“You’re handed the mould and told — fit in to this.”
By Maria Popova
Partway between poem and public service announcement, the spoken-word masterpiece “Progress” by English poet and playwright Kate Tempest, found in her altogether terrific poetry collection Hold Your Own (public library), is the finest, sharpest thing written about why religion exists since Bertrand Russell, the most sobering case against the cult of consumerism since E.F. Schumacher, and the most piercing take on the violence of image-culture since Susan Sontag.
The creative ferocity that leaps from the page comes alive with tenfold more power in Tempest’s extraordinary performance on the Australian television program Q&A:
Once there was a purpose,
so I hear: there was a God.
It made it all less worthless
and it gave us the because
we’d all been searching for.
An unarguable truth.
A reason to be kind and just,
a reason for the noose
that sent the sinner off to sinnerland
and made us all feel better
in the knowledge that the righteous
would be right and just forever.
Once there was religion,
and it ruled. We had it bad.
We fooled ourselves to sleep at night;
This was This, and That was That.
And if our morals ever shook,
we looked no further than The Book.
But over time we felt the pressure;
it became the great oppressor.
And without God, the wars seemed crueller
life seemed bleaker. Art seemed foolish.
Death seemed stranger now than ever.
What was mankind for? What terror
flooded us to understand
there was no point, no grander plan.
There was just living out each day.
Work. Eat. Sleep. Fuck. Pass away.
Without the fear of retribution
we found guilt-free pleasure
but we lost the sense of union
that had kept us all together.
We needed something new to fill
the emptiness that grew;
and what’s better to believe
in than all-you-can-eat Freedom!
The joy of being who we are
by virtue of the clothes we buy.
The dream of getting rich enough
to live outside the common life.
And now, there is no purpose
that exists beyond our needs.
Now there is the worship
of convenience and speed.
We run around the circuit,
pit our grace against our greed
And all we have is surplus
to what’s needed and we feed
our callous little urchins
in the best way that we can.
And then wonder how they’ve grown
to only know what’s in their hands.
Now we have the Screen,
and it rules.
Our kids are perma-plugged into its promise,
admiring all its jewels.
And couples eat their dinner,
in the glimmer of its rays,
we stare until we’ve learned
the world’s ways.
Pre-teens learn what heart-throbs are.
Heart-throbs gorge on hot pork and watch sport.
Reality played for us to sneer and weep at —
here is morality at last! See us caught
in full colour, high definition.
Look — a cripple on a blind date.
Look — young people getting fucked in Magaluf,
look — the mother of a dead son, weeping, irate,
look — a celebrity eating shit and singing Agadoo.
We used to burn women who had epileptic fits.
We’d tie them to a stake and proclaim them a witch.
we’ll put them on a screen if they’ve got nice tits,
but they’ll be torn apart if they let themselves slip.
We’ll draw red rings round their saggy bits.
And flick through the pictures while we eat bags of chips.
You can either be a beauty or a beast or a bitch,
you can either be cool or kooky or kitsch.
you were damned for the things that you did,
or if you didn’t live how the villagers lived.
You’re handed the mould and told — fit in to this.
And maybe one day you could really be big.
of a famous last gig.
of the singer’s last twitch.
Before she pulls her gun out
and blows herself to bits.
The world is your playground,
go and get your kicks,
“A doctor, like anyone else who has to deal with human beings, each of them unique, cannot be a scientist; he is either, like the surgeon, a craftsman, or, like the physician and the psychologist, an artist.”
By Maria Popova
The poetry of W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) was among Oliver Sacks’s formative books. When the two men eventually became friends in the final years of Auden’s life, Dr. Sacks was still a thirty-something neurologist with little more than a weightlifting record under his belt, a long way from becoming the Dante of medicine. Auden became an invaluable mentor as the young writer was honing the singular voice that would later render him the greatest science-storyteller of our time.
In the pages of A Certain World (public library) — Auden’s terrific commonplace book, that proto-Tumblr of fragmentary inspirations fomenting the poet’s imagination — I was delighted to discover the surprising seedbed of the kinship of spirit between these two otherwise rather different geniuses.
