A former firefighter and lifelong adventurer’s clarion call for the joy of adventure in a culture obsessed with risk-averse achievement.
By Maria Popova
In 1885, a young woman sent the editor of her hometown newspaper a brilliant response to a letter by a patronizing chauvinist, which the paper had published under the title “What Girls Are Good For.” The woman, known today as Nellie Bly, so impressed the editor that she was hired at the paper and went on to become a trailblazing journalist, circumnavigating the globe in 75 days with only a duffle bag and risking her life to write a seminal exposé of asylum abuse, which forever changed legal protections for the mentally ill. But Bly’s courage says as much about her triumphant character as it does about the tragedies of her culture — she is celebrated as a hero in large part because she defied and transcended the limiting gender norms of the Victorian era, which reserved courageous and adventurous feats for men, while raising women to be diffident, perfect, and perfectly pretty instead.
Writer Caroline Paul, one of the first women on San Francisco’s firefighting force and an experimental plane pilot, believes that not much has changed in the century since — that beneath the surface progress, our culture still nurses girls on “the insidious language of fear” and boys on that of bravery and resilience. She offers an intelligent and imaginative antidote in The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure (public library) — part memoir, part manifesto, part aspirational workbook, aimed at tween girls but speaking to the ageless, ungendered spirit of adventure in all of us, exploring what it means to be brave, to persevere, to break the tyranny of perfection, and to laugh at oneself while setting out to do the seemingly impossible.
Illustrated by Paul’s partner (and my frequent collaborator), artist and graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton, the book features sidebar celebrations of diverse “girl heroes” of nearly every imaginable background, ranging from famous pioneers like Nellie Bly and astronaut Mae Jemison to little-known adventurers like canopy-climbing botanist Marie Antoine, prodigy rock-climber Ashima Shiraishi, and barnstorming pilot and parachutist Bessie “Queen Bess” Coleman.
A masterful memoirist who has previously written about what a lost cat taught her about finding human love and what it’s like to be a twin, Paul structures each chapter as a thrilling micro-memoir of a particular adventure from her own life — building a milk carton pirate ship as a teenager and sinking it triumphantly into the rapids, mastering a challenging type of paragliding as a young woman, climbing and nearly dying on the formidable mount Denali as an adult.
Let me make one thing clear: Throughout the book, Paul does a remarkably thoughtful job of pointing out the line between adventurousness and recklessness. Her brushes with disaster, rather than lionizing heedlessness, are the book’s greatest gift precisely because they decondition the notion that an adventure is the same thing as an achievement — that one must be perfect and error-proof in every way in order to live a daring and courageous life. Instead, by chronicling her many missteps along the running starts of her leaps, she assures the young reader over and over that owning up to mistakes isn’t an attrition of one’s courage but an essential building block of it. After all, the fear of humiliation is perhaps what undergirds all fear, and in our culture of stubborn self-righteousness, there are few things we resist more staunchly, to the detriment of our own growth, than looking foolish for being wrong. The courageous, Paul reminds us, trip and fall, often in public, but get right back up and leap again.
Indeed, the book is a lived and living testament to psychologist Carol Dweck’s seminal work on the “fixed” vs. “growth” mindsets — life-tested evidence that courage is the fruit not of perfection but of doggedness in the face of fallibility, fertilized by the choice (and it is a choice, Paul reminds us over and over) to get up and dust yourself off each time.
But Paul wasn’t always an adventurer. She reflects:
I had been a shy and fearful kid. Many things had scared me. Bigger kids. Second grade. The elderly woman across the street. Being called on in class. The book Where the Wild Things Are. Woods at dusk. The way the bones in my hand crisscrossed.
Being scared was a terrible feeling, like sinking in quicksand. My stomach would drop, my feet would feel heavy, my head would prickle. Fear was an all-body experience. For a shy kid like me it was overwhelming.
Let me pause here to note that Caroline Paul is one of the most extraordinary human beings I know — a modern-day Amazon, Shackleton, Amelia Earhart, and Hedy Lamarr rolled into one — and since she is also a brilliant writer, the self-deprecating humor permeating the book serves a deliberate purpose: to assure us that no one is born a modern-day Amazon, Shackleton, Amelia Earhart, and Hedy Lamarr rolled into one, but the determined can become it by taking on challenges, conceding the possibility of imperfection and embarrassment, and seeing those outcomes as part of the adventure rather than as failure at achievement.
That’s exactly what Paul does in the adventures she chronicles. It’s time, after all, to replace that woeful Victorian map of woman’s heart with a modern map of the gutsy girl spirit.
As a lover of clouds and their classification, I delighted in Paul’s foray into thermal flying — a particularly challenging yet poetic type of paragliding, in which paragliders do what birds do and ride the column-like streams of hot air, known as thermals, learning which clouds are allies and which mortal threat.
Cumulus clouds — those cotton-like fluff formations you see on sunny days — are formed when the hot air of the thermal cools and stops rising. They are thus helpful indicators that there is a thermal below. But the rub is that because the hot air cools as it rises, the paraglider must stop before reaching a bottom of the cloud — otherwise disaster might strike.
For Paul, a practiced paraglider but a novice at thermal flying, disaster did strike as she found herself so enraptured by soaring like the birds amid the misty air that she forgot this basic rule:
I realized what was happening, just as the cloud completely enveloped me.
It was called Cloud Suck. It happened when you thought you were flying below a cumulus cloud, but you were really below a building cumulonimbus. The difference between those two clouds doesn’t sound like a big deal. Cumulus means “heap” in Latin. But in Latin the word “nimbus” means “dark cloud.” In other words a cumulus cloud was just a heap of clouds, but a cumulonimbus cloud was one of those black, towering, anvil-shaped monsters that you associate with an incoming storm.
I was in a thundercloud.
I’d heard all the stories. Visibility goes from white to black. You’re rained on, hailed on, and lightning flashes on all sides. At some point you lose consciousness. Your wing begins to freeze. You are finally spat out and you’re probably dead. If you’re not, your wing has been ripped to shreds and you soon will be. One paraglider pilot, a European champion, had been cloud-sucked to thirty-two thousand feet — that’s where jetliners fly. This was recorded on her variometer, which froze there. She survived only because she gained consciousness on her descent, her paraglider miraculously intact, and guided herself to the ground.
Rapidly, Paul is sucked into the thunderous darkness, leaving her only seconds to decide — react, really — what to do. In a testament to legendary chemist Louis Pasteur’s famous proclamation that “chance favors the prepared mind,” she saves herself by calling on her mental library of practiced maneuvers and instinctively combining two tricks she had performed individually before. She writes:
I rocketed out of the bottom of that storm cloud, spinning and dropping like a downed war plane. Luck was with me, and my wing held. Skill was with me, too, as I gently transitioned out of the two maneuvers and leveled off. EEEeeeeeee went my exhaled breath. Ba BOOM, Ba BOOM went my heart. I glided for a while, calming down. I was both ashamed of my mistake, and exhilarated to be alive. Was there a lesson here? I had tried to learn something new, but I had almost killed myself doing it. Still, I hadn’t killed myself.
Suddenly it was clear to me: The best outdoor athletes are adventurous, but they aren’t reckless! They know their skill level, and their goals.
She recounts an exchange with her paragliding partners:
When we regrouped at the landing zone, Lars and Mike wanted to know how my flight had been. They’d lost sight of me, Lars said, after their own launches. “Oh, I’m getting the hang of it,” I said, shrugging with feigned nonchalance.
