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An Illustrated Ode to Attentiveness and the Art of Listening as a Wellspring of Self-Understanding, Empathy for Others, and Reverence for the Loveliness of Life

A sweet serenade to our shared belonging.

An Illustrated Ode to Attentiveness and the Art of Listening as a Wellspring of Self-Understanding, Empathy for Others, and Reverence for the Loveliness of Life

“To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote as she contemplated the art of seeing. To listen takes time, too — to learn to hear and befriend the world within and the world without, to attend to the quiet voice of life and heart alike. “If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing,” Pablo Neruda wrote in his gorgeous ode to quietude, “perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves.”

This inspiriting, sanctifying power of listening is what writer Holly M. McGhee and illustrator Pascal Lemaître explore in the simply titled, sweetly unfolding Listen (public library) — a serenade to the heart-expanding, life-enriching, world-ennobling art of attentiveness as a wellspring of self-understanding, of empathy for others, of reverence for the loveliness of life, evocative of philosopher Simone Weil’s memorable assertion that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.”

Lemaître — who has previously illustrated the children’s book about kindness Toni Morrison co-wrote with her own son — brings McGhee’s buoyant words to life in his spare, infinitely tender lines and gentle washes of color.

Listen
to the sound of your feet —
the sound of all of us
and the sound of me.

The stars —
they are for you
and all of us.
They are for me.

The simple verses beckon the attention to envelop the whole world, from the immediacy of one’s own sensorial surroundings — the ground, the Sun, the air, the stars — to the widening awareness of our shared belonging and our intertwined fates. Radiating from them is Einstein’s notion of “widening circles of compassion” and Dr. King’s immortal insistence that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

Breathe.

Smell the air.
My air is yours and all of ours,
your air is mine.

Your heart can hold everything.

Including the world —
its darkness and its light.

Including your story,
including my story —
including the story
of all of us…

Complement Listen with The Sound of Silence — a kindred serenade to the art of listening to your inner voice amid the ceaseless noise of modern life — and Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown’s forgotten vintage gem The Quiet Noisy Book, then revisit the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm’s six rules of listening and unselfish understanding and composer Leonard Bernstein on why paying attention is a countercultural act of courage and resistance.

BP

Uncommon Wisdom from a Forgotten Genius: Olga Jacoby’s Extraordinary Letters on Love, Life, Death, Moral Courage, and Spiritual Purpose Without Religion

“Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give.”

Uncommon Wisdom from a Forgotten Genius: Olga Jacoby’s Extraordinary Letters on Love, Life, Death, Moral Courage, and Spiritual Purpose Without Religion

Half a century before Frida Kahlo made her impassioned case for atheism as a supreme form of freedom and moral courage, before Robinson Jeffers insisted that the greatest spiritual calling lies in contributing to the world’s store of moral beauty, before Simone de Beauvoir looked back on her life to observe that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly [while] the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself,” a German-Jewish Englishwoman by the name of Olga Jacoby (August 15, 1874–May 5, 1913) — the young mother of four adopted children — took up the subject of living and dying without religion, with moral courage, with kindness, with radiant receptivity to beauty, in stunning letters to her pious physician, who had just given her a terminal diagnosis. These are more than letters — they are symphonies of thought, miniature manifestos for reason and humanism, poetic odes to the glory of living and the dignity of dying in full assent to reality.

First published anonymously by her husband in 1919 and hurled out of print by wartime want, the letters were discovered a century after their composition by the scholar Trevor Moore, who was so taken with them that he set about identifying their author. Drawing on the family dynamics unfolding in the letters and poring over the British census, he eventually uncovered Jacoby’s identity, tracked down her descendants, and teamed up with her great-granddaughter, Jocelyn Catty, to publish these forgotten treasures of thought and feeling as Words in Pain: Letters on Life and Death (public library).

Art by the English artist Margaret C. Cook from a rare edition of Whitman’s poems, published in the final year of Jacoby’s life. (Available as a print)

In 1909, at age thirty-five, Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness she never names in her letters. Perhaps she was never told — it was customary at the time, and would be for generations to come, for doctors to treat female patients as children and to withhold the reality of their own bodies from them. But she refers to it in her characteristic good-natured humor as a disease of having loved so hard as to have strained her heart.

