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Rebecca Solnit on Hope in Dark Times, Resisting the Defeatism of Easy Despair, and What Victory Really Means for Movements of Social Change

“This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.”

Rebecca Solnit on Hope in Dark Times, Resisting the Defeatism of Easy Despair, and What Victory Really Means for Movements of Social Change

“There is no love of life without despair of life,” wrote Albert Camus — a man who in the midst of World War II, perhaps the darkest period in human history, saw grounds for luminous hope and issued a remarkable clarion call for humanity to rise to its highest potential on those grounds. It was his way of honoring the same duality that artist Maira Kalman would capture nearly a century later in her marvelous meditation on the pursuit of happiness, where she observed: “We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. That is what governs us. We have a bipolar system.”

In my own reflections on hope, cynicism, and the stories we tell ourselves, I’ve considered the necessity of these two poles working in concert. Indeed, the stories we tell ourselves about these poles matter. The stories we tell ourselves about our public past shape how we interpret and respond to and show up for the present. The stories we tell ourselves about our private pasts shape how we come to see our personhood and who we ultimately become. The thin line between agency in victimhood is drawn in how we tell those stories.

The language in which we tell ourselves these stories matters tremendously, too, and no writer has weighed the complexities of sustaining hope in our times of readily available despair more thoughtfully and beautifully, nor with greater nuance, than Rebecca Solnit does in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (public library).

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Expanding upon her previous writings on hope, Solnit writes in the foreword to the 2016 edition of this foundational text of modern civic engagement:

Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.

Solnit — one of the most singular, civically significant, and poetically potent voices of our time, emanating echoes of Virginia Woolf’s luminous prose and Adrienne Rich’s unflinching political conviction — originally wrote these essays in 2003, six weeks after the start of Iraq war, in an effort to speak “directly to the inner life of the politics of the moment, to the emotions and preconceptions that underlie our political positions and engagements.” Although the specific conditions of the day may have shifted, their undergirding causes and far-reaching consequences have only gained in relevance and urgency in the dozen years since. This slim book of tremendous potency is therefore, today more than ever, an indispensable ally to every thinking, feeling, civically conscious human being.

Solnit looks back on this seemingly distant past as she peers forward into the near future:

The moment passed long ago, but despair, defeatism, cynicism, and the amnesia and assumptions from which they often arise have not dispersed, even as the most wildly, unimaginably magnificent things came to pass. There is a lot of evidence for the defense… Progressive, populist, and grassroots constituencies have had many victories. Popular power has continued to be a profound force for change. And the changes we’ve undergone, both wonderful and terrible, are astonishing.

[…]

This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.

Illustration by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

With an eye to such disheartening developments as climate change, growing income inequality, and the rise of Silicon Valley as a dehumanizing global superpower of automation, Solnit invites us to be equally present for the counterpoint:

Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including the movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.

Enumerating Edward Snowden, marriage equality, and Black Lives Matter among those, she adds:

This has been a truly remarkable decade for movement-building, social change, and deep, profound shifts in ideas, perspective, and frameworks for broad parts of the population (and, of course, backlashes against all those things).

With great care, Solnit — whose mind remains the sharpest instrument of nuance I’ve encountered — maps the uneven terrain of our grounds for hope:

It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.

Solnit’s conception of hope reminds me of the great existential psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom’s conception of meaning: “The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure,” he wrote, “must be conducted obliquely.” That is, it must take place in the thrilling and terrifying terra incognita that lies between where we are and where we wish to go, ultimately shaping where we do go. Solnit herself has written memorably about how we find ourselves by getting lost, and finding hope seems to necessitate a similar surrender to uncertainty. She captures this idea beautifully:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.

Illustration from The Harvey Milk Story, a picture-book biography of the slain LGBT rights pioneer

Amid a 24-hour news cycle that nurses us on the illusion of immediacy, this recognition of incremental progress and the long gestational period of consequences — something at the heart of every major scientific revolution that has changed our world — is perhaps our most essential yet most endangered wellspring of hope. Solnit reminds us, for instance, that women’s struggle for the right to vote took seven decades:

For a time people liked to announce that feminism had failed, as though the project of overturning millennia of social arrangements should achieve its final victories in a few decades, or as though it had stopped. Feminism is just starting, and its manifestations matter in rural Himalayan villages, not just first-world cities.

