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Kahlil Gibran on Silence, Solitude, and the Courage to Know Yourself

“In much of your talking, thinking is half murdered. For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.”

Kahlil Gibran on Silence, Solitude, and the Courage to Know Yourself

Something strange and wondrous begins to happen when one spends stretches of time in solitude, in the company of trees, far from the bustle of the human world with its echo chamber of judgments and opinions — a kind of rerooting in one’s deepest self-knowledge, a relearning of how to simply be oneself, one’s most authentic self. Wendell Berry knew this when he observed that “true solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation” — the places where “one’s inner voices become audible.”

But that inner voice, I have found, exists in counterpoise to the outer voice — the more we are tasked with speaking, with orienting lip and ear to the world without, the more difficult it becomes to hear the hum of the world within and feel its magmatic churns of self-knowledge. “Who knows doesn’t talk. Who talks doesn’t know,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in in her superb poetic, philosophical, feminist more-than-translation of the Tao te Ching.

Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

Two and a half millennia after Lao Tzu, and a century before Le Guin and Berry, Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) — another philosopher-poet of the highest order and most timeless hold — addressed the relationship between silence, solitude, and self-knowledge in a portion of his 1923 classic The Prophet (public library).

When Gibran’s prophet-protagonist is asked to address the matter of talking, he responds:

You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

One of Andrea Dezsö’s haunting illustrations for the original, uncensored edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Echoing Hermann Hesse’s insistence on the courage necessary for solitude, Gibran’s prophet adds:

There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.
In the bosom of such as these the spirit dwells in rhythmic silence.

Complement this fragment of the The Prophet — an abidingly rewarding read in its totality — with sound ecologist Gordon Hempton on the art of listening in a noisy world and Paul Goodman on the nine kinds of silence, then revisit Gibran on the building blocks of true friendship, the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, and what may be the finest advice ever offered on parenting and on the balance of intimacy and independence in a healthy relationship.

BP

Delight as a Daily Practice: A Poetic Illustrated Meditation on the Meaning of Happiness and Its Quiet Everyday Sources

A lovely countercultural invitation to savor the unpurchasable joys with which the world is strewn.

Delight as a Daily Practice: A Poetic Illustrated Meditation on the Meaning of Happiness and Its Quiet Everyday Sources

“What is your idea of perfect happiness?” asks the famous Proust Questionnaire. Posed to David Bowie, he answered simply: “Reading.” Jane Goodall answered: “Sitting by myself in the forest in Gombe National Park watching one of the chimpanzee mothers with her family.” Proust himself answered: “To live in contact with those I love, with the beauties of nature, with a quantity of books and music, and to have, within easy distance, a French theater.”

The touching specificity of these answers and the subtle universality pulsing beneath them reveal the most elemental truth about happiness: that there are as many flavors of it as there are consciousnesses capable of registering it, and that it is a universally delicious necessity of life, which we crave from the day we are born until the day we die. And yet, as Albert Camus lamented, “happiness has become an eccentric activity. The proof is that we tend to hide from others when we practice it.”

Half a century later, as we wade through a world that gives us ample reason for sorrow, as existential credibility seems meted out on the basis of how loudly one broadcasts one’s disadvantage, the savoring of happiness has become an almost countercultural activity — an act of courage and resistance, and one the practice of which is a whole life’s work, as George Eliot well knew when she observed that “one has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.” Why, then, not make the learning of happiness as essential a part of young people’s education as the learning of arithmetic? Or even stand with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in deeming it our moral obligation?

All of that — the personal nature of happiness, the daily practice of it, its centrality to participating meaningfully in the world — is what poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie explores in her vibrant and vitalizing picture-book debut, Layla’s Happiness (public library), illustrated by artist Ashleigh Corrin.

Like Sylvia Plath, who composed The Bed Book for her own children, Tallie — who describes herself in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader as “the mother of three galaxies who look like daughters” — has written the book for her youngest galaxy, the book she wished she’d had to read to the elder two.

Tallie constructs the story like a good poem, where the personal is the most welcoming gateway to the universal. We see seven-year-old Layla — whose name means “night beauty” — tally her exuberant everyday sources of happiness.

Happiness leaps at Layla from the color purple, from the succulence of fresh plums, from the constellations of the night sky, from the mischievous delight of slurping spaghetti without a fork. It unspools from her lips as she hums while feeding the chickens at the community garden and names all the trees and greets the neighbors at the farmers’ market where she sells the vegetable she has grown from seeds. It pours forth from the poetry her mother reads to her under a makeshift tent and from the tales her father tells her of his own childhood in the South.

