Living with life’s lessons from James Baldwin and Ursula K. Le Guin. Leo Tolstoy. Seneca. Toni Morrison. Walt Whitman. Viktor Frankl. Rachel Carson. Hannah Arendt.
If we abide by the common definition of philosophy as the love of wisdom, and if Montaigne was right — he was — that philosophy is the art of learning to die, then living wisely is the art of learning how you will wish to have lived. It is a kind of reverse resolution.
This is where the wisdom of lives that have already been lived can be of immense aid — a source of forward-facing resolutions, borrowed from people who have long died, having lived, by any reasonable standard, honorable and generous lives, lives of beauty and substance, irradiated by ideas that have endured across the epochs to make other lives more livable.
These are 10 ideas, along with many others that have been highlighted over the years. They make life more fulfilling and provide an additional eleventh to serve as an overarching philosophy.
HANNAH ARENDT: LOVE WITHOUT FEARS OF LOSS
We will lose everything we love, including our lives — so we might as well love without fear, for to fear a certainty is wasted energy that syphons life of aliveness.
Long before she became America’s preeminent philosopher, having arrived as a refugee, Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) was a young Jewish woman in Nazi-inflamed Germany, in love with an improbable beloved, writing a doctoral thesis about love that remains her least known but most soulful work: Love and Saint Augustine (public library) — an exquisite meditation on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss.
Tracing Saint Augustine’s debt to the Stoics, Arendt considers how our attachment to the illusion of permanence and security limits our lives, and writes:
In their fear of death, those living fear life itself, a life that is doomed to die… The mode in which life knows and perceives itself is worry. Fear is the ultimate object of all fear. Even though we can assume there’s nothing to be afraid, and that death is not evil, fear still exists (that all living creatures avoid death).
The goal of love is to avoid fear. Love as craving is determined by its goal, and this goal is freedom from fear… Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.
TONI MORRISON: CHERISH your BODY
Partway in time between Walt Whitman’s declamation that “the body… is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul,” and its affirmation by modern neuroscience, which is revealing how the feeling-tone of the body scores the symphony of consciousness, Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931–August 5, 2019) serenaded the unselfconscious body as the supreme instrument of self-regard — the deepest place where the statement “I celebrate myself” begins.
In her 1987 masterpiece Beloved (public library) — which made her the first writer ensouled in a body with black skin and XX chromosomes to receive the Nobel Prize — she writes:
Your hands are your most precious possession! Take care of them. Hold them high and give them a kiss. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face… Love your mouth… This is flesh… Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms… Love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. It’s more than just eyes. More than the lungs still unable to receive fresh air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts… love your heart. This is the key to winning.
VIKTOR FRANKL – HAVE MORE NATURE AND MUSIC IN YOUR LIFE
PA century after Nietzsche proclaimed with his nihilistic grandiosity that “without music life would be a mistake” and a century after Walt Whitman observed with his life-affirming soulfulness that music is the profoundest expression of nature, the young Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997), having narrowly escaped death in a concentration camp, delivered a set of extraordinary lectures on moving beyond optimism and pessimism to find the deepest source of meaning. A lost companion to his classic Man’s Search for Meaning, these lectures were only recently published in English for the first time under the apt title, drawn from a line of Frankl’s, Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything (public library).
In one of them, Frankl speaks with passionate life-tested conviction to the two great pillars of aliveness that had helped him survive the Holocaust and that help so many of us, even in circumstances far less life-threatening, survive our lives — music and the natural world:
It is not only through our actions that we can give life meaning — insofar as we can answer life’s specific questions responsibly — we can fulfill the demands of existence not only as active agents but also as loving human beings: in our loving dedication to the beautiful, the great, the good. Let me try to make your life more meaningful by using a clichéd expression. The thought experiment I like best is the one below. Assume you are in a concert hall, listening to your favorite music. You are moved by its sounds and feel a chill down your spine. Now, imagine that someone could ask you this question. I believe you would agree with me if I declared that in this case you would only be able to give one answer, and it would go something like: “It would have been worth it to have lived for this moment alone!”
