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How to See Clearly and Act Rightly in the Face of Frustration: The Stoic Key to Keeping Your Emotional Equanimity and Mental Composure When People Let You Down

The art of tempering your fury with an infuriating existential truth.

How to See Clearly and Act Rightly in the Face of Frustration: The Stoic Key to Keeping Your Emotional Equanimity and Mental Composure When People Let You Down

The vast majority of our mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering comes from the violent collision between our expectations and reality. As we dust ourselves off amid the rubble, bruised and indignant, we further pain ourselves with the exertion of staggering emotional energy on outrage at how reality dared defy what we demanded of it.

The remedy, of course, is not to bend the reality of an impartial universe to our will. The remedy is to calibrate our expectations — a remedy that might feel far too pragmatic to be within reach in the heat of the collision-moment, but also one with profound poetic undertones once put into practice.

Walt Whitman understood this when, felled by a paralytic stroke, he considered what makes life worth living and instructed himself: “Tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.” He spared himself the additional self-inflicted suffering of outrage at how his body failed him — perhaps because, having proclaimed himself the poet of the Body and the poet of the Soul, he understood the two to be one. He squandered no emotional energy on the expectation that his suddenly disabled body perform a counterpossible feat against reality to let him enjoy his beloved tree workouts and daily excursions to the river. He simply edited his expectations to accord with his new reality and sought to find his joy there, within these new parameters of being.

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

What is true of the poetics of our own body-soul is as true of the poetics of relationship, that beautiful and terrifying interchange between separate body-souls. Little syphons the joy of life more surely than the wasted energy of indignation at how others have failed to behave in accordance with what we expected of them.

Two millennia before the outrage culture of the Internet, the lovesick queer teenager turned Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) addressed this curious self-mauling tendency of the human mind with his characteristic precision of insight and unsentimental problem-solving in the notebooks that became his Meditations (public library) — a timeless book, newly translated and annotated by the British classics scholar Robin Waterfield, which Marcus Aurelius wrote largely for and to himself, like Tolstoy wrote his Calendar of Wisdom and Bruce Lee calibrated his core values, yet a book that went on to stake the pillars of the philosophical system of Stoicism, equipping countless generations with tools for navigating the elemental existential challenges of being human and inspiring others to fill the gaps of its unaddressed questions with exquisite answers of their own.

Marcus Aurelius

Epochs before the birth of probability theory, Marcus Aurelius begins with a probabilistic-statistical consolation:

Whenever a person’s lack of shame offends you, you should immediately ask yourself, “So is it possible for there to be no shameless people in the world?” It isn’t, and you should therefore stop demanding the impossible. He’s just one of those shameless people who must necessarily exist in the world. You should keep the same thought readily available for when you’re faced with devious and untrustworthy people, and people who are flawed in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible for such people not to exist, you’ll be kinder to each and every one of them. It’s also helpful immediately to consider what virtue nature has granted us human beings to deal with any given offense — gentleness, for instance, to counter discourteous people…

Millennia before William James lit the dawn of modern psychology with the radical assertion that our experience is what we “agree to attend to,” millennia before neuroscience came to locate the seat of consciousness in the qualia of subjective experience, Marcus Aurelius serves that classic Stoic cocktail of simply worded obvious truths that are difficult truths to live up to, earned by a thousand complexities of conduct to be practiced daily:

The things of the world cannot affect the soul; they lie inert outside it, and only internal beliefs disturb it.

Light distribution on soap bubble from a 19th-century French science textbook. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

From this follows a curious, infuriating fundament of our humanity: that no matter what another person does — to us or at us or near the self-membraned bubble of our being — our inner response to it lives in the realm of feeling, that sovereign source of light over which we alone have agency and dominion. Even more infuriatingly, Marcus Aurelius reminds us, our outrage at some entirely predictable misbehavior by a person known to misbehave is a failure not of the other but of our own powers of reason:

You’ll find that none of the people who make you lose your temper has done anything that might affect your mind for the worse; and outside of the mind there’s nothing that is truly detrimental or harmful for you… After all, you even had the resources, in the form of your ability to think rationally, to appreciate that he was likely to commit that fault, yet your forgot it and are now surprised that he did exactly that.