There is a heartening countercultural undertone to the book — these happinesses are not things to be purchased at the store or attained with a click, but embodiments of what Hermann Hesse held up as “the little joys” at the heart of a rich life lived with presence, the simple delights Wendell Berry’s childhood friend Nick savored even amid his hardship.

The book ends with an open question to the reader — a gentle bow to the sundry, deeply personal meaning of happiness.

Complement the exuberant Layla’s Happiness — which comes from my friends at Enchanted Lion, makers of such largehearted and unusual treasures as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish — with Matt de la Peña and Loren Long’s illustrated celebration of the many meanings of love, then revisit Walt Whitman’s most direct reflection on happiness and Willa Cather’s delicious definition of it.

Page illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

Stephen Hawking’s Black Hole Information Paradox: An Animated Explanation of the Greatest Unsolved Challenge to Our Understanding of Reality

Reconciling the science of the very large with the science of the very small, with a sidewise possibility that everything we experience as reality is a holographic projection.

“It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century as she contemplated the human search for truth. Since her era — a time predating the very notion of a galaxy, when we thought our tiny parochial Solar System was the full extent of the universe — this search has taken us into new horizons of knowledge, which have only unlatched new questions, tangling some into confounding paradoxes — none more disquieting to our understanding of reality than the black hole information paradox.

When Stephen Hawking discovered black hole radiation in the 1970s, the idea that black holes slowly emanate energy contradicted the core mathematical model of black holes as regions of spacetime that swallow all physical information. This paradox cast into stark conflict the two great truth-models of modern physics: Einstein’s general relativity, or the science of the very large, holding true on the scale of galaxies, and quantum field theory, or the science of the very small, holding true on the scale of particles. Hawking himself devoted his life to reconciling this fundamental conflict in a unified theory of everything, which he never completed. Another proposed solution to the information paradox is the holographic principle, which, if correct, would render everything we experience as reality a holographic 3D projection of information encoded on the flat rim of the universe.

In this lovely animated primer from TED-Ed, astrophysicist Fabio Pacucci breaks down the black hole information paradox, the essential theories from which it arises, and the disorienting challenges it poses to our fundamental understanding of reality.

Complement with the magnificent Black Hole Blues and poet Marie Howe’s tribute to Hawking, then revisit Hawking himself on the meaning of the universe, what makes a good theory, and the “God” question.

BP

Wendell Berry on Delight as a Force of Resistance to Consumerism, the Key to Mirth Under Hardship, and the Measure of a Rich Life

“The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indispensable. Wisdom… is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums.”

Wendell Berry on Delight as a Force of Resistance to Consumerism, the Key to Mirth Under Hardship, and the Measure of a Rich Life

“I have always had a quarrel with this country not only about race but about the standards by which it appears to live,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead as they sat down together to reimagine democracy for a post-consumerist world. A generation later, the poet, farmer, and ecological steward Wendell Berry — a poet in the largest Baldwinian sense — picked up the time-escalated quarrel in his slim, large-spirited book The Hidden Wound (public library) to offer, without looking away from its scarring realities, a healing and conciliatory direction of resistance to a culture in which our enjoyment of life is taken from us by the not-enoughness at the hollow heart of consumerism, only to be sold back to us at the price of the latest product, and sold in discriminating proportion along lines of stark income inequality.

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

Berry writes:

It occurs to me that, for a man whose life from the beginning has been conditioned by the lives of black people, I have had surprisingly little to say about them in my other writings. Perhaps this is justifiable — there is certainly no requirement that a writer deal with any particular subject — and yet it has been an avoidance. When I have written about them before I have felt that I was doing little more than putting down a mark, leaving an opening, that I would later have to go back to and fill. For whatever reasons, good or bad, I have been unwilling until now to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound — a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life.

Berry recounts growing up around a black man named Nick, who worked for Berry’s grandfather. Nick, to whom he dedicates the book, was a benediction of presence during Berry’s most formative years — a hard-working man with a buoyant imagination and an uncommonly cheerful mindset. The small child befriended the large fifty-something man with the ardor of kinship chosen and not dictated by blood. Berry recalls his love of Nick with sweetness undiminished by the flight of decades:

One of my two or three chief ambitions was to be with him… I dogged his steps. So faithful a follower, and so young and self-important and venturesome as I was, I must have been a trial to him. But he never ran out of patience.