Lars looked happy. “Pretty great, right?!” he cried. Then his eyes widened, and his voice lowered. “Well, I don’t want to freak you out.” He leaned in closer. “But I saw this dude get cloud sucked. Cumulonimbus! He escaped, though.” Lars shook his head. “I don’t know who it was but man, that guy was brave, and jeez, was he stupid!”
It’s hard not to appreciate the tragicomedy of the exchange — Lars speaks for our culture at large, in which it is assumed that the adventurous feat, even if bordering on recklessness, is reserved for the dudes.
But Paul’s most instructive adventure, for it is the one most laced with larger psychological dimensions and philosophical lessons, took place in Denali — Alaska’s formidable mountain summit, where she and her friend Trish traveled to visit their friend Eric, working there as a park ranger. With humor foreboding peril, she paints the backdrop against which the drama was to unfold:
One day soon after we arrived, the forecast for the mountain said something unexpected: It was going to be clear and balmy for the next week. Where were the terrible blizzards? Where were the high winds? Where were the blood-stopping temperatures? Gone. Suddenly Denali, with none of its fierce weather, seemed tame.
It was as if a large tiger had abruptly sighed and said, forget this, I’m going to be a kitten for a while. And what do you do with a cute cuddly kitten? You tickle its tummy and play with its nose. So suddenly we were not sticking to our plan of remaining at base camp. We were pondering a two-day expedition to the next camp at fourteen thousand feet. We asked each other: What could possibly go wrong? We asked as if it was a question, but it wasn’t a question. It was a statement. The weather was fine, is what we meant, so nothing could possibly go wrong.
Everything went wrong.
The balmy weather had come with a dark side — melting snow, unveiling a mine field of cracks in the ice. After a few hours of easy skiing, the trio tied together with a hefty climbing rope (which Paul affectionately calls “the Hoister, the Puller-Upper, or the Thankyouthankyouthankyou”) so that if one of them fell the other two would hold the weight, Eric is suddenly inhaled by a crevasse — a cleave in the glacier, opening up a bottomless grotto below the ice.
Paul recounts the freeze-frame terror of the moment:
There was silence.
Silence, except for the sound that adrenaline must make as it floods the body. Silence, except for the clicking and clacking as my brain began to assess this new succession of facts. Eric, in crevasse. Trish and me, prone on snow. Ice axe, our savior.
Trish and I called to each other. Okay? Okay! Then we called for Eric.
Was he dead? Was he unconscious? We didn’t know. But this was no time to lie about, even if we were lying about because gravity and more than three hundred pounds of swinging, possibly dead, weight was pulling on us. If the hundred-pound sled that had followed Eric down hadn’t killed him, hypothermia would. Once the heat began to leach from Eric’s body, he would have only a little time. So we had work to do, and I was the one who had to do it. It was time to set up the Thankyouthankyouthankyou, so I scrabbled for the stakes I was carrying on my back, and I drove one into the snow with the ferocity of someone aiming for a vampire’s heart.
That single stake is to serve as the anchor, holding the entire weight of Eric and his sled. But, to Paul’s horror, the skate doesn’t hold in the melting snow. With the heavy humility that comes with recognizing one’s hubris only after the fact, she writes:
The very weather that had made us feel so safe was now conspiring against us. The warmth that had lulled us into believing everything was going to be fine had opened up crevasses and turned the snow soft and mushy. Denali had been a friendly kitten for a while. But it remained a wild tiger at heart, and we had made the mistake of forgetting that.
Scrambling for a new anchor, she grabs all four of her stakes and jabs them into the snow as deep as she can. Just then, she feels a teardrop on her face. There is, of course, no crying in the life of adventure — but there is always the weather. It has started to rain — one of the mountain’s famous summer blizzards, a deadly hazard threatening to melt the stakes loose. Paul, with the ice melting under her rapidly, frantically unburies the stakes and carves an even deeper hole for the anchor. The leverage system is at last in place and can begin hauling Eric up — as soon as Trish unclips herself from the rope.
This being a Rube Goldberg machine of disaster, Trish can’t unclip — pulled asunder in opposite directions by the rope stretched between the anchor and Eric, her carabiner is strained by too much pressure to release. The rain is now not only melting the snow, but soaking Eric — if alive at all, this puts him at severe risk of hypothermia. Paul decides to throw a knife to Trish so that she can cut the harness and release herself. Once again, tragedy and comedy conspire:
Trish was on the national champion Frisbee team. She knew how to throw. And she knew that I did not, because she had, on a few occasions at least, attempted to teach me to throw a Frisbee. The attempts had been a disaster. The Frisbee had careered off to one side repeatedly. Or it had dropped sadly to the ground in front of me. On one or two occasions it had even disappeared behind me.
But a knife is not a Frisbee. And I had seen enough movies to know that when a knife is tossed by the hero to someone in need, it lands exactly where it should. So I picked up the knife, and I centered myself. “Be the hero,” I whispered.
I inhaled a deep breath. I brought my arm back. Exhaling, I tossed the knife.
It landed fifteen feet wide, disappearing into the snow. “AAARRRGGHH,” I yelled in disbelief.
“AAAARRRGGHH,” Trish yelled, with the same vigor.
This was not a movie, it turned out. This was real life and in real life I remained a nincompoop who couldn’t throw a Frisbee or a knife.
Somehow, Trish manages to release herself. But just as she begins climbing toward Paul, she is swallowed by the snow — another crevasse. By a superhuman exertion, she manages to swing her legs up, pulls herself onto the edge, and rolls over to the side, trying to keep as still as possible on the feeble snow, with the crevasse gaping beneath her. There is still Eric to save. Paul recounts:
Both Trish and I were tied into the anchor I had set. But would the anchor hold with the falling weight of all three of us? I doubted it. But that scenario was unthinkable, so I did what all people do when they need to concentrate on the task at hand with a clear mind and steady hand. I un-thinked it.
Trish and I began to pull on the Thankyouthankyouthankyou. It was slow going. The rope bit into the soft and mushy snow, hampering our progress immensely. We pulled and pulled, the rope sank and sank, and little by little by little Eric and his sled began to rise. But it was too slow, and we knew it.
Then tiny dots appeared on the horizon. The dots snaked quickly toward us, enlarging into people. It was a team of climbers, descending the mountain!
Both relieved and mortified, Paul faces her saviors:
We were staring at two female mountaineers, genuine kick-ass gals, shining examples of superhero skill, and at that moment very disgusted with us. They threw us a withering look: You got yourself in this situation and you can’t get yourself out? With a yawn, and a slow, stern shake of her superhero head, one of the women guides unspooled a rope from her back. She commanded her ten clients to grip that rope with their hands. Then she clipped in.
Now this seemed a little unfair. No anchor in the soft mushy snow? No Thankyouthankyouthankyou? Just the twenty hands of ten eager climbers. But I swallowed my pride and watched as the kick-ass woman guide rappelled (a technique climbers use to descend a rope) into the crevasse, while her clients held fast. We waited. Five minutes later she jugged (a technique climbers use to ascend a rope) her way back up.
“He’s alive,” she said in the same tone of voice you might use to say Pass the Butter, or Two Plus Two Equals Four. And why not? As a kick-ass superhero mountaineer she had seen many things, it was clear, and being alive was the most normal of them. Then she added, “But there’s blood all down the walls. Let’s do this fast.” In the same Pass the Butter voice she commanded her clients to pull on the rope, now attached to Eric… The woman guides called their team to attention, then tilted their square chins at us and, in the tradition of superheroes everywhere, skied away with hardly a word.
