“It is written in the book of destiny that any mortal who dedicates himself to doing good must risk everything, including life itself.”
By Maria Popova
“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,” Maya Angelou wrote in contemplating courage in the face of evil. Sometimes, evil comes in one of its deceptively benignant guises — everyday smallnesses of spirit like cynicism and the particularly virulent strain of unkindness disguised as cleverizing, which the golden age of social media has so readily and recklessly fomented.
In youth, when our solidity of soul is most precarious, when we most hunger for peer approval and are most susceptible to cultural reinforcement, we are most vulnerable to the easy payoff of being cynical or clever over the deep, often difficult rewards of being kind.
The great French novelist, memoirist, and playwright Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand (July 1, 1804–June 8, 1876), set out to model a prescient antidote to a culture that rewards cynicism and selfishness over kindness and largeness of heart in her only children’s book, originally composed in 1851 but published in English for the first time in 1988, with stunning illustrations by the then-Soviet artist Gennady Spirin.
The author of some eighty novels and numerous plays, stories, and essays animated by her love of nature and her devotion to social change, Sand supported herself and her children by her pen in an era when women were rarely financially independent by their own work and hardly any were professional writers. During the 1848 uprising in France, she started her own liberal newspaper. She attracted great controversy with her outspoken advocacy of women’s rights, her habit of wearing men’s clothing and smoking large cigars, and her passionate convention-defying relationships with both men and women, most famously with the composer Frédéric Chopin. Dostoyevsky revered her as “one of the most clairvoyant foreseers” and one of his greatest influences. Margaret Fuller — who catalyzed American feminism and who appears as a central figure in Figuring — greatly admired Sand’s writing and the way she lived her values, and when they finally met in Paris, Fuller found in her “goodness, nobleness, and power that pervaded the whole — the truly human heart and nature that shone in the eyes.”
We meet Gentle Jack — the youngest of seven children, born to unkind, unscrupulous, and greedy parents who have managed to convert all the other children to their cynical worldview, except him. Instead, Gentle Jack has become the laughingstock of the family — his parents scorn him as too stupid, for he wouldn’t follow in their wicked ways, and his siblings tease and bully him, taking his boundless kindness for weakness.
Gentle Jack bears the abuse stoically. But he wishes from the bottom of his large, aching heart that his parents would love him as much as he loves them. Often, he takes his great sadness into the forest to find refuge by his favorite tree — an old, hollow oak hidden away by rocks and brambles.
One day, after particularly brutal abuse at home, Gentle Jack lies weeping beneath his oak when something stings his arm. Sand writes:
He looked up and saw a huge bumblebee, which sat there without moving and stared at him in a most insolent fashion.
Jack took hold of the bee by its wings and gently placed it on the palm of his hand.
“Why did you hurt me, when I have done nothing to hurt you?” he asked. “Go on, fly away and be happy.”
After releasing the bee, Jack tends to his sting with some forest herbs and dozes off, only to awaken and discover in astonishment “a tall, fat gentleman dressed in black from head to toe, standing in front of him.”
The gentleman stared at Jack with enormous round eyes and said in a loud booming voice, “You have done me a service I shall never forget. Come, child, ask for whatever you most desire.”
When Gentle Jack responds that there is nothing he longs for more than for his parents to love him, the mysterious man replies that it is “a very difficult wish to grant” but that he would do his best. He declares that Gentle Jack is kind, but he must become clever in order for his parents to love him, and he will make him clever. The boy responds true to his nature:
“Oh, Sir!” exclaimed Jack. “If, in order to become clever, I must also become wicked, then please don’t make me clever. I would rather remain stupid and continue to be kind.”
“And what do you expect to achieve by being kind in a world full of wicked people?” asked the gentleman.
“Alas, Sir, I don’t know how to answer your question,” said Jack, who was becoming more and more frightened. “I’m not clever enough for that. But I have never done anyone any harm. Please don’t make me want to, or give me the means of doing so.”
