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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Brain Pickings

Why our partners drive us mad, Toni Morrison on the power of language, Tim Ferriss on how he survived suicidal depression, a consolatory illustrated meditation on the cycle of life, and more.Email formatted oddly or truncated?
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Why Our Partners Drive Us Mad: Philosopher Alain de Botton to the Central Foible of the Human Heart and How to Heal It

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” wrote the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in his treatise on mastering the art of loving. But not knowing how to be loved equally wounds us, and wounds those who try to love us. 
Philosopher Alain de Botton has devoted the lion’s share of his life to exploring the complex psychoemotional machinery that, despite our best intentions, inflicts the wounds of love upon us and our partners. Decades after Willa Cather termed romantic relationships â€œthe tragic necessity of human life,” De Botton writes in The Course of Love (public library) — his stunning meditation on the fragilities of the human heart, the source of his insight into the psychological paradox of sulking in intimate relationships and what makes a good communicator:
We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity. We are looking to re-create, within our adult relationships, the very feelings we knew so well in childhood and which were rarely limited to just tenderness and care. The love most of us will have tasted early on came entwined with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his or her anger, or of not feeling secure enough to communicate our trickier wishes. 
How logical, then, that we should as adults find ourselves rejecting certain candidates not because they are wrong but because they are a little too right — in the sense of seeming somehow excessively balanced, mature, understanding, and reliable — given that, in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign and unearnt. We chase after more exciting others, not in the belief that life with them will be more harmonious, but out of an unconscious sense that it will be reassuringly familiar in its patterns of frustration.
De Botton explores this central foible of the heart in a wonderful short visual essay for his School of Life project, with lyrical animation by Kathrin Steinbacher â€” an inquiry into how our early family dynamics shape our adult patterns of love, why our partners often drive us mad in consequence, and how to handle this inescapable fallibility of the human heart with gentleness and self-compassion:
In The Course of Love, De Botton offers a deeper dive into those complicated and frequently frustrating dynamics, as well as their most promising frontiers of redemption. Complement it with philosopher Skye Cleary on why we love, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in romance, and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, then revisit The School of Life’s wonderful animated meditations on the difficult art of self-compassionand how to stop letting habit blunt your aliveness.

Toni Morrison on the Power of Language: Her Spectacular Nobel Acceptance Speech After Becoming the First African American Woman Awarded the Accolade

In the final weeks of 1993, Toni Morrison (b. February 18, 1931) became the first African American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded her for being a writer “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” On December 7, Morrison took the podium at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm and accepted the accolade with a spectacular speech about the power of language — its power to oppress and to liberate, to scar and to sanctify, to plunder and to redeem. Morrison’s address, included in Nobel Lectures: From the Literature Laureates, 1986 to 2006 (public library), remains perhaps our most powerful manifesto for the responsibility embedded in how we wield the tool that stands as the hallmark of our species.
Toni Morrison (Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf)
Morrison writes:
“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures.
“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise.”
In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.
One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”
She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?”
Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.
The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.
Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”
Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.
For parading their power and her helplessness, the young visitors are reprimanded, told they are responsible not only for the act of mockery but also for the small bundle of life sacrificed to achieve its aims. The blind woman shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised.
Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me, but especially so now thinking, as I have been, about the work I do that has brought me to this company. So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency — as an act with consequences. So the question the children put to her: “Is it living or dead?” is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will. She believes that if the bird in the hands of her visitors is dead the custodians are responsible for the corpse. For her a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. 
With a cautionary eye to how our misuse of language can “forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation,” Morrison writes:
The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie. When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here,” his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war. Refusing to monumentalize, disdaining the “final word,” the precise “summing up,” acknowledging their “poor power to add or detract,” his words signal deference to the uncapturability of the life it mourns. It is the deference that moves her, that recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.
Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.
In a sentiment that calls to mind James Baldwin’s memorable meditation on language and life â€” “it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience,” he wrote — Morrison adds:
Word-work is sublime … because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference — the way in which we are like no other life.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
Complement with Morrison on the artist’s task in troubled times and her spectacular commencement address about how to be your own story, then revisit other memorable Nobel Prize acceptance speeches: William Faulkner on the artist’s duty as a booster of the human heart, Bertrand Russell on the four desires motivating all human behavior, Ernest Hemingway on the solitude of being a writer, Gabriel García Márquez on building a new utopia of life, Saul Bellow on how art and literature ennoble the human spirit, and Pearl S. Buck, the youngest woman awarded the prestigious accolade, on the nature of creativity.

