“The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us,” Mary Oliver wrote in contemplating how habit gives shape to our inner lives. “Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar,” William James asserted a century earlier in his foundational treatise on the psychology of habit. “Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason,” the pioneering political philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft insisted yet another century earlier in her Blake-illustrated children’s book of moral education. But if our imperceptibly fixed habits incline more toward vice more toward virtue, what does it take to reconfigure these scarred and scarring patterns?
That is what William Shakespeare — another seer of elemental truth and keen observer of human psychology — examined long before Oliver, James, and Wollstonecraft, in Hamlet. In eleven exquisitely insightful lines of blank verse, he frames the central premise of what would come to be known, a dozen generations later, as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, Custom, who all sense doth eat
Of habits evil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; the next more easy:
For use can almost change the stamp of nature,
And master even the devil, or throw him out,
With wondrous potency.
This awareness, so unnerving against the backdrop of our irrepressible yearning for constancy and permanence, was first unlatched when the ancients began suspecting that the Earth, rather than being the static center of the heavens it was long thought to be, is in motion, right beneath our feet. But it took millennia for the most disorienting evidence of inconstancy to dawn — the discovery that the universe itself is in flux, constantly expanding, growing thinner and thinner as stars grow farther and farther apart. In 1929, the astronomer Edwin Hubble built on the work of other scientists and formalized this in what is now known as Hubble’s Law — the first observational evidence for the ongoing expansion of the universe, which in turn furnished foundational evidence for the Big Bang model: If the universe is constantly expanding, to trace it backward along the arrow of time is to imagine it smaller and smaller, all the way down to the seeming nothingness that banged into the somethingness within which everything exists.
At the mathematical center of Hubble’s Law were the calculations of Henrietta Swan Leavitt (July 4, 1868–December 12, 1921) — one of the unheralded women astronomers, known as “the Harvard Computers,” who shaped our understanding of the universe long before they could vote. Leavitt’s particular work at the Harvard College Observatory was deemed so valuable that she was paid 20% more than the standard salary of the other computers: 25 cents per hour.
At the inaugural edition of The Universe in Verse, artist Ann Hamilton brought Leavitt’s legacy to life in her lovely reading of the “The Habits of Light” from Aperture (public library) — a collection of poems by Anna Leahy, celebrating science and many of its unsung heroines. In her wonderful prefatory meditation, Hamilton builds on her animating ethos of not-knowing as a creative act to consider the common impulse driving poetry and science, and the vital role of embracing the unknown as we regard the universe within and without — please enjoy:
THE HABITS OF LIGHT by Anna Leahy
After Henrietta Leavitt, astronomer
The difference between luminosity and brightness
is the difference between being
and being perceived, between the energy emitted
and the apparent magnitude. O, to be
significant! To have some scope and scale!
Size and heat. Why not make that obvious,
ostensible, stretch it out for all the world to see?
Distance makes a world of difference.
The universe is made of distance and of dust.
More dust than star out there,
more crimson than cobalt from here, looking,
our eyes telling the truth slant
through the almost-nothing
of the universe’s finely grained mattering.
“The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country.”
By Maria Popova
“We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” We do language not merely with our words — which are themselves events — but with the lived and living presence behind them. “Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality,” Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the conscience of words. If words are the arrow, we ourselves — our interior landscapes, our outward actions, the authenticity of our lives — are the bow.
The elusive, essential art of not mistaking one for the other is what Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934–November 7, 2016) explores in a prose poem from his out-of-print 1978 book of poetry, Death of a Lady’s Man (public library).
Take the word butterfly. To use this word it is not necessary to make the voice weigh less than an ounce or equip it with small dusty wings. It is not necessary to invent a sunny day or a field of daffodils. It is not necessary to be in love, or to be in love with butterflies. The word butterfly is not a real butterfly. There is the word and there is the butterfly. If you confuse these two items people have the right to laugh at you. Do not make so much of the word. Are you trying to suggest that you love butterflies more perfectly than anyone else, or really understand their nature? The word butterfly is merely data. It is not an opportunity for you to hover, soar, befriend flowers, symbolize beauty and frailty, or in any way impersonate a butterfly. Do not act out words. Never act out words.
Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list. Do not become emotional about the lace blouse. Do not get a hard-on when you say panties. Do not get all shivery just because of the towel. The sheets should not provoke a dreamy expression about the eyes. There is no need to weep into the handkerchief. The socks are not there to remind you of strange and distant voyages. It is just your laundry. It is just your clothes. Don’t peep through them. Just wear them.