After proclaiming him a fool, the fat man sweeps his great black velvet cloak and disappears into the forest, promising to make the boy clever the next time they meet. Still jolted by the encounter, Gentle Jack reluctantly heads home, dreading another beating for being out so long. Upon his return, his mother scolds him, then tells him that he is the luckiest boy in the world, for a nobleman by the name of Lord Bumblebee had just stopped by the house. After eating an enormous jar of honey, for which he had paid handsomely, he had asked after the family’s youngest child. Upon hearing Gentle Jack’s name, he had exclaimed that this was the very child he had been looking for and that he would make his fortune. Then he had vanished without another word.
Gentle Jack’s mother, greedy for the nobleman’s riches, promptly shoves her son out the door, instructing him to find Lord Bumblebee’s castle.
And so the two meet again. This time, in addition to all his riches, Lord Bumblebee offers to make him clever by teaching him the “sciences” of magic and witchcraft if he would be his son. But Gentle Jack remains true to his nature:
“You are most kind, Sir,” said Jack, “but I have parents already, and although they have other children they love more than me, they might need me some day and it would be wrong of me to leave them.”
When Gentle Jack returns home, convinced that his loving loyalty would make his parents love him in turn, his mother roughly jilts his embrace, asking instead what bounty he has brought back from the nobleman’s castle. Upon discovering that not only has Gentle Jack brought nothing back, but he had refused to become “the heir of a man who was richer than the king himself,” his parents begin to beat him, then dress him in rags and send him back to the nobleman.
Woven of equal measures sweetness and severity, the story builds into an ever-accelerating test of character.
When Jack turns fifteen and Lord Bumblebee comes to terms with the disappointment that he would not have children from his own marriage, he offers once again to adopt the boy, but at a Faustian cost — Jack would inherit all the Lord’s riches, but he would have to fight endless, ruthless battles to keep them.
The evil nobleman sets out to instill in the boy his own cynical and selfish credo. After showing him the merciless combat and cunning by which those in power maintain their position, he tells him:
In this world, you must rob or be robbed, murder or be murdered, be a tyrant or a slave. It is up to you to choose: Do you wish to conserve wealth like the bees, amass it like the ants, or steal it like the hornets? The surest way, I believe, is to let others do the work and then take from them. Take, take, my boy, by force or by cunning; it’s the only way to achieve happiness.
If Jack were to choose to be a bumblebee like him, he too would be inducted into the order of magicians like Lord Bumblebee, but he would have to swear a terrible oath: “to abandon compassion and that virtue which men call honesty.” Incredulous of the proposition, the gentle boy inquires whether all magicians must take this oath.
“There are those,” replied Lord Bumblebee, “who swear to exactly the opposite and who make it their business to serve, protect, and love all living creatures. But they are just fools.”
“Well, Lord Bumblebee,” replied Jack, “you haven’t succeeded in making me clever, because I prefer those spirits to yours, and I have no desire whatsoever to learn how to plunder and to kill. I thank you for your good intentions, but I request your permission to return home to my parents.”
“Fool,” replied Lord Bumblebee. “Your parents are hornets who have forgotten their origins.”
“Well, then,” replied Jack, “I will go into the wilderness and join the good spirits.”
Enraged by the boy’s unrelenting goodness, Lord Bumblebee declares that he would not let him — he would sting him to death. At this utterance, he transforms into a hideous insect and begins chasing Gentle Jack through the forest. The terrified boy, leaping headlong into a brook for cover, begins calling on the “good spirits” for help.
Suddenly, a great blue dragonfly appears and, flying in front of him, beckons the boy to follow her. The skies open into a heavy downpour, impeding Lord Bumblebee’s pursuit.
But this is not salvation. Part II of the story, titled “How Gentle Jack Reached the Enchanted Island at Last and Why He Could Not Stay There,” presents the ultimate test of character.
Gentle Jack finds himself in a heavenly, sweet-scented fairyland — an idyllic world where “there were children, as sweet as cherubs, who chased each other and turned somersaults, and lovely maidens who sat plaiting flowers into each other’s hair,” a place where “young folk made music and danced while old folk sat and watched.”