She considers one particularly prominent example of this cumulative cataclysm — the Arab Spring, “an extraordinary example of how unpredictable change is and how potent popular power can be,” the full meaning of and conclusions from which we are yet to draw. Although our cultural lore traces the spark of the Arab Spring to the moment Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of protest, Solnit traces the unnoticed accretion of tinder across space and time:

You can tell the genesis story of the Arab Spring other ways. The quiet organizing going on in the shadows beforehand matters. So does the comic book about Martin Luther King and civil disobedience that was translated into Arabic and widely distributed in Egypt shortly before the Arab Spring. You can tell of King’s civil disobedience tactics being inspired by Gandhi’s tactics, and Gandhi’s inspired by Tolstoy and the radical acts of noncooperation and sabotage of British women suffragists. So the threads of ideas weave around the world and through the decades and centuries.

In a brilliant counterpoint to Malcolm Gladwell’s notoriously short-sighted view of social change, Solnit sprouts a mycological metaphor for this imperceptible, incremental buildup of influence and momentum:

After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork — or underground work — often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power.

[…]

Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.

One of Beatrix Potter’s little-known scientific studies and illustrations of mushrooms

And yet Solnit’s most salient point deals with what comes after the revolutionary change — with the notion of victory not as a destination but as a starting point for recommitment and continual nourishment of our fledgling ideals:

A victory doesn’t mean that everything is now going to be nice forever and we can therefore all go lounge around until the end of time. Some activists are afraid that if we acknowledge victory, people will give up the struggle. I’ve long been more afraid that people will give up and go home or never get started in the first place if they think no victory is possible or fail to recognize the victories already achieved. Marriage equality is not the end of homophobia, but it’s something to celebrate. A victory is a milestone on the road, evidence that sometimes we win, and encouragement to keep going, not to stop.

Solnit examines this notion more closely in one of the original essays from the book, titled “Changing the Imagination of Change” — a meditation of even more acute timeliness today, more than a decade later, in which she writes:

Americans are good at responding to crisis and then going home to let another crisis brew both because we imagine that the finality of death can be achieved in life — it’s called happily ever after in personal life, saved in politics — and because we tend to think political engagement is something for emergencies rather than, as people in many other countries (and Americans at other times) have imagined it, as a part and even a pleasure of everyday life. The problem seldom goes home.

[…]

Going home seems to be a way to abandon victories when they’re still delicate, still in need of protection and encouragement. Human babies are helpless at birth, and so perhaps are victories before they’ve been consolidated into the culture’s sense of how things should be. I wonder sometimes what would happen if victory was imagined not just as the elimination of evil but the establishment of good — if, after American slavery had been abolished, Reconstruction’s promises of economic justice had been enforced by the abolitionists, or, similarly, if the end of apartheid had been seen as meaning instituting economic justice as well (or, as some South Africans put it, ending economic apartheid).

It’s always too soon to go home. Most of the great victories continue to unfold, unfinished in the sense that they are not yet fully realized, but also in the sense that they continue to spread influence. A phenomenon like the civil rights movement creates a vocabulary and a toolbox for social change used around the globe, so that its effects far outstrip its goals and specific achievements — and failures.

Invoking James Baldwin’s famous proclamation that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” Solnit writes:

It’s important to emphasize that hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it.

What often obscures our view of hope, she argues, is a kind of collective amnesia that lets us forget just how far we’ve come as we grow despondent over how far we have yet to go. She writes:

Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau, the story of how Paul Gauguin used the grief of his childhood as a catalyst for a lifetime of art

This lack of a long view is perpetuated by the media, whose raw material — the very notion of “news” — divorces us from the continuity of life and keeps us fixated on the current moment in artificial isolate. Meanwhile, Solnit argues in a poignant parallel, such amnesia poisons and paralyzes our collective conscience by the same mechanism that depression poisons and paralyzes the private psyche — we come to believe that the acute pain of the present is all that will ever be and cease to believe that things will look up. She writes:

There’s a public equivalent to private depression, a sense that the nation or the society rather than the individual is stuck. Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act. Which is where hope comes in, and memory, the collective memory we call history.

