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How to be alone in the age of compulsive connectivity, Seneca on the shortness of life and the art of living wide rather than long, a tender wordless story about the power of kindness, and more.

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How to Be Alone: An Antidote to One of the Central Anxieties and Greatest Paradoxes of Our Time

If the odds of finding one's soul mate are so dreadfully dismal and the secret of lasting love is largely a matter of concession, is it any wonder that a growing number of people choose to go solo? The choice of solitude, of active aloneness, has relevance not only to romance but to all human bonds – even Emerson, perhaps the most eloquent champion of friendship in the English language, lived a significant portion of his life in active solitude, the very state that enabled him to produce his enduring essays and journals. And yet that choice is one our culture treats with equal parts apprehension and contempt, particularly in our age of fetishistic connectivity. Hemingway's famous assertion that solitude is essential for creative work is perhaps so oft-cited precisely because it is so radical and unnerving in its proposition.

A friend recently relayed an illustrative anecdote: One evening during a short retreat in Mexico by herself, she entered the local restaurant and asked to be seated. Upon realizing she was to dine alone, the waitstaff escorted her to the back with a blend of puzzlement and pity, so as not to dilute the resort's carefully engineered illusory landscape of coupled bliss. (It's worth noting that this unsettling incident, which is as much about the stigma of being single as about the profound failure to honor the art of being alone, is one women are still far more likely to confront than men; some live to tell about it.)

Solitude, the kind we elect ourselves, is met with judgement and enslaved by stigma. It is also a capacity absolutely essential for a full life.

That paradox is what British author Sara Maitland explores in How to Be Alone (public library) – the latest installment in The School of Life's thoughtful crusade to reclaim the traditional self-help genre in a series of intelligent, non-self-helpy yet immeasurably helpful guides to such aspects of modern living as finding fulfilling work, cultivating a healthier relationship with sex, worrying less about money, and staying sane.

While Maitland lives in a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe, where the nearest supermarket is more than twenty miles away and there is no cell service (pause on that for a moment), she wasn't always a loner – she grew up in a big, close-knit family as one of six children. It was only when she became transfixed by the notion of silence, the subject of her previous book, that she arrived, obliquely, at solitude. She writes:

I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness. I was interested in silence as a lost cultural phenomenon, as a thing of beauty and as a space that had been explored and used over and over again by different individuals, for different reasons and with wildly differing results. I began to use my own life as a sort of laboratory to test some ideas and to find out what it felt like. Almost to my surprise, I found I loved silence. It suited me. I got greedy for more. In my hunt for more silence, I found this valley and built a house here, on the ruins of an old shepherd’s cottage.

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from The River

Maitland's interest in solitude, however, is somewhat different from that in silence – while private in its origin, it springs from a public-facing concern about the need to address "a serious social and psychological problem around solitude," a desire to "allay people’s fears and then help them actively enjoy time spent in solitude." And so she does, posing the central, "slippery" question of this predicament:

Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and well-being.

[...]

How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?

We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.

We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops "eccentric" habits.

We believe that everyone has a singular personal "voice" and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion (at best) anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity – solitude.

We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone... We are supposed now to seek our own fulfillment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness – but mysteriously not do it on our own.

Today, more than ever, the charge carries both moral judgement and weak logic.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Curiously, and importantly, mastering the art of solitude doesn't make us more antisocial but, to the contrary, better able to connect. By being intimate with our own inner life – that frightening and often foreign landscape that philosopher Martha Nussbaum so eloquently urged us to explore despite our fear – frees us to reach greater, more dimensional intimacy with others. Maitland writes:

Nothing is more destructive of warm relations than the person who endlessly "doesn’t mind." They do not seem to be a full individual if they have nothing of their own to "bring to the table," so to speak. This suggests that even those who know that they are best and most fully themselves in relationships (of whatever kind) need a capacity to be alone, and probably at least some occasions to use that ability. If you know who you are and know that you are relating to others because you want to, rather than because you are trapped (unfree), in desperate need and greed, because you fear you will not exist without someone to affirm that fact, then you are free. Some solitude can in fact create better relationships, because they will be freer ones.