He discovers that the blue dragonfly had been his fairy godmother in disguise — the queen of the good spirits. She had happened to be passing through the land of his birth — “a land like any other, a mixture of goodness and evil, of good and bad people” — at the very moment he was born and she had blessed him at birth with gentleness, honesty, and kindness.
Long ago, she tells him, Lord Bumblebee had ruled and ravaged Gentle Jack’s homeland by corrupting its inhabitants with greed. In punishment for his evil deeds, the godmother-queen had turned him into a common bumblebee, “condemned to crawling, hiding himself away, and buzzing around an old oak tree in the forest which he had originally planted with his own hands when he was master and tyrant of the country” — a punishment that could only be lifted by Gentle Jack’s hand, on the day he says to the bumblebee, “Fly away and be happy.” Only then would Lord Bumblebee regain his human incarnation, and only if he promised to make Jack very happy.
The spirit of greed and theft has stifled the spirit of kindness and generosity in every heart and has driven into oblivion the great knowledge which you alone, of all who were born on this unhappy earth, now possess.
Upon hearing this, Gentle Jack realizes that he is not stupid after all and that his loving kindness is the only cure for the small-spirited suffering of his people. (“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Tolstoy — who also admired and was influenced by Sand — would write to Gandhi half a century later.) But when the queen tells him that he must not worry about it any longer, for on the enchanted island he is immortal, impervious to sorrow, and protected from all evil, Gentle Jack can’t find contentment in this privileged comfort. He throws his arms around his godmother and speaks from his large heart:
Smile on me, dear godmother, so that I may not die of grief when I leave you — because leave you I must. No matter that I have neither parents nor friends left in my homeland, I feel that I am the child of that country and must serve it. Since I am the possessor of the most beautiful secret in the world, I must share it with those poor people who hate each other and who are to be pitied. No matter, also, that I’m as happy as the good spirits, thanks to your kindness. I am, nonetheless, a mere mortal, and I want to share my knowledge with other mortals. You have taught me how to love. Well, I feel that I love those evil, mad people who will probably hate me, and I ask you to lead me back among them.
With a kiss, the queen tells Jack that while her heart is breaking to see him go, she loves him all the more for having understood his duty:
The knowledge I have given you has borne fruit in your soul. I will give you neither a lucky charm, nor a magic wand to protect you against the wiles of the evil bumblebees, because it is written in the book of destiny that any mortal who dedicates himself to doing good must risk everything, including life itself.
Instead, she allows him to pick as many flowers from her meadow as he wishes — magical flowers that make every person who inhales their scent gentler, kinder, and more beneficent, flowers he could hand out in his country to aid him in what the queen knows will be “a terrible and dangerous struggle” against evil.
And so, stepping onto a rose petal boat, Gentle Jack returns to his land as a prophet of love, goodness, generosity, and beauty. When he is assaulted by angry, avaricious mobs, he waves his fragrant flowers at them until the entire population is “miraculously calmed.”
Lord Bumblebee eventually gets wind of Gentle Jack’s miracles and sends an ambassador to invite him to his court. Despite his new friends’ admonitions that the tyrant could be up to no good, Gentle Jack accepts the invitation, eager to convert even the evilest man in the land.
There is no sugary happy ending to the story, no lulling assurance that good always prevails over evil. Perhaps because Sand’s own country was still haunted by the grim specter of the French Revolution, she composes a sad, beautiful, cautionary ending — a realist’s reminder that good only prevails when we put all of our might and our ethic of love and our unflinching commitment to kindness behind it, for, as Zadie Smith would write nearly two centuries later in her spectacular meditation on optimism and despair, “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
By Maria Popova
“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,”James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) wrote as he contemplated freedom and how we imprison ourselves in 1960. Twenty-six years later, in the last spring of his life, Baldwin — by then one of the world’s most formidable forces of cultural transfiguration — visited the Library of Congress on the invitation of Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks — the trailblazing poet who had become the first black writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize thirty-six years earlier — had chosen Baldwin for the event concluding her appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States. Nearly eighty at the time, she would far outlive him and would come to recognize, in the discomfiting hindsight of history, his profound and prophetic insight into the frayed fabric of his society, as well as his enduring wisdom on what it would take to reweave it.
