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Beloved Writers on Nature as an Antidote to Depression

On the consolations of monarchs and of stars.

Beloved Writers on Nature as an Antidote to Depression

“It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his deepest-feeling, furthest-seeing poem. When the dark patches fall on me also, I stand with Whitman in turning to the most reliable wellspring of light — the natural world, or what he so soulfully termed “the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life” — the Moon seen through a telescope, so proximate and unassailable, this radiant orb of primeval scar tissue; the mossy trunk of a centuries-old cedar, ringed with the survival of wars and famines, a silent witness to countless human heartaches; the song of the thrush and the bloom of the magnolia and the lush optimism of that first blade of grass through the frosty soil — these bewilderments of beauty do not dissipate the depression, but they do dissipate the self-involvement with which we humans live through our sorrows, and in so unselfing us, they give us back to ourselves.

The Bearable Lightness of Being by Maria Popova. (Available as a print benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

Here are several beloved writers from the past quarter millennium who have known the dark patches intimately and have written beautifully about this abiding antidote to the inner gloom, beginning, as we must, with the poet laureate of Nature himself.

WALT WHITMAN

Even as he was composing Leaves of Grass — that timeless gift of light — Whitman was wormed by the darkest self-doubt: “Every thing I have done seems to me blank and suspicious,” he anguished in his diary. “I doubt whether my greatest thoughts…. are not shallow — and people will most likely laugh at me.” But on some elemental level, he knew that those capable of reaching “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights” are equally apt “to dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.” He believed “that no artist or work of the very first class may be or can be without them.” It is a notion entirely different from the dangerous myth of the suffering artist — rather, it is the bold acknowledgement that in order for one to make works of irrepressible truth and beauty, one ought to feel fully, to draw on the entire spectrum of being without repressing the darkest emotions.

In Whitman’s fifty-third year, life tested his credo — a paralytic stroke left him severely disabled. Under his brother’s care in the woods of New Jersey, he set about the slow, painstaking process of recovery. As he began regaining use of his body, he attributed the small, hard-earned triumphs to being “daily in the open air,” among the trees and under the stars. He eventually recovered almost completely, having turned the woods into an outdoor gym, but the cataclysm left him existentially shaken into considering the most elemental questions: Where does one find meaning amid the precarious uncertainty of being? How does one maximize those little pockets of gladness that make it possible to go on living and making art through acute suffering? What, ultimately, makes life worth living?

His resulting meditations appear in Specimen Days (public library) — the altogether indispensable collection of his prose fragments, letters, and journal entries that also gave us Whitman’s reflections on the spiritual power of music, optimism as a force of political resistance, and how to keep criticism from sinking your creative confidence.

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

A decade after his stroke, Whitman looked back on what saved him — body and soul — and writes:

The trick is, I find, to tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.

[…]

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.

In another entry, he considers the essence of happiness, locating it in absolute presence with nature and unalloyed attention with the rhythms of the Earth:

I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies, (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before,) I have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours — may I not say perfectly happy ones? As I’ve read, Byron just before his death told a friend that he had known but three happy hours during his whole existence. Then there is the old German legend of the king’s bell, to the same point. While I was out there by the wood, that beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byron’s and the bell story, and the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood, and let it float on, carrying me in its placid extasy.)

JOHN KEATS

“Life must be undergone,” John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) wrote to his closest friend, “and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases.” Keats’s brief life was savaged by periodic onslaughts of depression. In another fragment of his excellent in his Selected Letters (public library), he writes: “I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence.”

Keats found only two remedies for the soul-stifling numbness: the love of his friends (“I could not live without the love of my friends”) and the love of nature. Another letter to his dearest friend stands as a beautiful, bittersweet testament to both:

You perhaps at one time thought there was such a thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out — you have of necessity from your disposition been thus led away — I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.