Paul tampers the story with the necessary nuances of real life, where outcomes aren’t allotted to the binary model of tragic deaths and happy endings — Eric had sustained a concussion, a fractured vertebrae, and a head gash that would require eighty stitches, and his recovery was slow. But the experience had taught her invaluable lessons that transcend the realm of mountain-climbing and apply to everything from entrepreneurship to love — about the line between courage and cockiness, about how we lacerate ourselves on our own misguided expectations, about the price of pride and the cost of overconfidence.
In the remainder of The Gutsy Girl, Paul goes on to chronicle the thrills and takeaways of adventures ranging from kayaking the rough Adriatic Sea to her days as a working firefighter. Complement it with her very differently wonderful memoir for grownups, Lost Cat, then revisit psychologist Carol Dweck on the two basic mindsets that shape our lives.
Illustrations courtesy of Wendy MacNaughton / Bloomsbury
“Discovery, like surprise, favors the well-prepared mind.”
By Maria Popova
I’ve always held the art of discovery in higher regard than the art of invention. Rather than creating something that didn’t previously exist, to discover is to uncover what has always been there but had remained hidden from view — to shine a light on a corner of the world until now shrouded in the darkness of not-knowing. Given our severe sensorial and cognitive blinders, which ensure that the vast majority of reality remains hidden from our view, any act of discovery is therefore a remarkable feat.
It is also a supreme challenge to our quintessential compulsion for certainty. “Those who do not know the torment of the unknown cannot have the joy of discovery,” the great French physiologist Claude Bernard asserted. But this joy of discovery, far from an unmerited grace, is the product of a delicate intellectual art that requires learning to dance with the unknown in such a way as to reveal its knowables while embracing its perennial unknowables.
Bruner, who at 100 remains actively engaged in intellectual life, writes:
Discovery, like surprise, favors the well-prepared mind.
Discovery … is in its essence a matter of rearranging or transforming evidence in such a way that one is enabled to go beyond the evidence so reassembled to new insights. It may well be that an additional fact or shred of evidence makes this larger transformation possible. But it is often not even dependent on new information.
For the person to search out and find regularities and relationships in his environment, he must either come armed with an expectancy that there will be something to find or be aroused to such an expectancy so that he may devise ways of searching and finding. One of the chief enemies of search is the assumption that there is nothing one can find in the environment by way of regularity or relationship.
Emphasis on discovery in learning has precisely the effect on the learner of leading him to be a constructionist, to organize what he is encountering in a matter not only designated to discover regularity an relatedness, but also to avoid the kind of information drift that fails to keep account of the uses to which information might have to be put.
To the degree that one is able to approach learning as a task of discovering something rather than “learning about” it, to that degree there will be a tendency for the child to work with the autonomy of self-reward, or, more properly, be rewarded by discovery itself.
When learning leads only to pellets of this or that in the short run rather than to mastery in the long run, then behavior can be readily “shaped” by extrinsic rewards. But when behavior becomes more extended and competence-oriented, it comes under the control of more complex cognitive structures and operates more from the inside out.
Bruner considers what disposition is most fruitful to the art of discovery:
Several activities and attitudes … appear to go with inquiry and research. These have to do with the process of trying to find out something and, though their presence is no guarantee that the product will be a great discovery, their absence is likely to lead to awkwardness or aridity or confusion.
He illustrates those attitudes with what is perhaps the most insightful lens on problem-solving ever crafted — the English philosopher Thomas Dewar Weldon’s distinction between difficulties, puzzles, and problems. Bruner synthesizes:
We solve a problem or make a discovery when we impose a puzzle form on a difficulty to convert it into a problem that can be solved in such a way that it gets us where we want to be. That is to say, we recast the difficulty into a form that we know how to work with — then we work it. Much of what we speak of as discovery consists of knowing how to impose a workable kind of form on various kinds of difficulties. A small but crucial part of discovery of the highest order is to invent and develop effective models or “puzzle forms.” It is in this area that they truly powerful mind shines.
The real question, Bruner argues, is how to teach and train people for this model-invention of puzzle-forms. But what he considers in the context of children’s education is equally true in the broader context of learning the essential life-skills that help us make up our minds in order to navigate the most puzzling labyrinths of existence, from whether to explore the possibility of a new relationship to whether it’s time to quit a longtime job:
How, for instance, do we teach a child to cut his losses but at the same time to be persistent in trying out an idea; to risk forming an early hunch without at the same time formulating one so early and with so little evidence that he is stuck with it while he waits for appropriate evidence to materialize; to pose good testable guesses that are neither too brittle nor to sinuously incorrigible? … I have never seen anybody improve in the art and technique of inquiry by any means other than engaging in inquiry.
The psychology of the perfect daily routine, how to criticize with kindness, the creative purpose of boredom, Kafka on what books do for the soul, and more.
By Maria Popova
After the annual reading list of the year’s best books overall, it’s time for the annual summation of the best Brain Pickings articles of the year — “best” meaning those most read and shared by you, as well as those I took the most pleasure in writing. Please (re)enjoy and have an inspired, stimulating, infinitely rewarding new year.
How to be alone, wake up from illusion, master the art of asking, fathom your place in the universe, and more.
By Maria Popova
After the year’s most intelligent and imaginative children’s books and best science books, here are my favorite books on psychology and philosophy published this year, along with the occasional letter and personal essay — genres that, at their most excellent, offer hearty helpings of both disciplines. Perhaps more precisely, these are the year’s finest books on how to live sane, creative, meaningful lives. (And since the subject is of the most timeless kind, revisit the selections 2013, 2012, and 2011.)
1. A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED
Werner Herzog is celebrated as one of the most influential and innovative filmmakers of our time, but his ascent to acclaim was far from a straight trajectory from privilege to power. Abandoned by his father at an early age, Herzog survived a WWII bombing that demolished the house next door to his childhood home and was raised by a single mother in near-poverty. He found his calling in filmmaking after reading an encyclopedia entry on the subject as a teenager and took a job as a welder in a steel factory in his late teens to fund his first films. These building blocks of his character — tenacity, self-reliance, imaginative curiosity — shine with blinding brilliance in the richest and most revealing of Herzog’s interviews. Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — not to be confused with E.F. Schumacher’s excellent 1978 philosophy book of the same title — presents the director’s extensive, wide-ranging conversation with writer and filmmaker Paul Cronin. His answers are unfiltered and to-the-point, often poignant but always unsentimental, not rude but refusing to infest the garden of honest human communication with the Victorian-seeded, American-sprouted weed of pointless politeness.
Herzog’s insights coalesce into a kind of manifesto for following one’s particular calling, a form of intelligent, irreverent self-help for the modern creative spirit — indeed, even though Herzog is a humanist fully detached from religion, there is a strong spiritual undertone to his wisdom, rooted in what Cronin calls “unadulterated intuition” and spanning everything from what it really means to find your purpose and do what you love to the psychology and practicalities of worrying less about money to the art of living with presence with an age of productivity. As Cronin points out in the introduction, Herzog’s thoughts collected in the book are “a decades-long outpouring, a response to the clarion call, to the fervent requests for guidance.”
