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How Should We Live: History’s Forgotten Wisdom on Love, Time, Family, Empathy, and Other Aspects of the Art of Living

“How to pursue the art of living has become the great quandary of our age… The future of the art of living can be found by gazing into the past.”

“He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth,” Goethe famously proclaimed. Thomas Hobbes extolled “the principal and proper work of history being to instruct, and enable men by the knowledge of actions past to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently in the future.” It is this notion of “applied history” that cultural historian and philosopher Roman Krznaric — who gave us How to Find Fulfilling Work, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2013 — places at the center of How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life (public library). Part psychological manual, part cultural manifesto, part philosophical memoir of our civilization’s collective conscience, the book explores yesteryear’s great works of philosophy, social science, economics, anthropology, and cultural mythology. Krznaric trawls the timeless to surface the timely and excavate practical ideas about the art of living, about how we, today, can live better, richer, more fulfilling lives — ideas across love, work, family, time, money, death, creativity, and more.

He writes in the introduction:

How to pursue the art of living has become the great quandary of our age.

[…]

I believe that the future of the art of living can be found by gazing into the past. If we explore how people have lived in other epochs and cultures, we can draw out lessons for the challenges and opportunities of everyday life. What secrets for living with passion lie in medieval attitudes towards death, or in the pin factories of the Industrial Revolution? How might an encounter with Ming-dynasty China, or Central African indigenous culture, change our views about bringing up our kids and caring for our parents? It is astonishing that, until now, we have made so little effort to unveil this wisdom from the past, which is based on how people have actually lived rather than utopian dreamings of what might be possible.

I think of history as a wonderbox, similar to the curiosity cabinets of the Renaissance — what the Germans called a Wunderkammer. Collectors used these cabinets to display an array of fascinating and unusual objects, each with a story to tell, such as a miniature Turkish abacus or a Japanese ivory carving. Passed down from one generation to another, they were repositories of family lore and learning, tastes and travels, a treasured inheritance. History, too, hands down to us intriguing stories and ideas from a cornucopia of cultures. It is our shared inheritance of curious, often fragmented artefacts that we can pick up at will and contemplate in wonder. There is much to learn about life by opening the wonderbox of history.

Rather than approaching that wonderbox as an instructional manual, however, Krznaric looks at history as a choose-your-own-adventure compendium of do’s as well as don’ts. In addition to shining light on yesteryear’s forgotten wisdom on living, he also seeks to highlight the habitual attitudes we’ve unwittingly inherited from the past and to bring mindfulness to the bad and the harmful as well, so we can begin to decondition them — those toxic belief systems that sell us impossible romantic ideals, strain our relationship with time, force us into work that falsely prizes narrow specialization over wide intellectual expansion, measure our success in material terms, and otherwise warp the meaning of life:

We need to trace the historical origins of these legacies which have quietly crept into our lives and surreptitiously shaped our worldviews. We may choose to accept them, understanding ourselves all the better for it, or we may reject them and cut ourselves free from an unwanted inheritance, ready to invent anew. That is the sublime power we wield when we have history in our hand.

The Histomap by John Sparks, 1931. Click image for details.

In a chapter on love, Krznaric contends that our modern definition of love is too narrow, which both deprives us of the breadth of this grand human capacity and sets us up for disappointment:

We can navigate these difficulties of love — and enhance its joys — by grasping the significance of two great tragedies in the history of the emotions. The first is that we have lost knowledge of the different varieties of love that existed in the past, especially those familiar to the ancient Greeks, who knew love could be discovered not just with a sexual partner, but also in friendships, amongst strangers, and with themselves. The second tragedy is that over the last thousand years, these varieties have been incorporated into a mythical notion of romantic love, which compels us to believe that they can all be found in one person, a unique soulmate. We can escape the confines of this inheritance by looking for love outside the realm of romantic attachments, and cultivating its many forms.

To lift our culturally conditioned blinders, he turns to the six varieties of love found in ancient Greek philosophy: eros, or sexual passion; phila, a more virtuous love often translated as “friendship”; ludus, the playful affection between children or casual lovers; pragma, the mature love and deep understanding that develop in lasting relationships; agape, the selfless love extended to all human beings, offered unconditionally and with no expectation of reciprocity; and philautia, or self-love, which can be both negative, manifested as greed and narcissism (after the myth of Narcissus), and positive, as a nourishing broadening of our capacity for all love, starting from within.

Vintage illustration for Homer’s ‘The Iliad and the Odyssey’ by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

Observing history’s long quest to define love, Krznaric finds in the ancient Greek model solace for our modern hearts:

One of the universal questions of emotional life has always been, “What is love?” I believe that this is a misleading question, and one which has caught us in futile knots of confusion in an attempt to identify some definitive essence of “true love.” The lesson from ancient Greece is that we must instead ask ourselves, “How can I cultivate the different varieties of love in my life?” That is the ultimate question of love that we face today. But if we wish to nurture these varieties, we must first dispel the potent myth of romantic love which stands in the way.

