Hello, <<Name>>! If you missed last week's edition – Rilke on what it really means to love, Bertrand Russell on immortality and "the good life," an imaginative alphabet book of uncommon, stereotype-defying occupations, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
To live with sincerity in our culture of cynicism is a difficult dance – one that comes easily only to the very young and the very old. The rest of us are left to tussle with two polarizing forces ripping the psyche asunder by beckoning to it from opposite directions – critical thinking and hope.
Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.
Finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving the situation produces resignation – cynicism is both resignation's symptom and a futile self-protection mechanism against it. Blindly believing that everything will work out just fine also produces resignation, for we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. But in order to survive – both as individuals and as a civilization – and especially in order to thrive, we need the right balance of critical thinking and hope.
A plant needs water in order to survive, and needs the right amount of water in order to thrive. Overwater it and it rots with excess. Underwater it and it dries up inside.
I thought about this recently in observing my unease – my seething cauldron of deep disappointment – with an opinion piece commenting on Arianna Huffington's decision to continue publishing necessary reporting on "what's not working – political dysfunction, corruption, wrongdoing, etc." but to begin giving more light to stories that embody the "perseverance, creativity, and grace" of which we humans are capable. The writer criticizing Huffington's decision asserted, with ample indignation, that "to privilege happy stories over 'unhappy' ones is to present a false view of the world."
Let's consider for a moment the notion of an un-false view of the world – the journalistic ideal of capital-T truth. Let's, too, put aside for now Hunter S. Thompson's rather accurate assertion that the possibility of objectivity is a myth to begin with. Since the golden age of newspapers in the early 1900s, we've endured a century of rampant distortion toward the other extreme – a consistent and systematic privileging of harrowing and heartbreaking "news" as the raw material of the media establishment. The complaint which a newspaper editor issued in 1923, lamenting the fact that commercial interest rather the journalistic integrity determines what is published as the "news," could well have been issued today – if anything, the internet has only exacerbated the problem.
The twentieth century was both the golden age of mass media and a century marked by two world wars, the Great Depression, the AIDS crisis, and a litany of genocides. Viewed through that lens, it is the worst century humanity has endured – even worse than the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages, for those deaths were caused by bacteria indifferent to human ideals and immune to human morality. This view of the twentieth century, then, is frightening enough if true, but doubly frightening if untrue – and Steven Pinker has made a convincing case that it is, indeed, untrue. Then, in a grotesque embodiment of Mark Twain’s wry remark that the worst things in his life never happened to him, we have spent a century believing the worst about ourselves as a species and a civilization.
Carl Sagan saw in books “proof that humans are capable of working magic.” The magic of humanity’s most enduring books – the great works of literature and philosophy – lies in the simple fact that they are full of hope for the human spirit. News has become the sorcerous counterpoint to this magic, mongering not proof of our goodness and brilliance but evidence of our basest capabilities.
A related point of cynicism bears consideration: Coupled with the assertion that giving positive stories more voice distorts our worldview was the accusation that Huffington's motives were purely mercantile – a ploy to prey on Facebook's algorithms, which incentivize heartening stories over disheartening ones. Could it be, just maybe, not that people are dumb and shallow, and algorithms dumber and shallower, but that we've endured a century of fear-mongering from the news industrial complex and we finally have a way of knowing we're not alone in craving an antidote? That we finally have a cultural commons onto which we can rally for an uprising?
We don't get to decry the alleged distortion of our worldview until we've lived through at least a century of good news to even the playing field so ravaged by the previous century's extreme negativity bias.
As for Huffington, while we can only ever speculate about another person's motives – for who can peer into the psyche of another and truly see into that person's private truth? – this I continue to believe: The assumptions people make about the motives of others always reveal a great deal more about the assumers than the assumed-about.
