“Books — like dogs — are among a handful of things on this planet that just want to be loved. And they will love you back, generously and selflessly, requiring very little in return.”
By Maria Popova
In her visionary 1826 novel The Last Man — an apocalyptic journey to the end of humanity, unfolding into a sublime philosophical meditation on how to live with unutterable existential loneliness — Mary Shelley, whose brilliant mother had died giving birth to her and who had buried three of her own children, her sister, and the love of her life by the age of twenty-five, poses to her autobiographically based protagonist the supreme challenge of existence: In a world made desolate by a plague that has snatched all his loved ones, all his compatriots, and eventually all his fellow human beings, leaving him the solitary endling of the species, how does he go on living? Where does he find sustenance not just for the biological process but for his mental, emotional, and spiritual survival?
Shelley sends him to Rome — the city where, after laying the body of her infant daughter in an unmarked grave, she herself had slowly been resuscitated from grief. Wandering the streets of the Eternal City, alone and alien, accompanied only by a loyal dog, her protagonist finds his first taste of consolation, his first glimmer of the will to live, in the verses of Virgil, in the books at the majestic library of Rome, containing the sum total of humanity’s wisdom — for the work of literature and philosophy, as Montaigne reminds us across the abyss of epochs, is to teach us how to live with death.
Reading The Last Man in a desolate season of my own life and finding in it the meta-solace Shelley’s protagonist found in literature, I was suddenly grateful anew for how books can so buoy us from the pit of being, and was reminded of Debbie Millman’s wonderful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library).
I want to tell you that everything will be okay.
I want to tell you that it will get better.
I want to tell you that it all works out in the end.
But sometimes it doesn’t.
Most times it is hard and we usually end up getting used to it. But there is something you can do in response: read.
Read until your heart breaks and you can’t stand it anymore. Read until you have paper cuts from turning pages or blisters from swiping a screen.
You see, here’s the thing: even at their worst, books won’t abandon you. If they make you cry it’s only because they are that good.
You can depend on books. They will always be there for you. Their patience is infinite and they have been known to save lives. They can help you become a smarter, more interesting person. Books can probably help you get dates, though I don’t recommend you ask that much of them too often (you don’t want to limit their power).
Books — like dogs — are among a handful of things on this planet that just want to be loved. And they will love you back, generously and selflessly, requiring very little in return — until they are complete, their light and their wisdom and their hearts sputtering to an inevitable, lonely end.
“The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm.”
By Maria Popova
“Maturity is the ability to live fully and equally in multiple contexts,” poet and philosopher David Whyte wrote in one of his most beautiful meditations. A generation before him, Anaïs Nin took up the subject in her diary, which is itself a work of philosophy: “If you intensify and complete your subjective emotions, visions, you see their relation to others’ emotions. It is not a question of choosing between them, one at the cost of another, but a matter of completion, of inclusion, an encompassing, unifying, and integrating which makes maturity.” And yet emotional maturity is not something that happens unto us as a passive function of time. It is, as Toni Morrison well knew, “a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory” — the product of intentional character-sculpting, the slow and systematic chiseling away of our childish impulses for tantrums, for sulking, for instant self-gratification without regard for others, for weaponizing our feelings of shame, frustration, and loneliness. Like happiness — another life-skill we have miscategorized as a passive abstraction — it requires early education, consistent relearning, and unrelenting practice.
De Botton considers the type of learning with which the road to emotional maturity is paved:
The knack of our species lies in our capacity to transmit our accumulated knowledge down the generations. The slowest among us can, in a few hours, pick up ideas that it took a few rare geniuses a lifetime to acquire.
Yet what is distinctive is just how selective we are about the topics we deem it possible to educate ourselves in. Our energies are overwhelmingly directed toward material, scientific, and technical subjects and away from psychological and emotional ones. Much anxiety surrounds the question of how good the next generation will be at math; very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness. We devote inordinate hours to learning about tectonic plates and cloud formations, and relatively few fathoming shame and rage.
The assumption is that emotional insight might be either unnecessary or in essence unteachable, lying beyond reason or method, an unreproducible phenomenon best abandoned to individual instinct and intuition. We are left to find our own path around our unfeasibly complicated minds — a move as striking (and as wise) as suggesting that each generation should rediscover the laws of physics by themselves.