Du Iz Tak? A Lyrical Illustrated Story About the Cycle of Life and the Eternal Equilibrium of Growth and Decay

“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,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating art and the human future. The beautiful Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi invites us to find meaning and comfort in impermanence, and yet so much of our suffering stems from our deep resistance to the ruling law of the universe — that of impermanence and constant change. How, then, are we to accept the one orbit we each have along the cycle of life and inhabit it with wholeheartedness rather than despair? 
That’s what illustrator and author Carson Ellisexplores with great subtlety and warmth in Du Iz Tak?(public library) — a lyrical and imaginative tale about the cycle of life and the inexorable interdependence of joy and sorrow, trial and triumph, growth and decay. 
The marvelously illustrated story is written in the imagined language of bugs, the meaning of which the reader deduces with delight from the familiar human emotions they experience throughout the story — surprise, exhilaration, fear, despair, pride, joy. We take the title to mean “What is that?” — the exclamation which the ento-protagonists issue upon discovering a swirling shoot of new growth, which becomes the centerpiece of the story as the bugs try to make sense, then make use, of this mysterious addition to their homeland. “Ma nazoot,” answers another — “I don’t know.”
The discoverers of the shoot enlist the help of a wise and many-legged elder who lives inside a tree stump — a character reminiscent in spirit of Owl in Winnie-the-Pooh. He lends the operation his ladder and the team begins building an elaborate fort onto the speedily growing plant. 
But their joyful plan is unceremoniously interrupted by a giant spider, who envelops their new playground in a web — a reminder that in nature, where one creature’s loss is another’s gain and vice versa, gain and loss are always counterbalanced in perfect equilibrium with no ultimate right and ultimate wrong.
As the bugs witness the spider’s doing in dejected disbelief, a bird — a creature even huger and more formidable — swoops in to eat the spider and further devastates the stalk-fort. At its base, we see the bugs grow from disheartened to heartbroken. 
But when the bird leaves, one of them discovers — with the excited exclamation “Su!,” which we take to mean “Look!” — that the plant has not only survived the invasion but has managed, in the meantime, to produce a glorious, colorful bud. 
As the bugs resume repair and construction, the bud blossoms into invigorating beauty. Drawn to the small miracle of the flower, other tiny forest creatures join the joyful labor — the ants interrupt their own industry, the slug slides over in wide-eyed wonder, the bees and the butterflies hover in admiration, and even the elder’s wife emerges from the tree trunk, huffing a pipe as she marvels at the new blossom. 
But then, nature once again asserts her central dictum of impermanence and constant change: The flower begins to wilt.
The fort collapses and the bugs, looking not terribly distraught — perhaps because they know that this is nature’s way, perhaps because they know that they too will soon follow the flower’s fate in this unstoppable cycle of life — say farewell and walk off. 
Night comes, then autumn, bringing their own magic as the world silently performs its eternal duty of churning the cycle of growth and decay. 
The remnants of the wilted flower sink into the forest bed as a nocturnal serenade unfolds overhead before a blanket of snow stills the forest.
In the final pages, we see spring arrive with its redemptive bounty to reveal not one shoot but the promise of an entire flower garden. “Du iz tak?” exclaims a new bug who walks onto the scene — a gentle invitation to reflect on where the others have gone as the seasons turned, presenting a subtle opportunity for parents to broach the cycle of life. 
Complement the impossibly wonderful Du Iz Tak? with the Japanese pop-up masterpiece Little Tree â€” a very different meditation on the cycle of life based on a similar sylvan metaphor — then revisit Ellis’s Home, one of the greatest children’s books of 2015.
All page illustrations © Carson Ellis courtesy of Candlewick Press; photographs by Maria Popova

Tim Ferriss on How He Survived Suicidal Depression and His Tools for Warding Off the Darkness