A dedicated rower, Solnit ends with the perfect metaphor:

You row forward looking back, and telling this history is part of helping people navigate toward the future. We need a litany, a rosary, a sutra, a mantra, a war chant for our victories. The past is set in daylight, and it can become a torch we can carry into the night that is the future.

Hope in the Dark is a robust anchor of intelligent idealism amid our tumultuous era of disorienting defeatism — a vitalizing exploration of how we can withstand the marketable temptations of false hope and easy despair. Complement it with Camus on how to ennoble our minds in dark times and Viktor Frankl on why idealism is the best realism, then revisit Solnit on the rewards of walking, what reading does for the human spirit, and how modern noncommunication is changing our experience of time, solitude, and communion.

BP

Great Writers on the Power of Music

Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, and more.

“Music is the best means we have of digesting time,” Igor Stravinsky once remarked (a remark often misattributed to W.H. Auden). “Music is the sound wave of the soul,” the wise and wonderful Morley observed. Psychologists have studied why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity and how listening to music enraptures the brain. But, more than that, music works over the human spirit and stands as a supreme manifestation of our very humanity — something Carl Sagan knew when he sent the Golden Record into the cosmos as a representation of the most universal truths of our civilization.

Gathered here are uncommonly beautiful reflections on the singular power of music by some of humanity’s greatest writers, collected over years of reading — please enjoy.

SUSAN SONTAG

Susan Sontag spent the majority of her adult life reading between eight and ten hours a day, and never fewer than four. Her intense love of literature was paralleled by a commensurate love of music. In a diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — the spectacular volume that gave us young Sontag on personal growth, art, marriage, the four people a great writer must be, and her duties for being a twenty-something — she writes at age 15:

Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts — it is the most abstract, the most perfect, the most pure — and the most sensual. I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in this music.

KURT VONNEGUT

In his final essay collection, A Man Without a Country (public library) — the source of his abiding wisdom on the shapes of storiesKurt Vonnegut wrote that music, above all else, “made being alive almost worthwhile” for him. He synthesized the sentiment in an extra-concentrated dose of his wry irreverence:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay makes a similar point via counterpoint. In a beautiful 1920 letter to a friend, found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — which also gave us the beloved poet on what it really means to be an anarchist, her touching appreciation of her mother, and her exquisite love letters — 28-year-old Millay writes:

I can whistle almost the whole of the Fifth Symphony, all four movements, and with it I have solaced many a whining hour to sleep. It answers all my questions, the noble, mighty thing, it is “green pastures and still waters” to my soul. Indeed, without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is. I find that lately more and more my fingers itch for a piano, and I shall not spend another winter without one. Last night I played for about two hours, the first time in a year, I think, and though most everything is gone enough remains to make me realize I could get it back if I had the guts. People are so dam lazy, aren’t they? Ten years I have been forgetting all I learned so lovingly about music, and just because I am a boob. All that remains is Bach. I find that I never lose Bach. I don’t know why I have always loved him so. Except that he is so pure, so relentless and incorruptible, like a principle of geometry.

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

No one has illustrated the vitalizing power of music with more marvelous morbidity than Friedrich Nietzsche. In an aphorism from his 1889 book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (public library), he proclaims:

Without music life would be a mistake.

The point of this morbidity, of course, is to convey the infinitely enlivening power of music — something Nietzsche elaborated on in an autobiographical fragment quoted in Julian Young’s altogether fantastic Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (public library):

God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

In her early twenties, Virginia Woolf found a very different kind of exaltation in music. In a lengthy 1903 diary entry titled “A Dance at Queen’s Gate” from A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library), the 21-year-old writer recounts the particularly intoxicating effect of dance music (which, at the time, involved violins) during a wild night on the town:

That is the quality which dance music has — no other: it stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room — oblivious of everything save that you must keep swaying with the music — in & out, round & round — in the eddies & swirls of the violins. It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it. It is magic music.

VICTOR HUGO

The great French Romantic poet, novelist, and dramatist Victor Hugo extolled music’s singular potency with sublime succinctness. In the preface to his 1864 study of those he considered to be “the greatest geniuses of all time,” somewhat deceptively titled William Shakespeare (public library), he writes:

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.

