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Empathy Is a Clock That Ticks in the Consciousness of Another: The Science of How Our Social Interactions Shape Our Experience of Time

“We may be born alone, but childhood ends with a synchrony of clocks, as we lend ourselves fully to the contagion of time.”

Empathy Is a Clock That Ticks in the Consciousness of Another: The Science of How Our Social Interactions Shape Our Experience of Time

When I was growing up, my father — a kind man of quick intellect and encyclopedic knowledge about esoteric subjects — had, and still has, one habit that never failed to make other people uneasy and to infuriate my mother: In conversation, the interval of time that elapses between the other person’s sentiment or question and my father’s response greatly exceeds the average, a lapse swelling with Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity.”

At first, one might suspect that my father is taking an incubatory pause to produce a considered response. But, soon, it becomes apparent that these disorienting durations have no correlation with the complexity of the question — even when asked something as simple as the time of day, he would often let miniature eternities pass and lasso the other person in anxiety as the contrast between the natural response time and my father’s gapes its discomfiting abyss of ambiguity.

It turns out that my father’s liberal pauses are so discomposing because our experience of time has a central social component — an internal clock inheres in our capacity for intersubjectivity, intuitively governing our social interactions and the interpersonal mirroring that undergirds the human capacity for empathy.

This social-synchronistic function of time is what New Yorker staff writer Alan Burdick examines in Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (public library) — a layered, rigorously researched, lyrically narrated inquiry into the most befuddling dimension of existence.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time

Burdick begins at the beginning — the ur-question of how the universe originated from nothing and what this means for time, a question at the heart of the landmark 1922 debate between Einstein and Bergson that shaped our modern understanding of time. Burdick asks:

For argument’s sake, I’ll accept that perhaps the universe did not exist before the Big Bang — but it exploded in something, right? What was that? What was there before the beginning? Proposing such questions, the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has said, is like standing at the South Pole and asking which way is south: “Earlier times simply would not be defined.”

Nearly a century after Borges’s exquisite refutation of time in language“Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” — Burdick adds with an eye to the inherent limitations of our metaphors:

Perhaps Hawking is trying to be reassuring. What he seems to mean is that human language has a limit. We (or at least the rest of us) reach this boundary whenever we ponder the cosmic. We imagine by analogy and metaphor: that strange and vast thing is like this smaller, more familiar thing. The universe is a cathedral, a clockworks, an egg. But the parallels ultimately diverge; only an egg is an egg. Such analogies appeal precisely because they are tangible elements of the universe. As terms, they are self-contained — but they cannot contain the container that holds them. So it is with time. Whenever we talk about it, we do so in terms of something lesser. We find or lose time, like a set of keys; we save and spend it, like money. Time creeps, crawls, flies, flees, flows, and stands still; it is abundant or scarce; it weighs on us with palpable heft.

[…]

Yet whatever one calls it, we share a rough idea of what’s meant: a lasting sense of one’s self moving in a sea of selves, dependent yet alone; a sense, or perhaps a deep and common wish, that I somehow belongs to we, and that this we belongs to something even larger and less comprehensible; and the recurring thought, so easy to brush aside in the daily effort to cross the street safely and get through one’s to-do list, much less to confront the world’s true crises, that my time, our time, matters precisely because it ends.

Illustration by Harvey Weiss from Time Is When by Beth Youman Gleick, 1960

From the temporal meditations of the ancient philosophers to the last hundred years of ingenious psychological experiments, Burdick goes on to explore such aspects of his subject — a nearly infinite subject, to be sure, which makes his endeavor all the more impressive — as why time dilates and contracts depending on whether we are having fun or facing danger, how fetuses are able to coordinate their circadian activity, and what we are actually measuring when we speak of keeping time. In a fascinating chapter detailing the complex ecosystem of time-making — the inventions, standardizations, and global teams of scientists responsible for measuring and synchronizing earthly time — Burdick reflects on the tremendous coordination of human efforts keeping the world’s clocks ticking:

Time is a social phenomenon. This property is not incidental to time; it is its essence. Time, equally in single cells as in their human conglomerates, is the engine of interaction. A single clock works only as long as it refers, sooner or later, obviously or not, to the other clocks around it. One can rage about it, and we do. But without a clock and the dais of time, we each rage in silence, alone.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But our technologies are always prosthetic extensions of our consciousness — time, it turns out, is an innately social phenomenon not only in how it is measured, but in how it is experienced. Burdick cites the research of French neuropsychologist Sylvie Droit-Volet, who studies the warping of our temporal perception. In one experiment, she presented people with images of human faces — some neutral, some happy, some angry, some frightened — each displayed on the screen for anywhere between half a second to a second and a half. The research subjects were then asked to evaluate how long the faces appeared for.