Krznaric argues that the myth of romantic love, whose origin he traces across three stages over the course of civilization — the poetry and music of medieval Persia in the first millennium, the courtly love ideal of Europe in the Middle Ages, and the utilitarian union of passion and companionship of the Dutch Golden Age in the seventeenth century — is a toxic myth that only robs us of love’s dimension and leads us to believe all forms of love should be found in a single person. Instead, he suggests that returning to the ancient Greek taxonomy would enrich our lives and give greater freedom in cultivating our capacity for love:

The varieties of love invented by the ancient Greeks … are what we should be striving to cultivate, and with a range of people rather than just one person. I am not saying that you should get your pragma from a steady marriage but then satisfy your eros in a series of lustful affairs. That is bound to be a destructive strategy, for sexual jealousy is part of our natures and few people can tolerate open relationships. What I mean is that we ought to acknowledge that we may only be fulfilled in love if we can nurture it in a multitude of ways and tap into its many sources. So we should foster our philia through having profound friendships outside our main relationship, and make space for our lover to do the same without resenting the time they spend apart from us. We can seek the joys of ludus not just in sex but in other forms of play, from tango dancing and performing in amateur theatre to laughing with children around the family dining table. And we must recognize that being drawn too far into self-love, or limiting our love to only a small circle of people, will not be enough to meet our inner need to feel part of a larger whole. So we should all make a place for agape in our lives, and transform love into a gift for strangers. That is how we can reach a point where our lives feel abundant with love.

In a chapter on family, Krznaric explores the lost history of the househusband — presently an exotic species statistically outnumbered by housewives by a ratio of forty to one, and yet a species that used to be far more common in pre-industrial society. In a chapter on empathy, he invokes the famous anecdote of St. Francis swapping his clothes with a beggar in order know what it was like to be a pauper, then writes:

Empathy matters not just because it makes you good, but because it is good for you. It has the power to heal broken relationships, erode our prejudices, expand our curiosity about strangers and make us rethink our ambitions. Ultimately empathy creates the human bonds that make life worth living.

He once again offers an important caveat to our current cultural understanding — or misunderstanding — of empathy:

It is important when thinking about empathy to distinguish it from the so-called Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Although a worthy notion, it is not empathy, since it involves considering how you — with your own views — would wish to be treated. Empathy is harder: it requires imagining others’ views and then acting accordingly. George Bernard Shaw understood the difference when he remarked, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you — they may have different tastes.”

George Orwell

But it is another legendary writer to whom Krznaric points as the “one person who did more than most others to transform this experiential form of empathy into an extreme sport” — George Orwell. Raised in a privileged upper-middle-class British family, with the benefit of an elite education, Orwell found himself suddenly disillusioned with imperialism when he spent five years as a colonial officer in Burma in his early twenties. More than that, he couldn’t live with his own contribution to the system he came to so vehemently disdain — he wrote that the job made him “see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters” and left him oppressed “with an intolerable sense of guilt.” Those five years were Orwell’s training ground for empathy. Krznaric traces how the beloved writer put his own twist on the St. Francis approach:

If Burma was his apprenticeship as an empathist, Orwell’s formative training took place in London in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Determined to be a writer, he came up with a plan that would give him both a literary and a moral education: to conduct a radical experiment in experiencing poverty. He wanted to know what it was really like to be downtrodden, to exist on the margins of society, to be short of food, money and hope. Reading about it was not enough — his aim was to live it.

[…]

So, for several years, Orwell regularly dressed as a tramp in shabby clothes and shoes, and ventured out virtually penniless to frequent the “spikes” — hostels for the homeless — and doss-houses of the East End of London, wandering the streets with beggars and other destitutes. He would stay for anything from a few days to several weeks. At all times he did so without concessions or compromise, without carrying spare money for an emergency or wearing extra layers of clothes against the winter cold.

[…]

Orwell’s empathy grew out of an attempt to liberate himself from his elite background and the imperialism of which he had been a foot soldier. But he also wanted to touch injustice with his own hands rather than be just another clever intellectual who pitied the poor from a comfortable distance. And in this he undoubtedly succeeded.

He also succeeded in showing how empathy was about far more than ethics. His tramping excursions certainly challenged his prejudices and shifted his moral values, but they also gained him new friendships, nurtured his curiosity, expanded his ability to talk to people from different social backgrounds and provided him with a rich seam of literary materials which would last him for years. For a young man who had once worn a top hat at Eton,his experiments in living down and out were an intense, exhilarating and often challenging lesson in life itself, catapulting him out of the narrowness of his privileged past. Trying to survive on the streets of East London was the greatest travel experience he would ever have.

Though Krznaric notes that few of us can go to the extremes Orwell did in our pursuit of embodied empathy, he draws from the writer’s experience a seemingly simple yet, when applied, profound everyday aspiration:

The idea of empathy has distinct moral overtones and is often associated with “being good.” But experiential empathy should really be regarded as an unusual and stimulating form of travel. George Orwell would tell us to forget spending our next vacation at an exotic resort or visiting standard tourist sites. It is far more interesting to expand our minds by taking journeys into other people’s lives — and allowing them to see ours. Rather than asking ourselves, “Where can I go next?,” the question on our lips should be, “Whose shoes can I stand in next?”