ALDOUS HUXLEY

Aldous Huxley takes a complementary perspective in a beautiful essay titled The Rest Is Silence (on which Alex Ross’s excellent The Rest Is Noise is a play), found in the altogether terrific 1931 collection Music at Night and Other Essays (public library):

After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

[…]

When the inexpressible had to be expressed, Shakespeare laid down his pen and called for music.

ANAÏS NIN

Perhaps the most dedicated and prolific diarist of all time, French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and continued until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse and timeless subjects as love, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In an entry from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5 (public library) — which also gave us Nin’s sublime meditation on embracing the unfamiliar — she writes:

Jazz is the music of the body. The breath comes through brass. It is the body’s breath, and the strings’ wails and moans are echoes of the body’s music. It is the body’s vibrations which ripple from the fingers. And the mystery of the withheld theme, known to jazz musicians alone, is like the mystery of our secret life. We give to others only peripheral improvisations.

WALT WHITMAN

In his timeless and tremendously timely 1860s essay Democratic Vistas, found in the Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (public library), Walt Whitman writes:

Music, the combiner, nothing more spiritual, nothing more sensuous, a god, yet completely human, advances, prevails, holds highest place; supplying in certain wants and quarters what nothing else could supply.

OLIVER SACKS

Nearly a century and a half later, Oliver Sacks captured this supreme spiritual sustenance of music in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (public library), which remains the most stimulating inquiry into the source of music’s power ever written. Reflecting on a particularly trying moment for the human spirit — the days following the September 11 attacks — Dr. Sacks writes:

On my morning bike ride to Battery Park, I heard music as I approached the tip of Manhattan, and then saw and joined a silent crowd who sat gazing out to sea and listening to a young man playing Bach’s Chaconne in D on his violin. When the music ended and the crowd quietly dispersed, it was clear that the music had brought them some profound consolation, in a way that no words could ever have done.

Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him; anyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.

Complement with Anthony Burgess’s account of the magical moment he fell in love with music as a little boy and this wonderful vintage guide to the seven essential skills of listening to music, then revisit similar collections of great writers’ reflections on New York City, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the importance of boredom, and how creativity works.

BP

‘Humans of New York’ Founder Brandon Stanton on Serial Obsessions, How to Build a Sensibility, the Dignity-Conferring Power of Listening, and the Value of Time

“The most valuable resource you have is what you do with your time.”

‘Humans of New York’ Founder Brandon Stanton on Serial Obsessions, How to Build a Sensibility, the Dignity-Conferring Power of Listening, and the Value of Time

In the summer of 2010, Brandon Stanton found himself a laid off bond trader with little more than a camera, a nascent love of photography, and a desperate need to reorient his life. In just a few years, he became one of the most vitalizing visual storytellers and humanists of our time through Humans of New York — his labor-of-love project, which his mother first saw as “a thinly veiled attempt to avoid employment” and which went on to become a massive cultural phenomenon that moves millions of hearts daily. It has transcended photography and blossomed into something much larger, landing Brandon at the White House on multiple occasions and moving the cultural dial on issues ranging from public education to interfaith dialogue to the most urgent frontiers of politics.

In his interview on Debbie Millman’s Design Matters — one of the world’s first and finest podcasts — Brandon traces the unlikely path that led him to Humans of New York and its global emanations. What unfolds is a wonderfully wide-ranging conversation about serial obsessions, depression, how community college changed his life, why he spent a year reading 100 pages of great literature a day, what it takes to build a creative sensibility, the value of time not as a means but as an end in itself, the dignity-conferring power of listening to strangers’ stories, and the rich, complex, immensely nuanced nature of the human experience. Transcribed highlights below.

On how he went from the deeply introspective state in which depression had left him to being someone who talks to thousands of strangers:

Being social is a learned skill… Being social — talking to people, communicating with people — is something that can be developed, just like any other skill, algebra or spelling… I was so scared when I fist started [Humans of New York] — I was just terrified of talking to strangers, I didn’t know if it was something you could do. Now it’s second nature. Talking to people or approaching anyone is something I don’t even think about — it’s not something that I have to build up the courage to do. It was an earned skill.