This particular brand of cynicism is especially pronounced when the assumed-about have reached a certain level of success or public recognition. Take, for instance, an entity like TED – something that began as a small, semi-secret groundswell that was met with only warmth and love in its first few years of opening up to the larger world. And then, as it reached a tipping point of recognition, TED became the target of rather petty and cynical criticism. Here is an entity that has done nothing more nor less than to insist, over and over, that despite our many imperfections, we are inherently kind and capable and full of goodness – and yet even this isn't safe from cynicism.
Let's return, then, to the question of what is true and what is false, and what bearing this question has – if any – on what we call reality.
The stories that we tell ourselves, whether they be false or true, are always real. We act out of those stories, reacting to their realness. William James knew this when he observed: "My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind."
What storytellers do – and this includes journalists and TED and everyone in between who has a point of view and an audience, whatever its size – is help shape our stories of how the world works; at their very best, they can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better. In other words, they help us mediate between the ideal and the real by cultivating the right balance of critical thinking and hope. Truth and falsehood belong to this mediation, but it is guided primarily by what we are made to believe is real.
What we need, then, are writers like William Faulkner, who grew up in a brothel, saw humanity at its most depraved, and yet managed to maintain his faith in the human spirit. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he asserted that the writer’s duty is "to help man endure by lifting his heart.” In contemporary commercial media, driven by private interest, this responsibility to work in the public interest and for the public good recedes into the background. And yet I continue to stand with E.B. White, who so memorably asserted that "writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life"; that the role of the writer is "to lift people up, not lower them down."
Yes, people sometimes do horrible things, and we can speculate about why they do them until we run out of words and sanity. But evil only prevails when we mistake it for the norm. There is so much goodness in the world – all we have to do is remind one another of it, show up for it, and refuse to leave.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
The best children's books, as Tolkien asserted and Sendak agreed, aren't written for children; they are enjoyed by children, but they speak to our deepest longings and fears, and thus enchant humans of all ages. But the spell only works, as legendary children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom memorably remarked, "if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit that he doesn’t know the answers to everything."
Few storytellers have immunized us against our adult dullness, generation after generation, more potently than Shel Silverstein, one of the many beloved authors and artists – alongside Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, and dozens of others – whose genius Nordstrom cultivated under her compassionate and creatively uncompromising wing. In a letter from September of 1975, she wrote: "Shel promised me that it was in really good and almost final shape... I hope with all my heart that this is really the case." Silverstein had gone to visit Nordstrom some weeks earlier and recited the story for her, which she found to be "very very good (in fact terrific)." "I hope he hasn't messed it up," she adds in the letter, "and I'm pretty sure he hasn't." Nordstrom's intuition and her unflinching faith in her authors and artists was never misplaced.
In 1976, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (public library) was published – a minimalist, maximally wonderful allegory at the heart of which is the emboldening message that true love doesn't complete us, even though at first it might appear to do that, but lets us grow and helps us become more fully ourselves. It's a story especially poignant for those of us who have ever suffered from Savior Syndrome or Victim Syndrome and sought a partner to either fix or be fixed by, the result of which is often disastrous, always disappointing, and never salvation or true love.
Silverstein tells the tale of a lonely little wedge that dreams of finding a big circle into which it can fit, so that together they can roll and go somewhere. Various shapes come by, but none are quite right.
In these unbefitting rolling partners, one can't help but recognize the archetypes implicated in failed friendships and romances -- there are the damaged-beyond-repair ("some had too many pieces missing"), the overly complicated ("some had too many pieces, period") the worshipper ("one put it on a pedestal and left it there"), the self-involved narcissist ("some rolled by without noticing").
The missing piece tries to make itself more attractive, flashier -- but that scares away the shy ones and leaves it ever lonelier.
At last, one comes along that fits just right, and the two roll on by blissfully.
But then, something strange starts happening -- the missing piece begins to grow.
And just like in any relationship where one partner grows and the other remains static, things end in disappointment -- and then they just end. The static circle moves along, looking for a piece that won't grow.
At last, a shape comes by that looks completely different -- it has no piece missing at all -- and introduces itself as the Big O.
