Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “henry miller”

Seneca on Gratitude and What It Means to Be a Generous Human Being

“I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act.”

Seneca on Gratitude and What It Means to Be a Generous Human Being

“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes,” Annie Dillard wrote in her beautiful case for why a generosity of spirit is the greatest animating force of creativity.

Two millennia earlier, great Roman philosopher Seneca examined this notion and its broader implications for human life in his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later published as Letters from a Stoic (public library) — the timeless trove of wisdom that gave us Seneca on true and false friendship, overcoming fear, and the antidote to anxiety.

seneca
Seneca

In his eighty-first letter to Lucilius, Seneca writes under the heading “On Benefits”:

You complain that you have met with an ungrateful person. If this is your first experience of that sort, you should offer thanks either to your good luck or to your caution. In this case, however, caution can effect nothing but to make you ungenerous. For if you wish to avoid such a danger, you will not confer benefits; and so, that benefits may not be lost with another man, they will be lost to yourself.

It is better, however, to get no return than to confer no benefits. Even after a poor crop one should sow again; for often losses due to continued barrenness of an unproductive soil have been made good by one year’s fertility. In order to discover one grateful person, it is worth while to make trial of many ungrateful ones.

True generosity, Seneca argues, is measured not by the ends of the act but by the spirit from which it springs. He writes:

Benefits, as well as injuries, depend on the spirit… Our feeling about every obligation depends in each case upon the spirit in which the benefit is conferred; we weigh not the bulk of the gift, but the quality of the good-will which prompted it. So now let us do away with guess-work; the former deed was a benefit, and the latter, which transcended the earlier benefit, is an injury. The good man so arranges the two sides of his ledger that he voluntarily cheats himself by adding to the benefit and subtracting from the injury.

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

In a delightful reminder that even the most serious of thinkers can regard themselves with a sense of humor, Seneca adds a remark he cheekily qualifies as “one of the generally surprising statements such as we Stoics are wont to make and such as the Greeks call ‘paradoxes'”:

The wise man… enjoys the giving more than the recipient enjoys the receiving… None but the wise man knows how to return a favour. Even a fool can return it in proportion to his knowledge and his power; his fault would be a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of will or desire.

In a sentiment which Henry Miller would come to echo two thousand years later in his reflection on the intricate balance of giving and receiving, Seneca considers the meaning of generosity and the proper object of gratitude:

Anyone who receives a benefit more gladly than he repays it is mistaken. By as much as he who pays is more light-hearted than he who borrows, by so much ought he to be more joyful who unburdens himself of the greatest debt — a benefit received — than he who incurs the greatest obligations. For ungrateful men make mistakes in this respect also: they have to pay their creditors both capital and interest, but they think that benefits are currency which they can use without interest. So the debts grow through postponement, and the later the action is postponed the more remains to be paid. A man is an ingrate if he repays a favour without interest.

At the heart of his message is the insistence that true generosity is not transactional and that gratitude, in turn, ought to be calibrated to the intrinsic rewards of the generous act rather than to the veneer of a transactional favor:

We should try by all means to be as grateful as possible. For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a sense in which justice, that is commonly supposed to concern other persons, is not; gratitude returns in large measure unto itself. There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbour, has not benefited himself, — I do not mean for the reason that he whom you have aided will desire to aid you, or that he whom you have defended will desire to protect you, or that an example of good conduct returns in a circle to benefit the doer, just as examples of bad conduct recoil upon their authors, and as men find no pity if they suffer wrongs which they themselves have demonstrated the possibility of committing; but that the reward for all the virtues lies in the virtues themselves. For they are not practised with a view to recompense; the wages of a good deed is to have done it. I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me.

Letters from a Stoic remains one of the most potent and enduring capsules of wisdom our species has produced. Complement it with Susan Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being, Rebecca Solnit on generosity of spirit in difficult times, and Simone Weil — one of our civilization’s most underappreciated sages — on attention as the highest form of generosity, then revisit Seneca on the key to tranquility of mind and how to fill the shortness of life with wide living.