She found that across images displayed for the same duration, happy faces were perceived to last longer than neutral ones and shorter than angry or fearful ones. Burdick explains:

The key ingredient seems to be a physiological response called arousal, which isn’t what you might think. In experimental psychology, “arousal” refers to the degree to which the body is preparing itself to act in some manner. It’s measured through heart rate and the skin’s electrical conductivity; sometimes subjects are asked to rate their own arousal in comparison to images of faces or puppet figures. Arousal can be thought of as the physiological expression of one’s emotions or, perhaps, as a precursor of physical action; in practice there may be little difference. By standard measures, anger is the most arousing emotion, for viewer and angry person alike, followed by fear, then happiness, then sadness. Arousal is thought to accelerate the pacemaker, causing more ticks than usual to accumulate in a given interval, thereby making emotionally laden images seem to last longer than others of equal duration… Physiologists and psychologists think of arousal as a primed physical state — not moving but poised to move. When we see movement, even implied movement in a static image, the thinking goes, we enact that movement internally. In a sense, arousal is a measure of your ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

We perform this kind of emotional mimicry intuitively and incessantly over the course of our daily social interactions, in some degree donning the emotional and mental outfit of each person with whom we come into close contact. But we are also, apparently, absorbing each other’s sense of time, which is encoded in our psychoemotional states. In another study, Droit-Volet found that research subjects perceived images of elderly faces to last shorter than they actually did and misjudged the duration of young faces in the opposite direction — viewers were essentially embodying the typically slower movements of the elderly. Burdick explains:

A slower clock ticks less often in a given interval of time; fewer ticks accumulate, so the interval is judged to be briefer than it actually is. Perceiving or remembering an elderly person induces the viewer to reenact, or simulate, their bodily states, namely their slow movement.

A book, Rebecca Solnit memorably wrote, is “a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” In a very real sense, we are each a temporally open book and empathy a clock that only ticks in the consciousness of another. Burdick writes:

Our shared temporal distortions can be thought of as manifestations of empathy; after all, to embody another’s time is to place oneself in his or her skin. We imitate each other’s gestures and emotions — but we’re more likely to do so, studies find, with people with whom we identify or whose company we would like to share.

[…]

Life dictates that we possess some sort of internal mechanism to keep time and monitor brief durations — yet the one we carry around can be thrown off course by the least emotional breeze. What’s the point of owning such a fallible clock? … Maybe there’s another way to think about it, Droit-Volet suggests. It’s not that our clock doesn’t run well; on the contrary, it’s superb at adapting to the ever-changing social and emotional environment that we navigate every day. The time that I perceive in social settings isn’t solely mine, nor is there just one cast to it, which is part of what gives our social interactions their shading. “There is thus no unique, homogeneous time but instead multiple experiences of time,” Droit-Volet writes in one paper. “Our temporal distortions directly reflect the way our brain and body adapt to these multiple times.” She quotes the philosopher Henri Bergson: “On doit mettre de côte le temps unique, seuls comptent les temps multiples, ceux de l’expérience.” We must put aside the idea of a single time, all that counts are the multiple times that make up experience.

Our slightest social exchanges — our glances, our smiles and frowns — gain potency from our ability to synchronize them among ourselves, Droit-Volet notes. We bend time to make time with one another, and the many temporal distortions we experience are indicators of empathy; the better able I am to envisage myself in your body and your state of mind, and you in mine, the better we can each recognize a threat, an ally, a friend, or someone in need. But empathy is a fairly sophisticated trait, a mark of emotional adulthood; it takes learning and time. As children grow and develop empathy, they gain a better sense of how to navigate the social world. Put another way, it may be that a critical aspect of growing up is learning how to bend our time in step with others. We may be born alone, but childhood ends with a synchrony of clocks, as we lend ourselves fully to the contagion of time.

Perhaps Borges was right, after all, that time is the substance we are made of.

Complement the thoroughly fascinating Why Time Flies with James Gleick on how our time-travel fantasies illuminate consciousness, Patti Smith on time and transformation, T.S. Eliot’s timeless ode to time, and Hannah Arendt on time, space, and our thinking ego, then revisit the story of how Rilke and Rodin gave birth to the modern meaning of empathy.

BP

7 Favorite Science Books of 2017

From trees to consciousness to black holes, an immersion into the glory of the knowable and the splendor of the unknown.

7 Favorite Science Books of 2017

The great marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, who sparked the environmental movement with her 1962 book Silent Spring and who pioneered the cultural aesthetic of writing about science in poetic prose, believed that “there can be no separate literature of science,” for “the aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth,” which is also the aim of literature. I have written at length about what separates great science books from the merely good, but I keep coming back to the elegant criterion Carson both named and exemplified.

