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On the Soul-Sustaining Necessity of Resisting Self-Comparison and Fighting Cynicism: A Commencement Address

“In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.”

I have long relished the commencement address as one of our few cultural forms that render us receptive to sincerity — receptive to messages we might dismiss as trite in any other context, but which we recognize here as the life-earned truth of the human being at the podium, shared in a spirit of goodwill with a group of young humans just starting out on the truth-earning gauntlet called life.

So I was thrilled to deliver the address to the 2016 graduating class at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, my own alma mater. Speech text below.

annenberg_commencement

I want to talk to you today about the soul. Not the soul as that immortal unit of religious mythology, for I am a nonbeliever. And not the soul as a pop-culture commodity, that voracious consumer of self-help chicken soup. I mean the soul simply as shorthand for the seismic core of personhood from which our beliefs, our values, and our actions radiate.

I live in New York, where something extraordinary happens every April. In the first days of spring, those days when the air turns from blistering to balmy, a certain gladness envelops the city — people actually look up from their screens while walking and strangers smile at each other. For a few short days, it’s like we remember how we can live and who we’re capable of being to one another.

I also practically live on my bike — that’s how I get everywhere — and the other week, on one of those first days of spring, I was riding from Brooklyn to Harlem. I had somewhere to be and was pedaling pretty fast — which I like doing and must admit I take a certain silly pride in — but I was also very much enjoying the ride and the river and the spring air that smelled of plum blossoms. And then, I sensed someone behind me in the bike path, catching up, going even faster than I was going. It suddenly felt somehow competitive. He was trying to overtake me. I pedaled faster, but he kept catching up. Eventually, he did overtake me — and I felt strangely defeated.

But as he cruised past me, I realized the guy was on an electric bike. I felt both a sort of redemption and a great sense of injustice — unfair motorized advantage, very demoralizing to the honest muscle-powered pedaler. But just as I was getting all self-righteously existential, I noticed something else — he had a restaurant’s name on his back. He was food delivery guy. He was rushing past me not because he was trying to slight me, or because he had some unfair competitive advantage in life, but because this was his daily strife — this is how this immigrant made his living.

My first response was to shame myself into gratitude for how fortunate I’ve been — because I too am an immigrant from a pretty poor country and it’s some miraculous confluence of choice and chance that has kept me from becoming a food delivery person on an electric bike in order to survive in New York City. And perhaps the guy has a more satisfying life than I do — perhaps he had a good mother and goes home to the love of his life and plays the violin at night. I don’t know, and I never will. But the point is that the second I begin comparing my pace to his, my life to his, I’m vacating my own experience of that spring day and ejecting myself into a sort of limbo of life that is neither mine nor his.

I grew up in Bulgaria and my early childhood was spent under a communist dictatorship. But for all its evils, communism had one silver lining — when everyone had very little, no one felt like somebody else was cruising past them motorized by privilege.

I came to Penn straight from Bulgaria, through that same confluence of chance and choice (and, yes, a lot of very, very hard work — I don’t want to minimize the importance of that, but I also don’t want to imply that people who end up on the underprivileged end of life haven’t worked hard enough, because this is one of our most oppressive cultural myth and reality is so much more complex). In any case: When I came to Penn, I had an experience very different from my childhood. Suddenly, as I was working four jobs to pay for school, I felt like everybody else was on an electric bike and I was just pedaling myself into the ground.

This, of course, is what happens in every environment densely populated by so-called peers — self-comparison becomes inevitable. Financial inequality was just my particular poison, but we do it along every imaginable axis of privilege and every dimension of identity — intelligence, beauty, athleticism, charisma that entrances the Van Pelt librarians into pardoning your late fees.

But here’s the thing about self-comparison: In addition to making you vacate your own experience, your own soul, your own life, in its extreme it breeds resignation. If we constantly feel that there is something more to be had — something that’s available to those with a certain advantage in life, but which remains out of reach for us — we come to feel helpless. And the most toxic byproduct of this helpless resignation is cynicism — that terrible habit of mind and orientation of spirit in which, out of hopelessness for our own situation, we grow embittered about how things are and about what’s possible in the world. Cynicism is a poverty of curiosity and imagination and ambition.

Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope — not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that.

In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.

You are about to enter the ecosystem of cultural production. Most of you will go into journalism, media, policy, or some blurry blob of the increasingly amorphous Venn diagram of these forces that shape culture and public opinion. Whatever your specific vocation, your role as a creator of culture will be to help people discern what matters in the world and why by steering them away from the meaningless and toward the meaningful. E.B. White said that the role of the writer is to lift people up, not to lower them down, and I believe that’s the role of every journalist and artist and creator of culture.

Strive to be uncynical, to be a hope-giving force, to be a steward of substance. Choose to lift people up, not to lower them down — because it is a choice, always, and because in doing so you lift yourself up.

Develop an inner barometer for your own value. Resist pageviews and likes and retweets and all those silly-sounding quantification metrics that will be obsolete within the decade. Don’t hang the stability of your soul on them. They can’t tell you how much your work counts for and to whom. They can’t tell you who you are and what you’re worth. They are that demoralizing electric bike that makes you feel if only you could pedal faster — if only you could get more pageviews and likes and retweets — you’d be worthier of your own life.

You will enter a world where, whatever career you may choose or make for yourself — because never forget that there are jobs you can get and jobs you can invent — you will often face the choice of construction and destruction, of building up or tearing down.

Among our most universal human longings is to affect the world with our actions somehow, to leave an imprint with our existence. Both construction and destruction leave a mark and give us a sense of agency in the world. Now, destruction is necessary sometimes — damaged and damaging systems need to be demolished to clear the way for more enlivening ones. But destruction alone, without construction to follow it, is hapless and lazy. Construction is far more difficult, because it requires the capacity to imagine something new and better, and the willingness to exert ourselves toward building it, even at the risk of failure. But that is also far more satisfying in the end.

You may find your fate forked by construction and destruction frequently, in ways obvious or subtle. And you will have to choose between being the hammer-wielding vandal, who may attain more immediate results — more attention — by tearing things and people and ideas down, or the sculptor of culture, patiently chiseling at the bedrock of how things are to create something new and beautiful and imaginative following a nobler vision, your vision, of how things can and should be.

Some active forms of destruction are more obvious and therefore, to the moral and well-intentioned person, easier to resist. It’s hard not to notice that there’s a hammer before you and to refuse to pick it up. But there are passive forms of destruction far more difficult to detect and thus to safeguard against, and the most pernicious of them is cynicism.

Our culture has created a reward system in which you get points for tearing down rather than building up, and for besieging with criticism and derision those who dare to work and live from a place of constructive hope. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively, in yourself and in those you love and in the communication with which you shape culture. Cynicism, like all destruction, is easy, it’s lazy. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincere, active, constructive hope for the human spirit. This is the most potent antidote to cynicism, and it is an act of courage and resistance today.

It is also the most vitalizing sustenance for your soul.

But you — you — are in a very special position, leaving Annenberg, because your courage and resistance are to be enacted not only in the privacy of your inner life but in your outer contribution to public life. You are the creators of tomorrow’s ideas and ideals, the sculptors of public opinion and of culture. As long as we feed people buzz, we cannot expect their minds to produce symphonies. Never let the temptation of marketable mediocrity and easy cynicism rob you of the chance to ennoble public life and enlarge the human spirit — because we need that badly today, and because you need it badly for the survival of your soul.

So as you move through life, pedal hard — because that’s how you get places, and because it’s fun and so incredibly gratifying to propel yourself forward by your own will and power of intention. But make sure the pace of your pedaling answers only to your own standards of vigor. Remain uncynical and don’t waste any energy on those who pass you by on their electric bikes, because you never know what strife is driving them and, most of all, because the moment you focus on that, you vacate your own soul.

Instead, pedal forth — but also remember to breathe in the spring air and to smile at a stranger every once in a while. Because there is nothing more uncynical than being good to one another.

Thank you and congratulations.

