Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “giving and receiving”

Amanda Palmer on the Art of Asking and the Shared Dignity of Giving and Receiving

“When we really see each other, we want to help each other.”

“It would be a terrible calamity,” Henry Miller wrote in his meditation on the beautiful osmosis between giving and receiving, “for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being, to make him give of his riches.” And yet, we live in a culture that perpetuates the false perception of a certain power dynamic between giver and receiver, and — worse yet — stigmatizes the very act of asking as undignified.

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time with the wonderful Amanda Palmer who, besides being an extraordinarily talented musician, is also a fellow champion of open culture and believer in making good work freely available, trusting that those who find value in it will support it accordingly. Disillusioned with the questionable success standards of the music industry, she recently left her record label and set out to self-release her next album in what became the most heartily funded music project in the history of Kickstarter — but not without some harsh criticism by those too attached to the crumbling comforts of the Olden Ways. In this brave talk, easily my favorite TED talk of all time, Amanda invites us to reclaim the art of asking from the insecure grip of shame and celebrate it instead as the sublime surge of mutuality that it is:

Through the very act of asking people, I connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you. It’s kind of counterintuitive for a lot of artists — they don’t want to ask for things. It’s not easy to ask. … Asking makes you vulnerable.

[…]

I don’t see these things as risks — I see them as trust. … But the perfect tools can’t help us if we can’t face each other, and give and receive fearlessly — but, more importantly, to ask without shame. … When we really see each other, we want to help each other. I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we let people pay for music?’

Given how close to home Amanda’s eloquent words strike, I chatted with her about what seems to be the greatest challenge to this cultural shift toward destigmatizing asking:

MP: As someone who’s been called an “internet pan-handler” for asking my community for support, I’m astounded by some people’s cynicism in failing to see the dignified mutuality in these exchanges. What can we do to shift the culture around them from pan-handling to daisy-handing?

AP: Well…this is the problem with doing a 12-minute TED talk instead of writing a 220-page book. There’s a lot of simplification involved. The concept is more or less that when you trust people to help you, they often do, and artists have done this from the dawn of time. I’m sure the early-days minstrels were epically talented couchsurfers. Maybe there were cave-surfers way back in the day, who knows.

I saw a comment on the TED website that basically said, “this model is bullshit… would you feel OK if Justin Bieber decided to crowdsource teenage girls to be his maids and clean his room, etc.,” and that got me thinking. First of all, it isn’t about the theoretical, it’s about what artists/people actually do. I doubt Justin Bieber would think it was a wise idea to let a giddy little fan into his pad and clean up his stuff, it’d be a huge pain in this ass for him and his privacy, etc., since he’s a celebrity and all he’d need is that one fan tweeting a picture of the joint and used condom by his bedside and he’d have a PR nightmare on his hands.

And the Bieber example is odd, because it involves children, but let’s say the example was, I don’t know, Ozzy Osbourne. Let’s say Ozzy puts out a call for crowdsourced maids. If an adult raises his or her hand and says, “Hell yes!!! I’m happy to spend X time being Ozzy’s maid, this’ll be interesting,” isn’t that a fair exchange between two consenting adults? Don’t people do weird shit all the time for each other, for free, just for the experience? The story? The feeling?

What if we replaced Ozzy with … I don’t know … the Dalai Llama? Would we judge it differently? A lot of young monks give up their possessions, go study with a master, and do their master’s dishes … and we think of this in a kind of gentle-hearted karate-kid sort of romanticism. …

The idea is to let adults make their own rules, their own exchanges, their own decisions. We all value different things and experiences in different ways — and we can get very creative about it, and about the ways we help each other.

To partake in the architecture of this new paradigm and revel in the two-way street of this glorious mutuality, support Amanda’s music and ethos on her site, where you can download her fantastic new album — for free or for however much you’d like — and go see one of her shows if you get a chance. For more of her spirit of fierce openness, follow her Twitter.

Photograph: James Duncan Davidson for TED

BP

Henry Miller on the Beautiful Balance of Giving and Receiving

“It’s only when we demand that we are hurt.”

In The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) — which gave us her timeless and ever-timely meditations on self-publishing, what maturity really means, the difference between Paris and New York came — Nin shares a letter she received in the summer of 1942 from Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980), with whom she’d been closely involved creatively, intellectually and, for a long time, romantically.