And yet in many ways, A Guide for the Perplexed could well have been titled A Guide to the Perplexed, for Herzog is as much a product of his “cumulative humiliations and defeats,” as he himself phrases it, as of his own “chronic perplexity,” to borrow E.B. White’s unforgettable term — Herzog possesses that rare, paradoxical combination of absolute clarity of conviction and wholehearted willingness to inhabit his own inner contradictions, to pursue life’s open-endedness with equal parts focus of vision and nimbleness of navigation.
A certain self-reliance that permeates his films and his mind, a refusal to let the fear of failure inhibit trying — a sensibility the voiceover in the final scene of Herzog’s The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz captures perfectly: “Even a defeat is better than nothing at all.”
If the odds of finding one’s soul mate are so dreadfully dismal and the secret of lasting love is largely a matter of concession, is it any wonder that a growing number of people choose to go solo? The choice of solitude, of active aloneness, has relevance not only to romance but to all human bonds — even Emerson, perhaps the most eloquent champion of friendship in the English language, lived a significant portion of his life in active solitude, the very state that enabled him to produce his enduring essays and journals. And yet that choice is one our culture treats with equal parts apprehension and contempt, particularly in our age of fetishistic connectivity. Hemingway’s famous assertion that solitude is essential for creative work is perhaps so oft-cited precisely because it is so radical and unnerving in its proposition.
While Maitland lives in a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe, where the nearest supermarket is more than twenty miles away and there is no cell service (pause on that for a moment), she wasn’t always a loner — she grew up in a big, close-knit family as one of six children. It was only when she became transfixed by the notion of silence, the subject of her previous book, that she arrived, obliquely, at solitude. She writes:
I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness. I was interested in silence as a lost cultural phenomenon, as a thing of beauty and as a space that had been explored and used over and over again by different individuals, for different reasons and with wildly differing results. I began to use my own life as a sort of laboratory to test some ideas and to find out what it felt like. Almost to my surprise, I found I loved silence. It suited me. I got greedy for more. In my hunt for more silence, I found this valley and built a house here, on the ruins of an old shepherd’s cottage.
Maitland’s interest in solitude, however, is somewhat different from that in silence — while private in its origin, it springs from a public-facing concern about the need to address “a serious social and psychological problem around solitude,” a desire to “allay people’s fears and then help them actively enjoy time spent in solitude.” And so she does, posing the central, “slippery” question of this predicament:
Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and well-being.
How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?
We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.
We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops “eccentric” habits.
We believe that everyone has a singular personal “voice” and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion (at best) anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity — solitude.
We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.
We are supposed now to seek our own fulfillment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness — but mysteriously not do it on our own.
Today, more than ever, the charge carries both moral judgement and weak logic.
Maitland goes on to explore the underlying psychology of our unease from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the “male spinster” and how to cultivate the five deepest rewards of solitude. Read more here.
3. WAKING UP
Nietzsche’s famous proclamation that “God is dead” is among modern history’s most oft-cited aphorisms, and yet as is often the case with its ilk, such quotations often miss the broader context in a way that bespeaks the lazy reductionism with which we tend to approach questions of spirituality today. Nietzsche himself clarified the full dimension of his statement six years later, in a passage from The Twilight of Idols, where he explained that “God” simply signified the supersensory realm, or “true world,” and wrote: “We have abolished the true world. What has remained? The apparent one perhaps? Oh no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”
In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (public library | IndieBound), philosopher, neuroscientist, and mindful skeptic Sam Harris offers a contemporary addition to this lineage of human inquiry — an extraordinary and ambitious masterwork of such integration between science and spirituality, which Harris himself describes as “by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives.” Or, perhaps most aptly, an effort “to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion.”
Harris begins by recounting an experience he had at age sixteen — a three-day wilderness retreat designed to spur spiritual awakening of some sort, which instead left young Harris feeling like the contemplation of the existential mystery in the presence of his own company was “a source of perfect misery.” This frustrating experience became “a sufficient provocation” that launched him into a lifelong pursuit of the kinds of transcendent experiences that gave rise to the world’s major spiritual traditions, examining them instead with a scientist’s vital blend of skepticism and openness and a philosopher’s aspiration to be “scrupulously truthful.”
Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others… Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved.
Noting that the entirety of our experience, as well as our satisfaction with that experience, is filtered through our minds — “If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life — you won’t enjoy any of it.” — Harris sets out to reconcile the quest to achieve one’s goals with a deeper longing, a recognition, perhaps, that presence is far more rewarding than productivity. He writes:
Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.
Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.
Virginia Woolf called letter-writing “the humane art” — an epithet only amplified today, in an age when we so frequently mistake reaction for response and succumb to expectations of immediacy that render impossible the beautiful, contemplative mutuality at the heart of the notion of co-respondence. This, perhaps, is why yesteryear’s greatest letters appeal to us more irrepressibly than ever.
For years, Shaun Usher has been unearthing and highlighting brilliant, funny, poignant, exquisitely human letters from luminaries and ordinary people alike on his magnificent website. This year, the best of them were released in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library | IndieBound) — the aptly titled, superb collection featuring contributions from such cultural icons as Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Louis Armstrong, Kurt Vonnegut, Nick Cave, Richard Feynman, Jack Kerouac, and more.
“You gotta be willing to fail… if you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far,”Steve Jobs cautioned. “There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction,”Oprah counseled new Harvard graduates. In his wonderfully heartening letter of fatherly advice, F. Scott Fitzgerald gave his young daughter Scottie a list of things to worry and not worry about in life; among the unworriables, he listed failure, “unless it comes through your own fault.” And yet, as Debbie Millman observed in Fail Safe, her magnificent illustrated-essay-turned-commencement-address, most of us “like to operate within our abilities” — stepping outside of them risks failure, and we do worry about it, very much. How, then, can we transcend that mental block, that existential worry, that keeps us from the very capacity for creative crash that keeps us growing and innovating?
That’s precisely what curator and art historian Sarah Lewis, who has under her belt degrees from Harvard and Oxford, curatorial positions at the Tate Modern and the MoMA, and an appointment on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, examines in The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (public library | IndieBound) — an exploration of how “discoveries, innovations, and creative endeavors often, perhaps even only, come from uncommon ground” and why this “improbable ground of creative endeavor” is an enormous source of advantages on the path to self-actualization and fulfillment, brought to life through a tapestry of tribulations turned triumphs by such diverse modern heroes as legendary polar explorer Captain Scott, dance icon Paul Taylor, and pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass. Lewis, driven by her lifelong “magpie curiosity about how we become,” crafts her argument slowly, meticulously, stepping away from it like a sculptor gaining perspective on her sculpture and examining it through other eyes, other experiences, other particularities, which she weaves together into an intricate tapestry of “magpielike borrowings” filtered through the sieve of her own point of view.
Lewis begins with a visit with the women of Columbia University’s varsity archery team, who spend countless hours practicing a sport that requires equal parts impeccable precision of one’s aim and a level of comfort with the uncontrollable — all the environmental interferences, everything that could happen between the time the arrow leaves the bow and the time it lands on the target, having followed its inevitably curved line. From this unusual sport Lewis draws a metaphor for the core of human achievement:
There is little that is vocational about [contemporary] culture anymore, so it is rare to see what doggedness looks like with this level of exactitude… To spend so many hours with a bow and arrow is a kind of marginality combined with a seriousness of purpose rarely seen.