Most people know Tim Ferriss as the amicable, quick-witted, high-energy writer, adventurer, and interviewer, who has devoted his life to optimizing human performance across the full spectrum of physical and mental health. But few know that, in addition to nearly dying at birth and growing up with no material luxury, Ferriss survived a period of suicidal depression that nearly claimed his life — the kind of suffocating grimness which William Styron so unforgettably described
Ferriss discusses that dark episode for the first time in Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers (public library) — his compendium of learnings from more than two hundred interviews with entrepreneurs, artists, writers, scientists, and other titans of achievement, including philosopher Alain de Botton, musician Amanda Palmer, mindfulness and meditation teacher Tara Brach, neuroscientist Sam Harris, writer Malcolm Gladwell, social scientist Brené Brown, and writer and former firefighter Caroline Paul. In a chapter dedicated to the darkest period of his life, he shares the most any of us ever can: his subjective experience and his personal coping strategies, in the hope that they might help others who are also struggling. 
Tim Ferriss (Photograph: Benjamin Sklar)
Reflecting on why he kept his suicidal depression a secret for many years, Ferriss distinguishes between two kinds of secrets — those we keep because we fear fleeting mortification, like accounts of embarrassing things we’ve done in sub-optimal moments, and dark secrets that paralyze us with deep shame, “the shadows we keep covered for fear of unraveling our lives.” 
Noting that a number of his closest friends in high school and college had killed themselves — and, lest we forget, there is perilous social contagion in suicide — Ferriss outlines the downward spiral which he himself barely escaped. He writes:
In hindsight, it’s incredible how trivial some of it seems. At the time, though, it was the perfect storm. I include wording like “impossible situation,” which was reflective of my thinking at the time, not objective reality.
Ferriss goes on to trace his downward spiral, precipitated by his failing senior thesis at Princeton — a pinnacle of education for which he had labored to transcend his humble beginnings since childhood. As it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to process the hundreds of pages of original Japanese research, in Japanese, in order to complete his ambitious East Asian Studies thesis in time, Ferriss realized that he wouldn’t graduate with his class — something his hostile thesis advisor made abundantly and abrasively clear. Feeling betrayed by the system he had worked so hard for, he spiraled into dejection. 
Just then, his longtime girlfriend severed the relationship on account of his “neediness,” which she felt was compromising her varsity season. He rented a lonesome apartment off campus to continue working on his thesis as he watched his friends gleefully graduate. Trapped in isolation that only amplified his despair, he began to feel like a useless burden on the world and ceased to see a reason for being. 
One day, wandering aimlessly through the bookstore, he chanced upon a book on suicide. 
Ferriss picks up the story:
It’s important to mention that, by this point, I was past deciding. The decision was obvious to me. I’d somehow failed, painted myself into this ridiculous corner, wasted a fortune on a school that didn’t care about me, so what would be the point of doing otherwise? To repeat these types of mistakes forever? To be a hopeless burden to myself and my family and friends? … The world was better off… What would I ever contribute? Nothing. So the decision was made, and I was in full-on planning mode.
Tim Ferriss (Photograph: Martin Schoeller)
But despite his meticulous planning of the act, something thus far outside his scope of considerations occurred: He received an unexpected phone call from his mother, precipitated by a fortuitous mishap. He had ordered the suicide book from the Princeton library, but had forgotten that the address on file was still his parents’ home, which meant that as soon as the book became available, his parents received a postcard from the library announcing that the suicide book was available for pickup. His mother, alarmed, immediately called him. Ferriss transports us to what it was like to have that seemingly serendipitous conversation and considers its life-saving effect:
I am snapped out of my own delusion by a one-in-a-million accident. It was only then that I realize something: My death wouldn’t just be about me. It would completely destroy the lives of those I cared about most. I imagine my mom, who had no part in creating my thesis mess, suffering until her dying day, blaming herself.
Motivated by this momentary glimpse of the circle of love beyond his locus of personal agony, Ferriss decided to take a few months to restore his physical and mental health — perhaps the seedbed of his lifelong emphasis on the indivisibility of the two. In a sentiment that calls to mind Aldous Huxley’s insistence on mind-body integration— Ferriss is, after all, Huxley’s contemporary counterpart in certain ways â€” he recounts the vitalizing effect of this embodied approach to his sanity:
Months later, after focusing on my body instead of sitting around trapped in my head, things are much clearer. Everything seems more manageable. The “hopeless” situation seems like shitty luck but nothing permanent.