LORRAINE HANSBERRY

It is impressive enough that Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965) — whom James Baldwin adored and described as “a small, shy, determined person… not trying to ‘make it’ [but just] trying to keep the faith” — revolutionized our cultural landscape of possibility by becoming the first black playwright performed on Broadway and going on to furnish civil rights with a whole new vocabulary of action. It is triply impressive that she did so while the grey nimbus of depression hung low and heavy over vast swaths of her life. Hansberry kept the faith largely by turning to nature for its irrepressible light.

In a diary entry quoted in Imani Perry’s altogether magnificent biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library), Hansberry observes with dispassionate remove that her unhappiness has taken on the shape of “a steady, calm quiet sort of misery”; sitting in a place she had once adored, now feeling “feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired” there, she turns her weary gaze toward the only salve she knows:

Hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries… even in its astounding imperfection this earth of ours is magnificent.

HENRY DAVID THOREAU

To those superficially acquainted with his life and work, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) might appear as a rosy-lensed optimist drunk on transcendentalist delusion, living in self-elected exile from the darker realities of the world. Such an estimation of his inner world — of anyone’s inner world — is not only impoverished of nuance, but orthogonal to the complex full-spectrum human begin who rises from the pages of The Journal of Henry David Thoreau (public library) — that timeless fount of truth bathing us across the centuries in Thoreau’s wisdom on such varied aspects of aliveness as knowing versus seeing, the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.

To be sure, living in such intimate proximity with nature, Thoreau was given to elations that evade the modern civilization-stifled mind. In an entry penned two days after his thirty-third birthday, he exults:

What sweet and tender, the most innocent and divinely encouraging society there is in every natural object, and so in universal nature, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man! There can be no really black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has still his senses.

But his existential radiance was abruptly blackened when his best and at times only friend — his brother John — died of tetanus from a shaving cut when Thoreau was twenty-five. He watched in helpless horror as lockjaw warped his brother’s face and spasms contorted his body before the deadly bacterium claimed his life. He then sank into a deep depression that never fully receded, lapping at him in lifelong waves.

Again and again, Thoreau took solace in nature. In the high summer of 1852, a decade after his brother’s death and a decade before his own, Thoreau draws in the margin of his journal a sketch of the local hill crests, dotted with the tops of trees, then considers this natural vista as a life-saving calibration of perspective for the sorrow-blinded heart:

Even on the low principle that misery loves company and is relieved by the consciousness that it is shared by many, and therefore is not so insignificant and trivial, after all, this blue mountain outline is valuable. In many moods it is cheering to look across hence to that blue rim of the earth, and be reminded of the invisible towns and communities, for the most part also unremembered, which lie in the further and deeper hollows between me and those hills. Towns of sturdy uplandish fame, where some of the morning and primal vigor still lingers… it is cheering to think that it is with such communities that we survive or perish… The melancholy man who had come forth to commit suicide on this hill might be saved by being thus reminded how many brave and contented lives are lived between him and the horizon. Those hills extend our plot of earth; they make our native valley or indentation in the earth so much the larger.

In another entry penned in autumn — which, long before the diagnostic notion of seasonal affective disorder, Thoreau noted as a season when the human spirit tends to take a marked downturn — he draws from a particular creation of nature a living metaphor for how to move through the darkest seasons of the heart:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ’em,” “Give it to ’em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” — these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot!… See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.

RACHEL CARSON

“Last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her soul mate, Dorothy Freeman, of that symphonic moment when she turned in the manuscript of Silent Spring — the courageous exposé that catalyzed the environmental movement, which had taken Carson a decade of incubation and four years of rigorous research to bring to life as she was dying of cancer. Dorothy had been her pillar throughout both of these superhuman parallel journeys — the only person in whom this brilliant, stoical woman confided the complexity of her inner world, her writing process and the loneliness of creative work, her silent battles. (Their tender relationship and how it shored up Carson’s scientific work and far-reaching cultural legacy animate the last two hundred pages of Figuring, from which this miniature essay is adapted.)

