In praise of the leader “to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value, yet who, if his play be true, heeds not what he loses by the falsehood of others.”
By Maria Popova
At age six, Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850) was reading in Latin. At twelve, she was conversing with her father in philosophy and pure mathematics. By fifteen, she had mastered French, Italian, and Greek, and was reading two or three lectures in philosophy every morning for mental discipline. In her short life, Fuller — one of the central figures in my book Figuring, and the person whom Emerson considered his greatest influence — would go on to write the foundational treatise of American women’s emancipation movement, author the most trusted literary and art criticism in America, work as the first female editor for a major New York newspaper and the only woman in the newsroom, advocate for prison reform and African American voting rights, and become America’s first foreign war correspondent, trekking through war-torn Rome while seven months pregnant. In her advocacy for African American, Native American, and women’s rights, Fuller would ardently espouse the simple, difficult truth that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble.” All of this she would accomplish while bedeviled by debilitating chronic pain at the base of her neck — the result of a congenital spinal deformity that made it difficult to tilt her head down in order to write and was often accompanied by acute depression.
In her thirty-third year, in the midst of heartbreak, Fuller left her native New England to journey westward into the largely unfathomed frontiers of the country. She returned home transformed, awakened to new social, political, and existential realities. Eager to supplement her observations with historical research, she persuaded the Harvard library to grant her access to its book collection — the largest in the nation. No woman had previously been admitted for more than a tour. She then set about relaying her impressions and insights, ranging from a stunning portrait of Niagara Falls to a poignant account of the fate of the displaced Native American tribes with whom she sympathized and spent time. This became Fuller’s first book, Summer on the Lakes — part travelogue, part anthropological study, and part political treatise.
At the heart of the book — which greatly inspired the astronomer Maria Mitchell, another key figure in Figuring — was the search for truth of a higher order. Punctuating Fuller’s lyrical prose are sentiments worn all the truer by time. In a passage that should be emblazoned on every voting ballot (and composed before what Ursula K. Le Guin wryly termed “the invention of women,” when every woman was “man”), Fuller observes:
This country… needs… no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the heavens, while his feet step firmly on the ground, and his hands are strong and dexterous for the use of human implements… a man of universal sympathies, but self-possessed; a man who knows the region of emotion, though he is not its slave; a man to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value, yet who, if his play be true, heeds not what he loses by the falsehood of others; a man who hives from the past, yet knows that its honey can but moderately avail him; whose comprehensive eye scans the present, neither infatuated by its golden lures, nor chilled by its many ventures; who possesses prescience, the gift which discerns tomorrow — when there is such a man for America, the thought which urges her on will be expressed.
“We may be born alone, but childhood ends with a synchrony of clocks, as we lend ourselves fully to the contagion of time.”
By Maria Popova
When I was growing up, my father — a kind man of quick intellect and encyclopedic knowledge about esoteric subjects — had, and still has, one habit that never failed to make other people uneasy and to infuriate my mother: In conversation, the interval of time that elapses between the other person’s sentiment or question and my father’s response greatly exceeds the average, a lapse swelling with Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity.”
At first, one might suspect that my father is taking an incubatory pause to produce a considered response. But, soon, it becomes apparent that these disorienting durations have no correlation with the complexity of the question — even when asked something as simple as the time of day, he would often let miniature eternities pass and lasso the other person in anxiety as the contrast between the natural response time and my father’s gapes its discomfiting abyss of ambiguity.
It turns out that my father’s liberal pauses are so discomposing because our experience of time has a central social component — an internal clock inheres in our capacity for intersubjectivity, intuitively governing our social interactions and the interpersonal mirroring that undergirds the human capacity for empathy.
Burdick begins at the beginning — the ur-question of how the universe originated from nothing and what this means for time, a question at the heart of the landmark 1922 debate between Einstein and Bergson that shaped our modern understanding of time. Burdick asks:
For argument’s sake, I’ll accept that perhaps the universe did not exist before the Big Bang — but it exploded in something, right? What was that? What was there before the beginning? Proposing such questions, the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has said, is like standing at the South Pole and asking which way is south: “Earlier times simply would not be defined.”
Nearly a century after Borges’s exquisite refutation of time in language — “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” — Burdick adds with an eye to the inherent limitations of our metaphors:
Perhaps Hawking is trying to be reassuring. What he seems to mean is that human language has a limit. We (or at least the rest of us) reach this boundary whenever we ponder the cosmic. We imagine by analogy and metaphor: that strange and vast thing is like this smaller, more familiar thing. The universe is a cathedral, a clockworks, an egg. But the parallels ultimately diverge; only an egg is an egg. Such analogies appeal precisely because they are tangible elements of the universe. As terms, they are self-contained — but they cannot contain the container that holds them. So it is with time. Whenever we talk about it, we do so in terms of something lesser. We find or lose time, like a set of keys; we save and spend it, like money. Time creeps, crawls, flies, flees, flows, and stands still; it is abundant or scarce; it weighs on us with palpable heft.