But my favorite is a chapter in which Krznaric considers our strange relationship with time — that peculiar dimension of life that we’ve attempted to measure and make palpable since the dawn of, well, time. Given how profoundly metaphors shape our thoughts and emotions, Krznaric makes an especially pause-giving point in exploring how our flawed metaphors for time — much like our flawed metaphors for memory — deform our experience of it:

Our concept of time is similarly structured by metaphors, and we need to become aware of the subtle ways they work on our minds. One of the most prevalent metaphors already mentioned, which emerged during the Industrial Revolution, is of time as a commodity: spending time, buying time, wasting time, saving time, “time is money,” “living on borrowed time.” Another dating from the same period is time as a possession: “my time is my own,” “give me a moment of your time.” These two metaphors, in tandem, constitute the psycholinguistic roots of our problems with time. If our time is like private property, it becomes possible not only for it to be freely granted to others, but possibly owned by them or appropriated at an unfair price against our wishes.

Discus chronologicus by German engraver Christoph Weigel, a timekeeping chart circa 1720s. Click image for details.

I’ve always been extremely wary of the notion of “work-life balance,” which pits work as something undesirable that takes away from the desirable parts of life and must thus be balanced against those, kept to a reasonable level, quarantined. This dichotomy leaves no room for the kind of purposeful work that is life. Curiously, the very concept of “work-life balance” tends to use time as the currency by which balance is measured, so I find Krznaric’s admonition against conceiving of time as a commodity especially resonant when it comes to how we think about work and play:

One manifestation of the “time as a commodity and possession” metaphor is when we talk about taking “time off” from work. This expression is essentially saying that we have given our employer ownership of our time. . . . Each year the firm will give us back a little of our time, usually no more than a few weeks. This vacation period is usually referred to as “time off”; it is their gift to us, a temporary pause in the regular pattern, in which being at work is, by implication, “time on.”

Instead, he proposes we think of leisure as our “time on,” which would imbue our non-work time with value and awaken from the cultural trance that consistently blinds us to how much more precious presence is than productivity.

Krznaric traces the history of time as a commodity to the dawn of the Protestant ethic, which equates productivity and efficiency with virtue. Coupled with that is the cultural legacy of our fear of boredom, beneath which Krznaric finds a deeper anxiety:

On some level we fear boredom. A deeper explanation is that we are afraid that an extended pause would give us the time to realize that our lives are not as meaningful and fulfilled as we would like them to be. The time for contemplation has become an object of fear, a demon.

He argues that we can begin to undo this baleful legacy by borrowing the mindset of Gustave Flaubert, who famously observed that “anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.” Krznaric even proposes a somewhat radical pragmatic intervention: a “chronological diet” that banishes timekeeping devices from your wrist, your smartphone display, and your walls — a tactic, however disorienting at first, that promises to make you “less likely to interrupt a conversation or a thought with a glance at your watch which sends you scuttling off to the next task.”

How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life, an illuminating and awakening read in its entirety, goes on to explore how Michelangelo deformed how we think about creativity and precipitated the dangerous myth of the sole genius, why money is not enough, what the Toltec and Aztec civilizations teach us about our understanding of mortality, and much more. Complement it with George Myerson’s exploration of what history teaches us about attaining everyday happiness.

BP

Famous Writers on New York: Timeless Private Reflections from Diaries, Letters and Personal Essays

Mark Twain, Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir, E. B. White, Washington Irving, Anaïs Nin, Italo Calvino, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

New York City has been the subject of poetic love letters, essayistic homages, emotional cartographies, and artistic tributes. But hardly anything captures the gritty, unfiltered magic of the world’s greatest city than the private recollections of beloved authors, recorded in their journals and correspondence, untainted by the prospect of an evaluating audience. Collected here are some of my favorite such impressions, culled from years of my personal marginalia in famous diaries, letters, and the occasional personal essay.

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from ‘Changing New York.’ Click image for details.

Mark Twain — in between dispensing advice to little girls and criticizing the popular press — makes a laconic note of New York’s unmanageable scale in an 1867 reflection included in the vintage anthology Mirror For Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present (public library):

The only trouble about this town is, that it is too large. You cannot accomplish anything in the way of business, you cannot even pay a friendly call, without devoting a whole day to it — that is, what people call a whole day who do not get up early. Many business men only give audience from eleven to one; therefore, if you miss those hours your affair must go over till next day. Now if you make the time at one place, even though you stay only ten or fifteen minutes, you can hardly get to your next point, because so many things and people will attract your attention and your conversation and curiosity, that the other three quarters of that hour will be frittered away. You have but one hour left, and my experience is that a man cannot go anywhere in New York in an hour. The distances are too great — you must have another day to it. If you have got six things to do, you have got to take six days to do them in.

In the recently released Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — which also gave us the author’s wisdom on writing, America, and the meaning of lifeItalo Calvino writes to his friend Paolo Spriano on Christmas Eve 1959, shortly after receiving a grant from the Ford Foundation to travel around America for six months alongside six other young writers:

New York has swallowed me up like a carnivorous plant swallowing a fly, I have been living a breathless life for fifty days now, here life consists of a series of appointments made a week or a fortnight in advance: lunch, cocktail party, dinner, evening party, these make up the various stages of the day which allow you constantly to meet new people, to make arrangements for other lunches, other dinners, other parties and so on ad infinitum. America (or rather New York, which is something quite separate) is not the land of the unforeseen, but it is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible (I must have spent maybe just one evening on my own out of the fifty I have spent here, and that was because my date with the girl that I had arranged for that evening fell through: here you have to order everything in advance, they are buying theater tickets for March now, and a girl, even if she happens to be your girl at present, has to know a week in advance the evenings she is going out with you otherwise she goes out with someone else).