And yet the value of aloneness has descended into a downward spiral of social judgment over the course of humanity. Citing the rise of "male spinsters" in the U.S. census – men over forty who never married, up from 6% in 1980 to 16% today – Maitland traces the odd cultural distortion of the concept itself:

In the Middle Ages the word "spinster" was a compliment. A spinster was someone, usually a woman, who could spin well: a woman who could spin well was financially self-sufficient – it was one of the very few ways that mediaeval women could achieve economic independence. The word was generously applied to all women at the point of marriage as a way of saying they came into the relationship freely, from personal choice, not financial desperation. Now it is an insult, because we fear "for" such women – and now men as well – who are probably "sociopaths."

This fairly modern attitude, which casts voluntary aloneness as a toxic trifecta of "sad, mad, and bad" – is reinforced via rather dogmatic circular logic that doesn't afford those who choose solitude the basic dignity of their own choice. Reflecting on the prevalent response of pity – triggered by the "sad" portion of the dogma – Maitland plays out the exasperating impossibility of refuting such social assumptions:

If you say, "Well, no actually; I am very happy," the denial is held to prove the case. Recently someone trying to condole with me in my misery said, when I assured them I was in fact happy, "You may think you are." But happiness is a feeling. I do not think it – I feel it. I may, of course, be living in a fool’s paradise and the whole edifice of joy and contentment is going to crash around my ears sometime soon, but at the moment I am either lying or reporting the truth. My happiness cannot, by the very nature of happiness, be something I think I feel but don’t really feel. There is no possible response that does not descend almost immediately to the school-playground level of "Did, didn’t; did, didn't."

Underlying these attitudes, Maitland argues, is the central driver of fear – fear of those radically different from us, who make choices we don't necessarily understand. This drives us, in turn, to project our fright onto others, often in the form of anger – a manifestation, at once sad, mad, and bad, of Anaïs Nin's memorable observation that "it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar."

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

These persistently reinforced social fears, she notes, have chilling consequences:

If you tell people enough times that they are unhappy, incomplete, possibly insane and definitely selfish there is bound to come a grey morning when they wake up with the beginning of a nasty cold and wonder if they are lonely rather than simply "alone."

(This crucial difference between aloneness and loneliness, in fact, is not only central to our psychological unease but also enacted even in our bodies – while solitude may be essential for creativity and key to the mythology of genius, loneliness, scientists have found, has deadly physical consequences on our risk for everything from heart disease to dementia.)

Paradoxically, Maitland points out, many of our most celebrated cultural icons had solitude embedded in their lifestyle and spirit, from great explorers and adventurers to famous "geniuses." She cites the great silent film actor Greta Garbo, a famous loner, as a particularly poignant example:

Garbo introduced a subtlety of expression to the art of silent acting and that its effect on audiences cannot be exaggerated... In retirement she adopted a lifestyle of both simplicity and leisure, sometimes just ‘drifting’. But she always had close friends with whom she socialized and travelled. She did not marry but did have serious love affairs with both men and women. She collected art. She walked, alone and with companions, especially in New York. She was a skillful paparazzi-avoider. Since she chose to retire, and for the rest of her life consistently declined opportunities to make further films, it is reasonable to suppose that she was content with that choice.

It is in fact evident that a great many people, for many different reasons, throughout history and across cultures, have sought out solitude to the extent that Garbo did, and after experiencing that lifestyle for a while continue to uphold their choices, even when they have perfectly good opportunities to live more social lives.

So how did our present attitudes toward solitude emerge? Maitland argues that our lamentable refusal to afford those who choose aloneness "the normal tolerance of difference on which we pride ourselves elsewhere" is the result of a "very deep cultural confusion":

For two millennia, at least, we have been trying to live with two radically contrasting and opposed models of what the good life would or should be. Culturally, there is a slightly slick tendency to blame all our woes, and especially our social difficulties, either on a crude social Darwinism or on an ill-defined package called the "Judaeo-Christian paradigm" or "tradition." Apparently this is why, among other things, we have so much difficulty with sex (both other people’s and our own); why women remain unequal; why we are committed to world domination and ecological destruction; and why we are not as perfectly happy as we deserve. I, for one, do not believe this – but I do believe that we suffer from trying to hold together the values of Judaeo-Christianity (inasmuch as we understand them) and the values of classical civilization, and they really do not fit.