With their extraordinary intellectual elegance and generosity of spirit, her letters constellate into a masterwork of reason argued with a literary artist’s splendor of expression. Early into the correspondence with her doctor, Jacoby lays out her existential credo:

We always fear the unknown. I am not a coward and do not fear death, which to me means nothing more than sleep, but I cannot become resigned to leave this beautiful world with all the treasures it holds for me and for everyone who knows how to understand and appreciate them… To leave a good example to those I love [is] my only understanding of immortality.

A year into her diagnosis, she magnifies the sentiment with feeling:

Whatever we cannot know let us simply and truthfully agree not to know, but no one must be expected to take for granted what reason refuses to admit. More and more to me this simplest of thoughts seems right: Live, live keenly, live fully; make ample use of every power that has been given us to use, to use for the good end. Blind yourself to nothing; look straight at sadness, loss, evil; but at the same time look with such intense delight at all that is good and noble that quite naturally the heart’s longing will be to help the glory to triumph, and that to have been a strong fighter in that cause will appear the only end worth achieving. The length of life does not depend on us, but as long as we can look back to no waste of time we can face the end with a clear conscience, with cheerful if somewhat tired eyes and ready for the deserved rest with no hope or anxiety for what may come. To me all the effort of man seems vain, and his ideal thrown ruthlessly to the ground by himself, when, after a life of free and joyful effort, he stoops to pick up a reward he does not deserve for having simply done his duty.

Emanating from her letters is evidence of how Jacoby lived her values — her reverence for beauty, her devotion to generosity — in the minutest details of her life. One day, perturbed by the fact that her doctor didn’t have his own volume of Shelley’s poems, she spent two hours hunting the West End of London for the perfect copy that “can be put in your pocket when you go on a lonely ramble amongst the mountains.” Triumphant, with the perfect edition in tow, she told her doctor: “I don’t think any man or woman who has once been happy can read some of his small pieces without feeling all aglow with the beauty of them.” A dying woman, fully alive by the braided life-strands of beauty, generosity, and poetry.

Without the forceful self-righteousness with which fundamentalists impose their views on others, she came to see the fear of death as “only a misunderstanding of Nature.” She writes:

Not to be afraid when you are all alone is the only true way of being not afraid. Where does your courage come in, when you cannot find it in your own self but always have to grasp God morally?

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a the 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

When her doctor insists that she must turn to “God” for salvation, Jacoby responds with an exquisite manifesto for what can best be described as the secular spirituality of humanism and the reverence of nature:

My Dear Doctor,

Like you I believe in a higher power, but, unlike yours, mine is not a kind fatherly one. It is Nature, who with all its forces, beauties and necessary evils, rules our destinies according to its own irrevocable laws. I can love that power for the beauty it has brought into the world, and admire it for the strength that makes us understand how futile and useless it would be to appeal to it in prayer. But towards a kind and fatherly God, who, being almighty, prefers to leave us in misery, when by his mere wish he could obtain the same end without so much suffering, I feel a great revolt and bitterness. Nature makes us know that it cannot take into individual consideration the atoms we are, and for her I have no blame; no more than I could think of blaming you for having during your walks stepped on and killed many a worm (it was a pity the worm happened to be under your foot); but if during these walks your eyes were resting on the beauties of skies and trees, or your mind was solving some difficult problem, was that not a nobler occupation than had you walked eyes downwards, intent only on not killing. I think that Nature is striving towards perfection and that each human being has the duty to help towards it by making his life a fit example for others and by awaking ideals which will be more nearly approached by coming generations. In this way life itself offers enough explanation for living; and believing our existence to finish with death, we naturally make the most of our opportunities… Unable to appeal to a God for help, we find ourselves dependent only on our own strong will — not to overcome misfortune, but to try to bear it as bravely as possible. Religion having for an end the more perfect and moral condition of humanity, I truly think that these ideas are as religious as any dogmatic ones.

With a parent- or teacher-like magnanimity, Jacoby extends extraordinary patience to her doctor. To his self-righteous and patronizing remark that he pities her children on account of her atheism, she responds with a humble, generous reflection on how she hopes her nonreligious morality and spirituality would sculpt her children’s character:

I always feel that we, who are better off, are responsible for having let the poor get so low, and that it is duty, not charity, to help. Charles [her young son], the farmer that is to be, has promised always to keep a cow, to call it by my name, and let the milk of that cow go to the poor around his farm. Should he choose another profession, he will find that the idea of the cow can be worked differently. I hope he will follow my lead in living happy and dying content.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… — a child’s vision for a kinder and more equitable world

Jacoby takes particular issue with the idea of original sin, with which young minds are so ruthlessly branded and scarred under Christian dogma:

Why start an infant’s life with ideas of fear and sin? Let love be their only religion — a love they can understand and handle. With so many people hungering for love, why give so great a part up to Deity? Acknowledge, Doctor, if you had not had your good share of human love, a mother’s, a wife’s, and your children’s, you would not so well understand the other. A child, I think, is taught untruthfulness when you make him say that he loves God.