Yet whatever one calls it, we share a rough idea of what’s meant: a lasting sense of one’s self moving in a sea of selves, dependent yet alone; a sense, or perhaps a deep and common wish, that I somehow belongs to we, and that this we belongs to something even larger and less comprehensible; and the recurring thought, so easy to brush aside in the daily effort to cross the street safely and get through one’s to-do list, much less to confront the world’s true crises, that my time, our time, matters precisely because it ends.
From the temporal meditations of the ancient philosophers to the last hundred years of ingenious psychological experiments, Burdick goes on to explore such aspects of his subject — a nearly infinite subject, to be sure, which makes his endeavor all the more impressive — as why time dilates and contracts depending on whether we are having fun or facing danger, how fetuses are able to coordinate their circadian activity, and what we are actually measuring when we speak of keeping time. In a fascinating chapter detailing the complex ecosystem of time-making — the inventions, standardizations, and global teams of scientists responsible for measuring and synchronizing earthly time — Burdick reflects on the tremendous coordination of human efforts keeping the world’s clocks ticking:
Time is a social phenomenon. This property is not incidental to time; it is its essence. Time, equally in single cells as in their human conglomerates, is the engine of interaction. A single clock works only as long as it refers, sooner or later, obviously or not, to the other clocks around it. One can rage about it, and we do. But without a clock and the dais of time, we each rage in silence, alone.
But our technologies are always prosthetic extensions of our consciousness — time, it turns out, is an innately social phenomenon not only in how it is measured, but in how it is experienced. Burdick cites the research of French neuropsychologist Sylvie Droit-Volet, who studies the warping of our temporal perception. In one experiment, she presented people with images of human faces — some neutral, some happy, some angry, some frightened — each displayed on the screen for anywhere between half a second to a second and a half. The research subjects were then asked to evaluate how long the faces appeared for.
She found that across images displayed for the same duration, happy faces were perceived to last longer than neutral ones and shorter than angry or fearful ones. Burdick explains:
The key ingredient seems to be a physiological response called arousal, which isn’t what you might think. In experimental psychology, “arousal” refers to the degree to which the body is preparing itself to act in some manner. It’s measured through heart rate and the skin’s electrical conductivity; sometimes subjects are asked to rate their own arousal in comparison to images of faces or puppet figures. Arousal can be thought of as the physiological expression of one’s emotions or, perhaps, as a precursor of physical action; in practice there may be little difference. By standard measures, anger is the most arousing emotion, for viewer and angry person alike, followed by fear, then happiness, then sadness. Arousal is thought to accelerate the pacemaker, causing more ticks than usual to accumulate in a given interval, thereby making emotionally laden images seem to last longer than others of equal duration… Physiologists and psychologists think of arousal as a primed physical state — not moving but poised to move. When we see movement, even implied movement in a static image, the thinking goes, we enact that movement internally. In a sense, arousal is a measure of your ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.
We perform this kind of emotional mimicry intuitively and incessantly over the course of our daily social interactions, in some degree donning the emotional and mental outfit of each person with whom we come into close contact. But we are also, apparently, absorbing each other’s sense of time, which is encoded in our psychoemotional states. In another study, Droit-Volet found that research subjects perceived images of elderly faces to last shorter than they actually did and misjudged the duration of young faces in the opposite direction — viewers were essentially embodying the typically slower movements of the elderly. Burdick explains:
A slower clock ticks less often in a given interval of time; fewer ticks accumulate, so the interval is judged to be briefer than it actually is. Perceiving or remembering an elderly person induces the viewer to reenact, or simulate, their bodily states, namely their slow movement.
Our shared temporal distortions can be thought of as manifestations of empathy; after all, to embody another’s time is to place oneself in his or her skin. We imitate each other’s gestures and emotions — but we’re more likely to do so, studies find, with people with whom we identify or whose company we would like to share.
Life dictates that we possess some sort of internal mechanism to keep time and monitor brief durations — yet the one we carry around can be thrown off course by the least emotional breeze. What’s the point of owning such a fallible clock? … Maybe there’s another way to think about it, Droit-Volet suggests. It’s not that our clock doesn’t run well; on the contrary, it’s superb at adapting to the ever-changing social and emotional environment that we navigate every day. The time that I perceive in social settings isn’t solely mine, nor is there just one cast to it, which is part of what gives our social interactions their shading. “There is thus no unique, homogeneous time but instead multiple experiences of time,” Droit-Volet writes in one paper. “Our temporal distortions directly reflect the way our brain and body adapt to these multiple times.” She quotes the philosopher Henri Bergson: “On doit mettre de côte le temps unique, seuls comptent les temps multiples, ceux de l’expérience.” We must put aside the idea of a single time, all that counts are the multiple times that make up experience.