Since I find myself spending less and less time dwelling in the literatures of the present, and more and more in those of the past, I can’t speak to the “best” science books of the year in any ultimate and comprehensive sense. But I can and do have distinct favorites among those I did read — books which embody, in varying degrees, Carson’s example and which accomplish, in various ways, what all great science books accomplish, whether they do so from the perspective of microbiology or of astrophysics: They humble us into remembering that we are but a tiny part of a vast and complex universe operating on scales of space and time in which ours holds no special supremacy.

Here are seven such books.

THE RIVER OF CONSCIOUSNESS

In The River of Consciousness (public library) — a posthumous collection of essays, including many never before published — the warm genius of Oliver Sacks comes alive as he tackles everything from memory to Freud’s little-known contributions to neurology and Darwin’s love of flowers to the nature of creativity. In his signature Sacksian way, he explores the universal through the deeply personal — not only with case studies of his patients, as he has done so beautifully for nearly half a century across his classic books, but this time with the case study of his own self as his body and mind go through the process of aging and eventually dying. Sacks brings the friendly curiosity for which he is so beloved to this ultimate testing ground of character, emerging once more as the brilliant, lovable human he was.

Read more here.

THE SONGS OF TREES

“Trees speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons,” an English gardener wrote in the seventeenth century. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse rhapsodized two centuries later in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

For biologist David George Haskell, the notion of listening to trees is neither metaphysical abstraction nor mere metaphor. In The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (public library), Haskell visits a dozen of the world’s most beautiful trees to explore, in immensely lyrical prose and with an almost spiritual reverence, the masterful, magical way in which nature weaves the warp thread of individual organisms and the weft thread of relationships into the fabric of life.

Read more here.

CODE GIRLS

During WWII, when Richard Feynman was recruited as one of the country’s most promising physicists to work on the Manhattan Project in a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, his young wife Arline was writing him love letters in code from her deathbed. While Arline was merely having fun with the challenge of bypassing the censors at the laboratory’s Intelligence Office, all across the country thousands of women were working as cryptographers for the government — women who would come to constitute more than half of America’s codebreaking force during the war. While Alan Turing was decrypting Nazi communication across the Atlantic, some eleven thousand women were breaking enemy code in America.

Their story, as heroic as that of the women who dressed and fought as men in the Civil War, as fascinating and untold as those of the “Harvard Computers” who revolutionized astronomy in the nineteenth century and the black women mathematicians who powered space exploration in the twentieth, is what Liza Mundy tells in Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (public library) — a masterly portrait of the brilliant, unheralded women — women with names like Blanche and Edith and Dot — who were recruited into lives they never could have imagined, lives believed to have saved incalculable other lives by bringing the war to a sooner end through the intersection of language and mathematics.

Read more here.

WHY TIME FLIES

In Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (public library), New Yorker staff writer Alan Burdick presents a layered, rigorously researched, lyrically narrated inquiry into the most befuddling dimension of existence. From the temporal meditations of the ancient philosophers to the last hundred years of ingenious psychological experiments, he explores such aspects of his subject — a nearly infinite subject, to be sure, which makes his endeavor all the more impressive — as the temporal underpinnings of empathy, why time dilates and contracts depending on whether we are having fun or facing danger, how a mother’s hormones set a fetus’s circadian clock, and what we are actually measuring when we speak of keeping time.

Read more here.

THE GREAT UNKNOWN

In The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science (public library), English mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, who serves as chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, explores the puzzlement and promise of seven grand scientific questions that are as yet unanswered but are, in theory, answerable. He terms them “edges,” marking horizons of knowledge beyond which we can’t currently see — from consciousness to the complexities of chaos to the nature of dark matter to whether the universe is infinite or finite, or whether it is even a universe or a multiverse. In this age of aggressive certitudes, how refreshing and needed to be reminded of the beauty and value of the unknown as our foremost frontier of civilizational growth.

Read more here.

THE DIALOGUES

In his revolutionary treatise Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo employed the ancient rhetorical device of dialogue to reconfigure our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Four centuries later, English theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson turns to the same device in The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe (public library) — a most unusual and original graphic novel (or, rather, book-length comic of cosmic nonfiction) exploring some of the most fascinating facets of modern science. Strikingly, Johnson took a semester off from teaching to learn to draw and illustrated the book himself, then populated his panels with refreshingly diverse characters of varied races, genders, and nationalities. Interpolating between the roles of explainer and explainee without any dominant pattern of presumed authority, they venture into illuminating conversations about black holes, quantum electrodynamics, relativity, the multiverse theory, and other thrilling puzzlements of science.

Read more here.