This bond had a deep impact on Berry as a writer and a human being, shaping both his poetry and the personhood from which it springs. He reflects:

The great benefit in my childhood friendship with Nick… was not an experience of sympathy, though that was involved and was essential, but a prolonged intense contact with lives and minds radically unlike my own, and radically unlike any other that I might have known as a white child among white adults. They don’t figure in my memory and in my thoughts about them as objects of pity, but rather as friends and teachers, ancestors you could say, the forebears of certain essential strains in my thinking.

Art by R. Gregory Christie from Freedom in Congo Square by poet Carole Boston Weatherford

From Nick, who had been working hard since childhood for the smallest of wages and with the slimmest of prospects for living any other way, Berry learned one of the hardest, most beautiful truths about living a rich life — a kind of existential contemplative practice of inclining the mind, whatever the conditions of the body, toward delight. A century after Hermann Hesse placed attendance to life’s little joys at the center of living with gladsome presence, Berry writes:

There were two heavy facts that Nick accepted and lived with: life is hard, full of work and pain and weariness, and at the end of it a man has got to go farther than he can imagine from any place he knows. And yet within the confines of those acknowledged facts, he was a man rich in pleasures. They were not large pleasures, they cost little or nothing, often they could not be anticipated, and yet they surrounded him; they were possible at almost any time, or at odd times, or at off times. They were pleasures to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all. There were the elemental pleasures of eating and drinking and resting, of being dry while it is raining, of getting dry after getting wet, of getting warm again after getting cold, of cooling off after getting hot. There was pleasure to be taken in good work animals, as long as you remembered the bother and irritation of using the other kind. There was pleasure in the appetites and in the well-being of good animals. There was pleasure in quitting work. There were certain pleasures in the work itself. There was pleasure in hunting and in going to town, and in visiting and in having company. There was pleasure in observing and remembering the behavior of things, and in telling about it. There was pleasure in knowing where a fox lived, and in planning to run it, and in running it. And… Nick knew how to use his mind for pleasure; he remembered and thought and pondered and imagined. He was a master of what William Carlos Williams called the customs of necessity.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In a sentiment evocative of Kurt Vonnegut’s short poem about the secret of happiness and of Viktor Frankl’s hard-earned conviction that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Berry adds:

In these times one contemplates it with the same sense of hope with which one contemplates the sunrise or the coming of spring: the image of a man who has labored all his life and will labor to the end, who has no wealth, who owns little, who has no hope of changing, who will never “get somewhere” or “be somebody,” and who is yet rich in pleasure, who takes pleasure in the use of his mind! Isn’t this the very antithesis of the thing that is breaking us in pieces? Isn’t there a great rare humane strength in this — this humble possibility that all our effort and aspiration is to deny?

Berry takes great care to address the reasonable objection that, given his position as a white man of moderately comfortable means, his portrait of Nick may be misconstrued as romanticizing poverty. (Baldwin acknowledged a kindred objection in contrasting the warmhearted poor of Istanbul with the wealthy but unsympathetic Swiss he had encountered during his relatively privileged life in Europe.) “I am uncomfortably aware,” Berry notes, “of the dangers and difficulties in a white man’s attempt to write so intimately of the life of a black man out of a child’s memories a quarter of a century old.” And yet, across this vast ocean of time and difference, Berry lands on shared shore of tremendous, boldly countercultural wisdom:

This much is clear to me: insofar as I am capable of feeling such pleasures as I believe Nick felt, I am strong; insofar as I am dependent on the pleasures made available by my salary and the things I own, I am weak. I feel much more secure in those pleasures for which I am dependent on the world, as Nick was for most of his, than in those for which I am dependent on the government or on a power company or on the manufacturers of appliances. And I am far from conceding anything to those who assume that the poor or anyone else can be improved by recourse to that carnival of waste and ostentation and greed known as “our high standard of living.” As Thoreau so well knew, and so painstakingly tried to show us, what a man most needs is not a knowledge of how to get more, but a knowledge of the most he can do without, and of how to get along without it. The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indispensable. Wisdom, it seems to me, is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums.

Complement this excerpt from The Hidden Wound — a powerful, tenderhearted, and increasingly necessary read in its entirety — with Baldwin and Mead’s contemporary E.F. Schumacher’s paradigm-challenging vision for Buddhist economics and Bertrand Russell on the relationship between work, leisure, and social justice, then revisit Berry on how to be a poet and a complete human being and Amanda Palmer’s reading of his stunningly prescient poem “Questionnaire.”

Thanks, Courtney

BP

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