The exchange between the missing piece and the Big O is nothing short of breathstopping:
"I think you are the one I have been waiting for," said the missing piece. "Maybe I am your missing piece."
"But I am not missing a piece," said the Big O. "There is no place you would fit."
"That is too bad," said the missing piece. "I was hoping that perhaps I could roll with you..."
"You cannot roll with me," said the Big O, "but perhaps you can roll by yourself."
This notion is utterly revelatory for the missing piece, doubly so when the Big O asks if it has ever tried. "But I have sharp corners," the missing piece offers half-incredulously, half-defensively. "I am not shaped for rolling."
But corners, the Big O assures it, can wear off -- another elegant metaphor for the self-refinement necessary in our personal growth. With that, the Big O rolls off, leaving the missing piece alone once more -- but, this time, with an enlivening idea to contemplate.
The missing piece goes "liftpullflopliftpullflop" forward, over and over, until its edges begin to wear off and its shape starts to change. Gradually, it begins to bounce instead of bump and then roll instead of bounce -- rolling, like it always dreamt of doing with the aid of another, only all by itself.
And here comes Silverstein's tenderest, most invigorating magic -- when the missing piece becomes its well-rounded self, the Big O emerges, silently and without explanation. In the final scene, the two are seen rolling side by side, calling to mind Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's contribution to history's greatest definitions of love: "Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction."
The Missing Piece Meets the Big O is immeasurably wonderful in a way to which neither text nor pixel does any justice. Complement it with Wednesday, another minimalist and wholly wordless allegory for friendship, and Norton Juster's vintage masterwork of poetic geometry, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, then treat yourself to this animated adaptation of Silverstein's The Giving Tree and his touching duet with Johnny Cash.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
William James, at the dawn of modern psychology, argued that our habits anchor us to ourselves. As someone equally fascinated by the daily routines of artists and with their curious creative rituals, and as a practitioner of both in my own life, I frequently contemplate the difference between the routine and ritual, these two supreme deities of habit. They seem to be different sides of the same coin – while routine aims to make the chaos of everyday life more containable and controllable, ritual aims to imbue the mundane with an element of the magical. The structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalizes us. A full life calls for both – too much control, and we become mummified; too little excitement and pleasurable discombobulation, and we become numb. After all, to be overly bobulated is to be dead inside – to doom oneself to a life devoid of the glorious and ennobling messiness of the human experience.
This equipoise of routine and ritual is, to me, one of the essential balancing acts of life – not unlike that of critical thinking and hope, or form and freedom.
In Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library) – her magnificent meditation on how we endure and find sanity in a crazy world – Anne Lamott captures this delicate dance elegantly:
Here’s the true secret of life: We mostly do everything over and over. In the morning, we let the dogs out, make coffee, read the paper, help whoever is around get ready for the day. We do our work. In the afternoon, if we have left, we come home, put down our keys and satchels, let the dogs out, take off constrictive clothing, make a drink or put water on for tea, toast the leftover bit of scone. I love ritual and repetition. Without them, I would be a balloon with a slow leak.
Illustration for Alice in Wonderland by Lisbeth Zwerger
And yet the most magical moments happen when life's soft living body shakes free of the confining exoskeleton our routines impose. Lamott writes:
Beauty is a miracle of things going together imperfectly.
Still, structure and repetition are what keeps us whole:
You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next.
Without stitches, you just have rags.
And we are not rags.
But the true purpose of discipline – for this is the practice at the heart of routine – is to make room for the magical in the mundane. Paradoxically enough, it is an act of liberation rather than submission – routine grants us the stable platform within, from which we can begin not only to tolerate but perhaps even to enjoy the shaky messiness without.
Artwork by Maira Kalman from Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag
Lamott articulates this beautifully:
The search is the meaning, the search for beauty, love, kindness and restoration in this difficult, wired and often alien modern world. The miracle is that we are here, that no matter how undone we’ve been the night before, we wake up every morning and are still here. It is phenomenal just to be. This idea overwhelms some people. I have found that the wonder of life is often most easily recognizable through habits and routines.