Miller, passionately articulate as ever, gets to the heart of the paradox of altruism and the beautiful osmosis of giving and receiving.

He writes:

By choosing to live above the ordinary level we create extraordinary problems for ourselves. The ultimate goal is to make this earth a paradise.

[…]

For me it is no problem to depend on others. I am always curious to see how far people will go, how big a test one can put them to.

Certainly there are humiliations involved, but aren’t these humiliations due rather to our limitations? Isn’t it merely our pride which suffers? It’s only when we demand that we are hurt. I, who have been helped so much by others, I ought to know something of the duties of the receiver. It’s so much easier to be on the giving side. To receive is much harder — one actually has to be more delicate, if I may say so. One has to help people to be more generous. By receiving from others, by letting them help you, you really aid them to become bigger, more generous, more magnanimous. You do them a service.

And then finally, no one likes to do either one or the other alone. We all try to give and take, to the best of our powers. It’s only because giving is so much associated with material things that receiving looks bad. It would be a terrible calamity for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being, to make him give of his riches. Of what good abundance then? Must we not become strong in order to help, rich in order to give and so on? How will these fundamental aspects of life ever change?

Complement with Amanda Palmer, many decades later, on the art of asking. More of Nin and Miller’s correspondence can be found in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller.

BP

Seneca on Gratitude and What It Means to Be a Generous Human Being

“I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act.”

Seneca on Gratitude and What It Means to Be a Generous Human Being

“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes,” Annie Dillard wrote in her beautiful case for why a generosity of spirit is the greatest animating force of creativity.

Two millennia earlier, great Roman philosopher Seneca examined this notion and its broader implications for human life in his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later published as Letters from a Stoic (public library) — the timeless trove of wisdom that gave us Seneca on true and false friendship, overcoming fear, and the antidote to anxiety.

seneca
Seneca

In his eighty-first letter to Lucilius, Seneca writes under the heading “On Benefits”:

You complain that you have met with an ungrateful person. If this is your first experience of that sort, you should offer thanks either to your good luck or to your caution. In this case, however, caution can effect nothing but to make you ungenerous. For if you wish to avoid such a danger, you will not confer benefits; and so, that benefits may not be lost with another man, they will be lost to yourself.

It is better, however, to get no return than to confer no benefits. Even after a poor crop one should sow again; for often losses due to continued barrenness of an unproductive soil have been made good by one year’s fertility. In order to discover one grateful person, it is worth while to make trial of many ungrateful ones.

True generosity, Seneca argues, is measured not by the ends of the act but by the spirit from which it springs. He writes:

Benefits, as well as injuries, depend on the spirit… Our feeling about every obligation depends in each case upon the spirit in which the benefit is conferred; we weigh not the bulk of the gift, but the quality of the good-will which prompted it. So now let us do away with guess-work; the former deed was a benefit, and the latter, which transcended the earlier benefit, is an injury. The good man so arranges the two sides of his ledger that he voluntarily cheats himself by adding to the benefit and subtracting from the injury.

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

In a delightful reminder that even the most serious of thinkers can regard themselves with a sense of humor, Seneca adds a remark he cheekily qualifies as “one of the generally surprising statements such as we Stoics are wont to make and such as the Greeks call ‘paradoxes'”:

The wise man… enjoys the giving more than the recipient enjoys the receiving… None but the wise man knows how to return a favour. Even a fool can return it in proportion to his knowledge and his power; his fault would be a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of will or desire.

In a sentiment which Henry Miller would come to echo two thousand years later in his reflection on the intricate balance of giving and receiving, Seneca considers the meaning of generosity and the proper object of gratitude:

Anyone who receives a benefit more gladly than he repays it is mistaken. By as much as he who pays is more light-hearted than he who borrows, by so much ought he to be more joyful who unburdens himself of the greatest debt — a benefit received — than he who incurs the greatest obligations. For ungrateful men make mistakes in this respect also: they have to pay their creditors both capital and interest, but they think that benefits are currency which they can use without interest. So the debts grow through postponement, and the later the action is postponed the more remains to be paid. A man is an ingrate if he repays a favour without interest.