BONUS: BLACK HOLE BLUES

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library) by astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin is one of those rare achievements where a science book enchants not only with the thrill of its subject, but with the splendor of its prose. Although it was originally published in the autumn of 2016, there are two reasons — quite apart from its being one of the finest books I’ve ever read — that merit its inclusion this year. The first is trivial: The paperback was released in 2017. The second is monumental: The book is the definitive chronicle of the discovery that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics — the landmark detection of gravitational waves, the pinnacle of the century-old quest to hear the sound of spacetime. One of the world’s preeminent astrophysicist, Levin is also a masterly novelist who brings her gift as a literary artist to the greatest astrophysical leap in our understanding of the universe since Galileo first pointed his crude brass telescope at the heavens.

Read more here.

* * *

I discussed some of these books during my annual visit to Science Friday:

And because great science books continue to illuminate and enchant long past their publication, do revisit the selections for 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.

BP

Living and Loving Through Loss: Beautiful Letters of Consolation from Great Artists, Writers, and Scientists

Words of comfort and compassion from Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Rachel Carson, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, Johannes Brahms, and Charles Dickens.

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote in her classic memoir of loss. But however uncertain its guise may be, its arrival is one of the central certainties of existence — no human life is unplundered by loss, in one form or another, at one time or another. And when grief does come, when its tidal force anneals us to the rawest axis of our being, it seems like nothing at all can unmoor us from its all-consuming gravity. Consolation of the bereaved is therefore an immensely difficult art and one of the most generous human gestures, perhaps even the most acutely life-saving.

Gathered here are several such masterworks of consolation, beautiful and heartbreaking and aglow with the resilience that is the hallmark of life, from some of humanity’s greatest minds and largest spirits.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

In addition to his groundbreaking discoveries in physics, which changed our understanding of time and fostered a common language of science, Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) was also a man of enormous wisdom, empathy, and emotional intelligence, which he channeled in his voluminous correspondence with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers — he wrote breathtaking love letters, counseled his young son on the secret to learning anything, assured a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared her gender would hold her back, shared the secret to his genius with an inquisitive colleague, and corresponded with Freud on violence, peace, and human nature.

But one of his most poignant and humane letters was addressed to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, with whom he had cultivated a warm friendship. After the sudden death of her husband, King Albert, followed closely by the death of her daughter-in-law, Einstein offered thoughtful and tender solace to his bereaved friend. Penned in 1934 and cited in Krista Tippett’s wonderful book Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library), the letter is at once a gift of warm consolation for the Queen’s grief and a timeless meditation on time, eternity, and the privilege of old age.

Albert Einstein by Yousuf Karsh

Shortly before his fifty-fifth birthday, Einstein writes:

Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you.

And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.

Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.

RACHEL CARSON

Undoubtedly the most unusual and the hardest kind of consolation is that whose subject is one’s own imminent death and whose object is a loved one about to be left bereaved, for it requires one to simultaneously face the anguish of one’s own looming nonexistence and to rise above it in order to soften the loved one’s impending loss. To grieve one’s own death while consoling from the grave-to-be is therefore a supreme act of generosity and self-transcendence.

That is precisely what trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) did as she lay dying from breast cancer shortly after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her courageous refusal to keep silent about the government’s assault on nature. Even as she faced her own death, Carson was most concerned about her best friend and beloved, Dorothy Freeman.

Rachel Carson

In September of 1963, several months before her death and shortly after her testimony before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee became instrumental in the first regulatory policies on pesticides, Carson sent Freeman a contemplation of her own mortality so profound, so poignant, so tenderhearted and transcendent that it could only be articulated to the person who knew her heart most intimately. She writes in a letter found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library):

Dear One,

This is a postscript to our morning at Newagen, something I think I can write better than say. For me it was one of the loveliest of the summer’s hours, and all the details will remain in my memory: that blue September sky, the sounds of the wind in the spruces and surf on the rocks, the gulls busy with their foraging, alighting with deliberate grace, the distant views of Griffiths Head and Todd Point, today so clearly etched, though once half seen in swirling fog. But most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.

But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.

For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.

That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you. Thank you for this morning.

Rachel

In her final letter, written as Freeman was en route to a deathbed visit but only delivered two weeks after Carson’s death, she writes:

My darling,

You are starting on your way to me in the morning, but I have such a strange feeling that I may not be here when you come — so this is just an extra little note of farewell, should that happen. There have been many pains (heart) in the past few days, and I’m weary in every bone. And tonight there is something strange about my vision, which may mean nothing. But of course I thought, what if I can’t write — can’t see to write — tomorrow? So, a word before I turn out the light.