Observing that to explode with rage at the offender would make no positive difference to their conduct and would only further perturb your own soul, he instead offers a two-step process for dealing with the situation, telescoping into the broad existential perspective and then microscoping into your own innermost values:

First, don’t be upset. Nothing happens that isn’t in accord with universal nature, and before long you won’t exist at all, just like [your heroes]… Second, fix your gaze on the matter at hand and see it for what it is, and then, keeping in your mind your obligation to be a good man and the demands of your humanity, go right ahead and do it, in the way that seems to you to be most just. But do it with kindness and modesty, and without dissembling.

This is but one manifestation of the central preoccupation of the Meditations — the lifelong project of learning to see clearly as the greatest self-defense against mental anguish. So much of our disappointment and rage, after all, stem from the clash between our misperceptions of things and the reality of things — they are the pain of disillusionment, inflamed in those moments when the veil of illusion is lifted or violently pierced to let us, finally, see reality.

Reaching across space and time, across cultures and civilizations, Marcus Aurelius prescribes the antidote:

Always define or describe to yourself every impression that occurs to your mind, so that you can clearly see what the thing is like in its entirety, stripped to its essence, and tell yourself its proper name and the names of the elements of which it consists and into which it will be resolved. Nothing is more conducive to objectivity than the ability methodically and honestly to test everything that you come across in life, and always to look at things in such a way that you consider what kind of part each of them plays in what kind of universe, and what value it has for the universe as a whole.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total solar eclipse by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, 1878. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Clarity of vision, he reminds us, is the basis of rightful action, and while our own rightful action may not be a guarantee of our contentment — or what the Romans shorthanded as “the good life” — it is our only assurance toward it:

If you carry out every present task by following right reason assiduously, resolutely, and with kindness; if rather than getting distracted by irrelevancies, you keep your guardian spirit unspoiled and steady, as though you had to surrender it at any moment; if you engage with the task not with expectations or evasions, but satisfied if your current performance is in accord with nature and if what you say and express is spoken with true Roman honesty, you’ll be living the good life. And there’s no one who can stop you doing so!

Complement with Seneca, another apostle of Stoicism, on the antidote to anxiety and Marcus Aurelius himself, in a different translation of his Meditations, on the key to living with presence, the most potent motivation for work, and how to begin each day, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s magnificent more-than-translation of another ancient classic from the wisdom tradition of a different civilization, the Tao Te Ching. (One thing that has always troubled me about modern translations of ancient classics is that they present an opportunity to calibrate the inclusiveness of these teachings to our present hard-earned sphere of dignity without changing their message — an opportunity very few translators take, for it requires a formidably delicate balance between the rigors of scholarship and the responsibilities of a social conscience. Count on Le Guin, whose meditation on being “a man” remains the finest thing I have ever read on the history of gender in language, to leap at that opportunity and make something soaring.)

BP

Rare Butterflies and Unsung Pollinators: Gorgeous 18th-Century Drawings by the First Artist and Naturalist to Depict the Wing-borne Beauty of the New World

The world’s first pictorial glimpse of the strange and wondrous creatures that give our planet its scent and color.

A century after the self-taught German naturalist and artist Maria Merian laid the foundation of entomology with her art, and a century before the Australian teenage sisters Harriet and Helena Scott fomented one of the greatest triumphs of conservation with their stunning butterfly drawings, John Abbot (1751–1841) became the first artist and naturalist to document pictorially the wing-borne beauty of the New World.

Little blue argus butterfly (Papilio argiolus) and great American fritillary (Papilio passiflorae)

John was still a teenager when the Old World’s most venerated scientific institution, The Royal Society of his native London, took notice of his consummate entomological illustrations. While his trailblazing compatriot Sarah Stone was drawing the exotic animals of Australia and New Zealand, he was encouraged to leave for North America to help shed light on the insect corner of the continent’s largely unexplored living landscape.

Black and blue admirable butterfly (Papilio ursula) and chestnut-coloured butterfly (Papilio gilippus)

And so, in the summer of his twenty-third year, John Abbot made the arduous Atlantic crossing, heading for the capital settlement of the first British colony in North America: Jamestown, Virginia.

From the moment he set foot on American soil, throughout those difficult early years as a young immigrant, throughout the scientific disenchantment with a habitat far less biodiverse than he had expected, he persisted in collecting and rearing insects, studying and drawing them to send his painstaking artwork back to London.

His first two shipments were lost at sea. Still, he persisted.