From the fantastic New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library) — one of the best history books of 2012, which you can sample here — comes this 1947 celebration of New York’s defiant diversity by Simone de Beauvoir:

I’m utterly taken with New York. It’s true that both camps tell me, “New York is not America.” V. irritates me when he declares, “If you like New York, it’s because it’s a European city that’s strayed to the edge of this continent.” It is all too clear that New York is not Europe. But I’m even more distrustful of P., another pro-American Pétain supporter, when he contrasts New York — a city of foreigners and Jews — to the idyllic villages of New England, where the inhabitants are 100 percent American and endowed with patriarchal virtues. We have often heard “the real France” praised this way in contrast to the corruption of Paris.

In another reflection from the same volume, de Beauvoir further marvels at New York’s singular character and medley of complementary contradictions:

In Paris, in Rome, history has permeated the bowels of the ground itself; Paris reaches down into the center of the earth. In New York, even the Battery doesn’t have such deep roots. Beneath the subways, sewers, and heating pipes, the rock is virgin and inhuman. Between this rock and the open sky, Wall Street and Broadway bathe in the shadows of the giant buildings; this morning they belong to nature. The little black church with its cemetery of flat paving stones is as unexpected and touching in the middle of Broadway as a crucifix on a wild ocean beach.

Illustration from ‘Paris vs. New York’ by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

In a 1934 letter to her lifelong friend and then-lover Henry Miller, found in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932–1953 (public library), Anaïs Nin echoes de Beauvoir’s affection for the city:

I’m in love with N.Y. It matches my mood. I’m not overwhelmed. It is the suitable scene for my ever ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically. That’s my last word. Give New York to a poet. He can use it. It can be poetized. Or maybe that’s a mania of mine, to poetize. I live lightly, smoothly, actively, ears and eyes wide open, alert, oiled! I feel a kind of exhilaration and the tempo is like that of my blood. I’m at once beyond, over and in New York, tasting it fully.

But five years later, Nin grows diametrically disillusioned and writes in her diary — which also gave us her timeless wisdom on anxiety and love, how emotional excess fuels creativity, and embracing the unfamiliar — she contrasts New York to her native Paris:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.

In another diary entry a year later, she revisits the contrast with growing fervor:

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen from ‘The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.’ Click image for details.

In a September 22, 1917, letter to her mother and sister — found in the same superb out-of-print anthology that gave us the poet’s reflections on the love of music, her playfully lewd self-portrait, and the story of how she was almost banned from her own graduation — 18-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay grumbles with her signature wry wit:

There is no air on 5th Avenue, there is nothing but oil & old gasoline & new gasoline — there is never one breath of pure air — nothing but gas, gas, gas — but people who live in New York walk there to get air. Probably they do get it — all of it — & that’s why it blows to me so scummily.

She later adds:

There is a beautiful anonymity about life in New York.

Three years later, in another letter to her mother, Millay grows exasperated with the city:

New York life is getting too congested for me — too many people; I get no time to work.

Washington Irving shares Millay’s frustration with the city’s density. How endearing and comic to consider that, in this 1847 letter to his sister who hadn’t seen her native city in over forty years, he compares New York (current population: 8.3 million) to Frankfurt (current population: 691,000) in an effort to capture its bustling expansiveness:

I often think what a strange world you would find yourself in, if you could revisit your native place, and mingle among your relatives. New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city ; and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt — all but our little native nest in William street, which still retains some of its old features, though those are daily altering. I can hardly realize that, within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life, bustle, noise, show, and splendor, was a quiet little city of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most racketing cities in the world, and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort, for instance) in the time of an annual fair. Here it is a fair almost all the year round. For my part, I dread the noise and turmoil of it, and visit it but now and then, preferring the quiet of my country retreat; which shows that the bustling time of life is over with me, and that I am settling down into a sober, quiet, good-for-nothing old gentleman.

Unlike Irving, E. B. White found in the city’s exuberant turmoil cause for awe rather than distress. In Here Is New York (public library), one of the best books about Gotham, he captures the city’s vibrant whimsy in his breathlessly beautiful prose:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Malcolm Gladwell’s hand-drawn personal memory map of Manhattan. Click image for details.

26-year-old Susan Sontag writes in an 1959 diary entry, found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library), which also gave us her meditations on art, marriage, life, and the four people any great writer must be:

The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here … In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality — no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt … Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

Adjusting to the city vs. making the city answer better to the self.

Also in New York Diaries, Randy Cohen notes Gotham’s curious customs, which take on a wholly different context than their practice anywhere else:

New York is not Mexico City, but twice a year, we parents at the 96th Street school-bus stop collect money for Mr. R., the driver. “You have to give, or he’ll drop your kid in Times Square alone,” someone jokes. And it is a joke. New York is not Lagos, Mr. R. is a responsible man, and the money is a gift.

The Chrysler Building by James Gulliver Hancock from ‘All the Buildings in New York.’ Click image for details.