[…]

Darling — if the heart does take me off suddenly, just know how much easier it would be for me that way. But I do grieve to leave my dear ones. As for me, however, it is quite all right. Not long ago I sat late in my study and played Beethoven, and achieved a feeling of real peace and even happiness.

Never forget, dear one, how deeply I have loved you all these years.

Rachel

ALAN TURING

In addition to pioneering modern computing, Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) remains the greatest code-breaker of all time. His decryption of Nazi communication code is estimated to have saved anywhere between 14 and 21 million lives in shortening WWII by two to four years. But despite his humanitarian heroism, Turing was driven to suicide after being chemically castrated by the U.K. government for being homosexual. More than half a century after his disquieting death, Queen Elizabeth II issued royal pardon — a formal posthumous apology that somehow only amplifies the tragedy of Turing’s life and death.

Tragedy had been with Turing from a young age. At fifteen, while attending the Sherborne School, he fell deeply in love with a classmate named Christopher Morcom. For the awkward and ostracized young Alan, who was bullied so severely that a group of boys once trapped him under the floorboards of a dorm dayroom and kept him there until he nearly suffocated, Christopher was everything he was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, and aglow with winsome charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics.

When Christopher died of bovine tuberculosis in 1930 — a disease he had contracted from infected milk, for which there was no common vaccine until after WWII — Alan fell to pieces. He was able to collect himself only through work, by burrowing so deep into the underbelly of mathematics that he emerged almost on the other side, where science and metaphysics meet. Sorrow had taken him on a crusade to make sense of reality, of this senseless ruin, and he spared no modality of thought. Most of all, he wanted to understand how he could remain so attached to someone who no longer existed materially but who felt so overwhelmingly alive in his spirit.

Young Alan Turing

All the while, young Turing remained in touch with Christopher’s mother, who had taken a sympathetic liking to her son’s awkward friend. After Christopher’s death, he visited the Morcoms at their country home, Clock House, and corresponded with Mrs. Morcom about the grief they shared, about the perplexity of how a nonentity — for Christopher had ceased to exist in physical terms — could color each of their worlds so completely. That sorrowful puzzlement is what Turing explored in a series of letters to Christopher’s mother, originally included in his first serious biography and brought to new life in astrophysicist Janna Levin’s exquisite novel A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library).

Turing writes to Christopher’s mother in a letter from April 20, 1933:

My dear Mrs. Morcom,

I was so pleased to be at the Clockhouse for Easter. I always like to think of it specially in connection with Chris. It reminds us that Chris is in some way alive now. One is perhaps too inclined to think only of him alive at some future time when we shall meet him again; but it is really so much more helpful to think of him as just separated from us for the present.

Turing visited Clock House again in July, for what would have been Christopher’s twenty-second birthday. Seeking to reconcile the irrepressible spiritual aliveness felt in grief with the undeniable definitiveness of physical death, as much for himself as for Christopher’s mother, he wrote in another letter to her under the heading “Nature of Spirit”:

It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. This idea was really due to the great success of astronomical prediction. More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves. The conception then of being able to know the exact state of the universe then really must break down on the small scale. This means then that the theory which held that as eclipses etc. are pre-destined so were all our actions breaks down too. We have a will which is able to determine the action of the atoms probably in a small portion of the brain, or possibly all over it.

[…]

Then as regards the actual connection between spirit and body I consider that the body by reason of being a living body can “attract” and hold on to a “spirit” whilst the body is alive and awake and the two are firmly connected. When the body is asleep I cannot guess what happens but when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body, holding the spirit, is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later perhaps immediately.

As regards the question of why we have bodies at all; why we do not or cannot live free as spirits and communicate as such, we probably could do so but there would be nothing whatever to do. The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

One of the noblest leaders in Western civilization, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) led a difficult life punctuated by tragedy — his mother’s death when he was only nine, the death of two sons in his lifetime, and his own assassination at the dawn of his second term as president, slain by a Confederate fundamentalist shortly after a speech announcing Lincoln’s intention to advance African Americans’ right to vote.

In February of 1862, just as Lincoln was making major progress on the abolition of slavery, his beloved eleven-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever — a plague-like bacterial infection the vaccine for which was still decades away. Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave then employed as chief designer for Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe and close to the family, would later recall watching the president stand “in silent, awe-stricken wonder” at the foot of the enormous rosewood bed where the boy lay lifeless, Lincoln’s “genius and greatness weeping over love’s idol lost.”

