Sweet consolation for the lifelong alienation that afflicts each of us at different times and in different measures.
By Maria Popova
There is hardly a more elemental human need than our need for belonging — in a place, in a heart, in ourselves. Perhaps this is why we are so susceptible to that particular kind of loneliness that begins in childhood, as we try to master the “fertile solitude” necessary for self-esteem, and can so often morph into a kind of existential homelessness as we grow older and slip into continually narrowing landscapes of possibility. “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic 1973 conversation about freedom.
An invisible narrator addresses an invisible listener — perhaps a child, or the inner child that lives in each of us — with the assurance that the two belong together, no matter how far and across how many landscapes they may travel from one another.
The stars belong in the deep night sky
and the moon belongs there too,
and the winds belong in each place they blow by
and I belong here
Our paradoxical longing for intimacy and independence is a diamagnetic force — it pulls us toward togetherness and simultaneously repels us from it with a mighty magnet that, if unskillfully handled, can rupture a relationship and break a heart. Under this unforgiving magnetism, it becomes an act of superhuman strength and self-transcendence to give space to the other when all one wants is closeness. And yet this difficult act may be the very thing — perhaps the only thing — that saves the relationship over and over.
Two decades before Gibran, at the dawn of the twentieth century, another great poet of abiding insight into the turbulences of the human heart contemplated this predicament. In a letter to the 19-year-old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus, Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) offered some spectacular advice on managing the bipolar pull of autonomy and togetherness in a way that assures the longevity of any close bond and protects love from self-destruction. The passages, originally published in Rilke’s classic Letters to a Young Poet — the record of his six-year correspondence with Kappus, which also gave us Rilke’s timeless wisdom on the lonely patience of creative work, what it takes to be an artist, why we read, and how hardship enlarges us — appear in the wonderful poetry and prose anthology Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties: Translations and Considerations (public library), selected and translated by the scholar and philosopher John Mood.
Rilke writes to his young correspondent:
I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.
A century before psychologist Esther Perel asserted in her landmark book on the central paradox of relationships that “love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy” because “our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness,” Rilke considers how our cultural constructs around what it means to be coupled obstruct happiness in union:
It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of his fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!
Therefore this too must be the standard for rejection or choice: whether one is willing to stand guard over the solitude of a person and whether one is inclined to set this same person at the gate of one’s own solitude, of which he learns only through that which steps, festively clothed, out of the great darkness.
This principle, Rilke points out, holds true not only in marriage but in any close relationship and any bond desired to last a lifetime:
All companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes, whereas everything that one is wont to call giving oneself is by nature harmful to companionship: for when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling… Once there is disunity between them, the confusion grows with every day; neither of the two has anything unbroken, pure, and unspoiled about him any longer… They who wanted to do each other good are now handling one another in an imperious and intolerant manner, and in the struggle somehow to get out of their untenable and unbearable state of confusion, they commit the greatest fault that can happen to human relationships: they become impatient. They hurry to a conclusion; to come, as they believe, to a final decision, they try once and for all to establish their relationship, whose surprising changes have frightened them, in order to remain the same now and forever (as they say).
Self-transformation is precisely what life is, and human relationships, which are an extract of life, are the most changeable of all, rising and falling from minute to minute, and lovers are those in whose relationship and contact no one moment resembles another.
The outliers impervious to this supreme challenge of love are rare, Rilke notes; for the rest of us, there is only the hard, necessary work of love:
There are such relationships which must be a very great, almost unbearable happiness, but they can occur only between very rich natures and between those who, each for himself, are richly ordered and composed; they can unite only two wide, deep, individual worlds.
For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.
“Think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.”
By Maria Popova
“Love is the quality of attention we pay to things,” poet J.D. McClatchy wrote in his beautiful meditation on the contrast and complementarity of love and desire. And what we choose to attend to — our fear or our faith, our woundedness or our devotion to healing — determines the quality of our love. How we navigate our oscillation between these inescapable polarities is governed by the degree of courage, openness, and vulnerability with which we are willing to show up for and to our own hearts. “The alternations between love and its denial,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed in contemplating the difficulty of knowing ourselves, “constitute the most essential and ubiquitous structural feature of the human heart.”
Speaking to the paradoxical human impulse to cower before the largeness of love — to run from its vulnerable-making uncertainties and necessary frustrations at the cost of its deepest rewards — Gibran offers an incantation of courage:
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
In a sentiment John Steinbeck would come to echo a generation later in his beautiful letter of advice on love to his teenage son, Gibran adds:
Think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.
“We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message.”
By Maria Popova
“Information will never replace illumination,” Susan Sontag asserted in considering the conscience of words. “Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in the same era in her exquisite meditation on the magic of real human communication. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” But what happens when words are stripped of their humanity, fed into unfeeling machines, and used as currencies of information that no longer illuminates?
