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Teddy Roosevelt on How the Blind Cult of Success Unfits Us for Democracy and Liberty

“In a republic, to be successful we must learn to combine intensity of conviction with a broad tolerance of difference of conviction.”

Teddy Roosevelt on How the Blind Cult of Success Unfits Us for Democracy and Liberty

“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success,” Thoreau wrote in his lovely case for defining you own success. But in the century and a half between his time and ours, we have increasingly shifted our definitions of success from the immaterial to the material, from the interior to the exterior, from the private to the public. And in that shift, we have incurred a peculiar and perilous blindness to the moral and humanistic dimensions of success — to how being a good human being and a good member of a community, of a society, of humanity itself factors into being a successful individual.

A mighty antidote to the blind cult of success came from Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858–January 6, 1919) in his superb Sorbonne address, originally delivered in Paris on April 23 of 1910 under the title “Citizenship in a Republic” and later published as “Duties of the Citizen” in the 1920 volume Roosevelt’s Writings (public library) — the same twenty-seven-page masterpiece of a speech that gave us Roosevelt on the cowardice of cynicism and the courage to create rather than tear down.

Theodore Roosevelt

The qualities Roosevelt ascribes to good citizenship are the selfsame qualities that define success in any meaningful realm of human endeavor, be it art or science or entrepreneurship:

The good citizen in a republic must realize that the ought to possess two sets of qualities, and that neither avails without the other. He must have those qualities which make for efficiency; and that he also must have those qualities which direct the efficiency into channels for the public good. He is useless if he is inefficient. There is nothing to be done with that type of citizen of whom all that can be said is that he is harmless. Virtue which is dependent upon a sluggish circulation is not impressive. There is little place in active life for the timid good man. The man who is saved by weakness from robust wickedness is likewise rendered immune from robuster virtues. The good citizen in a republic must first of all be able to hold his own. He is no good citizen unless he has the ability which will make him work hard and which at need will make him fight hard. The good citizen is not a good citizen unless he is an efficient citizen.

And yet efficiency alone, Roosevelt cautions, is not only insufficient but can even be dangerous to society if aimed at an ethically unsound end. To borrow Schopenhauer’s excellent distinction between talent and genius“Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target… which others cannot even see.” — the genius of the good citizen and the successful individual, for Roosevelt, is predicated not merely on hitting the target well, but on hitting the right kind of target in a moral sense. He writes:

Courage, intellect, all the masterful qualities, serve but to make a man more evil if they are merely used for that man’s own advancement, with brutal indifference to the rights of others. It speaks ill for the community if the community worships these qualities and treats their possessors as heroes regardless of whether the qualities are used rightly or wrongly. It makes no difference as to the precise way in which this sinister efficiency is shown. It makes no difference whether such a man’s force and ability betray themselves in a career of money-maker or politician, soldier or orator, journalist or popular leader. If the man works for evil, then the more successful he is the more he should be despised and condemned by all upright and far-seeing men. To judge a man merely by success is an abhorrent wrong; and if the people at large habitually so judge men, if they grow to condone wickedness because the wicked man triumphs, they show their inability to understand that in the last analysis free institutions rest upon the character of citizenship, and that by such admiration of evil they prove themselves unfit for liberty.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio: The Origin Story

Nearly a century before Carl Sagan called for moving beyond “us” vs. “them” by bridging conviction with compassion, Roosevelt adds:

In a republic, to be successful we must learn to combine intensity of conviction with a broad tolerance of difference of conviction. Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth.

Art by Maurice Sendak from We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy

With an eye to the most dangerous embodiment of success as self-interest unmoored from social and moral responsibility, Roosevelt issues an admonition of chilling prescience in the context of a Trumped society:

Of one man in especial, beyond any one else, the citizens of a republic should beware, and that is of the man who appeals to them to support him on the ground that he is hostile to other citizens of the republic, that he will secure for those who elect him, in one shape or another, profit at the expense of other citizens of the republic… It makes no difference whether he appeals to class hatred or class interest, to religious or antireligious prejudice. The man who makes such an appeal should always be presumed to make it for the sake of furthering his own interest. The very last thing an intelligent and self-respecting member of a democratic community should do is to reward any public man because that public man says that he will get the private citizen something to which this private citizen is not entitled, or will gratify some emotion or animosity which this private citizen ought not to possess… If a public man tries to get your vote by saying that he will do something wrong in your interest, you can be absolutely certain that if ever it becomes worth his while he will do something wrong against your interest.