That December, just after the Emancipation Proclamation for which Lincoln had fought so hard was finally issued, loss struck again when one of his dearest friends, William McCullough, was killed during a night charge in Mississippi. A vital characteristic of a great spiritual, civic, or political leader is the ability — or is it the unrelenting willingness? — to rise from the depths of his or her personal pain in the service of another’s welfare. That’s precisely what Lincoln did for his country, and what he did in his magnificent letter of consolation to Fanny McCullough, William’s daughter, later included in the altogether indispensable Library of America anthology Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (public library).

abrahamlincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Drawing on his own lifelong dance with love and loss, 53-year-old Lincoln writes to the bereaved young woman on December 23, 1862:

Dear Fanny

It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend
A. Lincoln

CHARLES DICKENS

Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) was a man of multitudes, brilliant and flawed, but among the strongest and most unambivalent animating forces of his life was the love he had for his younger sister, Letitia.

In 1862, Letitia lost her husband of twenty-five years, the architect and artist Henry Austin. In a letter from early October of that year, found in The Letters of Charles Dickens (public library | free ebook), Dickens envelops his sister in equal parts compassionate consolation and a call to psychoemotional arms.

Charles Dickens

Dickens writes:

I do not preach consolation because I am unwilling to preach at any time, and know my own weakness too well. But in this world there is no stay but the hope of a better, and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through those two harbours of a shipwrecked heart, I fully believe that you will, in time, find a peaceful resting-place even on this careworn earth. Heaven speed the time, and do you try hard to help it on! It is impossible to say but that our prolonged grief for the beloved dead may grieve them in their unknown abiding-place, and give them trouble. The one influencing consideration in all you do as to your disposition of yourself (coupled, of course, with a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit) is, that you think and feel you can do… I rather hope it is likely that through such restlessness you will come to a far quieter frame of mind. The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.

But nothing is to be attained without striving. In a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.

JOHANNES BRAHMS

The beautiful and unclassifiable relationship between the virtuosic pianist Clara Schumann (September 13, 1819–May 20, 1896) and the composer Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833–April 3, 1897) blessed both with a lifetime of love, but it began with the heartache of death. When the composer Robert Schumann — Clara’s beloved husband and Johannes’s revered mentor — succumbed to mental illness and died in the asylum where he was committed, Clara was left to raise their three sons and four daughters as a single mother and a working artist who provided for them through her musical talent, performing and touring tirelessly to put them through school. Johannes, fourteen years her junior, became her closest confidante, her most steadfast source of affection, and her sturdiest pillar of support through the grief.

In a letter from the autumn of 1857, Brahms sets out to remind her of the wider, longer view of life, which grief so swiftly narrows and blunts. While such perspective may not be the most helpful in the immediate aftermath of loss, and may in fact compound the pain of the bereaved by making him or her feel rushed through the process of grief, here Brahms is offering it after more than a year of bereavement, as a gentle and loving invitation to reawaken to life’s fullness against the backdrop of somnolent hollowness that grief casts.

Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, 1853

He writes:

My dear Clara, you really must try hard to keep your melancholy within bounds and see that it does not last too long. Life is precious and such moods as the one you are in consume us body and soul. Do not imagine that life has little more in store for you. It is not true… The more you endeavor to go through times of sorrow calmly and accustom yourself to do so, the more you will enjoy the happier times that are sure to follow. Why do you suppose that man was given the divine gift of hope? And you do not even need to be anxious in your hope, for you know perfectly well that pleasant months will follow your present unpleasant ones, just as they do every period of unhappiness.

CHARLES DARWIN

After he weighed the pros and cons of marriage, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) decided in favor of matrimony and was wedded to his beloved, Emma Wedgwood. They went on to have a long and loving marriage, made all the stronger by their devotion to the ten children they had together. Darwin’s letters reveal that while he loved all of his children intensely, he especially cherished his eldest daughter, Annie — a sensitive and unselfconsciously awkward girl, kindhearted and voraciously curious about the world, in whom he saw much of himself.

In 1850, Annie fell ill with what was most likely a type of tuberculosis. Despite the Darwins’ frantic efforts in every direction of a cure, she died on April 23, 1851, at the Malvern spa where she’d been taken for treatment. She was ten. Her father was at her dying bedside and her mother home at Down House, caring for the other nine children.

Charles Darwin

Although the loss plunged Darwin into a depth of misery from which he never fully surfaced, his first priority was to console his bereaved beloved. In a letter included in Adam Gopnik’s magnificent Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (public library), Darwin writes to Emma the day of Annie’s death:

My dear dearest Emma

I pray God Fanny’s note may have prepared you. She went to her final sleep most tranquilly, most sweetly at 12 oclock today. Our poor dear dear child has had a very short life but I trust happy, & God only knows what miseries might have been in store for her. She expired without a sigh. How desolate it makes one to think of her frank cordial manners. I am so thankful for the daguerreotype. I cannot remember ever seeing the dear child naughty. God bless her. We must be more & more to each other my dear wife — Do what you can to bear up & think how invariably kind & tender you have been to her… My own poor dear dear wife.