But perhaps most poignant and timeless of all is this meta-meditation on writing about New York from The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library). In a diary entry dated April 3, 1976, the celebrated author and literary sage reflects:

The impulse of every writer is to create a fictional world that represents the “real” world in abbreviated, heightened, poetic fashion. … Philip Roth’s New York is his own no less than Beckett’s interior landscapes are his own. Otherwise there would be little pleasure in art: it would be a mere attempt at reportage.

New York, to Oates, is the realest and most pleasurable of worlds. In another diary entry several weeks later, she rejoices in the city’s imminent promise:

Leaving tomorrow for my parents’, then to NYC… Poetry reading Monday evening. Then: freedom to explore New York. Our favorite city. The only city.

After the “totally enjoyable, many-faceted visit,” Oates captures New York’s polarizing mesmerism:

The undeniable attraction of that city: its pulse, atmosphere, people. (NYC is much maligned by the rest of the country out of resentment, one suspects. There is only one city in the United States and the others are envious.)

For more on the private joys and tribulations this “only city” has afforded some of literary history’s greatest icons, revisit the wonderful New York Diaries, then celebrate its dimensional magic with these 10 favorite books on Gotham’s glory.

BP

Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Science and Life: Timeless Wisdom from Her Diaries

“The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”

Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) played an enormous and lasting role in paving the way for women in science. The first recognized female astronomer in America and the first woman elected, unanimously, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mitchell (whose first name is pronounced, unlike mine, mə-RYE-əh) is also considered the first woman employed for a non-domestic specialized skill by the U.S. federal government. She was paid $300 a year for her job as a “computer of Venus” for the United States Nautical Almanac, a mathematically heavy endeavor requiring that she synthesize complex calculations into charts that predicted Venus’s position in the sky for years ahead — information that sailors all over the world used for critical celestial navigation. A champion of civil rights and women’s education, Mitchell reached worldwide celebrity by the time she was forty. Her brilliant mind and scientific genius were eclipsed only by her enormous kindness and her unrelenting humility.

Culled here from Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free ebook) is Mitchell’s most timeless wisdom on science, society, and life.

Maria Mitchell. Portrait by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project.

On October 31, 1853, Mitchell writes in her diary:

People have to learn sometimes not only how much the heart, but how much the head, can bear.

(More than half a century later, Zelda Fitzgerald would come to echo the lament in her own private writings.)

A month later, she writes:

There is said to be no up or down in creation, but I think the world must be low, for people who keep themselves constantly before it do a great deal of stooping!

In September of 1854, her journal bespeaks her remarkable work ethic — of which Tchaikovsky and Jack White would be proud, as would Isabel Allende, E. B. White, and Chuck Close — coupled with her keen self-awareness:

I made observations for three hours last night, and am almost ill to-day from fatigue; still I have worked all day, trying to reduce the places, and mean to work hard again to-night.

[…]

The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.

On October 17, 1854, as she observes the way her computations reveal both how much she knows and how much she has yet to learn, Mitchell marvels:

The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.

Will it really unroll to us at some future time? Aside from the gratification of the affections in another world, that of the intellect must be great if it is enlarged and its desires are the same.

Like Ptolemy, Mitchell finds enormous revelry and transcendence in astronomy — something Carl Sagan would come to echo more than a century later in his meditation on science and spirituality. Mitchell writes:

One gets attached (if the term may be used) to certain midnight apparitions. The Aurora Borealis is always a pleasant companion; a meteor seems to come like a messenger from departed spirits; and the blossoming of trees in the moonlight becomes a sight looked for with pleasure.

Aside from the study of astronomy, there is the same enjoyment in a night upon the housetop, with the stars, as in the midst of other grand scenery; there is the same subdued quiet and grateful seriousness; a calm to the troubled spirit, and a hope to the desponding.

And later:

Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. ‘All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.’

In fact, Mitchell harbored enormous admiration for the early astronomers, framed by her appreciation of how knowledge evolves:

They were wonderful men, the early astronomers. That was a great conception, which now seems to us so simple, that the earth turns upon its axis, and a still greater one that it revolves about the sun (to show this last was worth a man’s lifetime, and it really almost cost the life of Galileo). Somehow we are ready to think that they had a wider field than we for speculation, that truth being all unknown it was easier to take the first step in its paths. But is the region of truth limited? Is it not infinite?… We know a few things which were once hidden, and being known they seem easy; but there are the flashings of the Northern Lights — ‘Across the lift they start and shift;’ there is the conical zodiacal beam seen so beautifully in the early evenings of spring and the early mornings of autumn; there are the startling comets, whose use is all unknown; there are the brightening and flickering variable stars, whose cause is all unknown; and the meteoric showers — and for all of these the reasons are as clear as for the succession of day and night; they lie just beyond the daily mist of our minds, but our eyes have not yet pierced through it.