[…]

Have you ever come across a baby whose eyes were not all innocence and inquiry? And from the first you crush that innocence with those terrible biblical words. Mind you, they are words only. A sincere man will never agree to them when it comes to his own children, and a generous heart must repel them as strongly when they apply to others.

One of William Blake’s rare illustrations for Paradise Lost

She turns to another damaging aspect of religious dogma — its stunting of children’s natural curiosity about how the world works by keeping certain scientific truths from them or deliberately displacing those truths with mythic fictions:

As to children’s inquiries, they are often wrongly answered, and the higher the subject, the more you think yourself justified in lying to them. From these same children you expect in return truly felt love, good acts, truthfulness and a desire to learn… You absolutely cripple a child by not allowing him to think clearly on all subjects — and no dogmatic religion will stand thinking.

Illustration from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Jacoby proceeds to offer a lucid and luminous vision for what our moral and spiritual life could look like without religious delusion:

My idea is not a life without religion; it is a nobler religion I want. Of course, very good men have lived and are living, to whom your religion has been a help, but science is progressing daily, and in harmony with it our moral standard should be higher — high enough to do right simply because it is right. A religion that has helped mankind to get somewhat better should be resigned to let a still better one take its place. Like a growing child, humanity must outgrow its infancy, must stand alone one day and be able to stand straight without support.

In a sentiment our modern spiritual elder Parker Palmer would echo a century later in his lovely insistence that “wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life,” she adds:

To me a good man with his failings seems a better ideal than a perfect God. We feel nearer to him and nearer to the possibility of attaining his standard. This kind of ideal actually helps people to improve, and is therefore of more value to the world.

I do believe strongly in universal good, but not in individual good. As I ask for no help from God, I ask for no explanation from him of my sufferings. I just try to suffer the least possible, and still get a fair part of my aim in life — happiness. You see, I am not ashamed to say that to be happy seems to me a reason for living — as long as you don’t make others unhappy.

When her doctor condemns and insults her credo as a weakness, she responds with a passionate defense of what the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell termed our native “hunger of the mind,” which is the supreme strength of our species:

It is knowledge we want, the better and better understanding of magnificent Nature with its powerful laws that forces our soul to love, admire and submit. That is religion! My religion! How can you call it a weak and godless one?

[…]

Science is turning on the light, but at every step forward dogmatic religion attempts to turn it out, and as it cannot succeed it puts blinkers on its followers, and tries to make them believe that to remove them would be sin. This is the only way in which I can understand their continual warning against knowledge.

Illustration from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Four years after her terminal diagnosis, as two world wars staked on religious ideology lay in wait for her children, after four savaging surgeries and a heart attack had left her in constant acute pain, the 38-year-old Olga Jacoby died by self-induced euthanasia, intent to “go to sleep with a good conscience,” a pioneer of what we today call the right-to-die movement — another fundamental human right stymied only by the legal residue of religiosity. Inscribed into her letters is the beautiful source-code of a moral and spiritual alternative to religion — a courageous case for the right to live by truth, beauty, and altruism rather than by dogma and delusion, the heart of which beats in a passage from a letter she penned in the dead of winter two years into her diagnosis:

Charles may have to suffer from too tender a heart, but the world will be the richer for it, and because of that for his life.

[…]

Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give. Once given out love is set rolling for ever to amass more, resembling an avalanche by the irresistible force with which it sweeps aside all obstacles, but utterly unlike in its effect, for it brings happiness wherever it passes and lands destruction nowhere.

Complement the thoroughly inspiriting Words in Pain with Jacoby’s contemporary Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant younger sister — on how to live fully while dying, then revisit Tolstoy and Gandhi’s forgotten correspondence from the same era about love as humanity’s only real spiritual foundation.

BP

Chaos, Time, and the Origin of Everything: Stephen Fry on How Ancient Greek Mythology and Modern Science Meet to Illuminate the Cradle of Being

Inside the “grand cosmic yawn” that gave us everything we’ve ever known (including the word “cosmos” itself).