The event, a recording of which is preserved in the Library of Congress archives, would be one of Baldwin’s last major public appearances. Brooks introduces him with these shimmering words:
You know the phrase larger than life. If that phrase is valid at all, it likes James Baldwin. This man has dared to confront and examine himself, ourselves, and the enigmas between. Many have been called prophets, but here is a bona fide prophet. Long ago, he guaranteed “the fire next time” — no more water, but fire next time. Virtually the following day, we, smelling smoke, looked up and found ourselves surrounded by leering, singing fire. I wonder how many others have regarded this connection. And, no, James Baldwin did not start the fire — he foretold its coming. He was a pre-reporter — he was a prophet.
His friends enjoy calling him Jimmy, and that is easy to understand — the man is love personified. He has a sweet, soft, lay, loving, enduring smile. [Baldwin smiles, audience laughs]. He has a voice that can range from eerie effortless menace — menace educational and creative — to this low, cradling, insinuating, and involving love. This love is at once both father and son to a massive concern — a concern for his own people, surely, but for the cleansing, the extension of all the world’s categories. No less, surely, since he knows, surely, that the fortunes of these over here affect inevitably those over there.
Essayist, novelist, poet, playwright, new French Legion of Honor medalist, human being being human: James Baldwin.
Baldwin proceeds to read from his work, beginning with the ending of an essay he had written more than three decades earlier, during his short stay in the small Swiss village of Leukerbad at the outset of his life in Europe, titled “Stranger in the Village” and later published in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library). Composed in 1953 — the same cultural moment in which his compatriot and fellow prophet Rachel Carson was bringing her own prescience to the other great problem of their time, which also remains unsolved in ours — the essay stuns with its timeliness today and stands testament to Baldwin’s singular gift as a prophet and seer into past, present, and future.
The cathedral at Chartres… says something to the people of this village which it cannot say to me; but it is important to understand that, this cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them. Perhaps they are struck by the power of the spires, the glory of the windows; but they have known God, after all, longer than I have known him, and in a different way, and I am terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt, down which heretics were hurled to death, and by the obscene, inescapable gargoyles jutting out of the stone and seeming to say that God and the devil can never be divorced. I doubt that the villagers think of the devil when they face a cathedral because they have never been identified with the devil. But I must accept the status which myth, if nothing else, gives me in the West before I can hope to change the myth.
Yet, if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world — which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white — owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us — very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will — that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.
In a sentiment that reverberates with astonishing relevance three generations later, Baldwin — America’s poet laureate of “the doom and glory of knowing who you are” — concludes by framing the difficult reality we must face rather than flee from in order to nurture a nobler, healthier, and more just society:
The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.
“We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.”
By Maria Popova
We go through life seeing reality not as it really is, in its unfathomable depths of complexity and contradiction, but as we hope or fear or expect it to be. Too often, we confuse certainty for truth and the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence. When we collide with the unexpected, with the antipode to our hopes, we are plunged into bewildered despair. We rise from the pit only by love. Perhaps Keats had it slightly wrong — perhaps truth is love and love is truth.
In general, it doesn’t feel like the light is making a lot of progress. It feels like death by annoyance. At the same time, the truth is that we are beloved, even in our current condition, by someone; we have loved and been loved. We have also known the abyss of love lost to death or rejection, and that it somehow leads to new life. We have been redeemed and saved by love, even as a few times we have been nearly destroyed, and worse, seen our children nearly destroyed. We are who we love, we are one, and we are autonomous.