The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions then you are no better than the politicians whom you despise. You are just someone waving a flag and making the cheapest kind of appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Think of the words as science, not as art. They are a report. You are speaking before a meeting of the Explorers’ Club of the National Geographic Society. These people know all the risks of mountain climbing. They honour you by taking this for granted. If you rub their faces in it that is an insult to their hospitality. Tell them about the height of the mountain, the equipment you used, be specific about the surfaces and the time it took to scale it. Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event but from theirs. It will be in the statistics and not the trembling of the voice or the cutting of the air with your hands. It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence.
“The sort of fearless openness required to turn toward our suffering is only possible within the spacious receptivity of love.”
By Maria Popova
“It is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” wrote Alice James, the brilliant and terminally ill sister of Henry James and William James, as she reflected on how to live fully while dying. (We are, after all, always dying.) “Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote a generation later from the height of life.
Orphaned as a teenager after growing up in a violent and abusive home, Ostaseski devoted his life to service and the work of healing. In his early thirties, he did volunteer work aiding Central American refugees. In the 1980s, he labored on the front lines as AIDS devastated San Francisco with incalculable losses of lives, many having only just begun. In 1987, he co-founded the city’s wonderful volunteer-run Zen Hospice Project. Decades into the endeavor, a heart attack followed by open-heart surgery thrust Ostaseski into a confrontation with his own mortality. Such palpable awareness of death, he observes, vitalizes and clarifies life with tremendous power. But his most impassioned insistence is that we need not wait until we ourselves hover on the precipice of death in order to apply its clarifying force to how we live our lives.
Reflecting on the profound transformations he has witnessed in his work with thousands of dying people and their living loved ones, Ostaseski writes:
Dying is inevitable and intimate. I have seen ordinary people at the end of their lives develop profound insights and engage in a powerful process of transformation that helped them to emerge as someone larger, more expansive, and much more real than the small, separate selves they had previously taken themselves to be. This is not a fairy-tale happy ending that contradicts the suffering that came before, but rather a transcendence of tragedy…. I have witnessed a heart-opening occurring in not only people near death, but also their caregivers. They found a depth of love within themselves that they didn’t know they had access to. They discovered a profound trust in the universe and the reliable goodness of humanity that never abandoned them, regardless of the suffering they encountered. If that possibility exists at the time of dying, it exists here and now.
Drawing on the ancient wisdom of Buddhism, Ostaseski considers the inseparability of life and death:
In Japanese Zen, the term shoji translates as “birth-death.” There is no separation between life and death other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two.
We cannot be truly alive without maintaining an awareness of death.
Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most.
That discovery, Ostaseski argues, is an active process — one which not only can but ought to be mastered well before we find ourselves before the eternal eclipse of existence. Four decades after physicist David Bohm contemplated how our habits of mind shape our reality, Ostaseski writes:
The habits of our lives have a powerful momentum that propels us toward the moment of our death. The obvious question arises: What habits do we want to create? Our thoughts are not harmless. Thoughts manifest as actions, which in turn develop into habits, and our habits ultimately harden into character. Our unconscious relationship to thoughts can shape our perceptions, trigger reactions, and predetermine our relationship to the events of our lives.
In the horror of my own suffering, I always had held out the hope that one day someone would rescue me. I had imagined that I would be saved by love coming toward me. Just the opposite. I was rescued when love came through me.
Death, he observes, can be an immensely powerful conduit for such an embodiment of love — something Alan Turing knew when he penned his stirring letters on love and loss. Ostaseski writes:
The boundlessness of love is made evident when the veils between this world and the invisible world are thinnest. At birth and death, love melts any division…. In such moments, we glimpse a love without limitation, a love unlike the commerce-like reciprocal exchange that characterizes many romantic relationships (as when someone else expresses love for us and we feel obliged to react in turn). This is an entirely different order of love, one that springs from the very source of our being. It recognizes and responds to the intrinsic goodness of the human heart. It is both profoundly receptive and dynamically expressive.
This facet of love… exists both before and beyond conditions. It is not something to be achieved by our personalities. It is not an idealistic love to be attained by following a certain path, nor is it the result of reaching a special spiritual state. It is always present. In a way, it is the background for all experience, the very essence of our being.
This love is the source that allows us to welcome everything and push away nothing. The sort of fearless openness required to turn toward our suffering is only possible within the spacious receptivity of love.
Drawing on his work with the dying and on the healing of his own life, Ostaseski outlines the five central “invitations” — habits of mind, orientations of spirit — through which an untruculent acceptance of death can become a love-expanding, life-expanding force: