Brain Pickings

How (Not) to Love: Breaking Our Patterns to Unbreak Our Hearts, or, Chekhov’s Insight into the Most Disquieting and Liberating Truth about Love

“We want to believe that love is singular and exclusive, and it unnerves us to think that it might actually be renewable…”

How (Not) to Love: Breaking Our Patterns to Unbreak Our Hearts, or, Chekhov’s Insight into the Most Disquieting and Liberating Truth about Love

While it is true, as generations of psychologists have found, that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love” — a process known as limbic revision — it is also true, as generations of self-aware humans have found, that whom we love depends in large part on who we already are. Our original wounds, our formative attachments, our patterned longings all shape how we engage with those we have chosen to love, to the extent that we are choosing them at all. “People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents,” James Baldwin astutely observed in contemplating the paradox of freedom. “Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”

The great difficulty, too, is how easily those life-expanding Yeses that can open larger vistas of possibility come fear-concealed as Nos, or how those life-preserving Nos that keep us from entering into experiences too damaging or too small for us bear the momentum of pre-conditioned Yeses. And so we project who we are and what we need onto those we love, and find in them reflections of who we long to be or fear we might be, swarming them and swarming ourselves in all the blooming buzzing confusion of our unmet needs.

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

This is not to demean and diminish love as a mere process of projection — Stendhal’s seven-stage delusion of crystallization and decrystallization — or a mere process of reflection — Ortega’s insightful but limited and limiting theory of what our lovers reveal about us — but to honor the elemental fact that each relationship is not between two people, but between three: the two partners, each with their pre-existing patterns of love and loss, and the third presence of the relationship itself — an intersubjective co-creation that becomes the third partner, endowed with the power to deepen those patters, or to change them.

The great peril and great possibility of every love is that this third partner can be a rewounder masquerading as a healer, and equally a healer in disguise, masked beyond recognition by our own patterned way of seeing. So much of our suffering springs from this confusion and so much of our sanity is redeemed when at last we shed our own blinding masks and come to kneel at the fount of clarity.

That is what George Saunders explores in his immensely insightful and sensitive annotated reading of Chekhov’s short story “The Darling” — one of the seven classic Russian short stories he examines as “seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world” in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (public library), using each as a portable laboratory for the key to great storytelling.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

After a beautiful translation of “The Darling” — a story about a woman who loves four very different people the same patterned way, the only way she knows how, which has entirely to do with her learned understanding of love and nothing to do with its objects, and so she suffers greatly when each of these loves leaves her in the same lonely place; a story the essence of which Saunders captures perfectly as being “about a tendency, present in all of us, to misunderstand love as ‘complete absorption in,’ rather than ‘in full communication with'” — he pauses to marvel at Chekhov’s subtlety in challenging our reflex toward lazy binaries, his mastery in training our muscle of ambiguity, uncertainty, and nuance — which is, of course, the only we grasp and savor the full Yes of life. Saunders writes:

We see Olenka’s mode of loving, from one angle, as a beautiful thing: in that mode, the self disappears and all that remains is affectionate, altruistic regard for the beloved. From another angle, we see it as a terrible thing, the undiscriminating application of her one-note form of love robbing love of its particularity: Olenka, love dullard, vampirically feeding upon whomever she designates as her beloved.

We see this mode of loving as powerful, single-pointed, pure, answering all questions with its unwavering generosity. We see it as weak: her true, autonomous self is nowhere to be found as she molds herself into the image of whatever male happens to be near her (unless he’s a cat).

This puts us in an interesting state of mind. We don’t exactly know what to think of Olenka. Or, feeling so multiply about her, we don’t know how to judge her.

The story seems to be asking, “Is this trait of hers good or bad?”

Chekhov answers: “Yes.”

Elemental by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

The story, like every great work of fiction, becomes a mirror for reflection on the most intimate realities of life. Saunders writes:

We want to believe that love is singular and exclusive, and it unnerves us to think that it might actually be renewable and somewhat repetitive in its habits. Would your current partner ever call his or her new partner by the same pet name he/she uses for you, once you are dead and buried? Well, why not? There are only so many pet names. Why should that bother you? Well, because you believe it is you, in particular, who is loved (that is why dear Ed calls you “honey-bunny”), but no: love just is, and you happened to be in the path of it. When, dead and hovering above Ed, you hear him call that rat Beth, your former friend, “honey-bunny,” as she absentmindedly puts her traitorous finger into his belt loop, you, in spirit form, are going to think somewhat less of Ed, and of Beth, and maybe of love itself. Or will you?

Maybe you won’t.

Because don’t we all do some version of this, when in love? When your lover dies or leaves you, there you are, still yourself, with your particular way of loving. And there is the world, still full of people to love.


The Century-Old Field Guide to Wonder and the Forgotten Woman Who Laid the Groundwork for the Youth Climate Action Movement

“All things seem possible in nature; yet this seeming is always guarded by the eager quest of what IS true. Perhaps half the falsehood in the world is due to lack of power to detect the truth and to express it.”

The Century-Old Field Guide to Wonder and the Forgotten Woman Who Laid the Groundwork for the Youth Climate Action Movement

“Children in wonder watching the stars, is the aim and the end,” Dylan Thomas wrote in his spare, stunning poem about trees, truth, and the human animal’s most self-savaging loss of perspective.

“The trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars… the poets have been right in these centuries,” Lorraine Hansberry wrote as she reached for the surest salve from the pit of her depression.

We are born wonder-stricken by the glory of nature — it can only be so, for we ourselves are living wonders, sentient somethings against the staggering odds of nothingness — and yet we so readily relinquish this natural bond at the altar of a culture that tells us what it means to grow up. This loss might be our great primal wound.

When the early twentieth century clawed at the wound with its increasingly industrialized model of education, preparing children for lives of conspicuous consumption and nursing them on the illusion of nature as a parallel worlds, the artist, naturalist, philosopher, entomologist, and educator Anna Botsford Comstock (September 1, 1854–August 24, 1930) set out to provide an antidote in her wonderful Handbook of Nature Study (public library | public domain).

Anna Botsford Comstock circa 1900.

A generation after astronomer Maria Mitchell swung open the portal of possibility in higher education for women, Anna entered Cornell University to study zoology, botany, and other natural sciences. She took an entomology course with John Henry Comstock, whose work laid the foundation for the modern classification of butterflies, moths, and scale insects. To both of their surprise and mutual delight, they fell in love. Three years later, without graduating, she married him. In another three years, she returned to Cornell to finish her studies, emerging with a degree in natural history. She went on collaborating with John on joint entomological studies and illustrating his works.

Anna had no formal training as an artist, but she had long dwelled in nature’s beauty, having entered it through the twin doorways of science and literature — Emerson, Wordsworth, and Thoreau in particular. Having so magnetized her attention to the delicate details that consecrate life with aliveness, she began observing insects under the microscope, taught herself to illustrate what she saw, and eventually enrolled in Cooper Union to refine her draughtsmanship as a wood engraver. She went on to engrave more than 600 plates of insects, some of which were exhibited in the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and became one of the first women admitted to Sigma Xi — the Scientific Research Honor Society that has included more than 200 Nobel laureates, Einstein, Watson, and Crick among them.

In 1911, she condensed her lifelong animating ethos in Handbook of Nature Study.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane — a visual dictionary of poetic spells resisting the erasure of nature’s language from our cultural lexicon.

A century before the Oxford Children’s Dictionary dropped fifty nature-words as irrelevant to modern children’s lexicon and imagination, a century before young people rose up by the millions to undo the past’s disregard for nature that imperils their future, Comstock insisted that “it is a great asset to the conservation of our natural resources to have the children of our land be interested in the wild life in such a chummy and intimate manner.” Half a century before Rachel Carson awakened the modern ecological conscience with her scientific-poetic ethos that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Comstock highlighted our kinship with microbe and mammoth, with dolphin and dandelion, believing that an understanding of this interdependence would awaken in us “a sensible altruism and humanness” to bring into our relationship with nature — which is, at bottom, our relationship with ourselves and each other.

She saw children as children, pure-hearted and large-eyed with wonder. She saw them as emissaries of the forgotten parts of ourselves and as “future citizens.” And so everything she wrote that references the child can be read as addressing each one of us — for, as Wild Things creator Maurice Sendak knew, the most difficult and rewarding triumph of adulthood is “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.” (This elemental truth is why I cherish “children’s” books as incomparable existential handbooks to self-knowledge and reality-knowledge — training ground for attentive intimacy with nature and its expression in human nature — and why I occasionally write some.)