In early June 1963, a year after the release of Silent Spring, Carson climbed into the passenger seat of her Oldsmobile and had her assistant take her from her home in Maryland to Capitol Hill — the pain in her back, spine, shoulder, and neck was by now too unbearable for Carson to drive even this short distance herself — to appear before a congressional committee on pesticides, summoned as a consequence of Silent Spring. Under the bright television lights, all traces of physical agony fled from the authoritative presence that took the witness stand in the windowless, wood-paneled Room 102 of the Senate building. 101 years after Abraham Lincoln greeted Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words “This is the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” the presiding Senator greeted Carson: “Miss Carson… we welcome you here. You are the lady who started all this. Will you please proceed.”

Speaking calmly into the press posy of six microphones before her, Carson proceeded to deliver a stunning forty-minute testimony predicated on revealing the delicate interconnectedness of nature and tracing the far-reaching devastation inflicted by poisonous chemicals once they enter an ecosystem. She called for a “strong and unremitting effort” to reduce and eventually eliminate pesticides. While her testimony was strewn with facts, it was palpably poetic in its elegy for ecology. She gave her strong recommendation for establishing an agency tasked with safeguarding nature — a landmark development that would take the government another seven years to institute. Carson would never live to see the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, nor its ban of DDT, both the direct result of her work.

Her congressional testimony, after which she was flooded by letters from citizens thanking her for having spoken inconvenient truth to power, was a crowning moment for the sense of duty that had propelled Carson through the arduous years leading up to Silent Spring. Having executed her responsibility as a citizen, scientist, and steward of life, she was free and restless to return to the sea, to her summer cabin on Southport Island in Maine, to Dorothy.

No record survives of the weeks containing Rachel and Dorothy’s last summer hours together — the absence of letters suggesting that they spent every precious moment in each other’s presence. Tide pool excursions were now a thing of the past — compression fractures in Carson’s spine made it difficult to walk, painful even to stand. Dorothy thought she looked like alabaster. They spent afternoons together in a little clearing in the woods near Carson’s cottage, watching the clouds float across the sky, listening to the avian orchestra in the trees, and reading to each other from their favorite books.

One shimmering day in early September, Dorothy took Rachel to their favorite spot on the tip of the island, where they had once watched meteors blaze ephemeral bridges of light across the riverine haze of the Milky Way. With their arms around each other, they slowly made the short, aching walk to the wooden benches perched atop the shore and sat under the blue late morning skies. Above the crashing waves, under the wind-strummed spruces, Dorothy and Rachel sat in intimate silence and watched a majestic procession of monarch butterflies flit toward the southern horizon on their annual migration — living meteors of black and gold. Half a century later, monarchs would take flight aboard the International Space Station, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, where Carson had begun her career, would call for their inclusion in the protections of the Endangered Species Act — one of several dozen environmental protection laws passed in the 1970s as direct and indirect consequences of Silent Spring.

That afternoon, Rachel sent Dorothy a lyrical “postscript” to their morning. Detailing the splendors that had etched themselves onto her memory — the particular hue of the sky, the particular score of the surf — she wrote:

Most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.

But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.

For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.

That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you.

[…]

I want to live on in your memories of happiness. I shall write more of those things. But tonight I’m weary and must put out the light. Meanwhile, there is this word — and my love will always live.

BP

The Osbick Bird: Edward Gorey’s Tender and Surprising Vintage Illustrated Allegory About the Meaning of True Love

A subversive Victorian-tinted infusion of romantic realism.

The Osbick Bird: Edward Gorey’s Tender and Surprising Vintage Illustrated Allegory About the Meaning of True Love

Great loves, like great works of art, live at the crossing point of the improbable and the inevitable. That, at least, has been my experience, both as a scholar of history and as a private participant in the lives of the heart. Such loves come unbidden, without warning or presentiment, and that is their supreme insurance against the projectionist fantasy that so frequently disguises not-love — infatuation, obsession, jealousy, longing — as love. But when they do come, with all the delirium of the improbable, they enter the house of the heart as if they have always lived there, instantly at home; they enter like light bending at a certain angle to reveal, without fuss or fanfare, some corner of the universe for the very first time — but the corner has always been there, dusty and dim, and the light has always been ambient, unlensed and unbent into illumination. For great love, as the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska observed in her splendid meditation on its mystery, is “never justified” but is rather “like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves?”