In the archers’ doggedness Lewis finds the central distinction that serves as a backbone of her book — far more important than success (hitting the bull’s-eye) is the attainment of mastery (“knowing it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again”), and in bridging the former with the latter lives the substance of true achievement. (The distinction isn’t unlike what psychologist Carol Dweck found in her pioneering work on the difference between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.) Lewis writes:
Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate — perfectionism — an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Mastery is also not the same as success — an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.
This is why, Lewis argues, a centerpiece of mastery is the notion of failure. She cites Edison, who famously said of his countless fruitless attempts to create a feasible lightbulb: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” In fact, Lewis points out that embedded in the very word “failure” — a word originally synonymous with bankruptcy, devised to assess creditworthiness in the 19th century, “a seeming dead end forced to fit human worth” — is the bias of our limited understanding of its value:
The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else — a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention — no longer the static concept of failure.
In its stead, Lewis offers another 19th-century alternative: “blankness,” which beautifully captures the wide-open field of possibility for renewal, for starting from scratch, after an unsuccessful attempt. Still, she considers the challenge of pinning down into plain language a concept so complex and fluid — even fashionable concepts like grit fail failure:
Trying to find a precise word to describe the dynamic is fleeting, like attempting to locate francium, an alkali metal measured but never isolated in any weighted quantity or seen in a way that the eye can detect — one of the most unstable, enigmatic elements on the Earth. No one knows what it looks like in an appreciable form, but there it is, scattered throughout ores in the Earth’s crust. Many of us have a similar sense that these implausible rises must be possible, but the stories tend to stay strewn throughout our lives, never coalescing into a single dynamic concept… The phenomenon remains hidden, and little discussed. Partial ideas do exist — resilience, reinvention, and grit — but there’s no one word to describe the passing yet vital, constant truth that just when it looks like winter, it is spring.
When we don’t have a word for an inherently fleeting idea, we speak about it differently, if at all. There are all sorts of generative circumstances — flops, folds, wipeouts, and hiccups — yet the dynamism it inspires is internal, personal, and often invisible… It is a cliché to say simply that we learn the most from failure. It is also not exactly true. Transformation comes from how we choose to speak about it in the context of story, whether self-stated or aloud.
One essential element of understanding the value of failure is the notion of the “deliberate incomplete.” (Cue in Marie Curie, who famously noted in a letter to her brother: “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”) Lewis writes:
We thrive, in part, when we have purpose, when we still have more to do. The deliberate incomplete has long been a central part of creation myths themselves. In Navajo culture, some craftsmen and women sought imperfection, giving their textiles and ceramics an intended flaw called a “spirit line” so that there is a forward thrust, a reason to continue making work. Nearly a quarter of twentieth century Navajo rugs have these contrasting-color threads that run out from the inner pattern to just beyond the border that contains it; Navajo baskets and often pottery have an equivalent line called a “heart line” or a “spirit break.” The undone pattern is meant to give the weaver’s spirit a way out, to prevent it from getting trapped and reaching what we sense is an unnatural end.
There is an inevitable incompletion that comes with mastery. It occurs because the greater our proficiency, the more smooth our current path, the more clearly we may spot the mountain that hovers in our gaze. “What would you say increases with knowledge?” Jordan Elgrably once asked James Baldwin. “You learn how little you know,” Baldwin said.
A related concept is that of the “near win” — those moments when we come so close to our aim, yet miss it by a hair:
At the point of mastery, when there seems nothing left to move beyond, we find a way to move beyond ourselves. Success motivates. Yet the near win — the constant auto-correct of a curved-line path — can propel us in an ongoing quest. We see it whenever we aim, climb, or create with mastery as our aim, when the outcome is determined by what happens at the margins.
Lewis goes on to illustrate these concepts with living examples from the stories of such pioneering figures as the great polar explorer Captain Scott, dance icon Paul Taylor, and pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass. Read more here.
6. THE ACCIDENTAL UNIVERSE
It says something about physicist and writer Alan Lightman — the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT — that a book of his is not only among the best science books of the year, but also a masterwork of philosophy. But that is precisely what The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library | IndieBound) is — a spectacular journey to the frontiers of theoretical physics, exploring how the possibility of multiple universes illuminates the heart of the human experience and our quest for Beauty, Truth, and Meaning. Lightman’s enchanting writing reveals him not only as a scientist of towering expertise, but also as an insightful philosopher and poet of the cosmos, partway between Seneca and Carl Sagan.
In the foreword, Lightman recounts attending a lecture by the Dalai Lama at MIT, “one of the world’s spiritual leaders sitting cross-legged in a modern temple of science,” and hearing about the Buddhist concept of sunyata, translated as “emptiness” — the notion that objects in the physical universe are vacant of inherent meaning and that we imbue them with meaning and value with the thoughts of our own minds. From this, Lightman argues while adding to history’s finest definitions of science, arises a central challenge of the human condition:
As a scientist, I firmly believe that atoms and molecules are real (even if mostly empty space) and exist independently of our minds. On the other hand, I have witnessed firsthand how distressed I become when I experience anger or jealousy or insult, all emotional states manufactured by my own mind. The mind is certainly its own cosmos. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “[The mind] can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. And underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.
Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.
Amid her moving reflections on grief, grace, and gratitude is one especially enchanting essay titled “The Book of Welcome,” in which Lamott considers the uncomfortable art of letting yourself be seen:
Trappings and charm wear off… Let people see you. They see your upper arms are beautiful, soft and clean and warm, and then they will see this about their own, some of the time. It’s called having friends, choosing each other, getting found, being fished out of the rubble. It blows you away, how this wonderful event ever happened — me in your life, you in mine.
Two parts fit together. This hadn’t occurred all that often, but now that it does, it’s the wildest experience. It could almost make a believer out of you. Of course, life will randomly go to hell every so often, too. Cold winds arrive and prick you: the rain falls down your neck: darkness comes. But now there are two of you: Holy Moly.
Unlike many other puzzles we confront, questions of trust don’t just involve attempting to grasp and analyze a perplexing concept. They all share another characteristic: risk. So while it’s true that we turn our attention to many complex problems throughout our lives, finding the answers to most doesn’t usually involve navigating the treacherous landscape of our own and others’ competing desires.
Trust implies a seeming unknowable — a bet of sorts, if you will. At its base is a delicate problem centered on the balance between two dynamic and often opposing desires — a desire for someone else to meet your needs and his desire to meet his own.
But despite what pop culture may tell us, decades’ worth of attempts to decode the signals of trustworthiness — sought in everything from facial expression to voice to handwriting — have proven virtually useless, and the last five years of research have rendered previous assertions about certain nonverbal cues wrong. (No, a sideways glance doesn’t automatically indicate that the person is lying to you.) As DeSteno wryly observes, “If polygraphs were foolproof, we wouldn’t need juries.” He explains what makes measures of trust especially complicated:
Unlike many forms of communication, issues of trust are often characterized by a competition or battle…. It’s not always an adaptive strategy to be an open book to others, or even to ourselves. Consequently, trying to discern if someone can be trusted is fundamentally different from trying to assess characteristics like mathematical ability. … Deciding to be trustworthy depends on the momentary balance between competing mental forces pushing us in opposite directions, and being able to predict which of those forces is going to prevail in any one instance is a complicated business.
Contrary to long-held doctrine, isolated gestures and expressions aren’t reliable indicators of what a person feels or intends to do. Two types of context — what I call configural and situational — are essential for correct interpretation. And they’ve been missing in most attempts to discover what trustworthiness and its opposite look like.