At the heart of his message is the insistence that true generosity is not transactional and that gratitude, in turn, ought to be calibrated to the intrinsic rewards of the generous act rather than to the veneer of a transactional favor:

We should try by all means to be as grateful as possible. For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a sense in which justice, that is commonly supposed to concern other persons, is not; gratitude returns in large measure unto itself. There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbour, has not benefited himself, — I do not mean for the reason that he whom you have aided will desire to aid you, or that he whom you have defended will desire to protect you, or that an example of good conduct returns in a circle to benefit the doer, just as examples of bad conduct recoil upon their authors, and as men find no pity if they suffer wrongs which they themselves have demonstrated the possibility of committing; but that the reward for all the virtues lies in the virtues themselves. For they are not practised with a view to recompense; the wages of a good deed is to have done it. I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me.

Letters from a Stoic remains one of the most potent and enduring capsules of wisdom our species has produced. Complement it with Susan Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being, Rebecca Solnit on generosity of spirit in difficult times, and Simone Weil — one of our civilization’s most underappreciated sages — on attention as the highest form of generosity, then revisit Seneca on the key to tranquility of mind and how to fill the shortness of life with wide living.

BP

How the French Mathematician Sophie Germain Paved the Way for Women in Science and Endeavored to Save Gauss’s Life

“The taste for the abstract sciences in general and, above all, for the mysteries of numbers, is very rare… since the charms of this sublime science in all their beauty reveal themselves only to those who have the courage to fathom them.”

How the French Mathematician Sophie Germain Paved the Way for Women in Science and Endeavored to Save Gauss’s Life

A century after the trailblazing French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet popularized Newton and paved the path for women in science, and a few decades before the word “scientist” was coined for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville, Sophie Germain (April 1, 1776–June 27, 1831) gave herself an education using her father’s books and became a brilliant mathematician, physicist, and astronomer, who pioneered elasticity theory and made significant contributions to number theory.

In lieu of a formal education, unavailable to women until more than a century later, Germain supplemented her reading and her natural gift for science by exchanging letters with some of the era’s most prominent mathematicians. Among her famous correspondents was Carl Friedrich Gauss, considered by many scholars the greatest mathematician who ever lived. Writing under the male pseudonym M. LeBlanc — “fearing the ridicule attached to a female scientist,” as she herself later explained — Germain began sharing with Gauss some of her theorem proofs in response to his magnum opus Disquisitiones Arithmeticae.

Sophie Germain

Their correspondence began in 1804, at the peak of the French occupation of Prussia. In 1806, Germain received news that Napoleon’s troops were about to enter Gauss’s Prussian hometown of Brunswick. Terrified that her faraway mentor might suffer the fate of Archimedes, who was killed when Roman forces conquered Syracuse after a two-year siege, she called on a family friend — the French military chief M. Pernety — to find Gauss in Brunswick and ensure his safety. Pernety tasked one of his battalion commanders with traveling two hundred miles to the occupied Brunswick in order to carry out the rescue mission.

But Gauss, it turned out, was unscathed by the war. In a letter from November 27 of 1806, included in the altogether fascinating Sophie Germain: An Essay in the History of the Theory of Elasticity (public library), the somewhat irate battalion commander reports to his chief:

Just arrived in this town and have bruised myself with your errand. I have asked several persons for the address of Gauss, at whose residence I was to gather some news on your and Sophie Germain’s behalf. M. Gauss replied that he did not have the honor of knowing you or Mlle. Germain… After I had spoken of the different points contained in your order, he seemed a little confused and asked me to convey his thanks for your consideration on his behalf.

Carl Friedrich Gauss (Portrait by Jensen)

Upon receiving the comforting if somewhat comical news, Germain felt obliged to write to Gauss and clear his confusion about his would-be savior’s identity. After coming out as the woman behind the M. LeBlanc persona in a letter from February 20 of 1807, she tells Gauss:

The appreciation I owe you for the encouragement you have given me, in showing me that you count me among the lovers of sublime arithmetic whose mysteries you have developed, was my particular motivation for finding out news of you at a time when the troubles of the war caused me to fear for your safety; and I have learned with complete satisfaction that you have remained in your house as undisturbed as circumstances would permit. I hope, however, that these events will not keep you too long from your astronomical and especially your arithmetical researches, because this part of science has a particular attraction for me, and I always admire with new pleasure the linkages between truths exposed in your book.