Half a century before the golden age of algorithms and two decades before the birth of the Internet, the mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894–March 18, 1964) tried to protect us from that then-hypothetical scenario in his immensely insightful and prescient 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (public library) — a book Wiener described as concerned with “the limits of communication within and among individuals,” which went on to influence generations of thinkers, creators, and entrepreneurs as wide-ranging as beloved author Kurt Vonnegut, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier.
Wiener had coined the word cybernetics two years earlier, drawing on the Greek word for “steersman” — kubernētēs, from which the word “governor” is also derived — to describe “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine,” pioneering a new way of thinking about causal chains and how the feedback loop taking place within a system changes the system itself. (Today’s social media ecosystem is a superficial but highly illustrative example of this.)
Information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it. The process of receiving and of using information is the process of our adjusting to the contingencies of the outer environment, and of our living effectively within that environment. The needs and the complexity of modern life make greater demands on this process of information than ever before, and our press, our museums, our scientific laboratories, our universities, our libraries and textbooks, are obliged to meet the needs of this process or fail in their purpose. To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society.
A pillar of Wiener’s insight is the second law of thermodynamics and its central premise that entropy — the growing tendency toward disorder, chaos, and unpredictability — increases over time in any closed system. But even if we were to consider the universe itself a closed system — an assumption neglecting the possibility that our universe may be one of many universes — neither individual human beings nor the societies they form can be thought of as closed systems. Rather, they are pockets of attempted order and decreasing entropy amid the vast expanse of cosmic chaos — attempts encoded in our systems of organizing and communicating information. Wiener examines the parallel between organisms and machines in this regard — a radical notion in his day and plainly obvious, if still poorly understood, in ours:
If we wish to use the word “life” to cover all phenomena which locally swim upstream against the current of increasing entropy, we are at liberty to do so. However, we shall then include many astronomical phenomena which have only the shadiest resemblance to life as we ordinarily know it. It is in my opinion, therefore, best to avoid all question-begging epithets such as “life,” “soul,” “vitalism,” and the like, and say merely in connection with machines that there is no reason why they may not resemble human beings in representing pockets of decreasing entropy in a framework in which the large entropy tends to increase.
When I compare the living organism with such a machine, I do not for a moment mean that the specific physical, chemical, and spiritual processes of life as we ordinarily know it are the same as those of life-imitating machines. I mean simply that they both can exemplify locally anti-entropic processes, which perhaps may also be exemplified in many other ways which we should naturally term neither biological nor mechanical.
In a sentiment of astounding foresight, Wiener adds:
Society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.
In control and communication we are always fighting nature’s tendency to degrade the organized and to destroy the meaningful; the tendency… for entropy to increase.
Organism is opposed to chaos, to disintegration, to death, as message is to noise. To describe an organism, we do not try to specify each molecule in it, and catalogue it bit by bit, but rather to answer certain questions about it which reveal its pattern: a pattern which is more significant and less probable as the organism becomes, so to speak, more fully an organism.
We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message.
Messages are themselves a form of pattern and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the external world. Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization. In fact, it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives.
Wiener illustrates this idea with an example that would have pleased Emily Dickinson:
Just as entropy tends to increase spontaneously in a closed system, so information tends to decrease; just as entropy is a measure of disorder, so information is a measure of order. Information and entropy are not conserved, and are equally unsuited to being commodities. Clichés, for example, are less illuminating than great poems.
The prevalence of cliches is no accident, but inherent in the nature of information. Property rights in information suffer from the necessary disadvantage that a piece of information, in order to contribute to the general information of the community, must say something substantially different from the community’s previous common stock of information. Even in the great classics of literature and art, much of the obvious informative value has gone out of them, merely by the fact that the public has become acquainted with their contents. Schoolboys do not like Shakespeare, because he seems to them nothing but a mass of familiar quotations. It is only when the study of such an author has penetrated to a layer deeper than that which has been absorbed into the superficial clichés of the time, that we can re-establish with him an informative rapport, and give him a new and fresh literary value.
From this follows a corollary made all the clearer by the technologies and media landscapes which Wiener never lived to see and with which we must and do live:
The idea that information can be stored in a changing world without an overwhelming depreciation in its value is false.
Information is more a matter of process than of storage… Information is important as a stage in the continuous process by which we observe the outer world, and act effectively upon it… To be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world and acts on the outer world, in which we are merely the transitional stage. In the figurative sense, to be alive to what is happening in the world, means to participate in a continual development of knowledge and its unhampered exchange.
In a passage that calls to mind Zadie Smith’s lucid antidote to the illusion of universal progress and offers a sobering counterpoint to today’s strain of social scientists purveying feel-good versions of “progress” via the tranquilizing half-truths of highly selective statistics willfully ignorant of the for whom question, Wiener writes:
We are immersed in a life in which the world as a whole obeys the second law of thermodynamics: confusion increases and order decreases. Yet, as we have seen, the second law of thermodynamics, while it may be a valid statement about the whole of a closed system, is definitely not valid concerning a non-isolated part of it. There are local and temporary islands of decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as a whole tends to increase, and the existence of these islands enables some of us to assert the existence of progress.