BP

Alan Lightman on the Longing for Absolutes in a Relative World and What Gives Lasting Meaning to Our Lives

“We are idealists and we are realists. We are dreamers and we are builders. We are experiencers and we are experimenters. We long for certainties, yet we ourselves are full of the ambiguities of the Mona Lisa and the I Ching. We ourselves are a part of the yin-yang of the world.”

Alan Lightman on the Longing for Absolutes in a Relative World and What Gives Lasting Meaning to Our Lives

“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she contemplated science, spirituality, and our conquest of truth. A century later, Carl Sagan tussled with the same question shortly before his death: “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

It is, of course, an abiding question, as old as consciousness — we are material creatures that live in a material universe, yet we are capable of experiences that transcend what we can atomize into physical facts: love, joy, the full-being gladness of a Beethoven symphony on a midsummer’s night.

The Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr articulated the basic paradox of living with and within such a duality: “The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”

Nearly a century after Bohr, the physicist and writer Alan Lightman takes us further, beyond these limiting dichotomies, in Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (public library) — a lyrical and illuminating inquiry into our dual impulse for belief in the unprovable and for trust in truth affirmed by physical evidence. Through the lens of his personal experience as a working scientist and a human being with uncommon receptivity to the poetic dimensions of life, Lightman traces our longing for absolutes in a relative world from Galileo to Van Gogh, from Descartes to Dickinson, emerging with that rare miracle of insight at the meeting point of the lucid and the luminous.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

Lightman, who has previously written beautifully about his transcendent experience facing a young osprey, relays a parallel experience he had one summer night on an island off the coast of Maine, where he and his wife have been going for a quarter century. On this small, remote speck of land, severed from the mainland without ferries or bridges, each of the six families has had to learn to cross the ocean by small boat — a task particularly challenging at night. Lightman recounts the unbidden revelation of one such nocturnal crossing:

No one was out on the water but me. It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sound I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off my running lights, and it got even darker. Then I turned off my engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before… I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time — extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die — seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute. After a time, I sat up and started the engine again. I had no idea how long I’d been lying there looking up.

One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering 19th-century astronomical drawings.

Lightman — the first professor at MIT to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities — syncopates this numinous experience with the reality of his lifelong devotion to science:

I have worked as a physicist for many years, and I have always held a purely scientific view of the world. By that, I mean that the universe is made of material and nothing more, that the universe is governed exclusively by a small number of fundamental forces and laws, and that all composite things in the world, including humans and stars, eventually disintegrate and return to their component parts. Even at the age of twelve or thirteen, I was impressed by the logic and materiality of the world. I built my own laboratory and stocked it with test tubes and petri dishes, Bunsen burners, resistors and capacitors, coils of electrical wire. Among other projects, I began making pendulums by tying a fishing weight to the end of a string. I’d read in Popular Science or some similar magazine that the time for a pendulum to make a complete swing was proportional to the square root of the length of the string. With the help of a stopwatch and ruler, I verified this wonderful law. Logic and pattern. Cause and effect. As far as I could tell, everything was subject to numerical analysis and quantitative test. I saw no reason to believe in God, or in any other unprovable hypotheses.

Yet after my experience in that boat many years later… I understood the powerful allure of the Absolutes — ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred. At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, I remained a scientist. I remained committed to the material world.

Against our human finitude, temporality, and imperfection, these “Absolutes” offer infinity, eternity, perfection. Lightman defines them as concepts and beliefs that “refer to an enduring and fixed reference point that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives” — notions like constancy, immortality, permanence, the soul, “God.”

Art by Lorenzo Mattotti for Lou Reed’s adaptation of Poe’s The Raven

Building on his earlier reflections on why we long for permanence in a universe of constant change, he writes:

A fascinating feature of the Absolutes — in fact, a defining feature — is that there is no way to get there from here, that is, from within the physical world. There is no gradual, step-by-step path to go from relative truth to absolute truth, or to go from a long period of time to eternity, or from limited wisdom to the infinite wisdom of God. The infinite is not merely a lot more of the finite. Indeed, the unattainability of the Absolutes may be part of their allure.