Under the entry for Medicine, Auden writes:
I can remember my father, who was a physician, quoting to me when I was a young boy an aphorism by Sir William Osler: “Care more for the individual patient than for the special features of his disease.” In other words, a doctor, like anyone else who has to deal with human beings, each of them unique, cannot be a scientist; he is either, like the surgeon, a craftsman, or, like the physician and the psychologist, an artist.
It is precisely those members of the medical profession who make the bogus claim that they are “scientific” who are most likely to refuse to consider new evidence.
Radiating from this private reflection is the sudden illumination of why Dr. Sacks, that poetic humanist of modern medicine, was so enchanted by Auden’s work and the spirit from which it sprang. (In my own life, I have found that all of my close friendships with people whom I’ve first encountered through their work are based on something larger than aesthetic admiration for one another’s work — they are based, rather, on a certain resonant affinity for the spirit undergirding the work, of which the work is only a partial expression.)
Writing shortly before the publication of Dr. Sacks’s groundbreaking Awakenings — the record of his miraculous work with patients frozen in a trance-like state by sleeping-sickness, brought back to life in large part by music — Auden offers a beautiful figurative counterpart to Dr. Sacks’s literal solution:
As Novalis wrote, “Every sickness is a musical problem; every cure a musical solution…” This means that in order to be a good doctor a man must also have a good character, that is to say, whatever weaknesses and foibles he may have, he must love his fellow human beings in the concrete and desire their good before his own. A doctor, like a politician, who loves other men only in the abstract or regards them simply as a source of income can, however clever, do nothing but harm.
In his magnificent autobiography, which remains one of the most rewarding and life-expanding books I’ve ever read, Dr. Sacks recounts the advice Auden gave him as he was writing Awakenings:
You’re going to have to go beyond the clinical… Be metaphorical, be mystical, be whatever you need.
How marvelous to uncover, buried amid the pages of his forgotten commonplace book, the seed of this wisdom, which helped Dr. Sacks write the book in such a way that Auden himself would later laud as a masterpiece.
“We should use our opinions to start discussions, not to end them.”
By Maria Popova
As I was preparing to deliver my Annenberg commencement address, restlessness of a very different kind and caliber was taking place on the other side of the country.
When Scripps Women’s College announced that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — a person with whom I disagree politically on many counts — was invited to deliver the 2016 commencement address, student protests broke out across campus. Some had hoped for a woman of color as the graduation speaker, some went as far as calling Albright a war criminal, and there was a general outrage centered around her politically charged remark that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
Unlike Villanova University, which sixteen years earlier had disinvited legendary journalist Anna Quindlen after students protested her liberal political views (with the result of Quindlen’s spectacular undelivered commencement address going “viral” long before social media), Scripps proceeded as planned. Albright traveled to campus early to meet with the students and faculty and hear out their dissent in order for them to accept her as a speaker. Even so, some of the faculty refused to participate in the ceremony.
On the morning of May 14, the day before her 79th birthday, Albright took the podium clad in cap and gown, tension and unrest still suffusing the air. She was greeted by a few tepid claps. Students wore buttons on their gowns bearing slogans like “Hell is Albright with me.” The class valedictorian prefacing the commencement address ended her speech with these words: “And if there’s a special place in hell for us, magical, radical, change-making us, then so be it.”
But what happened next — as relayed to me by my dear friend (and frequent collaborator) Wendy MacNaughton, who was in attendance as the cousin of a new graduate — is an astonishing lesson in courage, dignity, integrity, and transformation under the unlikeliest of circumstances.
At the end of the speech, something palpable had shifted — the few tepid claps had been transformed and amplified, erupting into a thunderous applause as Albright walked off the stage. Wendy watched one graduate remove the protest button from her gown. “Great speech, huh?” she said to the young woman, who rolled her eyes, then nodded.
Truth can be a blunt instrument and, at times, a dangerous one. In some countries, even in our era, bearing witness to the abuse of authority can put truth-tellers in prison — or worse. It is also possible to be completely convinced that something is true and at the same time, completely wrong. There are people in our world today who are ready to die — or kill — for alleged truths that are grounded less on the validity of their insights than on the false certainty generated by their resentments and fears.
We have also learned through history that supposedly eternal truths can, in fact, go out of fashion. The Earth is flat; the Sun is a golden chariot; there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; Pluto is a planet; and women are the weaker sex.