BP

Wait: Galway Kinnell’s Beautiful and Life-Giving Poem for a Young Friend Contemplating Suicide

“Be there to hear … the flute of your whole existence…”

Wait: Galway Kinnell’s Beautiful and Life-Giving Poem for a Young Friend Contemplating Suicide

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus famously wrote — a statement that has only swelled in intellectual notoriety and spiritual significance in the half-century since. But beyond philosophy, when the will to live or die plays out in the personal realm, it creates a vortex of pain — not only for the anguished person contemplating suicide but for those who love them, to say nothing of the perilous social contagion of suicide.

Pulitzer-winning poet Galway Kinnell (February 1, 1927–October 28, 2014) addressed this elemental question of existence with extraordinary compassion and spiritual grace in a poem he wrote for a student of his who was contemplating suicide after the abrupt end of a romance. Originally published in Kinnell’s beautiful and beautifully titled 1980 collection Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, it was later included in A New Selected Poems (public library).

In this recording courtesy of the Academy of American Poets, Kinnell brings his miraculously life-giving words to life:

WAIT

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

I am grateful to Rosanne Cash and the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber for bringing this enormously enlivening poem to my attention. Complement it with Diane Ackerman on what working at a suicide prevention hotline taught her about the human spirit.

For more beloved poets performing their work, hear Sylvia Plath reading “Spinster,” “The Birthday Present,” and “The Disquieting Muses,” Billy Collins reading “Aristotle,” T.S. Eliot reading “Burnt Norton,” Lucille Clifton reading “won’t you celebrate with me,” Elizabeth Alexander reading “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” Sarah Kay reading “The Paradox,” and Mary Oliver reading “Wild Geese.”

BP

A Largeness of Contemplation: Bertrand Russell on Intuition, the Intellect, and the Nature of Time

“Both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.”

A Largeness of Contemplation: Bertrand Russell on Intuition, the Intellect, and the Nature of Time

Albert Einstein, in contemplating the human “passion for comprehension,” asserted that every true theoretical physicist is “is a kind of tamed metaphysicist” — a rather controversial statement amid a culture increasingly bent on disentangling science and philosophy (which used to be called metaphysics), and particularly controversial for modernity’s most significant scientist to make. But a mark of genius is precisely this unwillingness to succumb to culture’s artificial and limiting polarities — a continual commitment to seeking nuance over forced contrast.

Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) — another thinker of rare genius, a staunch champion of reason and one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived — made a magnificent case for that interplay between science and metaphysics a generation earlier in the title piece of his superb 1918 collection Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (free ebook | public library).

bertrandrussell_time

Russell was a founding father of modern atheism, but he was also animated by a resolute commitment to nuance and an unflinching defiance of dogma, be it religious or scientific. He writes:

Metaphysics, or the attempt to conceive the world as a whole by means of thought, has been developed, from the first, by the union and conflict of two very different human impulses, the one urging men towards mysticism, the other urging them towards science. Some men have achieved greatness through one of these impulses alone, others through the other alone: in Hume, for example, the scientific impulse reigns quite unchecked, while in Blake a strong hostility to science co-exists with profound mystic insight. But the greatest men who have been philosophers have felt the need both of science and of mysticism: the attempt to harmonise the two was what made their life, and what always must, for all its arduous uncertainty, make philosophy, to some minds, a greater thing than either science or religion.

Where science is a function of reason, mysticism for Russell is a function of intuition and therefore a form of “poetic imagination, not science” — it is “little more than a certain intensity and depth of feeling in regard to what is believed about the universe.” And yet it offers a powerful complement to the scientific lens on reality. With an eye to the ethics of Heraclitus, he writes:

The facts of science, as they appeared to [Heraclitus], fed the flame in his soul, and in its light he saw into the depths of the world by the reflection of his own dancing swiftly penetrating fire. In such a nature we see the true union of the mystic and the man of science — the highest eminence, as I think, that it is possible to achieve in the world of thought.