The final defining feature of these Absolutes, Lightman notes, is their unprovability by the scientific method. He writes:

Yet I did not need any proof of what I felt during that summer night in Maine looking up at the sky. It was a purely personal experience, and its validity and power resided in the experience itself. Science knows what it knows from experiment with the external world. Belief in the Absolutes comes from internal experience, or sometimes from received teachings and culture-granted authority.

Conversely, however, notions that belong to this realm of Absolutes fall apart when they make claims in the realm of science — claims disproven by the facts of the material world. With an eye to how the discoveries of modern science — from heliocentricity to evolution to the chemical composition of the universe — have challenged many of these Absolutes, Lightman writes:

Nothing in the physical world seems to be constant or permanent. Stars burn out. Atoms disintegrate. Species evolve. Motion is relative. Even other universes might exist, many without life. Unity has given way to multiplicity. I say that the Absolutes have been challenged rather than disproved, because the notions of the Absolutes cannot be disproved any more than they can be proved. The Absolutes are ideals, entities, beliefs in things that lie beyond the physical world. Some may be true and some false, but the truth or falsity cannot be proven.

Generations after Henry Miller insisted that “it is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” Lightman adds:

From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.

[…]

On the one hand, such an onslaught of discovery presents a cause for celebration… Is it not a testament to our minds that we little human beings with our limited sensory apparatus and brief lifespans, stuck on our one planet in space, have been able to uncover so much of the workings of nature? On the other hand, we have found no physical evidence for the Absolutes. And just the opposite. All of the new findings suggest that we live in a world of multiplicities, relativities, change, and impermanence. In the physical realm, nothing persists. Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. Even the subatomic particles found in the twentieth century are now thought to be made of even smaller “strings” of energy, in a continuing regression of subatomic Russian dolls. Nothing is a whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still. If the physical world were a novel, with the business of examining evil and good, it would not have the clear lines of Dickens but the shadowy ambiguities of Dostoevsky.

Indeed, Dostoevsky himself may be the prophet laureate of Absolutes, for he asserted a lifetime ahead of Lightman that “nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason.” The discoveries of reason, which Lightman terms the Relatives — “the relativity and impermanence and multiplicity found by modern science” — stand in counterpoint to the Absolutes, but these are not binary categories. Pointing to examples like the novelist Marilynne Robinson, whose highly spiritual writing is infused with science, and the Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, an atheist who nonetheless believes in a “final theory” that promises absolute answers to all of existence, Lightman notes that individual people weave Absolutes and Relatives into their worldview in varying degrees. He writes:

The Absolutes and the Relatives can be considered a large frame in which to view the dialogue between religion and science, or between spirituality and science. But I suggest that the issues go deeper, into the dualism and complexity of human existence. We are idealists and we are realists. We are dreamers and we are builders. We are experiencers and we are experimenters. We long for certainties, yet we ourselves are full of the ambiguities of the Mona Lisa and the I Ching. We ourselves are a part of the yin-yang of the world. Our yearning for absolutes and, at the same time, our commitment to the physical world reflect a necessary tension in how we relate to the cosmos and relate to ourselves.

Art from Sun and Moon, an illustrated celebration of celestial myths from Indian folklore.

Echoing Rachel Carson’s stunning meditation on the bioluminescent wonder of fireflies — something she saw as “one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves” — Lightman recounts a kindred formative experience of his own:

When I was seven or eight years old, growing up in landlocked Memphis, I visited my grandparents for a week at their little beach house in Miami. One dark and moonless night as I sat at the end of their dock, for some reason known only to children I grabbed a stick and stirred up the ocean beneath me. I was astonished to see the water shimmer with light. To my mind, the ocean was already a mysterious place, with its changing colors, its infinite gray skin stretching out to the sky, and its waves flowing in one after another, like the breathing of some large sleeping animal. But the glow of the seawater was magic of a different order. My imagination flared. Was this fairy dust? Was this some kind of galactic energy? What other secrets and powers lay below the ocean’s surface? Excited, I ran into the house and commandeered my grandparents to witness the discovery. Again I stirred the water with my wand, and it happened again. Pure magic. I scooped up some of the supernatural liquid in a glass jar and took it into the house for further inspection. I’m not sure what I was hoping to find. What I did find, after the water settled, were tiny organisms floating about. In a dark room, they glowed faintly like fireflies. They felt slightly grainy in my hand. I was crestfallen. The magic was just little bugs in the water.