Our slightest social exchanges — our glances, our smiles and frowns — gain potency from our ability to synchronize them among ourselves, Droit-Volet notes. We bend time to make time with one another, and the many temporal distortions we experience are indicators of empathy; the better able I am to envisage myself in your body and your state of mind, and you in mine, the better we can each recognize a threat, an ally, a friend, or someone in need. But empathy is a fairly sophisticated trait, a mark of emotional adulthood; it takes learning and time. As children grow and develop empathy, they gain a better sense of how to navigate the social world. Put another way, it may be that a critical aspect of growing up is learning how to bend our time in step with others. We may be born alone, but childhood ends with a synchrony of clocks, as we lend ourselves fully to the contagion of time.
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”
By Maria Popova
In every life, there comes a time when we are razed to the bone of our resilience by losses beyond our control — lacerations of the heart that feel barely bearable, that leave us bereft of solid ground. What then?
“In art,” Kafka assured his teenage walking companion, “one must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.” As in art, so in life — so suggests the American Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön. In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (public library), she draws on her own confrontation with personal crisis and on the ancient teachings of Tibetan Buddhism to offer gentle and incisive guidance to the enormity we stand to gain during those times when all seems to be lost. Half a century after Albert Camus asserted that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” Chödrön reframes those moments of acute despair as opportunities for befriending life by befriending ourselves in the deepest sense.
Writing in that Buddhist way of wrapping in simple language the difficult and beautiful truths of existence, Chödrön examines the most elemental human response to the uncharted territory that comes with loss or any other species of unforeseen change:
Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.
If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.
This clarity, Chödrön argues, is a matter of becoming intimate with fear and rather than treating it as a problem to be solved, using it as a tool with which to dismantle all of our familiar structures of being, “a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking.” Noting that bravery is not the absence of fear but the intimacy with fear, she writes:
When we really begin to do this, we’re going to be continually humbled. There’s not going to be much room for the arrogance that holding on to ideals can bring. The arrogance that inevitably does arise is going to be continually shot down by our own courage to step forward a little further. The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually.
In essence, this is the hard work of befriending ourselves, which is our only mechanism for befriending life in its completeness. Out of that, Chödrön argues, arises our deepest strength:
Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.
Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
Decades after Rollo May made his case for the constructiveness of despair, Chödrön considers the fundamental choice we have in facing our unsettlement — whether with aggressive aversion or with generative openness to possibility:
Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.
To stay with that shakiness — to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge — that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic — this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation — harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.
Half a century after Alan Watts began introducing Eastern teachings into the West with his clarion call for presence as the antidote to anxiety, Chödrön points to the present moment — however uncertain, however difficult — as the sole seedbed of wakefulness to all of life:
This very moment is the perfect teacher, and it’s always with us.
We can be with what’s happening and not dissociate. Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.
Remaining present and intimate with the moment, she argues, requires mastering maitri — the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness toward oneself, that most difficult art of self-compassion. She contrasts maitri with the typical Western therapy and self-help method of handling crises:
What makes maitri such a different approach is that we are not trying to solve a problem. We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart. This starts with realizing that whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just the same kind of normal human experience that’s been happening to everyday people from the beginning of time. Thoughts, emotions, moods, and memories come and they go, and basic nowness is always here.
In the midst of all the heavy dialogue with ourselves, open space is always there.
Another Buddhist concept at odds with our Western coping mechanisms is the Tibetan expression ye tang che. Chödrön explains its connotations, evocative of Camus’s insistence on the vitalizing power of despair:
The ye part means “totally, completely,” and the rest of it means “exhausted.” Altogether, ye tang che means totally tired out. We might say “totally fed up.” It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope. This is an important point. This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope — that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be — we will never relax with where we are or who we are.
Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.
Decades after Simone de Beauvoir’s proclamation about atheism and the ultimate frontier of hope, Chödrön points out that at the heart of Buddhism’s approach is not the escapism of religion but the realism of secular philosophy. And yet these crude demarcations fail to capture the subtlety of these teachings. She clarifies:
The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God… Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.
Hopelessness is the basic ground. Otherwise, we’re going to make the journey with the hope of getting security… Begin the journey without hope of getting ground under your feet. Begin with hopelessness.
When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself… In the midst of loneliness, in the midst of fear, in the middle of feeling misunderstood and rejected is the heartbeat of all things.