This irrational orientation to our emotional lives, De Botton argues, is our inheritance from the Romantics, who crowned the untrained intuition the supreme governing body of human conduct. (And yet the Romantics contained multitudes — for all their belief in the unalterable givenness of emotional reality and the fidelity of feeling, they had a glimmering recognition that reason must be consciously applied to reining in the wildness of the emotions. Mary Shelley, offspring of the greatest power couple of political philosophy, placed at the heart of Frankenstein — one of the most prescient and psychologically insightful works of literature ever composed, triply so for being the work of an eighteen-year-old girl — an admonition against the unbridled reign of the ego’s emotional cravings unchecked by reason and forethought of consequence.) Exception aside, De Botton’s broader point is excellent:
The results of a Romantic philosophy are everywhere to see: exponential progress in the material and technological fields combined with perplexing stasis in the psychological one. We are as clever with our machines and technologies as we are simple-minded in the management of our emotions. We are, in terms of wisdom, little more advanced than the ancient Sumerians or the Picts. We have the technology of an advanced civilization balancing precariously on an emotional base that has not developed much since we dwelt in caves. We have the appetites and destructive furies of primitive primates who have come into possession of thermonuclear warheads.
In 1983, the psychologist Howard Gardner devised his seminal theory of multiple intelligences, expanding our narrow cultural definition of intelligence as verbal and mathematical skill to include seven other modes of intellectual ability. A decade later, Daniel Goleman added a tenth form of intelligence — emotional intelligence — which quickly permeated the fabric of popular culture as hoards of humans felt suddenly recognized in an endowment long neglected as a valuable or even extant faculty of consciousness. Building on that legacy, De Botton brings his own sensitive perspicacity to a richer, more dimensional definition:
The emotionally intelligent person knows that love is a skill, not a feeling, and will require trust, vulnerability, generosity, humor, sexual understanding, and selective resignation. The emotionally intelligent person awards themselves the time to determine what gives their working life meaning and has the confidence and tenacity to try to find an accommodation between their inner priorities and the demands of the world. The emotionally intelligent person knows how to hope and be grateful, while remaining steadfast before the essentially tragic structure of existence. The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm… There are few catastrophes, in our own lives or in those of nations, that do not ultimately have their origins in emotional ignorance.
De Botton is careful to acknowledge that this line of inquiry might trigger the modern intellectual allergy to the genre of learning dismissively labeled self-help. And yet he reminds us that the quest for self-refinement has always accompanied the human experience and animated each civilization’s most respected intellects — it is there at the heart of the Stoics, and in the essays of Montaigne, and at the center of Zen Buddhism, and in the literary artistry of Proust (whom De Botton has especially embraced as a fount of existential consolation). He aims a spear of simple logic to the irrational and rather hubristic disdain for self-help:
To dismiss the idea that underpins self-help — that one might at points stand in urgent need of solace and emotional education — seems an austerely perverse prejudice.
Our cultural failure at making emotional intelligence an educable thing, De Botton argues, stems from two flawed baseline assumptions of our education system itself — its focus on what people are taught over how they are taught, and its tendency to mistake information for wisdom. (Adrienne Rich shone a sidewise gleam on these flaws and their remedy in her superb 1977 convocation address about why an education is something you claim, not something you get.) De Botton envisions the emotionally enlightened alternative:
An emotional education may require us to adopt two different starting points. For a start, how we are taught may matter inordinately, because we have ingrained tendencies to shut our ears to all the major truths about our deeper selves. Our settled impulse is to blame anyone who lays our blind spots and insufficiencies bare, unless our defenses have first been adroitly and seductively appeased. In the face of critically important insights, we get distracted, proud, or fidgety. We may prefer to do almost anything other than take in information that could save us.
Moreover, we forget almost everything. Our memories are sieves, not robust buckets. What seemed a convincing call to action at 8 a.m. will be nothing more than a dim recollection by midday and an indecipherable contrail in our cloudy minds by evening. Our enthusiasms and resolutions can be counted upon to fade like the stars at dawn. Nothing much sticks.
It was the philosophers of ancient Greece who first identified these problems and described the structural deficiencies of our minds with a special term. They proposed that we suffer from akrasia, commonly translated as “weakness of will,” a habit of not listening to what we accept should be heard and a failure to act upon what we know is right. It is because of akrasia that crucial information is frequently lodged in our minds without being active in them, and it is because of akrasia that we often both understand what we should do and resolutely omit to do it.