That dual fascination with wonder and reverence for fact never left Lightman. He reflects sixty years later:

As did Thoreau in Concord, I’ve traveled far and wide on Lute Island. I know each cedar and poplar, each clump of beach rose, Rosa rugosa, each patch of blueberry bushes and raspberry brambles and woody stems of hydrangeas, all the soft mounds of moss, some of which I touch on my ramblings today. The tart scent of raspberries blends with the salty sea air. Early this morning, a fog enveloped the island so completely that I felt as if I were in a spaceship afloat in outer space — white space. But the surreal fog, made of minuscule water droplets too tiny to see, eventually evaporated and disappeared. It’s all material, even the magical fog — like the bioluminescence I first saw as a child. It’s all atoms and molecules.

The materiality of the world is a fact, but facts don’t explain the experience. Shining sea water, fog, sunsets, stars. All material. So grand is the material that we find it hard to accept it as merely material… Surely, there must be more. “Nature,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is what we see / The Hill — the Afternoon / Squirrel — Eclipse — the Bumble bee / Nay — Nature is Heaven.” In the last line, the poet leaps from the finite to infinity, to the realm of the Absolutes. It is almost as if Nature in her glory wants us to believe in a heaven, something divine and immaterial beyond nature itself. In other words, Nature tempts us to believe in the supernatural. But then again, Nature has also given us big brains, allowing us to build microscopes and telescopes and ultimately, for some of us, to conclude that it’s all just atoms and molecules. It’s a paradox.

Art by Soyeon Kim for You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey

For millennia, we have been aiming our range of tools — from mythology to science — at this paradox, but remain suspended between Absolutes and Relatives even as we make progress in fathoming the reality of nature on its own terms. Lightman writes:

Nature may at times appear to be a Painter or a Philosopher or a Celestial Spirit. But deep down she is a Scientist. She is quantitative. She is logical. And nothing better illustrates her ruthless and unyielding adherence to that logic than the law of the conservation of energy. Energy does not appear out of nothing. Energy does not disappear into nothing. The energy law is a sacred cow of physics.

[…]

Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius suggested that the power of the gods over us mortals is limited by the constancy of atoms. Atoms could not be created or destroyed, said Lucretius. The gods could not make objects suddenly appear out of nothing or vanish into nothing because all things are made out of atoms, and the number of atoms remains constant… Lucretius’s idea was a conservation law. The poet did not know how to tally up the number of atoms, as we tally up the number of joules in a box, but something was constant, and that constancy clearly provided great psychological comfort as well as understanding of nature. Let the gods and the supernatural have their sway, but they cannot alter the number of atoms here in our earthly world.

Lightman observes that when modern physics arrived at the law of conservation of energy, affirmed by the discovery of the neutrino, it provided the same psychological comfort:

With this law and others like it, nature can be made sense of. Nature can be calculated. Nature can be depended on. If you know the initial energy of the unstruck match and then measure the energy in the heated air, you know how high the weight must be lifted. The total energy is constant.

Ironically, we have traded one constancy for another. We have lost the constancy of the stars but gained the constancy of energy. The first is a physical object, the second a concept. Scientists cannot prove without a doubt that the total energy in a closed system is constant. But any violation of that principle would destroy the foundations of physics and suggest an unlawful universe. The idea of a lawful universe is itself an Absolute.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

Four decades after Carl Sagan awakened the popular imagination to the awareness that “we too are made of starstuff” and explained how stars are born, live, die, and give us life, Lightman writes:

The material of the doomed stars and the material of my doomed body are actually the same material. Literally the same atoms… It is astonishing but true that if I could attach a small tag to each of the atoms of my body and travel with them backward in time, I would find that those atoms originated in particular stars in the sky. Those exact atoms.