Chaos, Time, and the Origin of Everything: Stephen Fry on How Ancient Greek Mythology and Modern Science Meet to Illuminate the Cradle of Being

“Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges wrote in his sublime meditation on the most elemental and paradoxical dimension of existence. But what was there before there was time, before there was substance? Before, in the lovely words of the poet Marie Howe, “the singularity we once were” — “when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was liquid and stars were space and space was not at all”?

Since the dawn of human consciousness, this question has gnawed at the insouciance of our species and animated the most restless recesses of our imagination. It is the foundation of our most ancient origin myths and the springboard for our most ambitious science. It is also — curiously, thrillingly — where these two seemingly irreconcilable strains of our hunger for truth and meaning entwine.

So argues Stephen Fry in the opening of Mythos (public library) — his gloriously imaginative, erudite, warmhearted, and subversively funny retelling of the classic Greek myths.

“Chaos” by George Frederic Watts, circa 1875. (Tate Museum)

Millennia before James Gleick wrested chaos theory from the obscure annals of meteorology to make it a locus of magnetic allure for modern science and a fixture of the popular imagination, the ancient Greeks placed chaos at the center of their cosmogony. (So enduring and far-reaching is their civilizational sway that we owe even the word cosmogony to them, from kosmos, Greek for “world” or “order,” and their suffix -gonia, “-begetting.”) Fry writes:

Was Chaos a god — a divine being — or simply a state of nothingness? Or was Chaos, just as we would use the word today, a kind of terrible mess, like a teenager’s bedroom only worse?

Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn.

As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.

Whether Chaos brought life and substance out of nothing or whether Chaos yawned life up or dreamed it up, or conjured it up in some other way, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. And yet in a way we were, because all the bits that make us were there. It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit, or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea lions, seals, lions, human beings, and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.

Whatever the truth, science today agrees that everything is destined to return to Chaos. It calls this inevitable fate entropy: part of the great cycle from Chaos to order and back again to Chaos. Your trousers began as chaotic atoms that somehow coalesced into matter that ordered itself over eons into a living substance that slowly evolved into a cotton plant that was woven into the handsome stuff that sheathes your lovely legs. In time you will abandon your trousers — not now, I hope — and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned. In either case their matter will at length be set free to become part of the atmosphere of the planet. And when the sun explodes and takes every particle of this world with it, including the ingredients of your trousers, all the constituent atoms will return to cold Chaos. And what is true for your trousers is of course true for you.

So the Chaos that began everything is also the Chaos that will end everything.

There is, of course, the favorite question, that eternal fulcrum of human restlessness: What was there before the beginning? Before the Big Bang, before Chaos, before the everythingness of being? In consonance with Stephen Hawking’s wryly phrased and elegantly argued observation that “the universe is the ultimate free lunch,” Fry reminds us that before there was everything, there was, simply, nothing — not even the Borgesian substance we are made of:

We have to accept that there was no “before,” because there was no Time yet. No one had pressed the start button on Time. No one had shouted Now! And since Time had yet to be created, time words like “before,” “during,” “when,” “then,” “after lunch,” and “last Wednesday” had no possible meaning. It screws with the head, but there it is.

The Greek word for “everything that is the case,” what we could call “the universe,” is COSMOS. And at the moment — although “moment” is a time word and makes no sense just now (neither does the phrase “just now”) — at the moment, Cosmos is Chaos and only Chaos because Chaos is the only thing that is the case. A stretching, a tuning up of the orchestra…

Art by Ben Newman from A Graphic Cosmogony.

Tracing how Chaos “spewed up the first forms of life, the primordial beings and the principles,” Fry once again draws a parallel between mythology and science, wresting a kind of evolutionary biology of the Greek mythological universe. In an inspired passage that calls to mind evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis — known for advancing the Gaia hypothesis, named of course for the ancient Greek god-mother and mother-goddess — and her splendid reflection on the interconnectedness of life across time, space, and species, he writes:

As each generation developed and new entities were born and in turn reproduced, so complexity increased. Those old primordial and elemental principles were spun into lifeforms of ever greater diversity, variety, and richness. The beings that were born became endowed with nuanced and unique personalities and individuality. In computer language, it was as if life went from 2 bit to 4 bit to 8 bit to 16 bit to 32 bit to 64 bit and beyond. Each iteration represented millions and then billions of new permutations of size, form, and what you might call resolution. High definition character, such as we pride ourselves in having as modern humans, came into existence and there was an explosion of what biologists call speciation as new forms burst into being.