From this newfound place of perspective, Ferriss was able to find greater stability as he faced life’s fleeting perturbations. In a testament to Henry Miller’s notion that â€œon how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” he returned to Princeton and was able to withstand his advisor’s merciless takedown of the thesis on which he had worked so hard. In an aside that further demonstrates just how mutable even our bitterest resolves are, Ferriss notes that the thesis takedown made him vow to never write another word again; this 700-page tome is his fourth book.
With a sensitive and self-aware eye to the disconnect between how all-consuming such setbacks can seem to the depressed person and how trivial to someone judging from the outside, he writes:
Some of you might also be thinking “That’s it?! A Princeton student was at risk of getting a bad grade? Boo-fuckin’-hoo, man. Give me a break…” But … that’s the entire point. It’s easy to blow things out of proportion, to get lost in the story you tell yourself, and to think that your entire life hinges on one thing you’ll barely remember 5 or 10 years later. That seemingly all-important thing could be a bad grade, getting into college, a relationship, a divorce, getting fired, or a bunch of hecklers on the Internet.
Likening suicide to “wearing a suicide bomber’s vest of explosives and walking into a crowd of innocents,” Ferriss considers the far-reaching ripples of grief and sorrow which the act sets into motion:
Killing yourself can spiritually kill other people. Your death is not perfectly isolated. It can destroy a lot, whether your family (who will blame themselves), other loved ones, or simply the law enforcement officers or coroners who have to haul your death mask-wearing carcass out of an apartment or the woods. The guaranteed outcome of suicide is NOT things improving for you (or going blank), but creating a catastrophe for others…
A friend once told me that killing yourself is like taking your pain, multiplying it by 10, and giving it to the ones who love you. I agree with this, but there’s more to it. Beyond any loved ones, you could include neighbors, innocent bystanders exposed to your death, and people — often kids — who commit “copycat suicides” when they read about your demise. This is the reality, not the cure-all fantasy, of suicide.
Drawing on his own experience, Ferriss offers — only after covering the basic necessity of crisis hotlines and other resources for professional help — an arsenal of tools and tricks that he uses for “keeping the darkness at arm’s length” to this day. One strategy he suggests for those enduring intolerable psychic pain is making a “non-suicide vow” with a friend. He writes:
As silly as it might sound, it’s sometimes easier to focus on keeping your word, and avoiding hurting someone, than preserving your own life. And that’s totally okay. Use what works first, and you can fix the rest later. If you need to disguise a vow out of embarrassment … make it a “mutual non-self-hurt” vow with a friend who beats himself or herself up. 
Make it about them as much as you. If you don’t care about yourself, make it about other people.
Another strategy revisits the importance of mind-body integration:
Go to the gym and move for at least 30 minutes. For me, this is 80% of the battle.
But his most powerful technique has to do not with the self but with other selves — or, rather, with mooring the self to the existence of goodness by modeling and extending it to others:
If you can’t seem to make yourself happy, do little things to make other people happy. This is a very effective magic trick. Focus on others instead of yourself. Buy coffee for the person behind you in line (I do this a lot), compliment a stranger, volunteer at a soup kitchen, help a classroom on, buy a round of drinks for the line cooks and servers at your favorite restaurant, etc. The little things have a big emotional payback, and guess what? Chances are, at least one person you make smile is on the front lines with you, quietly battling something nearly identical.
In a passage that calls to mind Rilke’s abiding wisdom on how winter bolsters the tenacity of the human spirit, Ferriss concludes:
My “perfect storm” was nothing permanent. But, of course, it’s far from the last storm I’ll face. There will be many more. The key is building fires where you can warm yourself as you wait for the tempest to pass. These fires — the routines, habits, relationships, and coping mechanisms you build — help you to look at the rain and see fertilizer instead of a flood. If you want the lushest green of life (and you do), the gray is part of the natural cycle.
In the remainder of the voluminous Tools of Titans, Ferriss goes on to offer many more fire-building tools for resilience, productivity, happiness, and self-transcendence borrowed from such varied masters of achievement as filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, music renegade Derek Sivers, comedian Margaret Cho, investor Chris Sacca, tech legend Kevin Kelly, WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin, actor B.J. Novak, and dozens more. Complement this particular portion with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul and Galway Kinnell’s beautiful poem “Wait,”written for a friend contemplating suicide. 
Ferriss discusses his own story, including his struggle with depression and his life-tested strategies for overcoming fear, with unprecedented candor in this revelatory Design Matters interview by Debbie Millman:
It’s very hard to achieve goals if you have the emergency brake on, and the emergency brake is fear.