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Walt Whitman on Identity and the Paradox of the Self

“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity.”

Walt Whitman on Identity and the Paradox of the Self

“Our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing,” Alan Watts wrote in his memorable meditation on the ego, the universe, and becoming who you really are. Neuroscientists have concurred with Eastern philosophy and framed the self as a construction of the social brain; developmental psychologists have studied its formation in childhood; cognitive scientists have pinpointed its roots in memory. The question of what the self is and whether it exists at all has bedeviled ancient philosophy and modern psychology with equal ferocity.

And yet, in the privacy of our interior lives, the reality of the self seems inescapable — sometimes maddeningly so. For each of us, the entire enormity of life unfolds within the tiny locus of consciousness we experience as our very own self. So where is the line between the inevitability of the self as a focal point of experience and its mutation into an imprisoning ego-shell which, in the words of the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki, “is the hardest thing to outgrow”?

That’s what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) explores in a passage from this altogether magnificent essay Democratic Vistas — his increasingly timely meditation on a politically healthy society, penned in the late 1860s and included in Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (free ebook | public library).

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

Whitman writes:

There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity — yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts. In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth, (significant only because of the Me in the centre,) creeds, conventions, fall away and become of no account before this simple idea. Under the luminousness of real vision, it alone takes possession, takes value. Like the shadowy dwarf in the fable, once liberated and look’d upon, it expands over the whole earth, and spreads to the roof of heaven.

The quality of being, in the object’s self, according to its own central idea and purpose, and of growing therefrom and thereto — not criticism by other standards, and adjustments thereto — is the lesson of Nature.

But, Whitman cautions, we ought to safeguard against letting the transcendence of this natural self harden into the unnatural self-importance of an overactive ego:

True, the full man wisely gathers, culls, absorbs; but if, engaged disproportionately in that, he slights or overlays the precious idiocrasy and special nativity and intention that he is, the man’s self, the main thing, is a failure, however wide his general cultivation.


The best culture will always be that of … courageous instincts, and loving perceptions, and of self-respect.

Complement this particular fragment of Whitman’s timelessly terrific Democratic Vistas with Bruce Lee on self-actualization and the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem and biologist-turned-Buddhist Matthieu Ricard and his philosopher father in conversation about the nature of the self and the true measure of personal strength, then revisit Whitman on the power of music, his prescient reflections on the need to integrate body and spirit in healthcare, and his abiding advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.


David Ogilvy on the True Value of Education: A Brilliant Letter of Advice to His 18-Year-Old Nephew

“Don’t judge the value of higher education in terms of careermanship. Judge it for what it is — a priceless opportunity to furnish your mind and enrich the quality of your life.”

David Ogilvy on the True Value of Education: A Brilliant Letter of Advice to His 18-Year-Old Nephew

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Nietzsche wrote in his 1873 reflection on the true value of education. The task of education, John Dewey asserted a generation later in his timeless treatise on how we think, is not “to teach every possible item of information [but] to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions.” But in order to reap the rewards of what we call education, we must actively elect the acquisition of those mental habits — for, as Adrienne Rich argued in her spectacular 1977 commencement address, an education is something we claim rather than something we get.

Perhaps the most elegant and compelling case for what we stand to gain when we exert ourselves on claiming an education comes from an unlikely champion: the legendary English businessman and Mad Man-era icon David Ogilvy (June 23, 1911–July 21, 1999).


When Ogilvy’s 18-year-old nephew Harry graduated high school in 1984, his life-path was forked by the competing choices of higher education and immediate foray into the rat race of vocational self-actualization. Conflicted, the boy turned to his uncle for advice. Ogilvy’s response, found in The Unpublished David Ogilvy (public library), is a rhetorical masterpiece and an abiding testament to the ultimate rewards of education for those who pursue it with an earnest and receptive spirit.

Ogilvy writes:

Dear Harry,

You ask me whether you should spend the next three years at university, or get a job. I will give you three different answers. Take your pick.

Answer A. You are ambitious. Your sights are set on going to the top, in business or government. Today’s big corporations cannot be managed by uneducated amateurs. In these high-tech times, they need top bananas who have doctorates in chemistry, physics, engineering, geology, etc.

Even the middle managers are at a disadvantage unless they boast a university degree and an MBA. In the United States, 18 percent of the population has a degree, in Britain, only 7 percent. Eight percent of Americans have graduate degrees, compared with 1 percent of Brits. That more than anything else is why American management outperforms British management.