This union of the intuitive and the empirical, Russell argues, is our most promising conduit to truth — the former contains our moral ideals, while the latter must test them against the reality which they are to inhabit. In a sentiment that calls to mind W.H. Auden’s assertion that “a poet must never make a statement simply because it sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true,” Russell writes:

Ethical considerations can only legitimately appear when the truth has been ascertained: they can and should appear as determining our feeling towards the truth, and our manner of ordering our lives in view of the truth, but not as themselves dictating what the truth is to be.

[…]

It is only in marriage with the world that our ideals can bear fruit: divorced from it, they remain barren. But marriage with the world is not to be achieved by an ideal which shrinks from fact, or demands in advance that the world shall conform to its desires.

A 16th-century painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

Russell considers the nature of mystical experience:

Mystical philosophy, in all ages and in all parts of the world, is characterised by the belief in a way of wisdom, sudden, penetrating, coercive, which is contrasted with the slow and fallible study of outward appearance by a science relying wholly upon the senses.

In a passage that reminds me of physicist and novelist Alan Lightman’s beautiful account of a transcendent experience, Russell adds:

All who are capable of absorption in an inward passion must have experienced at times the strange feeling of unreality in common objects, the loss of contact with daily things, in which the solidity of the outer world is lost, and the soul seems, in utter loneliness, to bring forth, out of its own depths, the mad dance of fantastic phantoms which have hitherto appeared as independently real and living.

[…]

The first and most direct outcome of the moment of illumination is belief in the possibility of a way of knowledge which may be called revelation or insight or intuition, as contrasted with sense, reason, and analysis, which are regarded as blind guides leading to the morass of illusion. Closely connected with this belief is the conception of a Reality behind the world of appearance and utterly different from it. This Reality is regarded with an admiration often amounting to worship; it is felt to be always and everywhere close at hand, thinly veiled by the shows of sense, ready, for the receptive mind, to shine in its glory even through the apparent folly and wickedness of Man. The poet, the artist, and the lover are seekers after that glory: the haunting beauty that they pursue is the faint reflection of its sun. But the mystic lives in the full light of the vision: what others dimly seek he knows, with a knowledge beside which all other knowledge is ignorance.

Indeed, art is in a sense a mystical experience — something Saul Bellow captured beautifully in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which he observed: “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” But what Russell is concerned with is how mystical experience relates, and whether it should at all, to science.

In addition to this sense of revelation, he argues, three other criteria define mystical philosophy — a “belief in unity,” which negates all polarities and divisions; a “denial of the reality of Time,” which stems from the negation of divisions, for “if all is one, the distinction of past and future must be illusory”; and a belief that “all evil is mere appearance, an illusion produced by the divisions and oppositions of the analytic intellect.” He outlines this quartet of consideratoins:

Four questions thus arise in considering the truth or falsehood of mysticism, namely:

1. Are there two ways of knowing, which may be called respectively reason and intuition? And if so, is either to be preferred to the other?

2. Is all plurality and division illusory?

3. Is time unreal?

4. What kind of reality belongs to good and evil?

Returning to the crux of his inquiry — the possible complementarity of science and mystical philosophy — Russell argues that while mysticism may be misguided as a test of truth, there is something vital science can learn from its spirit of inquiry:

While fully developed mysticism seems to me mistaken, I yet believe that, by sufficient restraint, there is an element of wisdom to be learned from the mystical way of feeling, which does not seem to be attainable in any other manner. If this is the truth, mysticism is to be commended as an attitude towards life, not as a creed about the world… Even the cautious and patient investigation of truth by science, which seems the very antithesis of the mystic’s swift certainty, may be fostered and nourished by that very spirit of reverence in which mysticism lives and moves.

Echoing Galileo’s admonition against the folly of believing our preconceptions and Faraday’s strategy for countering our propensity for self-deception, Russell writes:

What I do wish to maintain — and it is here that the scientific attitude becomes imperative — is that insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means… But in fact the opposition of instinct and reason is mainly illusory. Instinct, intuition, or insight is what first leads to the beliefs which subsequent reason confirms or confutes; but the confirmation, where it is possible, consists, in the last analysis, of agreement with other beliefs no less instinctive. Reason is a harmonising, controlling force rather than a creative one. Even in the most purely logical realm, it is insight that first arrives at what is new.