As the air grew flammable with the spirit of revolution, he considered returning to London, considered following in Merian’s footsteps and voyaging to the butterfly paradise of Surinam, but ultimately decided not to give up on America just yet.

American brimstone butterfly (Papilio eubule) and large black and orange butterfly (Papilio archippus)

In the harsh winter of 1775, he traveled to Georgia to stay with a family he had befriended during the transatlantic crossing — the Goodalls (possible kin of Jane Goodall). Living in a log cabin 100 miles outside Augusta, Abbot immersed himself in the world of insects and birds, studying and painting the dazzling diversity of winged life.

Black-barred swallow-tail butterfly (Papilio ajax) and snake-root black swallow-tail butterfly (Papilio philenor)

As the months unspooled into years, he went on drawing. He served in the British army during the Revolutionary War and went on drawing, got married, had a son, and went on drawing, lost his wife and went on drawing, with a particular passion for the rarest and most neglected of species.

Black and yellow swallow-tail butterfly (Pailio troilus) and sassafras black swallow-tail butterfly (Papilio Ilioneus)

By the end of his long life, more than double the era’s life expectancy, he had produced thousands upon thousands of illustrations of insects, including the native plants they live on and pollinate into life, and several sets of birds. Today, his work is celebrated as some of the finest pictorial scholarship in the history of science and some of the finest scientific illustration in the history of art, held and exhibited in natural history and art museums all over the world. The best of it is collected in Abbot’s magnum opus. The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia (public library), originally published in 1797.

My favorite of his drawings, both aesthetically and scientifically, are the several species of hawk-moth, Sphingidae — the unsung heroes of the pollinator world.

Painted hawk-moth (Sphinx vitis) and fringe-tree hawk-moth (Sphinx chionathi)

They are the hummingbirds of the insect universe, with majestic bodies up to eightfold the weight of the average half-gram butterfly and a mighty flight-motor reaching up to 60 wingbeats per second. With tongues up to three times the length of their bodies, they pollinate some of Earth’s most fragrant blooming plants — jasmine, gardenia, honeysuckle, wild rose, evening primrose.

Black and yellow-underwing hawk-moth (Sphinx tersa) and yellow-spotted tyger hawk-moth (Sphinx octomaculata)
Fan-tailed hawk-moth (Sphinx lugubris) and potatoe hawk-moth (Sphinx convolvuli)
Wild-grape hawk-moth (Sphinx pampinatrix) and pine or cypress hawk-moth (Sphinx coniferarum)
Yellow under-winged eyed hawk-moth (Sphinx myops) and wild-honeysuckle hawk-moth (Sphinx azaleae)

Complement with Stephen Jay Gould on what Nabokov’s butterfly studies reveal about the nature of human creativity and the fascinating natural history of how early pollinators gave Earth its colors, then revisit other stunning art from the golden age of natural history illustration: stunning snails from the world’s first pictorial encyclopedia of mollusks, psychedelic fishes from the world’s first marine life encyclopedia in color, the vibrant life-forms of the Great Barrier Reef from the first study of one of Earth’s most delicate ecosystems, and the otherworldly beauty of jellyfish rendered by the artist-scientist who coined the word ecology.

BP

Tangerine Meditation: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Simple, Profound Mindfulness Practice to Magnify Your Capacity for Joy

How to see the universe in a small orange orb.

Tangerine Meditation: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Simple, Profound Mindfulness Practice to Magnify Your Capacity for Joy

My poet friend Marie Howe gives the students in her ecopoetry class a lovely assignment: At the outset of the semester, each young poet is asked to name the animal they find most repulsive, then to learn everything they can about it — scientifically, historically, culturally. By the conclusion of the course, they have to write a poem about it.

Inevitably, the creatures previously regarded as remote and abstract othernesses, caricatured by a few loathsome features, are gradually rendered interesting by the thousand small details of their being, complex and concrete. Because interest is the crucible of intimacy and intimacy the crucible of connection, because the light of attention cast upon the creatures renders them luminous golden threads indivisible from the tapestry of aliveness that makes our rocky planet an enchanted loom of a world, the poems inevitably become love poems.

Snake and Muricated lizard, from trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s natural history illustrations of exotic and endangered animals. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

So it is that any totality of love is born of the specifics — those footholds of understanding by which we ascend the ladder of appreciation and admiration to arrive at a particular and attentive love that subjectifies what it loves rather than objectifying it, the way Ursula K. Le Guin believed poetry subjectifies the universe.