A lyrical journey into the history of our species as the sensemaking animal who hungers for knowledge and advances by love.
By Maria Popova
Every year at The Universe in Verse — the charitable celebration of science through poetry I host each spring — we have the immense honor of an original poem composed for the occasion by one of the most beloved storytellers of our time: Neil Gaiman. For the inaugural show in 2017, dedicated to trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and celebrating women’s underheralded contribution to science, he delivered something of singular enchantment — a work of lyrical storytelling tracing the history of our species as the sensemaking, truth-seeking animal who hungers for knowledge and advances by love. At its heart is an imaginative antidote to women’s erasure from the selective collective memory we call history.
Titled “The Mushroom Hunters,” lovingly addressed to Neil’s newborn son Ash, and originally performed by Ash’s mother — my dear friend and frequent poetic collaborator Amanda Palmer — the poem went on to win the Rhysling Award for best long poem and has now been brought to new life in a soulful short film, animated by artist Caroline Rudge and Creative Connection Animation Studio, narrated by Amanda, and with music by the otherworldly talent Jherek Bischoff.
With great subtlety and sensitivity, the art reverences science, embraces the many shapes and colors of womanhood, stretches the poem between past and future, between our ever-dueling human capacities for creation and destruction, and reminds us, as Maya Angelou so poetically affirmed, that “we are neither devils nor divines.”
THE MUSHROOM HUNTERS by Neil Gaiman
Science, as you know, my little one, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe.
It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.
In the old times, they say, the men came already fitted with brains
designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run,
to hurdle blindly into the unknown,
and then to find their way back home when lost
with a slain antelope to carry between them.
Or, on bad hunting days, nothing.
The women, who did not need to run down prey,
had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them
left at the thorn bush and across the scree
and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree,
because sometimes there are mushrooms.
Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools,
The first tool of all was a sling for the baby
to keep our hands free
and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in,
the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers.
Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.
And sometimes men chased the beasts
into the deep woods,
and never came back.
Some mushrooms will kill you,
while some will show you gods
and some will feed the hunger in our bellies. Identify.
Others will kill us if we eat them raw,
and kill us again if we cook them once,
but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away,
and then boil them once more, and pour the water away,
only then can we eat them safely. Observe.
Observe childbirth, measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts,
and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.
And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk
and watch the world, and see what they observe.
And some of them would thrive and lick their lips,
While others clutched their stomachs and expired.
So laws are made and handed down on what is safe. Formulate.
The tools we make to build our lives:
our clothes, our food, our path home…
all these things we base on observation,
on experiment, on measurement, on truth.
And science, you remember, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe,
based on observation, experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.
The race continues. An early scientist
drew beasts upon the walls of caves
to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms
and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.
The men go running on after beasts.
The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill
and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs.
They are carrying their babies in the slings they made,
freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.
Amanda’s work (like my own) grows from the mycelia of patronage — this magical short film was wholly funded via her Patreon, of which I too am a proud and grateful supporter. Complement it with Neil’s masterpieces from subsequent years of The Universe in Verse — “After Silence,” composed for the 2018 show, dedicated to the life and legacy of marine biologist and ecological patron saint Rachel Carson, and “In Transit,” paying bittersweet tribute to the queer Quaker astronomer Arthur Eddington and composed for the centennial of his historic 1919 eclipse expedition that confirmed relativity, uniting war-torn humanity under one sky and catapulting Einstein into celebrity — then savor other highlights from The Universe in Verse.
But that inner voice, I have found, exists in counterpoise to the outer voice — the more we are tasked with speaking, with orienting lip and ear to the world without, the more difficult it becomes to hear the hum of the world within and feel its magmatic churns of self-knowledge. “Who knows doesn’t talk. Who talks doesn’t know,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in in her superb poetic, philosophical, feminist more-than-translation of the Tao te Ching.
Two and a half millennia after Lao Tzu, and a century before Le Guin and Berry, Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) — another philosopher-poet of the highest order and most timeless hold — addressed the relationship between silence, solitude, and self-knowledge in a portion of his 1923 classic The Prophet (public library).
When Gibran’s prophet-protagonist is asked to address the matter of talking, he responds:
You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.
There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.
In the bosom of such as these the spirit dwells in rhythmic silence.