Dandelion and locust by Anna Botsford Comstock. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In Handbook of Nature Study, Comstock observes that beyond the “practical and helpful knowledge” of the forces and phenomena that animate this world — knowledge that equips us with singular self-reliance — intimacy with nature confers upon us, child and grown child alike, larger and more abstract powers of mind, trining in us that vital balance of reason and imagination:

Nature-study cultivates the child’s imagination, since there are so many wonderful and true stories that he may read with his own eyes, which affect his imagination as much as does fairy lore; at the same time nature-study cultivates in him a perception and a regard for what is true, and the power to express it. All things seem possible in nature; yet this seeming is always guarded by the eager quest of what is true. Perhaps half the falsehood in the world is due to lack of power to detect the truth and to express it. Nature-study aids both in discernment and in expression of things as they are.

Beyond cultivating our “love of the beautiful,” beyond refining our sense of “color, form, and music,” immersion in and understanding of nature attunes us to our larger belonging:

Paths that lead to the seeing and comprehending of what [the child] may find beneath his feet or above his head… whether they lead among the lowliest plants, or whether to the stars, finally converge and bring the wanderer to that serene peace and hopeful faith that is the sure inheritance of all those who realize fully that they are working units of this wonderful universe.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print.)

Writing in an era still haunted by extreme and antiscientific religiosity denying the entropic reality of life and death with the lulling mythos of immortality, Comstock makes a bold, simple point about how observing the rest of nature inures us to the elemental fact of our own mortality, even as children — a kind of mental hygiene, an antidote to cowering behind dogma and delusion:

Perhaps the most valuable practical lesson the child gets from nature-study is a personal knowledge that nature’s laws are not to be evaded. Wherever he looks, he discovers that attempts at such evasion result in suffering and death. A knowledge thus naturally attained of the immutability of nature’s “must” and “shall not” is in itself a moral education. The realization that the fool as well as the transgressor fares ill in breaking natural laws makes for wisdom in morals as well as in hygiene… It is not only during childhood that this is true, for love of nature counts much for sanity in later life.

For decades, Comstock met with hundreds of New York State public school teachers and administrators, trying to persuade them to include a course in “nature-study” into their curricula. She was met with indifference and was told that children had to be taught more valuable skills — skills that would make them better equipped for the workforce, that savage engine of production and consumption. (A century hence, we are watching young people rise from the engine’s miasma, frightened and ferocious for change, to face the ethical and ecological cost of that indifference — because the cost of all indifference is always the loss of something worth loving.)

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

But Comstock persisted. When she became Cornell’s first female professor, she piloted an experimental nature-study course, which was soon approved and implemented statewide. Handbook of Nature Study — the culmination of her life’s work — has accomplished the rare triumph of remaining in print for more than a century, attesting to the timelessness of its ethos and its need. Coursing through it is Comstock’s largehearted, infectious love of the living world. A century after Blake reverenced the common fly in his short existentialist poem, she offers an affectionate exculpation of this creature we indict as a disease-carrying menace, rapturously detailing its delicate anatomy — from the crowning curio of its head, “two great, brown spheres… composed of thousands of tiny six-sided eyes that give information of what is coming in any direction,” to the tiny tender claws with which the fly “walks on its tiptoes” — concluding:

Perhaps if a fly were less wonderfully made, it would be a less convenient vehicle for microbes.

Above all, the book is an antidote to desensitization, an act of resistance to the culture-conditioned ways we have of taking for granted that which grants us life. In its final pages, devoted to astronomy, Comstock writes:

If, only once in a century, there came to us from our great sun light and heat bringing the power to awaken dormant life, to lift the plant from the seed and clothe the earth with verdure, then it would indeed be a miracle. But the sun by shining every day cheapens its miracles in the eyes of the thoughtless.

That, indeed, is the book’s great gift — a lovely reminder that to move through the world unstaggered by life is the only death.


The Art of Solitude: Buddhist Scholar and Teacher Stephen Batchelor on Contemplative Practice and Creativity

“Here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back.”

The Art of Solitude: Buddhist Scholar and Teacher Stephen Batchelor on Contemplative Practice and Creativity

“Give me solitude,” Whitman demanded in his ode to the eternal tension between city and soul, “give me again O Nature your primal sanities!” In those primal sanities, we come to discover that “there is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” as May Sarton wrote in her stunning 1938 ode to solitude — her hard-earned testimony to solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery, for it is in that intimate place that we see most clearly what our animating spirit is made of. Solitude, Kahlil Gibran knew, summons of us the courage to know ourselves. Elizabeth Bishop believed — a belief I can attest to with my own life — that everyone must experience at least one long period of solitude in life in order to know what we are made of and what we can make of our gifts. “There is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear,” Rilke wrote in contemplating the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity, “but… we must hold ourselves to the difficult.”