Attention, after all, is the native poetry of consciousness and the most elemental form of love.

A quarter millennium after William Blake saw “a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower” and a century after William James laid the foundation of modern psychology with the then-radical assertion that your experience is what you agree to attend to, the great Vietnamese peace activist and Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh developed a simple, powerful instrument for refining attention, kindred to Marie’s poetic assignment, further miniaturized into a portable everyday aid for living with greater aliveness.

Thich Nhat Hanh

In a section of his 1992 classic Peace Is Every Step (public library) titled “Tangerine Meditation,” he observes that if you are offered a freshly picked tangerine, the magnitude of your enjoyment will depend on the level of your mindfulness:

If you are free of worries and anxiety, you will enjoy [the tangerine] more. If you are possessed by anger or fear, the tangerine may not be very real to you.

He goes on to share a reality-regrounding mindfulness practice from his work with children that is, like a great children’s book, a miniature masterpiece of philosophy and a psychological salve for any stage of life:

One day, I offered a number of children a basket filled with tangerines. The basket was passed around, and each child took one tangerine and put it in his or her palm. We each looked at our tangerine, and the children were invited to meditate on its origins. They saw not only their tangerine, but also its mother, the tangerine tree. With some guidance, they began to visualize the blossoms in the sunshine and in the rain. They saw petals falling down and the tiny fruit appear. The sunshine and the rain continued, and the tiny tangerine grew. Now someone has picked it, and the tangerine is here. After seeing this, each child was invited to peel the tangerine slowly, noticing the mist and the fragrance of the tangerine, and then bring it up to his or her mouth and have a mindful bite, in full awareness of the texture and taste of the fruit and the juice coming out. We ate slowly like that.

Tangerine. (Art from a 1905 agricultural yearbook. Available as a print.)

Echoing John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Thich Nhat Hanh adds:

Each time you look at a tangerine, you can see deeply into it. You can see everything in the universe in one tangerine. When you peel it and smell it, it’s wonderful. You can take your time eating a tangerine and be very happy.

For a different and equally potent take on how attention magnifies joy, drawing on a different orange fruit, savor Diane Ackerman’s sensual poem “The Consolation of Apricots,” then revisit Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentle and powerful wisdom on mastering the art of “interbeing” we call love, the four Buddhist mantras for turning fear into love, and his wonderful hugging meditation — which might just be the loveliest way for this world to stretch itself alive after the long contact-famished stupor of a global pandemic.

BP

Growing Through Grief: Derek Jarman on Gardening as Creative Redemption, Consecration of Time, and Training Ground for Presence

“The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end… Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.”

Growing Through Grief: Derek Jarman on Gardening as Creative Redemption, Consecration of Time, and Training Ground for Presence

“In forty years of medical practice,” the great neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients…: music and gardens.”

Virginia Woolf, savaged by depression throughout and out of her life, arrived at her buoyant epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking in her garden.

“I work like a gardener,” the visionary artist Joan Miró observed in reflecting on his creative process.

“It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her scientific-poetic serenade to gardening.

But if modern gardening has a patron saint, it must be the English artist, filmmaker, and LGBT rights activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994).

Derek Jarman

In 1989, shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death, Jarman left the bustling pretensions of London for a simple life on the shingled shores of Kent. He took up residence in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant on the headland of Dungeness, a newly designated a conservation area. He named it Prospect Cottage, painted the front room a translucent Naples yellow, replaced the ramshackle door with blue velvet curtains, and set about making a garden around the gnarled century-old pear tree rising from the carpet of violets as the larks living in the shingles sang high above him in the grey-blue English sky.

At low tide, he collected some handsome sea-rounded flints washed up after a storm, staked them upright in the garden “like dragon teeth,” and encircled each with twelve small beach pebbles. These rudimentary sundials became his flower beds, into which he planted a wondrous miniature wilderness of species not even half of which I, a growing gardener, have encountered — saxifrage, calendula, rue, camomile, shirley poppy, santolina, nasturtium, dianthus, purple iris, hare-bell, and his favorite: sea kale. (A gorgeous plant new to me, which I immediately researched, procured, and planted in my Brooklyn garden.)