Frankl says that more than 100 years after Mary Shelley praised nature for its ability to sustain life in an era of deadly pandemics, Frankl now adds:
It is possible for those who are able to experience nature or the arts as well as others who interact with another person, to have similar reactions. Is it possible to feel a certain feeling in our presence? This could roughly translate as: It is the mere existence of this individual that makes it meaningful.
LEO TOLSTOY: YOU CHOOSE YOUR KINDNESS
Apathy for humanity is one of the most saddest traits of modern culture. People of the past are harshly judged by the standards of the present (which their own difficult lives helped establish), and people of the present are harshly judged by impossible (and hypocritical, in the full context of any judger’s life) standards of uniform perfection across all regions of private and public existence. And yet the eternal test of character — our great moral triumph — is the ability to face our own imperfections with composure, reflecting on them with lucid and luminous determination to do better — an essential form of moral courage all the more difficult, and all the more important, amid a cultural atmosphere that mistakes self-righteousness for morality and suffocates the basic impulse toward betterment with punitive intolerance for human foible.
It’s a good thing! Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910), and luckily for the generations of humans whose lives have been enriched and ennobled by his contribution to the common record of truth and beauty we call literature, he lived in a very different era. When he was approaching that era’s life-expectancy — which he would come to outlive nearly twofold — Tolstoy began reckoning with his own imperfect life, punctuated by the human inevitability of having acted unwisely and unlovingly in moments too mentally and emotionally threadbare to act otherwise, and set out to find the wisdom he had lacked along the way.
So began his Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (public library) — a compendium of quotations by great thinkers of the past, annotated with Tolstoy’s own thoughts, which he compiled for two decades and published in the final ailing years of his life. In a deep and obvious way. Marginalian is my own lifelong version of such a compendium, commenced long before I first encountered Tolstoy’s book a decade ago.)
In the entry for January 7 — perhaps prompted by the creaturely severity and the heart-clenching bleakness of a Russian winter, or perhaps by the renewed resolve for moral betterment with which we face each new year — he writes:
A person who is kind and thoughtful will find more compassion in others if he’s more patient.
The best thing for our lives is kindness.
Tolstoy’s letter at the end of each month, in an sentiment Carl Sagan would echo in his beautiful invitation to face ignorance with kindness:
If you are to be kind, you should show kindness towards the people who do you wrong. This will make it impossible for him to enjoy evil.
In the first days of February — the shortest, bleakest month, known in our part of the world as “the Little Ripper” — Tolstoy copies out two kindness-related quotations from Jeremy Bentham and John Ruskin, then reflects:
Kindness is as important for your soul and body as it is for you. You don’t notice when it is there.
There is nothing that makes our lives or those of others more wonderful than constant kindness.
JAMES BALDWIN: HAVE TENDERNESS TO HOW HARD IT ISN’T TO BE A HUMAN
Across epochs and cultures, in his famous indictment “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within,” James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) shone his piercing beam of truth upon the fundamental fact beneath Tolstoy’s insight that we only see as much kindness as we ourselves possess: We are untender with each other because we cannot bear the terrifying difficulty of being human, vulnerable and perishable as we are.
And yet, like Tolstoy, Baldwin thought deeply about what saves us — from ourselves and, in consequence, from each other — and, like Tolstoy, he recognized that, in the end, only love does. In his lifeline for the hour of despair — which remains one of his most penetrating and most personal essays, and one of his least known — he observes:
My belief has been that human beings can only be saved by other human beings. It is true that sometimes we don’t save each other. However, we can save each other from time to time.
Baldwin’s final essay, which is also a forgotten treasure, revisits the subject with what could best be described in a prose poem that speaks of an eternal truth.
Earth is constantly shifting and changing. The light never ceases to change. Generations never cease to exist, and because they only have us as witnesses to their existence, we can be held responsible for them.
The sea rises, but the light is lost, so lovers hold onto each other and children to us. When we stop holding hands, when we lose faith in one another, then the sea swallows us all and the light fades.