Same thing in government. When I was your age, we had the best civil service in the world. Today, the French civil servants are better than ours because they are educated for the job in the postgraduate Ecole Nationale d’Administration, while ours go straight from Balliol to Whitehall. The French pros outperform the British amateurs.

Anyway, you are too young to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life. If you spend the next few years at university, you will get to know the world — and yourself — before the time comes to choose your career.

Answer B. Stop frittering away your time in academia. Stop subjecting yourself to the tedium of textbooks and classrooms. Stop cramming for exams before you acquire an incurable hatred for reading.

Escape from the sterile influences of dons, who are nothing more than pickled undergraduates.

The lack of a college degree will only be a slight handicap in your career. In Britain, you can still get to the top without a degree. What industry and government need at the top is not technocrats but leaders. The character traits which make people scholars in their youth are not the traits which make them leaders in later life.

You put up with education for 12 boring years. Enough is enough.

Answer C. Don’t judge the value of higher education in terms of careermanship. Judge it for what it is — a priceless opportunity to furnish your mind and enrich the quality of your life. My father was a failure in business, but he read Horace in the loo until he died, poor but happy.

If you enjoy being a scholar, and like the company of scholars, go to a university. Who knows, you may end your days as a Regius Professor. And bear in mind that British universities are still the best in the world — at the undergraduate level. Lucky you. Winning a Nobel Prize is more satisfying than being elected Chairman of some large corporation or becoming a Permanent Undersecretary in Whitehall.

You have a first-class mind. Stretch it. If you have the opportunity to go to a university, don’t pass it up. You would never forgive yourself.

Tons of love,


Complement this particular fragment of The Unpublished David Ogilvy, which also gave us the legendary ad man’s tips on writing and his insight into the ten character qualities of creative leaders, with Parker Palmer on education as spiritual journey and Anne Lamott on the measure of a great teacher.


Thin Slices of Anxiety: An Illustrated Meditation on What It’s Like to Live Enslaved by Worry and How to Break Free

A guided tour of this pernicious prison of the psyche, honest and assuring in its honesty.

Thin Slices of Anxiety: An Illustrated Meditation on What It’s Like to Live Enslaved by Worry and How to Break Free

Kierkegaard called anxiety “the dizziness of freedom” and believed that it serves to power rather than hinder creativity. For Darwin, it was a paralyzing lifelong struggle — he accomplished his breakthroughs not because of anxiety but despite it. “Anxiety,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary, “makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you.”

Anxiety belongs to the broader complex relationship between creativity and mental illness, and although the causal direction of that relationship might forever evade us, it is strangely assuring to know that other minds — especially minds of above-average intelligence and creative ability — have been savaged by this blunt-toothed beast.

Such solidary consolation is what Montreal-based designer and illustrator Catherine Lepage offers in Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind (public library) — an illustrated meditation on what it’s like to live enslaved by one’s own worries and what one can do to break free.





Through a backdoor of disarming and almost lighthearted honesty, Lepage takes us on a guided tour of this heavyhearted prison of the psyche, its symptoms, and its side effects — from the trap of people-pleasing to the toxic allure of conformity to the sense of outsiderdom.




Reflecting on her lifelong on-again, off-again relationship with this cyclical companion, Lepage distills the common pattern and extracts from it the four habits most certain to set the Rube Goldberg machine of anxiety into action.





Laced with the meta-stressors familiar to anyone afflicted with anxiety — shame for being gripped by anxiety in the first place, self-blame for putting oneself in situations known to trigger it, exasperation upon realizing that its predictable trajectory of anguish is underway yet being unable to stop it — the book radiates a wistful yet warm assurance that these overwhelming emotional states, as all-consuming and singular as they seem, mark our membership in a larger fellowship of tribulation in which we are never as alone as we may feel.


Under the self-conscious heading “Cheesy Quotes to Remember” — for, lest we forget, self-consciousness is one of anxiety’s most persistent symptoms — Lepage offers a number of truths so helpful and true that we tend to dismiss them as truisms, bounced off the maladaptive psychological shield of our cynicism.





Complement the wonderful Thin Slices of Anxiety with Scott Stossel on the culture and costs of anxiety, Harvard social scientist Amy Cuddy on how to combat its causes, and philosopher Alan Watts on the antidote to our age of anxiety, then revisit artist Bobby Baker’s eleven-year visual diary of living with mental illness.

Artwork courtesy of Catherine Lepage / Chronicle Books


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