That improbable and inexplicable miracle is what Edward Gorey (February 22, 1925–April 15, 2000) celebrates with his signature faux-terse tenderness and soulful oddness in the vintage gem The Osbick Bird (public library).

Written in 1969 — several years after Gorey created his now-iconic Gashlycrumb Tinies, but well before his work for PBS and his fantastical reimagining of Dracula made him a household name — it was originally published under Gorey’s own Fantod Press, whose author list included such venerated names as Ogdred Weary, Madame Groeda Weyrd, O. Müde, Mrs. Regera Dowdy, Raddory Gewe, Garrod Weedy, and the Oprah-like first-name-only Om — Gorey’s delightful menagerie of pseudonyms.

Edward Gorey by Richard Avedon (Richard Avedon Foundation)

This tiny treasure of a book, itself improbable and inevitable given its subject and its creator’s nature, lay dormant and forgotten for decades, until Pomegranate Press, heroic stewards of Gorey’s legacy, resurrected it twelve years after he became the posthumous author he had always lived as.

In spare lines and spare verses, Gorey tells the singsong story of the osbick bird — a creature of his wild and wondrous imagination — who alights one day to lonely, dignified Emblus Figby’s bowler hat, out of the blue, or rather, out of the sky-implying negative space of Gorey’s minimalist, consummately cross-hatched black-and-white worldscapes.

And then, just like that, Emblus Figby and the osbick bird commence a life together — as if life was always meant to be lived in this particular tandem; as if each of the two was written into being just to complete the other’s rhyme.

This charmingly eccentric shared life unspools in Gorey’s playful verses, evocative of Victorian nursery rhymes, and when the spool runs out, Gorey’s romantic realism takes over — the osbick bird flits out of the frame just like it had flitted into it, by that miraculous consonance of the improbable and the inevitable.

“There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin had written a century earlier in the final passage of On the Origin of Species — in the view that death is the very mechanism ensuring the unstoppable ongoingness of life, the fulcrum by which ever shifts into after. There is grandeur, too, in Gorey’s subversive ending. There is beauty and bravery in its counterpoint to our incomplete happily-ever-after cultural mythos and its deep-seated denial of death as an integral part of life, and therefore of love; beauty and bravery in the reminder that the measure of a great love — as of a great life — is not in the happy ending, for all endings followed to the ultimate finality are the same, but in all the happy durings.

Complement The Osbick Bird with Shell Silverstein’s tender line-drawn allegory for the simple secret of true love, then revisit Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of its loss and W.H. Auden on what it means to be the more loving one.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust courtesy of Pomegranate Press. Photographs by Maria Popova.

BP

Yes to Life, in Spite of Everything: Viktor Frankl’s Lost Lectures on Moving Beyond Optimism and Pessimism to Find the Deepest Source of Meaning

“Everything depends on the individual human being, regardless of how small a number of like-minded people there is… each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being.”

Yes to Life, in Spite of Everything: Viktor Frankl’s Lost Lectures on Moving Beyond Optimism and Pessimism to Find the Deepest Source of Meaning

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his classic 119-page essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else… is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.”

Sometimes, life asks this question not as a thought experiment but as a gauntlet hurled with the raw brutality of living.

That selfsame year, the young Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997) was taken to Auschwitz along with more than a million human beings robbed of the basic right to answer this question for themselves, instead deemed unworthy of living. Some survived by reading. Some through humor. Some by pure chance. Most did not. Frankl lost his mother, his father, and his brother to the mass murder in the concentration camps. His own life was spared by the tightly braided lifeline of chance, choice, and character.

Viktor Frankl

A mere eleven months after surviving the unsurvivable, Frankl took up the elemental question at the heart of Camus’s philosophical parable in a set of lectures, which he himself edited into a slim, potent book published in Germany in 1946, just as he was completing Man’s Search for Meaning.