So truth is a complex topic — but, for an educated person, it is an inescapable quest.
Here at Scripps, the alma mater talks about “searching and exploring the life of the mind.” You cannot do that without trying to separate what is true from what is not. But this mission begins with an important premise — that we do not already know everything there is to know.
That can be hard for many of us to admit.
Bertrand Russell called this “the will to doubt” and Albright illustrates it with the example of her own formative years as a college student in a distant cultural era “about halfway between the invention of the iPhone and the discovery of fire”:
At the time, I knew that I had much to gain from the words of my professors and from the books that they would assign, but I neither questioned nor doubted the fundamental values with which I had grown up. This is the way it is for most of us — after all, the only completely open mind is an empty one. We all have our opinions and prejudices, based on who we are, where we come from, what we have experienced, and how we have been taught.
The key to further education is not to put aside what we think we know, but to employ that knowledge as a platform for learning more.
This means that we should use our opinions to start discussions, not to end them.
Half a century after Eleanor Roosevelt’s clarion call for our individual role in social change, Albright turns to the litany of global problems facing us today — climate change, income inequality, genocides, wars, and the various monumental and subtle erosions of our dignity — and urges the next generation:
The principal challenges of the future are not going to be surmounted solely by any one country or small group — a new era of collaboration is required that will extend to every corner of the globe. And the responsibility for forging such a network does not belong to governments alone. Everyone must participate in solving shared problems — including corporations, academic institutions, religious leaders, civil society, and individual citizens.
A summons of this nature is easy enough to proclaim, but it cannot be answered without a healthy approach to truth, because we are not going to have the kind of cooperation we need if everyone insists on their own narrow version of reality.
To me, this is the great divide in the world today — not between liberal and conservative, rich and poor, or between any one race or creed and all the others, [but] between people who have the courage to listen and those who are convinced that they already know it all.
One of the great advantages of serving as Secretary of State was the perspective it brought — it was my responsibility to defend U.S. positions, but also to listen. And I can tell you that the way the world looks depends almost entirely on your vantage point.
For example, a resident of Claremont, California will ordinarily have a far more favorable view of the police than a democratic activist who is trying to avoid arrest in Cuba or an African American teenager in Cleveland. A child growing up in Pakistan will have a perception of history that varies widely from that of a boy or girl whose home is across the border in India. One’s sense of urgency about world hunger will be affected by whether one lives in a nation whose families can’t afford to buy bread or where diet books are best sellers.
The challenge for our leaders is not to eliminate the diversity of these perspectives — for that is not possible. The challenge is to manage them — and when necessary, moderate them — so that we are not defined primarily by what keeps us apart.
Albright ends by returning to the question of truth and the frame of mind most conducive to its clear-headed conquest:
I am not suggesting that [you] cast aside your own opinions or downgrade the value of your perspectives on life. I ask only that you make a real effort to keep learning more. And learning, by definition, means exploring areas of existence and opinion with which you are not already familiar.
Instead of choosing to read or to listen only to the people whose views make you the most comfortable — which is becoming easier and easier to do — choose instead to study those who make you the most upset. Instead of surrounding yourself with friends whose experiences are similar to yours, reach out to people whose life stories are unknown. Instead of repeating over and over again the opinions you have expressed in the past, stop venting for awhile, ask yourself why you believe as you do, and submit your own conceptions of truth to the rigorous standards of critical thinking.
Above all, I ask you to understand that there is an enormous difference between entering into an argument for the purpose of proving how smart you already are — and engaging in research and discussion for the purpose of stretching your mind and giving free rein to your conscience.
One path may earn you a reputation for brilliance; but the other will lead you toward wisdom.
In saying all this, I am not conceding that all truth is relative or that every point of view is equal in merit. On the contrary, I am proposing that we place our greatest faith in principles that have proven themselves through decades of testing and struggle. These are principles that bring people together, instead of driving us apart; principles that challenge us to think not once but continually; principles that demand the best from each of us while honoring the rights of all. These principles include a commitment to justice, a belief in freedom, respect for the dignity of every human being, the capacity for forgiveness, and a desire to pursue the truth wherever that journey might lead.
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