Order and discipline are important to meaning for me. Discipline, I have learned, leads to freedom, and there is meaning in freedom. If you don’t do ritual things in order, the paper doesn’t read as well, and you’ll be thrown off the whole day. But when you can sit for a while at your table, reach for your coffee, look out the window at the sky or some branches, then back down at the paper or a book, everything feels right for the moment, which is maybe all we have.
Stitches is an immensely rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Lamott on grief and gratitude, the perils of perfectionism, the greatest gift of friendship, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing. For more on the magic of repetition and ritual, see the daily routines of celebrated writers and the psychology of the perfect creative routine.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
We spend our lives pulled asunder by the two poles of our potentiality – our basest nature and our most expansive goodness. To elevate oneself from the lowest end of that spectrum to the highest is the great accomplishment of the human spirit. To do this for another person is to give them an invaluable gift. To do it for a group of people – a community, an industry, a culture – is the ultimate act of generosity and grace.
This is what David Carr (September 8, 1956–February 12, 2015) did for us.
He called out what he saw as the product of our lesser selves. He celebrated that which he deemed reflective of our highest potential. And by doing so over and over, with passion and integrity and unrelenting idealism, he nudged us closer to the latter.
He wrote to me once, in his characteristic lowercase: "am missing you. how to fix?" Such was his unaffected sweetness. But, more than that, such was the spirit in which he approached the world – seeing what is missing, seeing what is lacking, and pointing it out, but only for the sake of fixing it. He was a critic but not a cynic in a culture where the difference between the two is increasingly endangered and thus increasingly precious. The caring bluntness of his criticism was driven by the rare give-a-shitness of knowing that we can do better and believing, unflinchingly, that we must.
This is what David Carr did for us – but only because he did it for himself first.
David Carr (Photograph: Chester Higgins Jr. courtesy of The New York Times
The test of one's decency – the measure of a person – is the honesty one can attain with oneself, the depth to which one is willing to go to debunk one's own myth and excavate the imperfect, uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary truth beneath. That's precisely what Carr did in The Night of the Gun (public library) – an exquisitely rigorous, utterly harrowing and utterly heartening memoir of his journey from the vilest depths of crack addiction to his job at The New York Times, where he became the finest and most revered media reporter of our century, and how between these two poles he managed to raise his twin daughters as a single father. It's the story of how he went from "That Guy, a dynamo of hilarity and then misery" to "This Guy, the one with a family, a house, and a good job." It's also a larger story reminding us that we each carry both capacities within us and must face the choice, daily, of which one to let manifest.
The story begins with Carr's point of reluctant awakening upon being fired from his job as a newspaper reporter in Minneapolis:
For an addict the choice between sanity and chaos is sometimes a riddle, but my mind was suddenly epically clear.
“I’m not done yet.”
With his flair for the unsensationalist drama of real life, he recalls the aftermath of one particularly bad trip, which precipitated his journey out of the abyss:
Every hangover begins with an inventory. The next morning mine began with my mouth. I had been baking all night, and it was as dry as a two-year-old chicken bone. My head was a small prison, all yelps of pain and alarm, each movement seeming to shift bits of broken glass in my skull. My right arm came into view for inspection, caked in blood, and then I saw it had a few actual pieces of glass still embedded in it. So much for metaphor. My legs both hurt, but in remarkably different ways.
It was a daylight waterfall of regret known to all addicts. It can’t get worse, but it does. When the bottom arrives, the cold fact of it all, it is always a surprise. Over fifteen years, I had made a seemingly organic journey from pothead to party boy, from knockaround guy to friendless thug. At thirty-one, I was washed out of my profession, morally and physically corrupt, but I still had almost a year left in the Life. I wasn’t done yet.