To figure out this multifaceted puzzle, DeSteno, whose lab studies how emotional states shape our social and moral behavior, took a cross-disciplinary approach, turning to the work of economists, computer scientists, security officers, physiologists and other psychologists, and enlisting the direct help of social psychologist David Pizarro and economist Robert Frank. With combined expertise spanning behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, nonverbal behavior, and emotional biases in decision making, they built, with equal parts rigor and humility, the richest framework for understanding trust that science has ever accomplished. Specifically, they focused on the two main components of trust — how it works and whether we’re able to predict who deserves it. DeSteno writes:
In the end, what emerged are not only new insights into how to detect the trustworthiness of others, but also an entirely new way to think about how trust influences our lives, our success, and our interactions with those around us.
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it,”Lucinda Williams sang from my headphones into my heart one rainy October morning on the train to Hudson. “What seems cynicism is always a sign, always a sign…” I was headed to Hudson for a conversation with a very different but no less brilliant musician, and a longtime kindred spirit — the talented and kind Amanda Palmer. In an abandoned schoolhouse across the street from her host’s home, we sat down to talk about her magnificent and culturally necessary new book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (public library | IndieBound) — a beautifully written inquiry into why we have such a hard time accepting compassion in all of its permutations, from love to what it takes to make a living, what lies behind our cynicism in refusing it, and how learning to accept it makes possible the greatest gifts of our shared humanity.
I am partial, perhaps, because my own sustenance depends on accepting help. But I also deeply believe and actively partake in both the yin and the yang of that vitalizing osmosis of giving and receiving that keeps today’s creative economy alive, binding artists and audiences, writers and readers, musicians and fans, into the shared cause of creative culture. “It’s only when we demand that we are hurt,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating the circles of giving and receiving in 1942, but we still seem woefully caught in the paradoxical trap of too much entitlement to what we feel we want and too little capacity to accept what we truly need. The unhinging of that trap is what Amanda explores with equal parts deep personal vulnerability, profound insight into the private and public lives of art, and courageous conviction about the future of creative culture.
The most urgent clarion call echoing throughout the book, which builds on Amanda’s terrific TED talk, is for loosening our harsh and narrow criteria for what it means to be an artist, and, most of all, for undoing our punishing ideas about what renders one a not-artist, or — worse yet — a not-artist-enough. Amanda writes of the anguishing Impostor Syndrome epidemic such limiting notions spawn:
People working in the arts engage in street combat with The Fraud Police on a daily basis, because much of our work is new and not readily or conventionally categorized. When you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand. And you feel stupid doing it.
There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to university, getting published, getting signed to a record label. But it’s all bullshit, and it’s all in your head. You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.
But in the history of creative genius, this pathology appears to be a rather recent development — the struggle to be an artist, of course, is nothing new, but the struggle to believe being one seems to be a uniquely modern malady. In one of the most revelatory passages in the book, Amanda points out a little-known biographical detail about the life of Henry David Thoreau — he who decided to live the self-reliant life by Walden pond and memorably proclaimed: “If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.” It is a detail that, today, would undoubtedly render Thoreau the target of that automatic privilege narrative as we point a finger and call him a “poser”:
Thoreau wrote in painstaking detail about how he chose to remove himself from society to live “by his own means” in a little 10-foot x 15-foot hand-hewn cabin on the side of a pond. What he left out of Walden, though, was the fact that the land he built on was borrowed from his wealthy neighbor, that his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson had him over for dinner all the time, and that every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought over a basket of freshly-baked goods for him, including donuts.
The idea of Thoreau gazing thoughtfully over the expanse of transcendental Walden Pond, a bluebird alighting onto his threadbare shoe, all the while eating donuts that his mom brought him just doesn’t jibe with most people’s picture of him of a self-reliant, noble, marrow-sucking back-to-the-woods folk-hero.
If Thoreau lived today, steeped in a culture that tells him taking the donuts chips away at his credibility, would he have taken them? And why don’t we? Amanda writes:
Taking the donuts is hard for a lot of people.
It’s not the act of taking that’s so difficult, it’s more the fear of what other people are going to think when they see us slaving away at our manuscript about the pure transcendence of nature and the importance of self-reliance and simplicity. While munching on someone else’s donut.
Maybe it comes back to that same old issue: we just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.
Try to picture getting angry at Einstein devouring a donut brought to him by his assistant, while he sat slaving on the theory of relativity. Try to picture getting angry at Florence Nightingale for snacking on a donut while taking a break from tirelessly helping the sick.
To the artists, creators, scientists, non-profit-runners, librarians, strange-thinkers, start-uppers and inventors, to all people everywhere who are afraid to accept the help, in whatever form it’s appearing,
Please, take the donuts.
To the guy in my opening band who was too ashamed to go out into the crowd and accept money for his band,
Take the donuts.
To the girl who spent her twenties as a street performer and stripper living on less than $700 a month who went on to marry a best-selling author who she loves, unquestioningly, but even that massive love can’t break her unwillingness to accept his financial help, please….
Just take the fucking donuts.
But Thoreau, it turns out, got one thing right in his definition of success, which emanates from Amanda’s words a century and a half later:
The happiest artists I know are generally the ones who can manage to make a reasonable living from their art without having to worry too much about the next paycheck. Not to say that every artist who sits around the campfire, or plays in tiny bars, is “happier” than those singing in stadiums — but more isn’t always better. If feeling the connection between yourself and others is the ultimate goal it can be harder when you are separated from the crowd by a 30-foot barrier. And it can be easier to do — though riskier — when they’re sitting right beside you. The ideal sweet spot is the one in which the artist can freely share their talents and directly feel the reverberations of their artistic gifts to their community. In other words, it works best when everybody feels seen.
As artists, and as humans: If your fear is scarcity, the solution isn’t necessarily abundance.
Read more and watch my conversation with Palmer here.
10. LEONARDO’S BRAIN
One September day in 2008, Leonard Shlain found himself having trouble buttoning his shirt with his right hand. He was admitted into the emergency room, diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer, and given nine months to live. Shlain — a surgeon by training and a self-described “synthesizer by nature” with an intense interest in the ennobling intersection of art and science, author of the now-legendary Art & Physics — had spent the previous seven years working on what he considered his magnum opus: a sort of postmortem brain scan of Leonardo da Vinci, performed six centuries after his death and fused with a detective story about his life, exploring what the unique neuroanatomy of the man commonly considered humanity’s greatest creative genius might reveal about the essence of creativity itself.
Shlain finished the book on May 3, 2009. He died a week later. His three children — Kimberly, Jordan, and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain — spent the next five years bringing their father’s final legacy to life. The result is Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius (public library | IndieBound) — an astonishing intellectual, and at times spiritual, journey into the center of human creativity via the particular brain of one undereducated, left-handed, nearly ambidextrous, vegetarian, pacifist, gay, singularly creative Renaissance male, who Shlain proposes was able to attain a different state of consciousness than “practically all other humans.”
Noting that “a writer is always refining his ideas,” Shlain points out that the book is a synthesis of his threepreviousbooks, and an effort to live up to Kafka’s famous proclamation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” It is also a beautiful celebration of the idea that art and science belong together and enrich one another whenever they converge.