Complement this particular portion of Roosevelt’s Writings with Georgia O’Keeffe on success and public opinion, Dostoyevsky on creative integrity and success, and Victorian novelist Amelia E. Barr’s nine rules for success, then revisit Susan Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being.

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Nature and the Serious Business of Joy

“There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.”

Nature and the Serious Business of Joy

“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Rachel Carson wrote in reflecting on our spiritual bond with nature shortly before she awakened the modern environmental conscience.

The rewards and redemptions of that elemental yet endangered response is what British naturalist and environmental writer Michael McCarthy, a modern-day Carson, explores in The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (public library) — part memoir and part manifesto, a work of philosophy rooted in environmental science and buoyed by a soaring poetic imagination.

McCarthy writes:

The natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.

[…]

There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.

“Roots” by Maria Popova

In a sentiment that calls to mind Theodore Roosevelt’s assertion that “the poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” McCarthy weighs the particular necessity and particular precariousness of joy in our cynicism-crippled world:

Referring to it as joy may not facilitate its immediate comprehension either, not least because joy is not a concept, nor indeed a word, that we are entirely comfortable with, in the present age. The idea seems out of step with a time whose characteristic notes are mordant and mocking, and whose preferred emotion is irony. Joy hints at an unrestrained enthusiasm which may be thought uncool… It reeks of the Romantic movement. Yet it is there. Being unfashionable has no effect on its existence… What it denotes is a happiness with an overtone of something more, which we might term an elevated or, indeed, a spiritual quality.

A century and a half after Thoreau extolled nature as a form of prayer and an antidote to the smallening of spirit amid the ego-maelstrom we call society — “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” he lamented in his journal — McCarthy considers the role of the transcendent feelings nature can stir in us in a secular world:

They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constantly reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

Earthrise (December 24, 1968)
Earthrise (December 24, 1968)

In consonance with Carl Sagan’s beautiful humanist meditation on the Pale Blue Dot photograph captured by the Voyager spacecraft, McCarthy turns to the first iconic cosmic view of our planet — Earthrise, captured by Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. Echoing Sagan’s own insight that Earthrise seeded in us a new kind of dual awareness — “the sense of our planet as one in a vast number and the sense of our planet as a place whose destiny depends upon us” — McCarthy writes:

At this moment, for the first time, we saw ourselves from a distance, and the earth in its surrounding dark emptiness not only seemed impossibly beautiful but also impossibly fragile. Most of all, we could see clearly that it was finite. This does not appear to us on the earth’s surface; the land or the sea stretches to the horizon, but there is always something beyond. However many horizons we cross, there’s always another one waiting. Yet on glimpsing the planet from deep space, we saw not only the true wonder of its shimmering blue beauty, but also the true nature of its limits.

In a passage that calls to mind Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that “to use the world well, to be able to stop wasting it and our time in it, we need to relearn our being in it,” McCarthy places the vital relationship between responsibility and joy at the heart of our relearning of being:

It is time for a different, formal defence of nature. We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.