C. Darwin

Daguerrotype of Annie Darwin, 1849

Complement with Meghan O’Rourke on learning to live with loss, a great Zen teacher’s advice on navigating grief, and these uncommon children’s books that guide kids through the messiness of mourning.

BP

To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: Pioneering Psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the Loneliness of Mental Illness, and the Healing Power of Believing in a Person’s Inextinguishable Inner Light

How a visionary woman persisted in leading a quiet revolution in mental health.

To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: Pioneering Psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the Loneliness of Mental Illness, and the Healing Power of Believing in a Person’s Inextinguishable Inner Light

“All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life,” Anne Lamott wrote in her beautiful meditation on the life-giving power of great teachers. Those whom teachers — nor parents, nor friends, nor spouses, nor lovers — cannot reach, those whose inner turbulence has metastasized into acute mental illness and shipwrecked them on the remotest edges of the mind, are left to psychotherapists. But the most effective therapists are animated by the same unflinching conviction that within each patient lives an almost sacred person, and that no person, no matter how damaged and disturbed, is irredeemable or incapable of having a full life.

This was the animating ethos of pioneering psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (October 23, 1889–April 28, 1957), who had narrowly escaped from Nazi Germany, lived in exile in France and Palestine, and ended up in America to begin nothing short of a revolution in mental health care. (Adding another layer of rebellious complexity to her life was her decision to marry, while still in Germany, the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm — her colleague and onetime patient, ten years her junior.) In many ways, she was the Oliver Sacks of mental health, not merely applying her robust professional expertise to the healing of her patients but bathing them in largehearted perseverance of faith in the inextinguishable light of their humanity.

Fromm-Reichmann was introduced into the popular imagination by the improbable 1964 hit novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden — the faintly fictionalized autobiographical account of Joanne Greenberg, one of her patients, who had made a seemingly miraculous recovery from what is considered the most hopeless of mental illnesses: schizophrenia. Greenberg had entered Fromm-Reichmann’s care as teenager so afflicted as to be gashing her arms with jagged tin can tops and putting out cigarettes into the wounds. She exited four years later as a fully functioning college student who went on to have a family and become a successful writer.

Although Greenberg wrote the novel under the pseudonym Hannah Green and christened Fromm-Freichmann “Dr. Fried,” details about the institution and their respective lives soon revealed their real identities. Against the odds of what seemed like an unusual and ill-advised premise for a popular novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden became a sensation, amassing a cult following through the six million copies sold in decades since. But its most enduring feat was to make its millions of readers fall in love with Frieda Fromm-Reichmann and her maverick insistence that even the most tortured minds have a shot at serenity given enough attentive patience and persistence on behalf of those qualified to help them.

Art by Bobby Baker from Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me

It was the novel that first introduced fifteen-year-old Gail Hornstein to Fromm-Reichmann’s work and planted the long-germinated seed of what would become, thirty-four years later, To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: A Life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (public library) — a spectacular biography ten years in the making, which Hornstein, by then a psychologist herself, hadn’t set out to write but found herself unable not to.

Hornstein considers the seedbed of Fromm-Reichmann’s unusually tenacious and patient faith in the potential for healing:

Frieda’s capacity to wait had been honed as a child, when she trained herself to expand to infinity the time she gave her parents to tire of misunderstanding. Medical school in Königsberg was one long act of patience, designed to prove that she and the handful of other women deserved to be there. Later, working at a Prussian army hospital during World War I, she learned from brain-injured soldiers what it was like to have a shell explode in your face and still be alive. Their muteness became her measure. When she took up treating schizophrenics in the 1920s, they seemed so intact by comparison that she found the work a pleasure. Most psychiatrists, accustomed to treating the “worried well,” find the unbearably slow pace of therapy with psychotics intolerable. But Frieda could wait cheerfully through years of infinitesimal gain; the knowledge that recovery was anatomically possible was enough to keep her going. She could tolerate any behavior, no matter how disgusting or bizarre, so long as it seemed necessary to protect a vulnerable person. It was only when symptoms became ruses or habits that she started badgering patients to give them up and get better.

Fromm-Reichmann held nothing back in helping her patients — nothing of herself, and nothing of the often arbitrary rules by which her profession operated. Hornstein writes:

She was willing to try practically anything that might help them, which was a great deal more than most other psychiatrists were willing to do. She saw one patient at ten o’clock at night because that’s when he was most likely to talk. She took others on walks around hospital grounds, or to symphony concerts, or to country inns for lunch. Those too distraught to leave at the end of an hour were permitted to stay for two. If a patient was violent and couldn’t be let off the ward, she went to his room or saw him in restraints, if necessary. “She would have swung from the chandelier like Tarzan if she thought it would help,” Joanne Greenberg later observed. A colleague remarked, not admiringly, that Frieda’s patients got better because she simply gave them no other choice.