Red poppy from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

As the seasons turned and his flowers rose and the AIDS plague felled his friends one by one, Jarman mourned loss after loss, then grounded himself again and again in the irrepressible life of soil and sprout and bud and bloom. The garden, which his Victorian ancestors saw as a source of moral lessons, became his sanctuary of “extraordinary peacefulness” amid the deepest existential perturbations of death, his canvas for creation amid all the destruction.

The record of this healing creative adventure became Jarman’s Modern Nature (public library) — part memoir and part memorial, a reckoning and a redemption, a homecoming to his first great love: gardening. What emerges from the short near-daily entries is a kind of hybrid between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, Rilke’s Book of Hours, and Thoreau’s philosophical nature journals.

On the last day of February, after planting lavender in a circle of stones he collected from the beach under the clear blue sky, he writes:

Apart from the nagging past — film, sex and London — I have never been happier than last week. I look up and see the deep azure sea outside my window in the February sun, and today I saw my first bumble bee. Plated lavender and clumps of red hot poker.

It is a different garden of Eden he is building on these windblown shores, living with a deadly disease while his friends — his kind, our kind — are dying of it in a world too indifferent to human suffering, too bedeviled by millennia of religion-fomented homophobia. Gardening becomes not only his salvation, but his act of resistance:

Before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.

Honeysuckle from The Moral of Flowers by Rebecca Hey, 1833. (Available as a print.)

Acutely aware that he could finish any moment, that he could be the next to go, Jarman turns his garden into processing ground for grief — a personal grief, a cultural grief, a civilizational grief:

The wind calls my name, Prophesy!

[…]

Time is scattered, the past and the future, the future past and present. Whole lives are erased from the book by the great dictator, the screech of the pen across the page, your name, Prophesy, your name!

But the ultimate gift of gardening is the way it concentrates and consecrates time, grounding the gardener in a present both conscious of and undistracted by the ongoing cycles of seasonality stretching across all past and all future.

Iris by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

In the first week of March, Jarman arrives at what may be the greatest reward of gardening, evocative of poet Ross Gay’s lovely sentiment that time spent gardening is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” He writes:

The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time — the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.

I am reminded of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s insight about film, Jarman’s primary creative medium — that its raw material and its gift to the viewer is time: “time lost or spent or not yet had.” I am reminded, too, of Seneca, writing two millennia earlier about mastering the existential math of time spent, saved, and wasted — I have found few that better clarify the difference between the three than the quiet lessons of gardening.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

In the garden, Jarman discovers — or rather befriends — the most disquieting byproduct of time: boredom. Half a century after his Nobel-winning compatriot Bertrand Russell placed a capacity for boredom and “fruitful monotony” at the heart of human flourishing, Jarman contemplates his new cottage life away from London’s familiar “traps of notoriety and expectation, of collaboration and commerce, of fame and fortune,” and writes:

I have re-discovered my boredom here… where I can fight “what next” with nothing.

His boredom, like all of our boredom, becomes a laboratory for presence — a nursery in which to grow the capacity for paying attention, a studio in which to master the vital art of noticing, out of which our contact with beauty and gladness arises — the wellspring of all that makes life livable. In an entry from the last day of March, Jarman shines the beam of his garden-honed attention directly at the poetics of reality:

Sun a pure white globe in a chalky sky, mist blowing across the Ness in milky veils, silent pussy willow woods the palest pastel yellow luminous in the silvery light.

Hare-bell from The Moral of Flowers by Rebecca Hey, 1833. (Available as a print.)

He finds again and again that the attention of presence and the attention of remembrance are one:

My garden is a memorial, each circular bed a dial and a true lover’s knot — planted with lavender, helichryssum and santolina.

And so this living temple of the present becomes a memorial of the future past and a monument to conservation. In one of the short poems punctuating his journal, penned as he records news of a government summit on global warming, Jarman addresses a visitor from the barely recognizable future:

to whom it may concern
in the dead stones of a planet
no longer remembered as earth
may he decipher this opaque hieroglyph
perform an archeology of soul
on these precious fragments
all that remains of our vanished days
here — at the sea’s edge
I have planted a stony garden
dragon tooth dolmen spring up
to defend the porch
steadfast warriors

Complement Modern Nature — which I discovered through Olivia Laing’s magnificent essays on art, artists, and the human spirit — with Debbie Millman’s illustrated love letter to gardening and poet-gardener Ross Gay’s yearlong experiment in willful gladness.

BP

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