For our anxious hearts, it is a great victory to support each other with the love of God. In one of his final interviews, echoing Rilke’s insistence that “for one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks,” Baldwin reflects:
It is extremely dangerous to love anyone and be loved by everyone.
But, he explained to Margaret Mead, in their historic conversation that this was a responsibility towards our humanity.
We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.
RACHEL CARSON: EMBRACE THE SINNESS OF CREATIVE TEAMWORK
“Works of art are of an infinite loneliness,” Rilke wrote in reflecting on the lonely patience of creative work — patience needed not only in art but in every realm of creativity, including science, and perhaps nowhere more so than at the uncommon intersection of the two.
Marine biologist, poet and scientist combine art and science to create an unmatched union. Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) neither romanticized nor rued the essential loneliness of creative absorption. She addressed the issue with plain poetry from her own lived experiences.
Even after her lyrical writing about the science of the sea won her the nation’s highest honor of literary art and her 1962 book Silent Spring catalyzed the environmental movement, making her the era’s most revered science writer, Carson continued making time to respond to letters from readers. In this superhuman feat — one downright impossible in our age of email, when millions of readers can reach a single writer’s inbox with the unmediated tap of a virtual button — Carson hauled trunkfuls of letters home, prioritizing those from students and young women asking her advice on writing. Carson responded to one letter with the following:
At best, writing is lonely. Although there may be stimulating, even joyful relationships with colleagues and friends, the author must face his topic alone while he creates. He* moves into a realm where he has never been before — perhaps where no one has ever been. It’s lonely, frightening even.
Carson expands on the sentiment in a second letter she wrote to a young woman who Carson saw as her younger self.
You are wise enough to understand that being “a little lonely” is not a bad thing. A writer’s occupation is one of the loneliest in the world, even if the loneliness is only an inner solitude and isolation, for that he must have at times if he is to be truly creative. To be a writer, one must not fear loneliness. However, there are unique and rich rewards.
URSULA K. LEGUIN: CONVERSE IF You Care
Let me be clear that no part of me idealizes the bygone agony of waiting three weeks for a letter from your lover to cross the Atlantic — a letter that might never arrive from a lover who might be dead by the time it does arrive. I will be honest, though, and say that humanity can survive another century or so if it reconsiders its compulsions. In the meantime, the world’s posterity may look back in horror at the three pulsating dots.
One consciousness cannot communicate with another without using every verbal, epistolary and gestural language. This is possible with the most basic and uninteresting tools. The convenience of texting and the immediacy it offers is great for communication, levity, and logistical purposes. But where it triumphs in time-sensitive matters, it fails abysmally in matters of emotional sensitivity — I don’t know of a single relationship that has been improved, repaired, or saved by texting in those vital and vulnerable moments of emotional misalignment and miscommunication, where the medium’s immediacy becomes a gauntlet of mutual reactivity and its two-way disembodiment a way of avoiding the evidence of one’s emotional impact on the other. Conversation wins here. This is where I’m always reminded. Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) and her exquisite manifesto for the power of real human communication, in which she writes:
Human communication can’t be reduced to information in most instances of humans talking to each other. It involves more than just information. IsYou can find out more at http://www.amazon.com/?p=238. relationBetween the speaker and listener. Medium in which the message is embedded can be extremely complex and infinitely greater than code. It’s a language function, culture or function, where the language, speaker, and hearer all are embedded.
Le Guin, reminding us of the fact that literacy remains a relatively new invention, but far from universal in its scope and application, considers spoken conversation to have the unchanging power to foster a deep sense of mutuality and sync our essential vibrations.
Because speech is an immediate and vital connection, it’s a bodily, physical process. Not a mental or spiritual one, wherever it may end… The voice creates a sphere around it, which includes all its hearers: an intimate sphere or area, limited in both space and time.
It is an act. Action takes energy.