The visionary poets knew — as do the visionaries of scientist, as do all persons engaged in lives of creativity or contemplation, which are often one life — how this solitary self-discovery becomes the wellspring of all the meaning-making that makes life worth living, whether we call it art or love. From solitude’s promontory, we peer out into the expanse of existence and train our eyes to look with wide-eyed wonder at the improbable fact of it all. Solitude, so conceived, is not merely the state of being alone but the art of becoming fully ourselves — an art acquired, like every art, by apprenticeship and painstaking devotion to dwelling in the often lonesome inner light of our singular and sovereign being.

Solitude by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Its mastery, delicate and difficult, is what the Buddhist scholar and teacher Stephen Batchelor explores in The Art of Solitude (public library). Celebrating solitude — not the escapist privilege of it but the practice of it against the real world’s pressures — as “a site of autonomy, wonder, contemplation, imagination, inspiration, and care,” he writes:

True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it. When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.

Nearly forty years after he first began bridging Western phenomenology and existentialism with Buddhist precepts in his 1983 book Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, Batchelor draws on a lifetime of solitude-mastery — directly, through his own contemplative practice and multiple silent retreats, and indirectly, through his immersion in the lives and works of centuries of solitude-virtuosi ranging from Montaigne to Nietzsche to Ingmar Bergman — to formulate the essence of the inquiry, at once elemental and embodied, at the heart of the art of solitude:

Don’t expect anything to happen. Just wait. This waiting is a deep acceptance of the moment as such. Nietzsche called it amor fati — unquestioning love of whatever has fated you to be here. You reach a point where you’re just sitting there, asking, “What is this?” — but with no interest in an answer. The longing for an answer compromises the potency of the question. Can you be satisfied to rest in this puzzlement, this perplexity, in a deeply focused and embodied way? Just waiting without any expectations?

Ask “What is this?,” then open yourself completely to what you “hear” in the silence that follows. Be open to this question in the same way as you would listen to a piece of music. Pay total attention to the polyphony of the birds and wind outside, the occasional plane that flies overhead, the patter of rain on a window. Listen carefully, and notice how listening is not just an opening of the mind but an opening of the heart, a vital concern or care for the world, the source of what we call compassion or love.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Echoing Rachel Carson’s trust in the loneliness of creative work — a byproduct of the solitude necessary for creative work, natural and needed, often terrifying and always clarifying — Batchelor adds:

To be alone at your desk or in your studio is not enough. You have to free yourself from the phantoms and inner critics who pursue you wherever you go. “When you start working,” said the composer John Cage, “everybody is in your studio — the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas — all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”


Having shut the door, you find yourself alone before a canvas, a sheet of paper, a lump of clay, a computer screen. Other tools and materials lie around, close at hand, waiting to be used. You resume your silent conversation with the work. This is a two-way process: you create the work and then you respond to it. The work can inspire, surprise, and shock you… The solitary act of making art involves intense, wordless dialogue.

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

Drawing a link between the Buddhist notion of nirvana and Keats’s notion of “negative capability” — that spacious willingness to negate the pull of attachments, reactivities, and fixities, to live with mystery and embrace uncertainty — Batchelor observes that contemplative practice trains the ability to see each moment as a chance to start anew, to savor life as ongoing, unfixed, ever-changing and ever capable of being changed. He considers the essential building blocks and ultimate rewards of contemplative practice:

To integrate contemplative practice into life requires more than becoming proficient in techniques of meditation. It entails the cultivation and refinement of a sensibility about the totality of your existence—from intimate moments of personal anguish to the endless suffering of the world. This sensibility encompasses a range of skills: mindfulness, curiosity, understanding, collectedness, compassion, equanimity, care. Each of these can be cultivated and refined in solitude but has little value if it cannot survive the fraught encounter with others. Never be complacent about contemplative practice; it is always a work in progress. The world is here to surprise us. My most lasting insights have occurred off the cushion, not on it.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

In consonance with poet and philosopher Wendell Berry’s life-tested belief that “true solitude is found in the wild places,” where one is without human obligation,” where “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Batchelor adds:

By withdrawing from the world into solitude, you separate yourself from others. By isolating yourself, you can see more clearly what distinguishes you from other people. Standing out in this way serves to affirm your existence (ex-[out] + sistere [stand]). Liberated from social pressures and constraints, solitude can help you understand better what kind of person you are and what your life is for. In this way you become independent of others. You find your own path, your own voice.