He is responding in large part to his contemporary and fellow Nobel laureate Henri Bergson’s polarization of instinct and the intellect. Russell argues that in the most lucid and fertile form of thought, the two are not in opposition but in harmony:

Instinct, like all human faculties, is liable to error. Those in whom reason is weak are often unwilling to admit this as regards themselves, though all admit it in regard to others. Where instinct is least liable to error is in practical matters as to which right judgment is a help to survival: friendship and hostility in others, for instance, are often felt with extraordinary discrimination through very careful disguises. But even in such matters a wrong impression may be given by reserve or flattery; and in matters less directly practical, such as philosophy deals with, very strong instinctive beliefs are sometimes wholly mistaken, as we may come to know through their perceived inconsistency with other equally strong beliefs. It is such considerations that necessitate the harmonising mediation of reason, which tests our beliefs by their mutual compatibility, and examines, in doubtful cases, the possible sources of error on the one side and on the other. In this there is no opposition to instinct as a whole, but only to blind reliance upon some one interesting aspect of instinct to the exclusion of other more commonplace but not less trustworthy aspects. It is such one-sidedness, not instinct itself, that reason aims at correcting.

The key to that harmony, Russell asserts, lies in bridging the expansive confidence of intuition with the balanced restraint of reason so as to produce — and isn’t that a most marvelous phrase? — a “largeness of contemplation.”

Its most compelling manifestation comes to life in Russell’s discussion of time and the question of whether or not it is real — perhaps the greatest friction point between science and metaphysics, and one that came to a head just four years later in Einstein and Bergson’s landmark debate, which shaped our modern understanding of time. With an eye to the mystics’ assertion that linear time is an illusion, Russell writes:

It is difficult to disentangle the truth and the error in this view. The arguments for the contention that time is unreal and that the world of sense is illusory must, I think, be regarded as fallacious. Nevertheless there is some sense — easier to feel than to state — in which time is an unimportant and superficial characteristic of reality. Past and future must be acknowledged to be as real as the present, and a certain emancipation from slavery to time is essential to philosophic thought.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time

A century before modern psychologists started probing the paradoxical psychology of time and today’s physicists began exploring why we experience it as linear and can’t remember the future, Russell speaks to these perplexities with astonishing intellectual precision:

The importance of time is rather practical than theoretical, rather in relation to our desires than in relation to truth. A truer image of the world, I think, is obtained by picturing things as entering into the stream of time from an eternal world outside, than from a view which regards time as the devouring tyrant of all that is. Both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.

That this is the case may be seen at once by asking ourselves why our feelings towards the past are so different from our feelings towards the future. The reason for this difference is wholly practical: our wishes can affect the future but not the past, the future is to some extent subject to our power, while the past is unalterably fixed. But every future will some day be past: if we see the past truly now, it must, when it was still future, have been just what we now see it to be, and what is now future must be just what we shall see it to be when it has become past. The felt difference of quality between past and future, therefore, is not an intrinsic difference, but only a difference in relation to us: to impartial contemplation, it ceases to exist. And impartiality of contemplation is, in the intellectual sphere, that very same virtue of disinterestedness which, in the sphere of action, appears as justice and unselfishness. Whoever wishes to see the world truly, to rise in thought above the tyranny of practical desires, must learn to overcome the difference of attitude towards past and future, and to survey the whole stream of time in one comprehensive vision.

[…]

The beliefs of to-day may count as true to-day, if they carry us along the stream; but to-morrow they will be false, and must be replaced by new beliefs to meet the new situation. All our thinking consists of convenient fictions, imaginary congealings of the stream: reality flows on in spite of all our fictions, and though it can be lived, it cannot be conceived in thought.

Russell’s Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays is an enormously vitalizing read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Gaston Bachelard on our paradoxical experience of time, Hannah Arendt on time and our thinking ego, and Sarah Manguso on the wisdom of surrendering to time’s ongoingness, then revisit Russell on love and sex, what “the good life” really means, why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, and the four desires driving all human behavior.

BP

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