available as a high-quality art print and framed wall art, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory at Pioneer Works.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse: The Astronomy of Walt Whitman. Available as a high-quality art print and framed wall art.

Lia is also donating the original painting to an auction benefiting Fulcrum Arts — a wonderful LA-based nonprofit at the nexus of art, science, and social change, advancing the equitable representation of women, people of color, and LGBTQ artists.

A limited number of prints will be available at the Governors Island gathering on Saturday — join us for an unusual, magical, and unrepeatable experience that widens our news-constricted perspective and invites us to unforget our shared belonging through the lucidity of science and the luminosity of poetry.

BP

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