Gauss responds a few weeks later:

Mademoiselle,

Your letter … was for me the source of as much pleasure as surprise. How pleasant and heartwarming to acquire a friend so flattering and precious. The lively interest that you have taken in me during this war deserves the most sincere appreciation. Your letter to General Pernety would have been most useful to me, if I had needed special protection on the part of the French government.

Happily, the events and consequences of war have not affected me so much up until now, although I am convinced that they will have a large influence on the future course of my life. But how I can describe my astonishment and admiration on seeing my esteemed correspondent M. LeBlanc metamorphosed into this celebrated person, yielding a copy so brilliant it is hard to believe? The taste for the abstract sciences in general and, above all, for the mysteries of numbers, is very rare: this is not surprising, since the charms of this sublime science in all their beauty reveal themselves only to those who have the courage to fathom them. But when a woman, because of her sex, our customs and prejudices, encounters infinitely more obstacles than men in familiarizing herself with their knotty problems, yet overcomes these fetters and penetrates that which is most hidden, she doubtless has the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius. Nothing could prove me in a more flattering and less equivocal way that the attractions of that science, which have added so much joy to my life, are not chimerical, than the favor with which you have honored it.

The scientific notes which your letters are so richly filled have given me a thousand pleasures. I have studied them with attention, and I admire the ease with which you penetrate all branches of arithmetic, and the wisdom with which you generalize and perfect. I ask you to take it as proof of my attention if I dare to add a remark to your last letter.

With this, Gauss extends the gift of constructive criticism on some mathematical solutions Germain had shared with him — the same gift which trailblazing feminist Margaret Fuller bestowed upon Thoreau, which shaped his career. Although Gauss eventually disengaged from the exchange, choosing to focus on his scientific work rather than on correspondence, he remained an admirer of Germain’s genius. He advocated for the University of Gottingen to award her a posthumous honorary degree, for she had accomplished, despite being a woman and therefore ineligible for actually attending the University, “something worthwhile in the most rigorous and abstract of sciences.”

She was never awarded the degree.

Red fish pond in front of the girls’ school named after Germain

After the end of their correspondence, Germain heard that the Paris Academy of Sciences had announced a prix extraordinaire — a gold medal valued at 3,000 francs, roughly $600 then or about $11,000 now — awarded to whoever could explain an exciting new physical phenomenon scientists had found in the vibration of thin elastic surfaces. The winning contestant would have to “give the mathematical theory of the vibration of an elastic surface and to compare the theory to experimental evidence.”

The problem appeared so difficult that it discouraged all other mathematicians except Germain and the esteemed Denis Poisson from tackling it. But Poisson was elected to the Academy shortly after the award was announced and therefore had to withdraw from competing. Only Germain remained willing to brave the problem. She began work on it in 1809 and submitted her paper in the autumn of 1811. Despite being the only entrant, she lost — the jurors ruled that her proofs were unconvincing.

Germain persisted — because no solution had been accepted, the Academy extended the competition by two years, and she submitted a new paper, anonymously, in 1813. It was again rejected. She decided to try a third time and shared her thinking with Poisson, hoping he would contribute some useful insight. Instead, he borrowed heavily from her ideas and published his own work on elasticity, giving Germain no credit. Since he was the editor of the Academy’s journal, his paper was accepted and printed in 1814.

Still, Germain persisted. On January 8, 1816, she submitted a third paper under her own name. Her solution was still imperfect, but the jurors decided that it was as good as it gets given the complexity of the problem and awarded her the prize, which made her the first woman to win an accolade from the Paris Academy of Sciences.

But even with the prize in tow, Germain was not allowed to attend lectures at the Academy — the only women permitted to audit were the wives of members. She decided to self-publish her winning essay, in large part in order to expose Poisson’s theft and point out errors in his proof. She went on to do foundational mathematical work on elasticity, as well as work in philosophy and psychology a century before the latter was a formal discipline. Like Rachel Carson, Germain continued to work as she was dying of breast cancer. A paper she published shortly before her terminal diagnosis precipitated the discovery the laws of movement and equilibrium of elastic solids.

Her unusual life and enduring scientific legacy are discussed in great detail in the biography Sophie Germain. Complement it with the stories of how Ada Lovelace became the world’s first computer programmer, how physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission, was denied the Nobel Prize, but led the way for women in science anyway, and how Harvard’s unsung 19th-century female astronomers revolutionized our understanding of the universe decades before women could vote.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.