Mitchell — who, by the end of her life, greatly prided herself on having earned a salary for 50 uninterrupted years — had her first job as a librarian at Nantucket’s legendary Atheneum. There, she further cultivated the love of books amidst which she had grown up. In a diary entry from January of 1855, she captures with remarkable eloquence the greatest — and, today, tragically forgotten — responsibility of the true librarian (or writer, or editor, or curator): To invite people beyond the frontiers of their existing knowledge, to elevate them, to broaden their curiosity rather than catering to their familiar wants:

I do not suppose that such works as those issued by the Smithsonian regents are appreciated by all who turn them over, but the ignorant learn that such things exist; they perceive that a higher cultivation than theirs is in the world, and they are stimulated to strive after greater excellence. So I steadily advocate, in purchasing books for the Atheneum, the lifting of the people. ‘Let us buy, not such books as the people want, but books just above their wants, and they will reach up to take what is put out for them.’

“The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life,” mused Seneca in Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, and Mitchell articulates a parallel sentiment in September of 1855:

To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy; but there are no laws for your individual case — yours is one of a myriad.

During her European tour in 1858, Mitchell visits England’s Greenwich Observatory and presages Brian Cox’s recent meditation on science as a prerequisite for democracy and progress, and observes:

It is singular what a quiet motive-power Science is, the breath of a nation’s progress.

To be sure, Mitchell’s interests — as is typical of most great scientists — spanned well beyond science. She had a profound appreciation for beauty, poetry, and art. As this charming gripe from a diary entry during the same visit indicates, she was also a budding book design critic and indignant defender of literature’s sanctity:

I was vexed when I saw some of our most miserable novels, bound in showy yellow and red, exposed for sale. A friend told me that they had copied from the cheap publications of America. It may be so, but they have outdone us in the cheapness of the material and the showy covers. I never saw yellow and red together on any American book.

Indeed, she saw the appreciation of art as a kind of mental discipline and spiritual hygiene:

Health of body is not only an accompaniment of health of mind, but is the cause; the converse may be true, — that health of mind causes health of body; but we all know that intellectual cheer and vivacity act upon the mind. If the gymnastic exercise helps the mind, the concert or the theatre improves the health of the body.

Mitchell was also a keen observer of human nature. In visiting with a revered elderly Cambridge astronomer who was unable to articulate what steps precipitated his discovery of a new planet, Mitchell observes:

It is always so — you cannot get a man of genius to explain steps, he leaps.

In another journal entry, she considers what modern psychology has since demonstrated and Anaïs Nin has eloquently echoed — the notion that our character and sense of self is a constantly evolving mosaic rather than a static sculpture:

The same individual is not the same at all times; so that between two individuals there is a mean or middle individual, and each individual has a mean or middle self, which is not the man of to-day, nor the man of yesterday, nor the man of to-morrow; but a middle man among these different selves….

In visiting Italy and reflecting on Galileo’s legacy, Mitchell considers the friction between science and religion — a friction bemoaned before her by Galileo himself and after her by Neil deGrasee Tyson and countless contemporary thinkers:

I know of no picture in the history of religion more weakly pitiable than that of the Holy Church trembling before Galileo, and denouncing him because he found in the Book of Nature truths not stated in their own Book of God — forgetting that the Book of Nature is also a Book of God.

It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict.

Mitchell herself found enormous beauty and revelry in her science. In an entry from February of 1853, she writes:

I am just learning to notice the different colors of the stars, and already begin to have a new enjoyment. Betelgeuse is strikingly red, while Rigel is yellow. There is something of the same pleasure in noticing the hues that there is in looking at a collection of precious stones, or at a flower-garden in autumn. Blue stars I do not yet see, and but little lilac except through the telescope.

Two years later, she returns to this sacred source of colorful awe:

I swept around for comets about an hour, and then I amused myself with noticing the varieties of color. I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety. … What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars, and astonish the feminine taste by new brilliancy in fashion.

Still, Mitchell’s loyalties remained unflinchingly rooted in the heart of science. Another journal entry:

All their book learning in astronomy should be mathematical. The astronomy which is not mathematical is what is so ludicrously called “Geography of the Heavens” — is not astronomy at all.

After the Civil War, Mitchell was invited to teach at the prestigious new Vassar College, where she was the only woman on the faculty. Frustrated with the conservative mindset of even an institution as liberal as Vassar, Mitchell writes in her diary on October 31, 1866:

We wait and ask for precedent. If the earth had waited for a precedent, it never would have turned on its axis!

Mitchell laments in a diary entry from 1866:

The phrase ‘popular science’ has in itself a touch of absurdity. That knowledge which is popular is not scientific.

She later adds:

One of the unfavorable results of the attempt to popularize science is this: the reader of popular scientific books is very likely to think that he understands the science itself, when he merely understands what some writer says about science.

(How proud and thrilled she would’ve been to see the work of such revered science-popularizers as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Brian Cox, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.)

In a sentiment Feynman himself would come to echo in his meditation on the role of scientific culture in modern society, Mitchell laments:

This ignorance of the masses leads to a misconception in two ways; the little that a scientist can do, they do not understand, — they suppose him to be godlike in his capacity, and they do not see results; they overrate him and they underrate him — they underrate his work.

And yet Mitchell did very much believe in inviting “the masses” into the whimsy of science:

It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.

But perhaps she saw the challenge of engaging with science as one of will, not acumen — in another diary entry, she writes:

Great is the self-denial of those who follow science.

In 1871, she extols the critical role of imagination in science:

We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.

Mitchell brings her generosity of spirit, her humility, and optimistic curiosity to her travels, debunking the American-abroad stereotype. Visiting Prussia, she writes:

I try, when I am abroad, to see in what they are superior to us, — not in what they are inferior.