Here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back. Sustained aloneness brings you to a tipping point where the pendulum of life returns you to others.

Complement The Art of Solitude with Hermann Hesse on solitude, hardship, and destiny, then savor Batchelor’s spacious On Being conversation with Krista Tippett.


Alain de Botton on the Myth of Normalcy and the Importance of Breakdowns

“Crisis… is an attempt to dislodge us from a toxic status quo and constitutes an insistent call to rebuild our lives on a more authentic and sincere basis.”

Alain de Botton on the Myth of Normalcy and the Importance of Breakdowns

The moment we begin to see that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, we cease being captive to the myth of normalcy — the cultural tyranny that tells us there are a handful of valid ways to be human and demands of us to contort into these accepted forms of being. But the great hoax is that they are Platonic forms — the real reduced beyond recognition into the ideal, an ideal too narrow and symmetry-bound to account for the spacious, uneven, gloriously shambolic reality of being what we are.

With his characteristic eloquence and sensitivity, Alain de Botton offers a mighty antidote to that mythos in a portion of The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) — the book companion to his wonderful global academy for skillful living, which also gave us De Botton on what emotional intelligence really means and how to move through rejection. He writes:

Any idea of the normal currently in circulation is not an accurate map of what is customary for a human to be. We are — each one of us — far more compulsive, anxious, sexual, tender, mean, generous, playful, thoughtful, dazed, and at sea than we are encouraged to accept.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1926 illustrations for The Tempest by William Shakespeare. (Available as a print.)

Given how opaque we are to ourselves most of the time, how encased our rawest emotional reasons are in elaborate cathedrals of rationalization, we struggle to imagine that anyone else could possibly see, understand, and accept the dazzling complexity with which we live inside. “Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” the young Van Gogh wrote to his brother. “Someone has a great fire in his soul… and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” Meanwhile, we move among other chimneys — all the taller built by the artful self-masonry of social media — from which we intuitively infer, even if we rationally understand this to be an illusion, that the fires burning in others are far tamer than those roiling in us; that they live with far lesser levels of confusion and complexity; that we are, in other words, not normal by comparison. De Botton writes:

We simply cannot trust that sides of our deep selves will have counterparts in those we meet, and so remain silent and shy, struggling to believe that the imposing, competent strangers we encounter can have any of the vulnerabilities, perversions, and idiocies we’re so intimately familiar with inside our own characters.

A healthy culture, he suggests, calibrates this mismatch of perception and reality by inviting us into the inner worlds of others, worlds just as shambolic as ours — worlds into which literature uniquely invites us.

Art by Mouni Feddag for Alain de Botton’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print, benefitting The New York Public Library.)

In those moments when our culture fails to calibrate our insecurities and instead assails us with its mythos of normalcy, in those moments when we lack the psychological skills and emotional resources to face our elemental vulnerabilities with equanimity, tenderness, and patience, we might experience a breakdown. With his singular talent for consolatory perspective-pivoting, De Botton suggests that a breakdown is not a failure of our growth-process but assuring evidence of our ongoing search for better understanding and tending to ourselves:

A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction; it is a very real — albeit very inarticulate — bid for health and self-knowledge. It is an attempt by one part of our mind to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding and self-development that it has hitherto refused to undertake. If we can put it paradoxically, it is an attempt to jump-start a process of getting well — properly well — through a stage of falling very ill.


In the midst of a breakdown, we often wonder whether we have gone mad. We have not. We’re behaving oddly, no doubt, but beneath the agitation we are on a hidden yet logical search for health. We haven’t become ill; we were ill already. Our crisis, if we can get through it, is an attempt to dislodge us from a toxic status quo and constitutes an insistent call to rebuild our lives on a more authentic and sincere basis. It belongs, in the most acute and panicked way, to the search for self-knowledge.

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

The School of Life: An Emotional Education is a salve in its entirety. Complement this fragment with the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on why vulnerability is the key to our sanity and resilience, then revisit Alain de Botton on breaking the psychological Möbius strip that keeps us in painful relationships, the meaning of emotional generosity, and what makes a good communicator.


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