She turns to the greatest paradox of the human heart — our parallel capacities for the perpendiculars of immense love and immense despair:
Love has bridged the high-rises of despair we were about to fall between. Love has been a penlight in the blackest, bleakest nights. Love has been a wild animal, a poultice, a dinghy, a coat. Love is why we have hope.
So why have some of us felt like jumping off tall buildings ever since we can remember, even those of us who do not struggle with clinical depression? Why have we repeatedly imagined turning the wheels of our cars into oncoming trucks?
We just do.
To me, this is very natural. It is hard here.
And yet, in the wreckage of this hardship, we find our most redemptive potentialities:
There is the absolute hopelessness we face that everyone we love will die, even our newborn granddaughter, even as we trust and know that love will give rise to growth, miracles, and resurrection. Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope. Yet no matter how much we recycle, believe in our Priuses, and abide by our local laws, we see that our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day. Fear, against all odds, leads to community, to bravery and right action, and these give us hope.
In a sentiment that calls to mind what psychologists call “the vampire problem” — the limiting loop by which we fail to imagine transformation because the very faculty doing the imagining can only be informed by the already transformed self — Lamott adds:
We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.
Nothing keeps us from changing more than our tendency — our willingness — to remain locked into versions of ourselves, into personae and identities barred in by heavy leaden rods of self-righteousness. Too often, we’d rather be right than understand — ourselves or others or the world — but it is only understanding, which only grows by leaps and bounds of wrong guesses and failed theories, that firms our grasp of reality.
Lamott addresses this tragic self-limitation in the opening essay, titled “Puzzles.” With an eye to “the fleecy cloak we’ve made for ourselves, the finery of being right,” she writes:
When we are stuck in our convictions and personas, we enter into the disease of having good ideas and being right… We think we have a lock on truth, with our burnished surfaces and articulation, but the bigger we pump ourselves up, the easier we are to prick with a pin. And the bigger we get, the harder it is to see the earth under our feet.
We all know the horror of having been Right with a capital R, feeling the surge of a cause, whether in politics or custody disputes. This rightness is so hot and steamy and exciting, until the inevitable rug gets pulled out from under us. Then we get to see that we almost never really know what is true, except what everybody else knows: that sometimes we’re all really lonely, and hollow, and stripped down to our most naked human selves.
It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know. I hate and resent it. And yet it is where new life rises from.
The problem, of course, is that truth remains slippery, making our entire existence a giant slipping slide into what the poet Wisława Szymborska called “unfathomable life.” Still, somehow, we slip and slide and get by. We swim through the world, fragile and disoriented, buoyed only by love, transformed only by love.
Scientists say we are made of stars, and I believe them, although my upper arms look like hell. Maybe someday the stars will reabsorb me. Maybe, as fundamentalist Christians have shared with me, I will rot in hell for all eternity, which I would hate, because I am very sensitive. Besides, I have known hell, and I have also known love. Love was bigger.
What comforts us is that, after we make ourselves crazy enough, we can let go inch by inch into just being here; every so often, briefly. There is flow everywhere in nature — glaciers are just rivers that are moving really, really slowly — so how could there not be flow in each of us? Or at least in most of us? When we detach or are detached by tragedy or choice from the tendrils of identity, unexpected elements feed us. There is weird food in the flow, like the wiggly bits that birds watch for in tidal channels. Protein and greens are obvious food, but so is buoyancy, when we don’t feel as mired in the silt of despair.
How can we celebrate paradox, let alone manage at all, knowing how scary the future may be — that the baby brother will grow, and ignore you or hurt you or break your heart? Or that we may die, after an unattractive decline, or bomb North Korea later today? We remember that because truth is paradox, something beautiful is also going on. So while trusting that and waiting for revelation, we do the next right thing. We tell the truth. We march, make dinner, have rummage sales to raise relief funds. Whoever arranges such things keeps distracting us and shifting things around so we don’t get stuck in hopelessness: we can take one loud, sucking, disengaging step back into hope. We remember mustard seeds, that the littlest things will have great results. We do the smallest, realest, most human things. We water that which is dry.