Thus the question of whether to interpret the second law of thermodynamics pessimistically or not depends on the importance we give to the universe at large, on the one hand, and to the islands of locally decreasing entropy which we find in it, on the other. Remember that we ourselves constitute such an island of decreasing entropy, and that we live among other such islands. The result is that the normal prospective difference between the near and the remote leads us to give far greater importance to the regions of decreasing entropy and increasing order than to the universe at large.
Wiener considers the central flaw of the claim that the arrow of historical time is aligned with the arrow of “progress” in a universal sense:
Our worship of progress may be discussed from two points of view: a factual one and an ethical one — that is, one which furnishes standards for approval and disapproval. Factually, it asserts that the earlier advance of geographical discovery, whose inception corresponds to the beginning of modern times, is to be continued into an indefinite period of invention, of the discovery of new techniques for controlling the human environment. This, the believers in progress say, will go on and on without any visible termination in a future not too remote for human contemplation. Those who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth. It is possible to believe in progress as a fact without believing in progress as an ethical principle; but in the catechism of many Americans, the one goes with the other.
What many of us fail to realize is that the last four hundred years are a highly special period in the history of the world. The pace at which changes during these years have taken place is unexampled in earlier history, as is the very nature of these changes. This is partly the result of increased communication, but also of an increased mastery over nature which, on a limited planet like the earth, may prove in the long run to be an increased slavery to nature… We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment. We can no longer live in the old one. Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions… May we have the courage to face the eventual doom of our civilization as we have the courage to face the certainty of our personal doom. The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness.
The new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword… It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such a benefit is possible. It may also be used to destroy humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very far in that direction.
Three decades later, the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas would articulate the flip side of the same sentiment in his beautiful meditation on the peril and possibility of progress: “We are in for one surprise after another if we keep at it and keep alive. We can build structures for human society never seen before, thoughts never thought before, music never heard before… Provided we do not kill ourselves off, and provided we can connect ourselves by the affection and respect for which I believe our genes are also coded, there is no end to what we might do on or off this planet.” Wiener’s most visionary point is that if we are to not only survive but thrive as a civilization and a species, we must encode these same values of affection and respect into our machines, our information systems, and our technologies of communication, so that “the new modalities are used for the benefit of man, for increasing his leisure and enriching his spiritual life, rather than merely for profits and the worship of the machine as a new brazen calf.”
More than a century after Mary Shelley raised these enduring questions of innovation and responsibility in Frankenstein, Wiener offers a sentiment of astonishing prescience and relevance to the artificial intelligence precipice on which we now stand, in an era when algorithms are deciding for us what we read, where we go, and how much of reality we see:
The machine’s danger to society is not from the machine itself but from what man makes of it.
The modern man, and especially the modern American, however much “know-how” he may have, has very little “know-what.” He will accept the superior dexterity of the machine-made decisions with out too much inquiry as to the motives and principles behind these… Any machine constructed for the purpose of making decisions, if it does not possess the power of learning, will be completely literalminded. Woe to us if we let it decide our conduct, unless we have previously examined the laws of its action, and know fully that its conduct will be carried out on principles acceptable to us! On the other hand, the machine [that] can learn and can make decisions on the basis of its learning, will in no way be obliged to make such decisions as we should have made, or will be acceptable to us. For the man who is not aware of this, to throw the problem of his responsibility on the machine, whether it can learn or not, is to cast his responsibility to the winds, and to find it coming back seated on the whirlwind.
When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine. Whether we entrust our decisions to machines of metal, or to those machines of flesh and blood which are bureaus and vast laboratories and armies and corporations, we shall never receive the right answers to our questions unless we ask the right questions.
Precisely because our existence is so improbable against the backdrop of a universe governed by entropy, it is imbued with a singular responsibility — a responsibility that is the source and succor of meaning in human life. In a sentiment which the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska would later echo, Wiener writes:
It is quite conceivable that life belongs to a limited stretch of time; that before the earliest geological ages it did not exist, and that the time may well come when the earth is again a lifeless, burnt-out, or frozen planet. To those of us who are aware of the extremely limited range of physical conditions under which the chemical reactions necessary to life as we know it can take place, it is a foregone conclusion that the lucky accident which permits the continuation of life in any form on this earth, even without restricting life to something like human life, is bound to come to a complete and disastrous end. Yet we may succeed in framing our values so that this temporary accident of living existence, and this much more temporary accident of human existence, may be taken as all-important positive values, notwithstanding their fugitive character.
In a very real sense we are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet. Yet even in a shipwreck, human decencies and human values do not necessarily vanish, and we must make the most of them. We shall go down, but let it be in a manner to which we may look forward as worthy of our dignity.
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