Illustration by Marissa Betley from Project 1 in 4, exploring the realities of mental illness

“Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away,” Rebecca Solnit exhorted the common reader in her abiding manifesto for tenacious hope in the face of the seemingly impossible, and it was precisely this refusal to squander hope that Fromm-Reichmann embodied in her specialized field. Hornstein captures its essence:

For Frieda, treatment of mental illness was like physical therapy after stroke: a painstaking exercise in hope. Improvement was unpredictable, and was often followed by relapse or deterioration. Recovery, to the extent it was present, proceeded at an agonizingly slow pace. It was natural for the doctor to have periods of discouragement, even real despair, but he couldn’t afford to give up, no matter how many setbacks there were. A patient had to have at least one person who could imagine the possibility of his getting well.

But this was, and to some extent still is, a radical attitude in Fromm-Reichmann’s day, especially when it came to the patients too underprivileged to afford private psychotherapy or simply too ill to be helped by it, those who ended up in mental institutions — institutions that only a few decades before Fromm-Reichmann’s arrival in America perpetrated infernal abuse of the mentally ill. What enabled her to hold this view so ardently was the conviction, furnished by her intensive work with patients, that sanity and insanity aren’t binary categories between which one flips a switch but a spectrum along which one slides according to an as-yet enigmatic combination of genetics and environmental triggers. Alongside it — and this was another of Fromm-Reichmann’s pioneering insights — was a parallel slide into loneliness, perhaps the crowning anguish of mental illness. Hornstein writes:

The loneliness of mental illness, Frieda emphasized, is nothing like the solitude people seek at the ocean or to do creative work. It is a state of extraordinary anguish in which a person ceases to be able to imagine, much less experience, anyone else being able to enter his experience. Understanding this profound kind of loneliness was Frieda’s life goal. Rarely speaking directly about politics or history, analyzing loneliness was her way of coming to grips with the horrors she had witnessed: the men gassed in trenches who screamed in their sleep, the schizophrenics who set fire to their bodies, the refugees who stumbled across a ruined Europe, terror in their eyes.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

Loneliness, in fact, was Fromm-Reichmann’s most acute point of compassion and curiosity. She spent many years writing and rewriting a trailblazing paper on loneliness that went on to shape the study of this commonest malady of spirit for decades to come. In The Lonely City, one of the finest books of 2016, Olivia Laing extols it as “one of the first attempts by a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst to approach loneliness as an experience in its own right, distinct from and perhaps fundamentally more damaging than depression, anxiety or loss.” She cites Fromm-Friedmann’s own writings:

People who are in the grip of severe degrees of loneliness cannot talk about it; and people who have at some time in the past had such an experience can seldom do so either, for it is so frightening and uncanny in character that they try to dissociate the memory of what it was like, and even the fear of it.

[…]

Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it. Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.

Fromm-Reichmann knew that loneliness was neither symptom nor cause, not exactly, but more of a serpent with its tail in its mouth — the inescapable attendant malady of those suffering from mental illness, compounding their suffering often past the threshold of the bearable. Hornstein writes:

Frieda urged psychiatrists to talk openly of their patients’ loneliness and to create a space where both of them could explore such feelings. For patients too withdrawn to speak, “the doctor’s mere presence” or statements like “I know” and “I am here” might begin to ease the isolation. The main obstacle to “therapy with the lonely,” she argued, was the psychiatrist’s inability to confront this terror in his own life. As a reviewer of her paper noted, “The fear of loneliness, the fear of being enveloped by that nameless state, may be what really makes people afraid of schizophrenic patients, makes them think of these patients as ‘out of this world’ or as a different species than the rest of us.”

Hornstein quotes Fromm-Reichmann herself:

Not being able to understand somebody communicating with us connotes loneliness. If we don’t understand, that touches our own possibilities of loneliness, and rather than accepting [that] there is this barrier of loneliness between the psychotic and us, we evade it and feel guilty. I think that the guilt feeling is an evasion of accepting the tragic facts of human loneliness.

How Fromm-Reichmann devoted her life to alleviating that tragedy by tearing down the barrier of loneliness is what Hornstein goes on to explore in the revelatory and emboldening To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World. Complement it with Walt Whitman on healthcare and the human spirit and the story of how trailblazing Victorian journalist Nellie Bly risked her life for an 1887 exposé that ended asylum abuse, then revisit the fascinating science of how the microbiome might impact mental illness and Virginia Woolf, who spent her whole life combatting mental illness, on the relationship between loneliness and creativity.

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