I like to picture the first stage of creation as an old-fashioned TV screen on which a monochrome game of Pong played. You remember Pong? It had two white rectangles for rackets and a square dot for a ball. Existence was a primitive, pixellated form of bouncing tennis. Some thirty-five to forty years later there had evolved ultra hi-res 3-D graphics with virtual and augmented reality. So it was for the Greek cosmos, a creation that began with clunky and elemental lo-res outlines now exploded into rich, varied life.

In the remainder of the thoroughly enchanting and elucidating Mythos, Fry goes on to trace the origins of so many of our present givens — the names of planets and constellations and chemical elements and diseases, the words “fraud” and “doom” and “enthusiasm,” our precepts of beauty, our taxonomies of love — to a complex, imaginative, and imperfect civilization that lived long ago, which imprinted cultures and civilizations to come with its layered legacy. Complement it with Jill Lepore on how the shift from mythology to science shaped the early dream of democracy, then revisit Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s wordless existential cosmogony inspired by Pinocchio and this gorgeous 1974 Hungarian animated short film exploring the tragic heroism of hopefulness in the Greek myth of Sisyphus.

BP

A Pioneering Case for the Value of Citizen Science from the Polymathic Astronomer John Herschel

“There is scarcely any well-informed person, who, if he has but the will, has not also the power to add something essential to the general stock of knowledge.”

A Pioneering Case for the Value of Citizen Science from the Polymathic Astronomer John Herschel

“It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she led the first-ever professional female eclipse expedition in 1878. The sentiment presages the importance of what we today call “citizen science,” radical and countercultural in an era when science was enshrined in the pompous pantheon of the academy, whose gates were shut and padlocked to “the man of the people,” to women, and to all but privileged white men.

Two decades earlier, Mitchell had traveled to Europe as America’s first true scientific celebrity to meet, among other dignitaries of the Old World, one such man — but one of far-reaching vision and kindness, who used his privilege to broaden the spectrum of possibility for the less privileged: the polymathic astronomer John Herschel (March 7, 1792–May 11, 1871), co-founder of the venerable Royal Astronomical Society, son of Uranus discoverer William Herschel, and nephew of Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional woman astronomer, who had introduced him to astronomy as a boy.

Several years before he coined the word photography, Herschel became the first prominent scientist to argue in a public forum that the lifeblood of science — data collection and the systematic observation of natural phenomena — should be the welcome task of ordinary people from all walks of life, united by a passionate curiosity about how the universe works.

John Herschel (artist unknown)

In 1831, the newly knighted Herschel published A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy as part of the fourteenth volume of the bestselling Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopædia (large chunks of which were composed by Frankenstein author Mary Shelley). Later cited in Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck’s altogether excellent book Histories of Scientific Observation (public library), it was a visionary work, outlining the methods of scientific investigation by clarifying the relationship between theory and observation. But perhaps its most visionary aspect was Herschel’s insistence that observation should be a network triumph belonging to all of humanity — a pioneering case for the value of citizen science. He writes:

To avail ourselves as far as possible of the advantages which a division of labour may afford for the collection of facts, by the industry and activity which the general diffusion of information, in the present age, brings into exercise, is an object of great importance. There is scarcely any well-informed person, who, if he has but the will, has not also the power to add something essential to the general stock of knowledge, if he will only observe regularly and methodically some particular class of facts which may most excite his attention, or which his situation may best enable him to study with effect.

Diversity of snowflake shapes from a 19th-century French science textbook. Available as a print.

Pointing to meteorology and geology as the sciences best poised to benefit from distributed data collection by citizen scientists, Herschel adds:

There is no branch of science whatever in which, at least, if useful and sensible queries were distinctly proposed, an immense mass of valuable information might not be collected from those who, in their various lines of life, at home or abroad, stationary or in travel, would gladly avail themselves of opportunities of being useful.

Herschel goes on to outline the process by which such citizen science would be conducted: “skeleton forms” of survey questions circulated far and wide, asking “distinct and pertinent questions, admitting of short and definite answers,” then transmitted to “a common centre” for processing — a sort of human internet feeding into a paper-stack server. (Lest we forget, Maria Mitchell herself was employed as a “computer” — the term we used to use for the humans who performed the work now performed by machines we have named after them.)

Couple with a wonderful 1957 treatise on the art of observation and why genius lies in the selection of what is worth observing, then revisit Maria Mitchell on how to find your calling.

BP

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