Shlain argues that Leonardo — who painted the eternally mysterious Mona Lisa, created visionary anatomical drawings long before medical anatomy existed, made observations of bird flight in greater detailed than any previous scientist, mastered engineering, architecture, mathematics, botany, and cartography, might be considered history’s first true scientist long before Mary Somerville coined the word, presaged Newton’s Third Law, Bernoulli’s law, and elements of chaos theory, and was a deft composer who sang “divinely,” among countless other domains of mastery — is the individual most worthy of the title “genius” in both science and art:
The divergent flow of art and science in the historical record provides evidence of a distinct compartmentalization of genius. The river of art rarely intersected with the meander of science.
Although both art and science require a high degree of creativity, the difference between them is stark. For visionaries to change the domain of art, they must make a breakthrough that can only be judged through the lens of posterity. Great science, on the other hand, must be able to predict the future. If a scientist’s hypotheses cannot be turned into a law that can be verified by future investigators, it is not scientifically sound. Another contrast: Art and science represent the difference between “being” and “doing.” Art’s raison d’être is to evoke an emotion. Science seeks to solve problems by advancing knowledge.
Leonardo’s story continues to compel because he represents the highest excellence all of us lesser mortals strive to achieve — to be intellectually, creatively, and emotionally well-rounded. No other individual in the known history of the human species attained such distinction both in science and art as the hyper-curious, undereducated, illegitimate country boy from Vinci.
Using a wealth of available information from Leonardo’s notebooks, various biographical resources, and some well-reasoned speculation, Shlain goes on to perform a “posthumous brain scan” seeking to illuminate the unique wiring of Da Vinci’s brain and how it explains his unparalleled creativity.
“Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments,” Alan Lightman wrote in his sublime meditation on science and spirituality, “and at others to ride the passion and exuberance.” In his conversation with E.O. Wilson, the poet Robert Hass described beauty as a “paradox of stillness and motion.” But in our Productivity Age of perpetual motion, it’s increasingly hard — yet increasingly imperative — to honor stillness, to build pockets of it into our lives, so that our faith in beauty doesn’t become half-hearted, lopsided, crippled. The delicate bridling of that paradox is what novelist and essayist Pico Iyer explores in The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (public library | IndieBound) — a beautifully argued case for the unexpected pleasures of “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it,” revealed through one man’s sincere record of learning to “take care of his loved ones, do his job, and hold on to some direction in a madly accelerating world.”
Iyer begins by recounting a snaking drive up the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles to visit his boyhood hero — legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. In 1994, shortly after the most revealing interview he ever gave, Cohen had moved to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center to embark on five years of seclusion, serving as personal assistant to the great Japanese Zen teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, then in his late eighties. Midway through his time at the Zen Center, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and given the Dharma name Jikan — Pali for “silence.” Iyer writes:
I’d come up here in order to write about my host’s near-silent, anonymous life on the mountain, but for the moment I lost all sense of where I was. I could hardly believe that this rabbinical-seeming gentleman in wire-rimmed glasses and wool cap was in truth the singer and poet who’d been renowned for thirty years as an international heartthrob, a constant traveler, and an Armani-clad man of the world.
Cohen, who once described the hubbub of his ordinary state of mind as “very much like the waiting room at the DMV,” had sought in the sequestered Zen community a more extreme, more committed version of a respite most of us long for in the midst of modern life — at least at times, at least on some level, and often wholeheartedly, achingly. Iyer reflects on Cohen’s particular impulse and what it reveals about our shared yearning:
Leonard Cohen had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life — an art — out of stillness. And he was working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection. The week I was visiting, he was essentially spending seven days and nights in a bare meditation hall, sitting stock-still. His name in the monastery, Jikan, referred to the silence between two thoughts.
One evening — four in the morning, the end of December — Cohen took time out from his meditations to walk down to my cabin and try to explain what he was doing here.
Sitting still, he said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment” he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. “Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.”
Was he kidding? Cohen is famous for his mischief and ironies.
He wasn’t, I realized as he went on. “What else would I be doing?” he asked. “Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”
Typically lofty and pitiless words; living on such close terms with silence clearly hadn’t diminished his gift for golden sentences. But the words carried weight when coming from one who seemed to have tasted all the pleasures that the world has to offer.
Iyer beholds his encounter with Cohen with the same incredulous amazement that most of us modern cynics experience, at first reluctantly, when confronted with something or someone incomprehensibly earnest, for nothing dissolves snark like unflinching sincerity. For Cohen, Iyer observes, the Zen practice was not a matter of “piety or purity” but of practical salvation and refuge from “the confusion and terror that had long been his bedfellows.” Iyer writes:
Sitting still with his aged Japanese friend, sipping Courvoisier, and listening to the crickets deep into the night, was the closest he’d come to finding lasting happiness, the kind that doesn’t change even when life throws up one of its regular challenges and disruptions.
“Nothing touches it,” Cohen said, as the light came into the cabin, of sitting still… Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.
We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.
Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize. Stillness is not just an indulgence for those with enough resources — it’s a necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources. Going nowhere, as Cohen had shown me, is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses.
If the notion of mental illness in animals seems like far-fetched anthropocentrism, a field of science that has been gathering momentum for more than 150 years strongly suggests otherwise. That’s precisely what Senior TED Fellow Laurel Braitman explores in Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves (public library | IndieBound). Braitman, who holds a Ph.D. in history and anthropology of science from MIT, argues that we humans are far from unique in our capacity for “emotional thunderstorms that make our lives more difficult” and that nonhuman animals are bedeviled by varieties of mental illness strikingly similar to our own. With equal parts rigor and compassion, she examines evidence from veterinary science, psychology and pharmacology research, first-hand accounts by neuroscientists, zoologists, animal trainers, and other experts, the work of legendary scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin and Rene Descartes, and her own experience with dozens of animals spanning a multitude of species and mental health issues, from depressed dogs to self-harming dolphins to canine Alzheimer’s and PTSD.
Braitman’s journey begins with one particularly troubled nonhuman animal — Oliver, the Bernese Mountain Dog she adopted, whose “extreme fear, anxiety, and compulsions” prompted her, in the way that a concerned parent on the verge of despair grasps for answers, to explore whether and how other animals could be mentally ill. Considering the tapestry of evidence threads she uncovered during her research, she writes:
Humans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviors gone awry — experiencing churning fear, for example, in situations that don’t call for it, feeling unable to shake a paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws. Abnormal behaviors like these tip into the territory of mental illness when they keep creatures — human or not — from engaging in what is normal for them. This is true for a dog single-mindedly focused on licking his tail until it’s bare and oozy, a sea lion fixated on swimming in endless circles, a gorilla too sad and withdrawn to play with her troop members, or a human so petrified of escalators he avoids department stores.
Every animal with a mind has the capacity to lose hold of it from time to time. Sometimes the trigger is abuse or mistreatment, but not always. I’ve come across depressed and anxious gorillas, compulsive horses, rats, donkeys, and seals, obsessive parrots, self-harming dolphins, and dogs with dementia, many of whom share their exhibits, homes, or habitats with other creatures who don’t suffer from the same problems. I’ve also gotten to know curious whales, confident bonobos, thrilled elephants, contented tigers, and grateful orangutans. There is plenty of abnormal behavior in the animal world, captive, domestic, and wild, and plenty of evidence of recovery; you simply need to know where and how to find it.