Sound is dynamic. Speech is dynamic — it is action. To be powerful, you must act. The power of mutual communication between speakers is powerful. Each speaker’s power is amplified and augmented by the listening of others. By entrainment, the strength of any community can be amplified.
It is because words are magic that they can be spoken. Power is in words. Names are powerful. They are powerful events. Words can change the world. They can transform the listener and speaker. They transmit emotion or understanding back and forth, amplifying it.
SENECA: VANQUISH YOU ANXIETY
The great Roman Stoic philosopher was alive two millennia ago, just before anxiety became a clinical term. Seneca (c. 4 BC–AD 65) offered a timeless salve for this elemental human anguish in his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later published as Letters from a Stoic (public library).
In the thirteenth letter, titled “On groundless fears,” Seneca writes:
There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
Seneca offers his advice to his young friend with an eye on the self-destructive and wornying human habit, bracing for imaginary disaster.
Do not let the crisis bring you down.
As a result, we are often more tormented than necessary by some things; others torment our souls before they should and sometimes they bother us in ways that don’t belong to us. Our tendency is to imagine or anticipate sorrow, either exaggerating or imagining it.
But the greatest peril of misplaced worry, Seneca cautions, is that in constantly bracing for an imagined catastrophe, we keep ourselves from fully living — something on which he expounded in his most famous moral essay, On the Shortness of Life. The letter ends with Epicurus’s quote, which illustrates this very serious point.
With all of his faults, the fool has one thing in common: he’s always ready to die.
BERTRAND RUSSELL – BROADEN YOUR LIVES AS THEY GROW SHORTER
Seneca, a great British mathematician and historian who made his famous case against the shortness in life through living broadly two millennia later, was a Nobel laureate, a philosopher, mathematician and historian. Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) looked back on his eight decades of life — not yet knowing that he would live for nearly two more — to examine what makes it worth living.
In a short meditation titled “How to Grow Old,” later included in his altogether superb Portraits from Memory and Other Essays (public library), Russell places at the heart of a fulfilling life the dissolution of the personal ego into something larger. Russell writes:
You can make your interests more general and personal, so that the walls between you and the world gradually fall and your life is becoming increasingly integrated with universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually, the river expands, its banks shrink, the waters become more calm, and at the end they merge in the ocean, and cease to be separate.
WALT WITNESS: Live with absolute vitality
Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) was only thirty-six when he self-published, against a tide of indifference ruffled by a few mocking reviews, what would become his young country’s first great classic of original poetry.
public realm), was written decades ago by the Brooklyn poet. It is a piece that he wrote years before a paralytic stroke reaffirmed the credo of aliveness. In radiant prose, the Brooklyn poet encapsulated the guiding spirit of his poetry — an ethos sure to brighten any life stage and any era.| public domain), penned decades before a paralytic stroke reaffirmed his credo of aliveness, the Brooklyn poet encapsulated in radiant prose the guiding spirit of his poems — an ethos certain to broaden and gladden any life at any stage in any era:
You will do the following: Give alms to all who ask, love the sun, the animals and the earth, be kind to everyone, respect the dignity of others, support the poor, help the needy, show compassion for those in distress, forgive tyrants and give thanks to God.
AND ONE FROM MY: CHOOSE THE EYES of LOVE
What we see is never raw reality, pure as spacetime — what we see is our interpretation of reality, filtered through the lens of our experience and our conditioned worldview. Always, the way we look at things shapes what we see; often, the lens we mistake for a magnifying glass turns out to be a warped mirror — we see others not as they are but as we are. (We know this the way the human animal best understands anything — by turning selfward: We all know that horrible, hollowing feeling of being seen by another not as we are but as they are, being achingly misunderstood and misinterpreted in our motives and the core of our being.)
This is a way to give more meaning to the world. You can look at others, no matter how confused or concerned, and see them with the eyes and love of a human being. It’s a way to serve other humans.
To place the wish to understand above the wish to be right — and to see, with Thich Nhat Hanh, that “understanding is love’s other name” — that is the greatest gift we can give one another.
Giving = Being Loving
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