As our collective memory always tends toward amnesia and erasure — especially of periods scarred by civilizational shame — these existential infusions of sanity and lucid buoyancy fell out of print and were soon forgotten. Eventually rediscovered — as is also the tendency of our collective memory when the present fails us and we must lean for succor on the life-tested wisdom of the past — they are now published in English for the first time as Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything (public library).

Frankl begins by considering the question of whether life is worth living through the central fact of human dignity. Noting how gravely the Holocaust disillusioned humanity with itself, he cautions against the defeatist “end-of-the-world” mindset with which many responded to this disillusionment, but cautions equally against the “blithe optimism” of previous, more naïve eras that had not yet faced this gruesome civilizational mirror reflecting what human beings are capable of doing to one another. Both dispositions, he argues, stem from nihilism. In consonance with his colleague and contemporary Erich Fromm’s insistence that we can only transcend the shared laziness of optimism and pessimism through rational faith in the human spirit, Frankl writes:

We cannot move toward any spiritual reconstruction with a sense of fatalism such as this.

“Liminal Worlds” by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

Generations and myriad cultural upheavals before Zadie Smith observed that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Frankl considers what “progress” even means, emphasizing the centrality of our individual choices in its constant revision:

Today every impulse for action is generated by the knowledge that there is no form of progress on which we can trustingly rely. If today we cannot sit idly by, it is precisely because each and every one of us determines what and how far something “progresses.” In this, we are aware that inner progress is only actually possible for each individual, while mass progress at most consists of technical progress, which only impresses us because we live in a technical age.

Insisting that it takes a measure of moral strength not to succumb to nihilism, be it that of the pessimist or of the optimist, he exclaims:

Give me a sober activism anytime, rather than that rose-tinted fatalism!

How steadfast would a person’s belief in the meaningfulness of life have to be, so as not to be shattered by such skepticism. How unconditionally do we have to believe in the meaning and value of human existence, if this belief is able to take up and bear this skepticism and pessimism?

[…]

Through this nihilism, through the pessimism and skepticism, through the soberness of a “new objectivity” that is no longer that “new” but has grown old, we must strive toward a new humanity.

Sophie Scholl, upon whom chance did not smile as favorably as it did upon Frankl, affirmed this notion with her insistence that living with integrity and belief in human goodness is the wellspring of courage as she courageously faced her own untimely death in the hands of the Nazis. But while the Holocaust indisputably disenchanted humanity, Frankl argues, it also indisputably demonstrated “that what is human is still valid… that it is all a question of the individual human being.” Looking back on the brutality of the camps, he reflects:

What remained was the individual person, the human being — and nothing else. Everything had fallen away from him during those years: money, power, fame; nothing was certain for him anymore: not life, not health, not happiness; all had been called into question for him: vanity, ambition, relationships. Everything was reduced to bare existence. Burnt through with pain, everything that was not essential was melted down — the human being reduced to what he was in the last analysis: either a member of the masses, therefore no one real, so really no one — the anonymous one, a nameless thing (!), that “he” had now become, just a prisoner number; or else he melted right down to his essential self.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In a sentiment that bellows from the hallways of history into the great vaulted temple of timeless truth, he adds:

Everything depends on the individual human being, regardless of how small a number of like-minded people there is, and everything depends on each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being.