Only through such active self-compassion to our own darkness, Chödrön suggests, can we begin to offer authentic light to anybody else, to become a force of radiance in the world. She writes:
We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.
This temporal tension between the immediate and the eternal is one of the core characteristics and defining frustrations of the human experience — over and over, we strain to locate ourselves within time, against time, grasping for solid ground while aswirl in its unstoppable flow. We struggle to hold it all with what Bertrand Russell called “a largeness of contemplation,” but we continually suffer at the smallness of our temporal existence — suffering reflected in our cultural fascination with time travel, which illuminates the central mystery of human consciousness.
How to inhabit the time-scale of our existence without suffering and fill the moment with eternity is what the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) explores in a portion of his 1844 classic The Concept of Anxiety, later included in the indispensable volume The Essential Kierkegaard (public library).
A century before Borges’s famous proclamation — “time is the substance I am made of” — and more than a century and a half before Einstein revolutionized human thought by annealing our two primary modes of existence to one another in the single entity of spacetime, Kierkegaard writes:
Man … is a synthesis of psyche and body, but he is also a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal.
If time is correctly defined as an infinite succession, it most likely is also defined as the present, the past, and the future. This distinction, however, is incorrect if it is considered to be implicit in time itself, because the distinction appears only through the relation of time to eternity and through the reflection of eternity in time. If in the infinite succession of time a foothold could be found, i.e., a present, which was the dividing point, the division would be quite correct. However, precisely because every moment, as well as the sum of the moments, is a process (a passing by), no moment is a present, and accordingly there is in time neither present, nor past, nor future. If it is claimed that this division can be maintained, it is because the moment is spatialized, but thereby the infinite succession comes to a halt, it is because representation is introduced that allows time to be represented instead of being thought. Even so, this is not correct procedure, for even as representation, the infinite succession of time is an infinitely contentless present (this is the parody of the eternal).
The present, however, is not a concept of time, except precisely as something infinitely contentless, which again is the infinite vanishing. If this is not kept in mind, no matter how quickly it may disappear, the present is posited, and being posited it again appears in the categories: the past and the future.
The eternal, on the contrary, is the present. For thought, the eternal is the present in terms of an annulled succession (time is the succession that passes by). For representation, it is a going forth that nevertheless does not get off the spot, because the eternal is for representation the infinitely contentful present. So also in the eternal there is no division into the past and the future, because the present is posited as the annulled succession.
Time is, then, infinite succession; the life that is in time and is only of time has no present. In order to define the sensuous life, it is usually said that it is in the moment and only in the moment. By the moment, then, is understood that abstraction from the eternal that, if it is to be the present, is a parody of it. The present is the eternal, or rather, the eternal is the present, and the present is full.
If at this point one wants to use the moment to define time and let the moment signify the purely abstract exclusion of the past and the future and as such the present, then the moment is precisely not the present, because the intermediary between the past and the future, purely abstractly conceived, is not at all. Thus it is seen that the moment is not a determination of time, because the determination of time is that it “passes by.” For this reason time, if it is to be defined by any of the determinations revealed in time itself, is time past. If, on the contrary, time and eternity touch each other, then it must be in time, and now we have come to the moment.
With an eye to the ancient Greeks, Kierkegaard considers the not uncomplicated loveliness emanating from what Plato called “the sudden”:
“The moment” is a figurative expression, and therefore it is not easy to deal with. However, it is a beautiful word to consider. Nothing is as swift as a blink of the eye, and yet it is commensurable with the content of the eternal… Whatever its etymological explanation, [“the sudden”] is related to the category of the invisible, because time and eternity were conceived equally abstractly, because the concept of temporality was lacking, and this again was due to the lack of the concept of spirit. The Latin term is momentum (from movere [to move]), which by derivation expresses the merely vanishing.
Thus understood, the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.
At this meeting point of the ephemeral and the eternal, Kierkegaard argues, our entire experience of time plays out:
The moment is that ambiguity in which time and eternity touch each other, and with this the concept of temporality is posited, whereby time constantly intersects eternity and eternity constantly pervades time. As a result, the above-mentioned division acquires its significance: the present time, the past time, the future time.
And yet this temporal taxonomy suggests that past, present, and future don’t exist on equal terms:
The future in a certain sense signifies more than the present and the past, because in a certain sense the future is the whole of which the past is a part, and the future can in a certain sense signify the whole. This is because the eternal first signifies the future or because the future is the incognito in which the eternal, even though it is incommensurable with time, nevertheless preserves its association with time… The moment and the future in turn posit the past.
The fullness of time is the moment as the eternal, and yet this eternal is also the future and the past. If attention is not paid to this, not a single concept can be saved from a heretical and treasonable admixture that annihilates the concept.