Our great idea is, of course, freedom and self-government; probably in that we are ahead of the rest of the world, although we are certainly not so much in advance as we suppose; but we are sufficiently inflated with our own greatness to let that subject take care of itself when we travel. We travel to learn; and I have never been in any country where they did not do something better than we do it, think some thoughts better than we think, catch some inspiration from heights above our own — as in the art of Italy, the learning of England, and the philosophy of Germany.

In her typical fashion of observing a small circumstance and extrapolating from it a grand truth about life, Mitchell writes while encountering travel difficulties due to two warring railroads in Russia:

War, no matter where or when it occurs, means ignorance and stupidity.

And yet Mitchell was a relentless optimist when it came to the capacity of the human mind and spirit. In a diary entry, chronicling her observation of the Denver solar eclipse in 1878, she writes:

We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more are we capable of seeing.

Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals is absolutely fantastic in its entirety, a remarkable glimpse of a remarkable mind that shaped modern society in ways we’re only just beginning to fully realize. Do yourself a favor and grab the free download.

UPDATE: Find more of Maria Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.

BP

Why Time Slows Down When We’re Afraid, Speeds Up as We Age, and Gets Warped on Vacation

“Time perception matters because it is the experience of time that roots us in our mental reality.”

Given my soft spot for famous diaries, it should come as no surprise that I keep one myself. Perhaps the greatest gift of the practice has been the daily habit of reading what I had written on that day a year earlier; not only is it a remarkable tool of introspection and self-awareness, but it also illustrates that our memory “is never a precise duplicate of the original [but] a continuing act of creation” and how flawed our perception of time is — almost everything that occurred a year ago appears as having taken place either significantly further in the past (“a different lifetime,” I’d often marvel at this time-illusion) or significantly more recently (“this feels like just last month!”). Rather than a personal deficiency of those of us befallen by this tendency, however, it turns out to be a defining feature of how the human mind works, the science of which is at first unsettling, then strangely comforting, and altogether intensely interesting.

That’s precisely what acclaimed BBC broadcaster and psychology writer Claudia Hammond explores in Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception (public library) — a fascinating foray into the idea that our experience of time is actively created by our own minds and how these sensations of what neuroscientists and psychologists call “mind time” are created. As disorienting as the concept might seem — after all, we’ve been nursed on the belief that time is one of those few utterly reliable and objective things in life — it is also strangely empowering to think that the very phenomenon depicted as the unforgiving dictator of life is something we might be able to shape and benefit from. Hammond writes:

We construct the experience of time in our minds, so it follows that we are able to change the elements we find troubling — whether it’s trying to stop the years racing past, or speeding up time when we’re stuck in a queue, trying to live more in the present, or working out how long ago we last saw our old friends. Time can be a friend, but it can also be an enemy. The trick is to harness it, whether at home, at work, or even in social policy, and to work in line with our conception of time. Time perception matters because it is the experience of time that roots us in our mental reality. Time is not only at the heart of the way we organize life, but the way we experience it.

Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time by German engraver Christoph Weigel, published in the early 1720s; from Cartographies of Time. (Click for details)

Among the most intriguing illustrations of “mind time” is the incredible elasticity of how we experience time. (“Where is it, this present?,” William James famously wondered. “It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”) For instance, Hammond points out, we slow time down when gripped by mortal fear — the cliche about the slow-motion car crash is, in fact, a cognitive reality. This plays out even in situations that aren’t life-or-death per se but are still associated with strong feelings of fear. Hammond points to a study in which people with arachnophobia were asked to look at spiders — the very object of their intense fear — for 45 seconds and they overestimated the elapsed time. The same pattern was observed in novice skydivers, who estimated the duration of their peers’ falls as short, whereas their own, from the same altitude, were deemed longer.

Inversely, time seems to speed up as we get older — a phenomenon of which competing theories have attempted to make light. One, known as the “proportionality theory,” uses pure mathematics, holding that a year feels faster when you’re 40 than when you’re 8 because it only constitutes one fortieth of your life rather than a whole eighth. Among its famous proponents are Vladimir Nabokov and William James. But Hammond remains unconvinced:

The problem with the proportionality theory is that it fails to account for the way we experience time at any one moment. We don’t judge one day in the context of our whole lives. If we did, then for a 40-year-old every single day should flash by because it is less than one fourteen-thousandth of the life they’ve had so far. It should be fleeting and inconsequential, yet if you have nothing to do or an enforced wait at an airport for example, a day at 40 can still feel long and boring and surely longer than a fun day at the seaside packed with adventure for a child. … It ignores attention and emotion, which … can have a considerable impact on time perception.

Another theory suggests that perhaps it is the tempo of life in general that has accelerated, making things from the past appear as slower, including the passage of time itself.

But one definite change does take place with age: As we grow older, we tend to feel like the previous decade elapsed more rapidly, while the earlier decades of our lives seem to have lasted longer. Similarly, we tend to think of events that took place in the past 10 years as having happened more recently than they actually did. (Quick: What year did the devastating Japanese tsunami hit? When did we lose Maurice Sendak?) Conversely, we perceive events that took place more than a decade ago as having happened even longer ago. (When did Princess Diana die? What year was the Chernobyl disaster?) This, Hammond points out, is known as “forward telescoping”:

It is as though time has been compressed and — as if looking through a telescope — things seem closer than they really are. The opposite is called backward or reverse telescoping, also known as time expansion. This is when you guess that events happened longer ago than they really did. This is rare for distant events, but not uncommon for recent weeks.