Frankl then turns to the question of finding a sense of meaning when the world gives us ample reasons to view life as meaningless — the question of “continuing to live despite persistent world-weariness.” Writing in the post-war pre-dawn of the golden age of consumerism, which has built a global economy by continually robbing us of the sense of meaning and selling it back to us at the price of the product, Frankl first dismantles the notion that meaning is to be found in the pursuit and acquisition of various pleasures:

Let us imagine a man who has been sentenced to death and, a few hours before his execution, has been told he is free to decide on the menu for his last meal. The guard comes into his cell and asks him what he wants to eat, offers him all kinds of delicacies; but the man rejects all his suggestions. He thinks to himself that it is quite irrelevant whether he stuffs good food into the stomach of his organism or not, as in a few hours it will be a corpse. And even the feelings of pleasure that could still be felt in the organism’s cerebral ganglia seem pointless in view of the fact that in two hours they will be destroyed forever. But the whole of life stands in the face of death, and if this man had been right, then our whole lives would also be meaningless, were we only to strive for pleasure and nothing else — preferably the most pleasure and the highest degree of pleasure possible. Pleasure in itself cannot give our existence meaning; thus the lack of pleasure cannot take away meaning from life, which now seems obvious to us.

He quotes a short verse by the great Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, Einstein’s onetime conversation partner in contemplating science and spirituality, and a man who thought deeply about human nature:

I slept and dreamt
that life was joy.
I awoke and saw
that life was duty.
I worked — and behold,
duty was joy.

In consonance with Camus’s view of happiness as a moral obligation — an outcome to be attained not through direct pursuit but as a byproduct of living with authenticity and integrity — Frankl reflects on Tagore’s poetic point:

So, life is somehow duty, a single, huge obligation. And there is certainly joy in life too, but it cannot be pursued, cannot be “willed into being” as joy; rather, it must arise spontaneously, and in fact, it does arise spontaneously, just as an outcome may arise: Happiness should not, must not, and can never be a goal, but only an outcome; the outcome of the fulfillment of that which in Tagore’s poem is called duty… All human striving for happiness, in this sense, is doomed to failure as luck can only fall into one’s lap but can never be hunted down.

In a sentiment James Baldwin would echo two decades later in his superb forgotten essay on the antidote to the hour of despair and life as a moral obligation to the universe, Frankl turns the question unto itself:

At this point it would be helpful [to perform] a conceptual turn through 180 degrees, after which the question can no longer be “What can I expect from life?” but can now only be “What does life expect of me?” What task in life is waiting for me?

Now we also understand how, in the final analysis, the question of the meaning of life is not asked in the right way, if asked in the way it is generally asked: it is not we who are permitted to ask about the meaning of life — it is life that asks the questions, directs questions at us… We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life. With this mental standpoint nothing can scare us anymore, no future, no apparent lack of a future. Because now the present is everything as it holds the eternally new question of life for us.

Another of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for the 1913 English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Frankl adds a caveat of tremendous importance — triply so in our present culture of self-appointed gurus, self-help demagogues, and endless podcast feeds of interviews with accomplished individuals attempting to distill a universal recipe for self-actualization:

The question life asks us, and in answering which we can realize the meaning of the present moment, does not only change from hour to hour but also changes from person to person: the question is entirely different in each moment for every individual.

We can, therefore, see how the question as to the meaning of life is posed too simply, unless it is posed with complete specificity, in the concreteness of the here and now. To ask about “the meaning of life” in this way seems just as naive to us as the question of a reporter interviewing a world chess champion and asking, “And now, Master, please tell me: which chess move do you think is the best?” Is there a move, a particular move, that could be good, or even the best, beyond a very specific, concrete game situation, a specific configuration of the pieces?

What emerges from Frankl’s inversion of the question is the sense that, just as learning to die is learning to meet the universe on its own terms, learning to live is learning to meet the universe on its own terms — terms that change daily, hourly, by the moment:

One way or another, there can only be one alternative at a time to give meaning to life, meaning to the moment — so at any time we only need to make one decision about how we must answer, but, each time, a very specific question is being asked of us by life. From all this follows that life always offers us a possibility for the fulfillment of meaning, therefore there is always the option that it has a meaning. One could also say that our human existence can be made meaningful “to the very last breath”; as long as we have breath, as long as we are still conscious, we are each responsible for answering life’s questions.