Human life may be a beautiful fact, but it is a tiny subset of the facts of the universe — a universe we took for millennia to belong to us. We are only just beginning to recognize that we belong to it. There is disquiet in this recognition that bleeds into denial — denial encoded in the statistic that the vast majority of people in the world still believe in a personal God who intercedes on their behalf, a belief predicated on the delusion of human centrality and our special status amid a cosmos of incomprehensible vastness. Lightman calibrates that notion with the facts of reality:

Data from the Kepler astronomical satellite, launched in 2009 and specifically constructed to search for planets in the “habitable zone” — that is, the right distance from their central star to possess liquid water — suggest that something like 10 percent of all stars have at least one “habitable” planet…

There are several hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone, and a hundred billion galaxies just within the observable universe. Overwhelmingly, the odds favor life forms elsewhere in the universe. Although we do not know in detail how life developed on earth, the odds that no life exists on the billions and billions of other habitable planets would be as improbable as no fires ever starting in a billion trillion dry forests. Almost certainly life elsewhere in the universe would not be like ours. But biologists and even perhaps artists and philosophers would recognize it as life. And with so many life-bearing worlds and billions of years of cosmic evolution, there must be a range of civilizations, some less advanced than ours and some more.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1826 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy

What God, Lightman asks, would be able to meet the demands of so many worlds and still prioritize the particular needs of each individual in our particular civilization orbiting our particular third-rate star? What gives meaning to our existence, he suggests, is not the guarantee of Absolutes or the favors of some imagined cosmic deity but something else entirely — something that fills the smallest units of our temporality with life until they themselves expand into a testament to the age-old insight that “all eternity is in the moment.” He writes:

Nothing is absolutely motionless, says Einstein, but I’m centered in this island. Wherever it goes, hurtling through space as the earth orbits the sun and the sun orbits the galaxy, I go with it. I’ve planted myself here, like the Rosa rugosa down the hill, stubborn and thorny. At this moment, I can hear the call of a gull and the wind blowing through trees like the sound of a distant waterfall and the tiny purr of a boat engine far off in the bay. Then there’s the steady and slight sound of the waves, playing counterpoint to the soft music of birds. But all of it slips into the silky silence of this place. I embrace that silence. I breed silence and am bred by it. On this island, I am light years away from the noise and heave of the world. Like Thoreau, I came here “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what life had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I choose to live. Now, this body of mine, this old animal, is sixty-seven years old.

Echoing Montaigne — “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” observed the father of the essay as he contemplated mortality and the art of living in the same century Galileo unsettled the universe — Lightman writes:

When we approach Lute Island by boat and gaze at it from a distance, a dollop of rock and green rising out of the sea, I am acutely aware that it will last far longer than I will. A hundred years from now, after I’m gone, many of these spruce and cedars will still be here. And the wind going through them will sound like a distant waterfall. The curve of the land will be the same as it is now. The paths that I wander may still be here, although probably covered with new vegetation. The rocks and ledges on the shore will be here, including a particular ledge I’m quite fond of, shaped like the knuckled back of a large animal. Sometimes, I sit on that ledge (more sitting) and wonder if it will remember me. Even my house might still be here, or at least the concrete posts of its footing, crumbling in the salt air. But eventually, of course, even this island will shift and change and dissolve. In geologic time, there may be no trace of Lute Island. Twenty-five thousand years ago, it didn’t exist. Maine and most of North America were covered with ice, thousands of feet thick. Two hundred and fifty million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean didn’t exist. Europe, Africa, and North America were joined together in a single landmass. Nothing persists in the material world. All of it changes and passes away.

[…]

As I lie in my hammock now on this late afternoon in August, I can feel the seconds ticking away to my end, and I believe it to be a final end. But that finality does not diminish the grandeur of life. As the seconds tick by, I breathe one breath at a time. I inhale, I exhale. These spruces and cedars I cherish and know, the wind, the sweet scent of moist and dark soil — these are my small sense of enlightenment, my past life and present life and future life all in one moment.

Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a splendid read in its entirety. Complement it with Carl Sagan on science and spirituality, Richard Feynman on why uncertainty is essential for morality, and Simone de Beauvoir on the moral courage of nonbelief, then revisit Lightman on the transcendence of creative work and his poetic ode to science and the unknown.

BP

The Art of Receptivity: Hilton Als on Love

“The thing seemingly freely given often isn’t. It is rare to receive the gift of love, for instance, from someone who doesn’t want to be celebrated for their generosity in having offered it.”

The Art of Receptivity: Hilton Als on Love

“The temperament to which Art appeals,” Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891, “is the temperament of receptivity.” If art and love are one, as Vincent van Gogh so ardently believed, and if the experience of love — that splendid osmotic permeability of loving and being loved — has taught me anything, it is that Love, too, arises from the temperament of receptivity. But in a culture of hard work, which casts both happiness and love as objects of pursuit, there is little room and even less respect for the requisite softness of being receptive to the supreme gift that can only ever come unbidden.

How to reclaim and redignify this essential receptivity is what Pulitzer-winning writer and longtime New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als explores in his wonderful essay “Lonesome Cowboy” for Rookie on Love (public library) — an anthology of reflections on romance, friendship, and self-care, written for the young but drawing on a wealth of life-earned wisdom, edited by Rookie Magazine founder Tavi Gevinson and featuring contributions by Etgar Keret, Margo Jefferson, Sarah Manguso, Emma Straub, Janet Mock (and one from me).

Hilton Als (Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe)

Half a century after Henry Miller contemplated the paradox of altruism and the osmosis of giving and receiving, Als writes:

The thing seemingly freely given often isn’t. It is rare to receive the gift of love, for instance, from someone who doesn’t want to be celebrated for their generosity in having offered it; altruism is often a dream. But there are those who connect through the truth of love — the irrefutable force of it — establishing a mutual bond grounded in reality and not the theater of the giver’s “I.”

In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s insistence that befriending our neediness is essential for lasting happiness, Als adds:

It’s odd, but wouldn’t you say that in our universe of worked-out bodies and worked-out minds, that to be receptive is looked upon as “weak,” a passive vessel for someone else’s love and dreams? So, instead of embracing the generosity inherent in being able to accept love, the receptors among us punish themselves by adopting stereotypical “needy” behavior, warping their instincts to look “active,” the better to satisfy an audience’s view of what it means to be open.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

In a lovely complement to Wilde and Van Gogh across space, time, culture, and sensibility, Als draws on classic cinema to illustrate the centrality of receptivity in the parallel experiences of love and art:

How can we reverse the negativity that surrounds being receptive — to love, to someone else’s dreams? What are we supposed to do with this space? Stare down into it? Put flowers in it? Shout out to the less receptive among us that there is nothing wrong with saying what one wants, including love? I don’t know. Just don’t call me until you’re ready to receive, and I’m ready to give. One sees flowers growing around Montgomery Clift’s mouth at the end of that black-and-white masterpiece, A Place in the Sun (1951). The flowers grow in the earth of his receptivity — his openness to the scene, the atmosphere. In all aspects of his work Clift was, to my mind and eye, the greatest film actor this country has ever produced, largely because he jettisoned acting out for acting in. He embodied receptivity.

[…]

Watching Montgomery Clift taught me that there is no shame in being receptive to a given situation or person; it is part of my job as an artist, and part of who I am as a man in search of love and its flowers.

Complement this particular fragment of Rookie on Love with German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, Martha Nussbaum on how to know whether you love somebody, Robert Browning on the discipline of saying “I love you” only when you mean it, and Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love.

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on Busyness and the Creative Life

In praise of the mundane, unquantifiable, impractical activities that feed creative work and fill life with meaning.

Ursula K. Le Guin on Busyness and the Creative Life

Most people are products of their time. Only the rare few are its creators. Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) was one.