It isn't hard to see the parallels between that experience and the counterpoint upon which Carr eventually built his career and his reputation. His work as a journalist was very much about taking inventory of our cultural hangovers – the things we let ourselves get away with, the stories we tell ourselves and are told by the media about why it's okay to do so, and the addiction to untruth that we sustain in the process.
David Carr with his daughter Erin
In fact, this dance between mythmaking and truth is baked into the book's title – a reference to an incident that took place the night of that bad trip, during which Carr had behaved so badly that his best friend had to point a gun at him to keep him at bay. At least that's the story Carr told himself for years, only to realize later upon revisiting the incident with a journalist's scrutiny that the memory – like all memory – was woven of more myth than truth. He writes:
Recollection is often just self-fashioning. Some of it is reflexive, designed to bury truths that cannot be swallowed, but other “memories” are just redemption myths writ small. Personal narrative is not simply opening up a vein and letting the blood flow toward anyone willing to stare. The historical self is created to keep dissonance at bay and render the subject palatable in the present.
We are most concerned, he suggests, with making ourselves palatable to ourselves. (One need only look at Salinger's architecture of personal mythology and the story of how Freud engineered his own myth for evidence.) But nowhere do we warp our personal narratives more than in our mythologies of conquering adversity – perhaps because to magnify the gap between who we were and who we are is to magnify our achievement of personal growth. Carr admonishes against this tendency:
The meme of abasement followed by salvation is a durable device in literature, but does it abide the complexity of how things really happened? Everyone is told just as much as he needs to know, including the self. In Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky explains that recollection – memory, even – is fungible, and often leaves out unspeakable truths, saying, “Man is bound to lie about himself.”
I am not an enthusiastic or adept liar. Even so, can I tell you a true story about the worst day of my life? No. To begin with, it was far from the worst day of my life. And those who were there swear it did not happen the way I recall, on that day and on many others. And if I can’t tell a true story about one of the worst days of my life, what about the rest of those days, that life, this story?
The power of a memory can be built through repetition, but it is the memory we are recalling when we speak, not the event. And stories are annealed in the telling, edited by turns each time they are recalled until they become little more than chimeras. People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived.
In this experience one finds the seed of Carr's zero-tolerance policy for untruth – not only in his own life, but in journalism and the media world on which he reported. If anything, the mind-boggling archive of 1,776 articles he wrote for the Times was his way of keeping our collective memory accurate and accountable – an active antidote to the self-interested amnesia of cultural and personal mythmaking. He toiled tirelessly to keep truthful and honorable what Vannevar Bush – another patron saint of media from a different era – poetically called "the common record."
David Carr with his daughter Meagan
Carr writes of the moment he chose sanity over chaos:
Slowly, I remembered who I was. Hope floats. The small pleasures of being a man, of being a drunk who doesn’t drink, an addict who doesn’t use, buoyed me.
So much of Carr's character lives in this honest yet deeply poetic sentiment. He was, above all, an idealist. He understood that our addiction to untruths and mythologies spells the death of our ideals, and ideals are the material of the human spirit. He floated us by his hope. He was the E.B. White of twenty-first-century journalism – like White, who believed that "writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” Carr shaped for a living; like White, who believed that a writer should "lift people up, not lower them down," Carr buoyed us with his writing.
In the remainder of The Night of the Gun, Carr goes on to chronicle how he raised his daughters "in the vapor trail of adults who had a lot of growing up to do themselves," why he relapsed into alcoholism after fourteen years of sobriety and "had to spin out again to remember those very basic lessons" before climbing back out, and what it really means to be "normal" for any person in any life.
Toward the end, he writes:
You are always told to recover for yourself, but the only way I got my head out of my own ass was to remember that there were other asses to consider.
I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.
David Carr by Wendy MacNaughton
Am missing you now, David – we all are. How to fix?
Perhaps some breakages can't be fixed, but I suppose the trick is indeed to be grateful – even when, and especially when, the caper does end; to be grateful that it had begun in the first place.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
If you enjoyed this week's newsletter, please consider helping me keep it going with a modest donation.