Braitman is careful to acknowledge that such a notion is likely to unnerve our notions of human exceptionalism and offers a wise caveat:
Acknowledging parallels between human and other animal mental health is a bit like recognizing capacities for language, tool use, and culture in other creatures. That is, it’s a blow to the idea that humans are the only animals to feel or express emotion in complex and surprising ways. It is also anthropomorphic, the projection of human emotions, characteristics, and desires onto nonhuman beings or things. We can choose, though, to anthropomorphize well and, by doing so, make more accurate interpretations of animals’ behavior and emotional lives. Instead of self-centered projection, anthropomorphism can be a recognition of bits and pieces of our human selves in other animals and vice versa.
Braitman goes on to trace how our evolving understanding of animal psychology, from Charles Darwin to Jane Goodall, sheds invaluable light on things of deep concern to us humans — notions like anxiety, altruism, depression, and happiness. Read more here.
Slingerland frames the paradoxical premise at the heart of his book with an illustrative example: a game called Mindball at his local science museum in Vancouver, in which two players sit opposite one another, each wearing an electrode-equipped headband that registers general activity in the brain, and try to mentally push a metal ball from the center of the table to the other player; whoever does this first wins. There is, of course, a rub:
The motive force — measured by each player’s electrodes, and conveyed to the ball by a magnet hidden underneath the table—is the combination of alpha and theta waves produced by the brain when it’s relaxed: the more alpha and theta waves you produce, the more force you mentally exert on the ball. Essentially, Mindball is a contest of who can be the most calm. It’s fun to watch. The players visibly struggle to relax, closing their eyes, breathing deeply, adopting vaguely yogic postures. The panic they begin to feel as the ball approaches their end of the table is usually balanced out by the overeagerness of their opponent, both players alternately losing their cool as the big metal ball rolls back and forth. You couldn’t wish for a better, more condensed illustration of how difficult it is to try not to try.
Our lives, Slingerland argues, are often like “a massive game of Mindball,” when we find ourselves continually caught in this loop of trying so hard that we stymie our own efforts. Like in Mindball, where victory only comes when the player relaxes and stops trying to win, we spend our lives “preoccupied with effort, the importance of working, striving, and trying,” only to find that the more we try to will things into manifesting, the more elusive they become. Slingerland writes:
Our excessive focus in the modern world on the power of conscious thought and the benefits of willpower and self-control causes us to overlook the pervasive importance of what might be called “body thinking”: tacit, fast, and semiautomatic behavior that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference. The result is that we too often devote ourselves to pushing harder or moving faster in areas of our life where effort and striving are, in fact, profoundly counterproductive.
Some of the most elusive objects of our incessant pursuits are happiness and spontaneity, both of which are strikingly resistant to conscious pursuit. Two ancient Chinese concepts might be our most powerful tools for resolving this paradox — wu-wei (pronounced oooo-way) and de (pronounced duh). Slingerland explains:
Wu-wei literally translates as “no trying” or “no doing,” but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. For a person in wu-wei, proper and effective conduct follows as automatically as the body gives in to the seductive rhythm of a song. This state of harmony is both complex and holistic, involving as it does the integration of the body, the emotions, and the mind. If we have to translate it, wu-wei is probably best rendered as something like “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.” Being in wu-wei is relaxing and enjoyable, but in a deeply rewarding way that distinguishes it from cruder or more mundane pleasures.
“Anxiety … makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you,”Anaïs Nin wrote. “Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy,”Kierkegaard observed. “There is no question that the problem of anxiety is a nodal point at which the most various and important questions converge, a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light on our whole mental existence,”Freud proclaimed in his classic introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. And yet the riddle of anxiety is far from solved — rather, it has swelled into a social malady pulling countless numbers of us underwater daily. Among those most mercilessly fettered by anxiety’s grip is Scott Stossel, familiar to most as the editor of The Atlantic. In his superb mental health memoir, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (public library | IndieBound), Stossel follows in the tradition of Montaigne to use the lens of his own experience as a prism for illuminating insight on the quintessence of our shared struggles with anxiety. From his personal memoir he weaves a cultural one, painting a portrait of anxiety though history, philosophy, religion, popular culture, literature, and a wealth of groundbreaking research in psychology and neuroscience.
Why? Because anxiety and its related psychoemotional disorders turn out to be the most common, prevalent, and undertreated form of clinically classified mental illness today, even more common than depression. Stossel contextualizes the issue with some striking statistics that reveal the cost — both financial and social — of anxiety:
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some forty million Americans, nearly one in seven of us, are suffering from some kind of anxiety disorder at any given time, accounting for 31 percent of the expenditures on mental health care in the United States. According to recent epidemiological data, the “lifetime incidence” of anxiety disorder is more than 25 percent — which, if true, means that one in four of us can expect to be stricken by debilitating anxiety at some point in our lifetimes. And it is debilitating: Recent academic papers have argued that the psychic and physical impairment tied to living with an anxiety disorder is equivalent to living with diabetes — usually manageable, sometimes fatal, and always a pain to deal with. A study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2006 found that Americans lose a collective 321 million days of work because of anxiety and depression each year, costing the economy $50 billion annually; a 2001 paper published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics once estimated that the median number of days missed each year by American workers who suffer from anxiety or stress disorders is twenty-five. In 2005 — three years before the recent economic crisis hit — Americans filled fifty-three million prescriptions for just two antianxiety drugs: Ativan and Xanax. (In the weeks after 9/11, Xanax prescriptions jumped 9 percent nationally — and by 22 percent in New York City.) In September 2008, the economic crash caused prescriptions in New York City to spike: as banks went belly up and the stock market went into free fall, prescriptions for anti-depressant and antianxiety medications increased 9 percent over the year before, while prescriptions for sleeping pills increased 11 percent.
Few people today would dispute that chronic stress is a hallmark of our times or that anxiety has become a kind of cultural condition of modernity. We live, as has been said many times since the dawn of the atomic era, in an age of anxiety — and that, cliché though it may be, seems only to have become more true in recent years as America has been assaulted in short order by terrorism, economic calamity and disruption, and widespread social transformation.
Fittingly, Alan Watts’s The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, written in the very atomic era that sparked the dawn of our present predicament, remains one of the best meditations on the subject. But, as Stossel points out, the notion of anxiety as a clinical category only appeared as recently as thirty years ago. He traces anxiety’s rise to cultural fame through the annals of academic history, pointing out that there were only three academic papers published on the subject in 1927, only fourteen in 1941, and thirty-seven in 1950. It wasn’t until psychologist Rollo May published his influential treatise on anxiety in 1950 that academia paid heed. Today, a simple Google Scholar search returns nearly three million results, and entire academic journals are dedicated to anxiety.
But despite anxiety’s catapulting into cultural concern, our understanding of it — especially as far as mental health stereotypes are concerned — remains developmentally stunted, having evolved very little since the time of seventeenth-century Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who asserted that anxiety was a mere problem of logic and could thus be resolved with tools of reason. Stossel counters such oversimplification with a case for layered, complex causality of the disorder:
The truth is that anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture. Even as anxiety is experienced at a spiritual and psychological level, it is scientifically measurable at the molecular level and the physiological level. It is produced by nature and it is produced by nurture. It’s a psychological phenomenon and a sociological phenomenon. In computer terms, it’s both a hardware problem (I’m wired badly) and a software problem (I run faulty logic programs that make me think anxious thoughts). The origins of a temperament are many faceted; emotional dispositions that may seem to have a simple, single source — a bad gene, say, or a childhood trauma — may not.