[…]

The most straightforward explanation for it is called the clarity of memory hypothesis, proposed by the psychologist Norman Bradburn in 1987. This is the simple idea that because we know that memories fade over time, we use the clarity of a memory as a guide to its recency. So if a memory seems unclear we assume it happened longer ago.

And yet the brain does keep track of time, even if inaccurately. Hammond explains the factors that come into play with our inner chronometry:

It is clear that however the brain counts time, it has a system that is very flexible. It takes account of [factors like] emotions, absorption, expectations, the demands of a task and even the temperature .The precise sense we are using also makes a difference; an auditory event appears longer than a visual one. Yet somehow the experience of time created by the mind feels very real, so real that we feel we know what to expect from it, and are perpetually surprised whenever it confuses us by warping.

In fact, memory — which is itself a treacherous act of constant transformation with each recollection — is intricately related to this warping process:

We know that time has an impact on memory, but it is also memory that creates and shapes our experience of time. Our perception of the past moulds our experience of time in the present to a greater degree than we might realize. It is memory that creates the peculiar, elastic properties of time. It not only gives us the ability to conjure up a past experience at will, but to reflect on those thoughts through autonoetic consciousness — the sense that we have of ourselves as existing across time — allowing us to re-experience a situation mentally and to step outside those memories to consider their accuracy.

But, curiously, we are most likely to vividly remember experiences we had between the ages of 15 and 25. What the social sciences might simply call “nostalgia” psychologists have termed the “reminiscence bump” and, Hammond argues, it could be the key to why we feel like time speeds up as we get older:

The reminiscence bump involves not only the recall of incidents; we even remember more scenes from the films we saw and the books we read in our late teens and early twenties. … The bump can be broken down even further — the big news events that we remember best tend to have happened earlier in the bump, while our most memorable personal experiences are in the second half.

[…]

The key to the reminiscence bump is novelty. The reason we remember our youth so well is that it is a period where we have more new experiences than in our thirties or forties. It’s a time for firsts — first sexual relationships, first jobs, first travel without parents, first experience of living away from home, the first time we get much real choice over the way we spend our days. Novelty has such a strong impact on memory that even within the bump we remember more from the start of each new experience.

Most fascinating of all, however, is the reason the “reminiscence bump” happens in the first place: Hammond argues that because memory and identity are so closely intertwined, it is in those formative years, when we’re constructing our identity and finding our place in the world, that our memory latches onto particularly vivid details in order to use them later in reinforcing that identity. Interestingly, Hammond points out, people who undergo a major transformation of identity later in life — say, changing careers or coming out — tend to experience a second identity bump, which helps them reconcile and consolidate their new identity.

So what makes us date events more accurately? Hammond sums up the research:

You are most likely to remember the timing of an event if it was distinctive, vivid, personally involving and is a tale you have recounted many times since.

But one of the most enchanting instances of time-warping is what Hammond calls the Holiday Paradox — “the contradictory feeling that a good holiday whizzes by, yet feels long when you look back.” (An “American translation” might term it the Vacation Paradox.) Her explanation of its underlying mechanisms is reminiscent of legendary psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s theory of the clash between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”. Hammond explains:

The Holiday Paradox is caused by the fact that we view time in our minds in two very different ways — prospectively and retrospectively. Usually these two perspectives match up, but it is in all the circumstances where we remark on the strangeness of time that they don’t.

[…]

We constantly use both prospective and retrospective estimation to gauge time’s passing. Usually they are in equilibrium, but notable experiences disturb that equilibrium, sometimes dramatically. This is also the reason we never get used to it, and never will. We will continue to perceive time in two ways and continue to be struck by its strangeness every time we go on holiday.

Like the “reminiscence bump,” the Holiday Paradox has to do with the quality and concentration of new experiences, especially in contrast to familiar daily routines. During ordinary life, time appears to pass at a normal pace, and we use markers like the start of the workday, weekends, and bedtime to assess the rhythm of things. But once we go on vacation, the stimulation of new sights, sounds, and experiences injects a disproportionate amount of novelty that causes these two types of time to misalign. The result is a warped perception of time.

Ultimately, this source of great mystery and frustration also holds the promise of great liberation and empowerment. Hammond concludes:

We will never have total control over this extraordinary dimension. Time will warp and confuse and baffle and entertain however much we learn about its capacities. But the more we learn, the more we can shape it to our will and destiny. We can slow it down or speed it up. We can hold on to the past more securely and predict the future more accurately. Mental time-travel is one of the greatest gifts of the mind. It makes us human, and it makes us special.

Time Warped, a fine addition to these essential reads on time, goes on to explore such philosophically intriguing and practically useful questions as how our internal clocks dictate our lives, what the optimal pace of productivity might be, and why inhabiting life with presence is the only real way to master time. Pair it with this remarkable visual history of humanity’s depictions of time.

Photographs: Public domain images unless otherwise noted

BP

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