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

With this symphonic prelude, Frankl arrives at the essence of what he discovered about the meaning of life in his confrontation with death — a central fact of being at which a great many of humanity’s deepest seers have arrived via one path or another: from Rilke, who so passionately insisted that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” to physicist Brian Greene, who so poetically nested our search for meaning into our mortality into the most elemental fact of the universe. Frankl writes:

The fact, and only the fact, that we are mortal, that our lives are finite, that our time is restricted and our possibilities are limited, this fact is what makes it meaningful to do something, to exploit a possibility and make it become a reality, to fulfill it, to use our time and occupy it. Death gives us a compulsion to do so. Therefore, death forms the background against which our act of being becomes a responsibility.

[…]

Death is a meaningful part of life, just like human suffering. Both do not rob the existence of human beings of meaning but make it meaningful in the first place. Thus, it is precisely the uniqueness of our existence in the world, the irretrievability of our lifetime, the irrevocability of everything with which we fill it — or leave unfulfilled — that gives our existence significance. But it is not only the uniqueness of an individual life as a whole that gives it importance, it is also the uniqueness of every day, every hour, every moment that represents something that loads our existence with the weight of a terrible and yet so beautiful responsibility! Any hour whose demands we do not fulfill, or fulfill halfheartedly, this hour is forfeited, forfeited “for all eternity.” Conversely, what we achieve by seizing the moment is, once and for all, rescued into reality, into a reality in which it is only apparently “canceled out” by becoming the past. In truth, it has actually been preserved, in the sense of being kept safe. Having been is in this sense perhaps even the safest form of being. The “being,” the reality that we have rescued into the past in this way, can no longer be harmed by transitoriness.

In the remainder of the slender and splendid Yes to Life, Frankl goes on to explore how the imperfections of human nature add to, rather than subtract from, the meaningfulness of our lives and what it means for us to be responsible for our own existence. Complement it with Mary Shelley, writing two centuries ago about a pandemic-savaged world, on what makes life worth living, Walt Whitman contemplating this question after surviving a paralytic stroke, and a vitalizing cosmic antidote to the fear of death from astrophysicist and poet Rebecca Elson, then revisit Frankl on humor as lifeline to sanity and survival.

BP

Wander: Natascha McElhone Reads Hermann Hesse’s 100-Year-Old Love Letter to Trees in a Virtual Mental Health Walk Through Kew Gardens

“In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws… to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.”

Wander: Natascha McElhone Reads Hermann Hesse’s 100-Year-Old Love Letter to Trees in a Virtual Mental Health Walk Through Kew Gardens

In the final years of his life, the great neurologist Oliver Sacks reflected on the physiological and psychological healing power of nature, observing that in forty years of medical practice, he had found only two types of non-pharmaceutical therapy helpful to his patients: music and gardens. It was in a garden, too, that Virginia Woolf, bedeviled by lifelong mental illness, found the consciousness-electrifying epiphany that enabled her to make some of humanity’s most transcendent art despite her private suffering.

When my dear friend Natascha McElhone (who narrated Figuring) was asked to choose a piece of literature with which to narrate a tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for an episode of Wander — a lovely series by filmmaker Beau Kerouac, benefiting Britain’s Mental Health Foundation and helping quarantined people virtually visit some of the world’s most beloved parks and cultural institutions, accompanied by some of the world’s most beloved literary and artistic voices — Natascha chose a wondrous 100-year-old love letter to trees by Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962), which she had saved from Brain Pickings nearly a decade ago. Originally published in Hesse’s 1920 collection of fragments, Wandering: Notes and Sketches (public library), it comes newly alive in this transportive, transcendent journey through the screen and past it, into a lush wonderland of nature’s aliveness, with two uncommonly beautiful voices as the sherpas.

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts… Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

“Perspective” by Maria Popova

For a lyrical kindred-spirited counterpart, visit one of Earth’s greatest forests with Pablo Neruda and astronaut Leland Melvin, then savor Amanda Palmer’s reading of Mary Oliver’s spare and splendid poem “When I Am Among the Trees” and this cinematic love letter to the wilderness, inspired by the great naturalist John Muir, who saw the universe as “an infinite storm of beauty.”

BP

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