Illustration from Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon

I have long found the word environment disquieting. Embedded in it is residual Ptolemism that places us at the center of nature and casts the rest of the natural world as something that surrounds us and implicitly revolves around us. The notion of “natural resources” furthers this hubris by framing trees and rivers and meadows as entities and economic assets existing for the satisfaction of our human needs. McCarthy speaks to this civilizational hubris and how it bereaves us of the far greater “resource” which nature can offer us, and has long offered us, not as an exploitable asset but as an unbidden gift:

We can generalise or, indeed, monetise the value of nature’s services in satisfying our corporeal needs, since we all have broadly the same continuous requirement for food and shelter; but we have infinitely different longings for solace and understanding and delight. Their value is modulated, not through economic assessment, but through the personal experiences of individuals. So we cannot say — alas that we cannot — that birdsong, like coral reefs, is worth 375 billion dollars a year in economic terms, but we can say, each of us, that at this moment and at this place it was worth everything to me. Shelley did so with his skylark, and Keats with his nightingale, and Thomas Hardy with the skylark of Shelley, and Edward Thomas with his unknown bird, and Philip Larkin with his song thrush in a chilly spring garden, but we need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to do it ourselves — proclaim these worths through our own experiences in the coming century of destruction, and proclaim them loudly, as the reason why nature must not go down.

Illustration by Matthew Forsythe from The Golden Leaf

That most unquantifiable, most precious value of nature to human life, McCarthy insists, is the gift nestled in the responsibility — the gift of joy. He writes:

Joy has a component, if not of morality, then at least of seriousness. It signifies a happiness which is a serious business. And it seems to me the wholly appropriate name for the sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us, which may well be the most serious business of all.

Echoing Denise Levertov’s stirring poem about our ambivalent relationship to nature — “We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too.” — McCarthy extends a promissory vision for reclaiming our joyous belonging to the natural world:

The natural world is not separate from us, it is part of us. It is as much a part of us as our capacity for language; we are bonded to it still, however hard it may be to perceive the union in the tumult of modern urban life. Yet the union can be found, the union of ourselves and nature, in the joy which nature can spark and fire in us.

A mighty kindling for that fire is what McCarthy offers in the remainder The Moth Snowstorm — a beautiful and catalytic read in its entirety. Complement it with evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis on the interconnectedness of nature and Loren Eiseley — one of the most elegant thinkers and underappreciated geniuses of the past century — on how nature can help us reclaim our sense of the miraculous in a mechanical age, then savor Krista Tippett’s beautiful On Being conversation with McCarthy:

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Julián Is a Mermaid: A Tenderhearted Story of Identity, Belonging, and the Courage to Be Yourself

A watercolor serenade to the transformative power of unconditional love.

Julián Is a Mermaid: A Tenderhearted Story of Identity, Belonging, and the Courage to Be Yourself

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” E.E. Cummings offered in his advice to aspiring artists. “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin argued two decades later in his fantastic forgotten conversation about identity with anthropologist Margaret Mead. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” Both the vulnerability and the courage of that world-telling are in direct proportion to our sense of otherness — to how far the teller diverges from society’s centuries-old, dogma-proscribed, limiting ideas about the correct way to be a human being.

A lovely celebration of the courage to tell the world who you are comes in Julián Is a Mermaid (public library) by Jessica Love — a sweet story of loving acceptance and the jubilant inner transformation that takes place when one is welcomed to be and to dream beyond society’s narrow templates of being and dreaming.

Whenever Julián goes to the swimming pool with his grandmother, he dreams of being a mermaid.

One day, on the subway ride home, he glimpses three beautiful women dressed as mermaids. He is instantly entranced.

“Abuela, I am also a mermaid,” he tells his grandmother shyly, the way one whispers a closely guarded innermost truth.

When Julián’s grandmother goes to take a bath, an idea alights to his enchanted mind: He sheds his boy-clothes and fashions a headdress out of a fern. Like a miniature Scarlett O’Hara, he transforms the window curtain into a long skirt, tying its end to resemble a mermaid’s tail.

Just as he is rejoicing in his self-creation, grandma returns from the bath, frowns, and walks away.

But she quickly returns to unsink Julián’s heart by handing him the perfect finishing touch for his mermaid regalia.

Julián takes her hand and follows her out of the house, through the streets, wondering where she is taking him. “You’ll see,” she says.

When they turn a corner near the boardwalk, Julián gasps at the sight of mermaids — throngs of them, of every size, shape, gender, and color.