On turning adversity into opportunity:

During the time I was working as a bond trader, all I was thinking about was the markets — I was just obsessed with it. But I didn’t view myself as somebody who just wanted to make money — that wasn’t my personal identity. I viewed myself as a creative person who was going to build this cushion of security and then make a pivot and do creative things that I love…

Once I finally lost my job, I looked back on those two years and I’d lost that time and I didn’t have any money to show for it. I thought that, more than the physical time, I needed mental time — I needed freedom of mind to do the things that I wanted to do. And so [although] I was so afraid of getting fired, the day that I got fired was strangely relieving — I suddenly had all this thought-energy and I could start thinking about what I really wanted to do… It was through that thinking that Humans of New York eventually emerged.

[…]

I was just looking for a way to photograph all day long because, remember, I had spent two years thinking about nothing but money and I came out of that [wanting] to make just enough money [so that] I can do exactly what I want to do all day long, and support myself… I had $600 coming in every two weeks from unemployment benefits and that was enough to maybe pay my rent and eat about two meals a day. And so I lived in a room in a sublet in Bed Stuy, which just had a mattress in the middle of the floor. There was no furniture, nothing on the walls. I didn’t go to bars, I didn’t go to restaurants, I didn’t go to movies — I didn’t go to anything. All I did was photograph. So that — mixed with a few odd jobs, mixed with some loans from my friends — was enough to keep me afloat for about a year and a half.

On the development of his sensibility — lest we forget, the great Agnes Martin asserted that “the development of sensibility is the most important thing” — through the incremental transmutation of quantity into quality:

I taught myself to photograph… I would find something I wanted to photograph — like a street sign, or graffiti, or whatever — and I would photograph it 20 different ways, from 20 different angles, because I had no idea what I was trying to do. And then I would go home and I would look at those 20 shots, and I would choose my favorite one. And through that, I started to learn what it was that my aesthetic was drawn to — what it was that I enjoyed. And so, next time, I’m not taking 20 photos — I’m taking 15, because I have a little bit more of an idea, then ten, then five.

On time not as a means to some achievement-oriented end but as an end — an invaluable resource, or as Thomas Mann believed, the soul of existence — in and of itself:

The whole bond trading experience made me realize the value of time as a resource. You’re oriented to think of time as a means of accumulating — not just accumulating material things, but accumulating degrees or extracurricular activities or things that look good in a job interview. We view our time as a means to accumulate things that will help us reach our ends. [And yet time is] not only a resource itself, but the most valuable resource you have is what you do with your time. [I decided to] say, “Okay, I’m going to put that front and center, and I’m going to not try to use my time to structure a life, but I’m going to put time front and center and try to make the decisions that are necessary to where I completely own my time.”

On taking the time to honor complexity and nuance amid a culture of black-and-white snap judgments:

DEBBIE MILLMAN: Do people scare you with some of their stories — do you hear things that frighten you?

BRANDON STANTON: It’s a good question. There’s a large range of human experience… I just went to five different federal prisons and I interviewed thirty inmates. I think that the truth — and this is a dangerous line to draw, because you get into moral relativism — but I think the truth is always exculpatory… If you dig down into why this woman strangled this 11-year-old girl, you learn about her paranoid schizophrenia, which she didn’t know was schizophrenia — she thought [there] were people talking to her. And then if you dig back even further than that, you find out about the uncle who raped her every night, from the age of seven to eleven. And you start to realize that these people are acting with the information that they had about the world, and they were speaking in the language that they knew.

And once you dig down to that level, everything can be explained.

DEBBIE MILLMAN: It’s a very compassionate, very generous view of humanity.

BRANDON STANTON: And, it’s not a view that can be necessarily acted upon — because there needs to be…

DEBBIE MILLMAN: …what is excusable and what is forgivable.

BRANDON STANTON: Exactly. And you do need to draw those lines. You had schizophrenia? I’m sorry, you killed somebody… [But] this is one thing this prison series really opened up to me — the schism in America between compassion and accountability, and it is a schism that runs through every comment section I have where somebody admits something [difficult].

Dive into Humans of New York online and in book form. Subscribe to Design Matters here and revisit these ten fantastic interviews from the show’s first decade.

BP

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