A fierce thinker and largehearted, beautiful writer who considered writing an act of falling in love, Le Guin left behind a vast, varied body of work and wisdom, stretching from her illuminations of the artist’s task and storytelling as an instrument of freedom to her advocacy for public libraries to her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching and her classic unsexing of gender.

In her final years, Le Guin examined what makes life worth living in a splendid piece full of her wakeful, winkful wisdom, titled “In Your Spare Time” and included as the opening essay in No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (public library) — the final nonfiction collection published in her lifetime, which also gave us Le Guin on the uses and misuses of anger.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Two decades after her nuanced meditation on growing older, Le Guin revisits the subject from another angle, perhaps the most perspectival angle there is — the question of how we measure the light of a life as it nears its sunset. Like any great writer who finds her prompts in the most improbable of places, Le Guin springboards into the existential while answering a questionnaire mailed to the Harvard class of 1951 — alumni who, if living, would all be in their eighties. (What is it about eighty being such a catalyst for existential reflection? Henry Miller modeled it, Donald Hall followed, and Oliver Sacks set the gold standard.)

Arrested by the implications of one particular question in the survey — “In your spare time, what do you do?” — and by its menu of twenty-seven options, including golf, shopping, and bridge, Le Guin pauses over the seventh offering on the list: “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.).” She considers this disquieting valuation of creative work in a capitalist society where the practical is the primary currency of existential worth:

Here I stopped reading and sat and thought for quite a while.

The key words are spare time. What do they mean?

To a working person — supermarket checker, lawyer, highway crewman, housewife, cellist, computer repairer, teacher, waitress — spare time is the time not spent at your job or at otherwise keeping yourself alive, cooking, keeping clean, getting the car fixed, getting the kids to school. To people in the midst of life, spare time is free time, and valued as such.

But to people in their eighties? What do retired people have but “spare” time?

I am not exactly retired, because I never had a job to retire from. I still work, though not as hard as I did. I have always been and am proud to consider myself a working woman. But to the Questioners of Harvard my lifework has been a “creative activity,” a hobby, something you do to fill up spare time. Perhaps if they knew I’d made a living out of it they’d move it to a more respectable category, but I rather doubt it.

Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, illustrated by Nina Cosford for Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography by Zena Alkayat.

A century and half after Kierkegaard extolled the creative value of unbusied hours and ninety years after Bertrand Russell made his exquisite case for why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, Le Guin examines the meanings and misconstruings of “spare” time in modern life:

The question remains: When all the time you have is spare, is free, what do you make of it?

And what’s the difference, really, between that and the time you used to have when you were fifty, or thirty, or fifteen?

Kids used to have a whole lot of spare time, middle-class kids anyhow. Outside of school and if they weren’t into a sport, most of their time was spare, and they figured out more or less successfully what to do with it. I had whole spare summers when I was a teenager. Three spare months. No stated occupation whatsoever. Much of after-school was spare time too. I read, I wrote, I hung out with Jean and Shirley and Joyce, I moseyed around having thoughts and feelings, oh lord, deep thoughts, deep feelings… I hope some kids still have time like that. The ones I know seem to be on a treadmill of programming, rushing on without pause to the next event on their schedule, the soccer practice the playdate the whatever. I hope they find interstices and wriggle into them. Sometimes I notice that a teenager in the family group is present in body — smiling, polite, apparently attentive — but absent. I think, I hope she has found an interstice, made herself some spare time, wriggled into it, and is alone there, deep down there, thinking, feeling.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Two millennia after Seneca placed the heart of life in learning to live wide rather than long and a century after Hermann Hesse contemplated how busyness drains life of its little, enormous joys, Le Guin examines the vital difference between being busy with doing and being occupied with living:

The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.

An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters is a wonderful read in its totality, replete with Le Guin’s warm wisdom on art and life. Complement this particular portion with German philosopher Josef Pieper on why unoccupied time is the basis of culture, English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why a capacity for “fertile solitude” is the basis of contentment, and two hundred years of great thinkers on the creative purpose of boredom, then revisit what I continue to consider Le Guin’s greatest nonfiction masterpiece: her brilliant essay on “being a man.”

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.