New Yorkers would recognize the glorious spectacle as the famous Coney Island Mermaid Parade, which celebrates the beginning of summer. Under the sunshine of his grandmother’s unconditional love, Julián celebrates a different kind of personal beginning as they join the mermaids in the parade and an ecstatic sense of belonging washes over him.

Julián Is a Mermaid makes a fine addition to the best LBGT children’s books. Complement it with the immeasurably wonderful Jerome by Heart, then revisit Oliver Sacks on how narrative shapes our identity.

Illustrations © Jessica Love courtesy of Candlewick Press; photographs by Maria Popova

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How to Eat an Apricot: Diane Ackerman on Art, Science, and Wonder

“First warm its continuous curve in cupped hands, holding it as you might a brandy snifter, then caress the velvety sheen with one thumb, and run your fingertips over its nap…”

How to Eat an Apricot: Diane Ackerman on Art, Science, and Wonder

In his meditation on the complementarity of how art and science reveal the world, Schopenhauer likened science to “the innumerable showering drops of the waterfall, which, constantly changing, never rest for an instant,” and art to “the rainbow, quietly resting on this raging torrent.” Two centuries later, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her splendid case for subjectifying the universe: “Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe.”

That cascading celebration of science through art animates the poetry of Diane Ackerman, who returned to The Universe in Verse for a second year to read her ravishing poem “The Consolation of Apricots,” found in her 1998 poetry collection I Praise My Destroyer (public library).

Prefacing her reading, Ackerman reflected on how the intuitive sense that art and science are complementary rather than contradictory shaped her life, her work, and her orientation of being:

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a nature poet — it’s just that what I meant by “nature” included everything from quarks to exoplanets to water bears and neurons. Science and art both seem to be throwing buckets of light into the dark corners of existence, and I was enthralled. It didn’t make sense that we would be separating science and art, or that we would be separating nature and human nature. It seemed like we should be taking the universe literally — as one verse.

Savor the full prefatory reflection on art, science, and wonder, along with this feast of a poem, in this recording from the show:

THE CONSOLATION OF APRICOTS
by Diane Ackerman

Especially in early spring,
when the sun offers a thin treacle of warmth,
I love to sit outdoors
and eat sense-ravishing apricots.

Born on sun-drenched trees in Morocco,
the apricots have flown the Atlantic
like small comets, and I can taste
broiling North Africa in their flesh.

Somewhere between a peach and a prayer,
they taste of well water
and butterscotch and dried apples
and desert simooms and lust.

Sweet with a twang of spice,
a ripe apricot is small enough to devour
as two hemispheres.
Ambiguity is its hallmark.

How to eat an apricot:
first warm its continuous curve
in cupped hands, holding it
as you might a brandy snifter,

then caress the velvety sheen
with one thumb, and run your fingertips
over its nap, which is shorter
than peach fuzz, closer to chamois.

Tawny gold with a blush on its cheeks,
an apricot is the color of shame and dawn.
One should not expect to drink wine
at mid-winter, Boethius warned.

What could be more thrilling
than ripe apricots out of season,
a gush of taboo sweetness
to offset the savage wistfulness of early spring?

Always eat apricots at twilight,
preferably while sitting in a sunset park,
with valley lights starting to flicker on
and the lake spangled like a shield.

Then, while a trail of bright ink tattoos the sky,
notice how the sun washes the earth
like a woman pouring her gaze
along her lover’s naked body,

each cell receiving the tattoo of her glance.
Wait for that moment
of arousal and revelation,
then sink your teeth into the flesh of an apricot.

Complement with physicist and novelist Alan Lightman on the sympathies between creative breakthrough in art and science and Hannah Arendt on the differences between how art and science illuminate the human condition, then revisit Ackerman’s lovely poem about our cosmic curiosity from the inaugural Universe in Verse.

For other highlights from the second annual event, see poet Marie Howe’s stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, a lovely papercraft stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” by artist Kelli Anderson, Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator and original star John Cameron Mitchell reading Walt Whitman’s serenade to the seas, and actor America Ferrera’s reading of Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature.

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