She traces the evolution of that confusion all the way back to the Roman Empire, with its ideals of public and social life. Even the word "civilization" bespeaks these values – it comes from civis, Latin for "citizen." (Though it warrants noting that one of the greatest and most enduring Roman exports issued the memorable admonition that "all those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself.") Still, the Romans were notorious for their lust for power, honor, and glory – ideals invariably social in nature and crucial to the political cohesion of society when confronted with the barbarians at the gate. Maitland writes:

In these circumstances solitude is threatening – without a common and embedded religious faith to give shared meaning to the choice, being alone is a challenge to the security of those clinging desperately to a sinking raft. People who pull out and "go solo" are exposing the danger while apparently escaping the engagement.

Maitland fast-forwards to our present predicament, the product of millennia of cultural baggage:

No wonder we are frightened of those who desire and aspire to be alone, if only a little more than has been acceptable in recent social forms. No wonder we want to establish solitude as "sad, mad and bad" – consciously or unconsciously, those of us who want to do something so markedly countercultural are exposing, and even widening, the rift lines.

But the truth is, the present paradigm is not really working. Despite the intense care and attention lavished on the individual ego; despite over a century of trying to "raise self-esteem" in the peculiar belief that it will simultaneously enhance individuality and create good citizens; despite valiant attempts to consolidate relationships and lower inhibitions; despite intimidating efforts to dragoon the more independent-minded and creative to become "team players"; despite the promises of personal freedom made to us by neoliberalism and the cult of individualism and rights – despite all this, the well seems to be running dry. We are living in a society marked by unhappy children, alienated youth, politically disengaged adults, stultifying consumerism, escalating inequality, deeply scary wobbles in the whole economic system, soaring rates of mental ill-health and a planet so damaged that we may well end up destroying the whole enterprise.

Of course we also live in a world of great beauty, sacrificial and passionate love, tenderness, prosperity, courage and joy. But quite a lot of all that seems to happen regardless of the paradigm and the high thoughts of philosophy. It has always happened. It is precisely because it has always happened that we go on wrestling with these issues in the hope that it can happen more often and for more people.

And wrestle we do, often trying to grasp and cling our way out of solitude – a state we don't fully understand and can't fully inhabit to reap its rewards. Our two most common tactics for shielding against solitude, Maitland notes, are the offensive fear-and-projection strategy, where we criticize those capable of finding joy in solitude and condemn them to the sad-mad-bad paradigm, and the defensive approach, where we attempt to insulate ourselves from the risk of aloneness by obsessively accumulating a vast network of social ties as a kind of "insurance policy." In one of her most quietly poignant asides, Maitland whispers:

There is no number of friends on Facebook, contacts, connections or financial provision that can guarantee to protect us.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince

Our cultural ambivalence is also manifested in our chronic bias for extraversion despite growing evidence for the power of introverts. Maitland writes:

At the same time as pursuing this "extrovert ideal," society gives out an opposite – though more subterranean – message. Most people would still rather be described as sensitive, spiritual, reflective, having rich inner lives and being good listeners than the more extroverted opposites. I think we still admire the life of the intellectual over that of the salesman; of the composer over the performer (which is why pop stars constantly stress that they write their own songs); of the craftsman over the politician; of the solo adventurer over the package tourist... But the kind of unexamined but mixed messages that society offers us in relation to being alone add to the confusion; and confusion strengthens fear.

Among Maitland's toolkit of "ideas for overturning negative views of solitude and developing a positive sense of aloneness and a true capacity to enjoy it" are the exploration of reverie and the practice of facing the fear. She enumerates the five basic categories of rewards to be reaped from unlearning our culturally conditioned fear of aloneness and learning how to "do" solitude well:

  1. A deeper consciousness of oneself
  2. A deeper attunement to nature
  3. A deeper relationship with the transcendent (the numinous, the divine, the spiritual)
  4. Increased creativity
  5. An increased sense of freedom

In the remainder of How to Be Alone, Maitland goes on to offer a series of "exercises" along each of these five directions of aspiration – psychological strategies for retuning our relationship with solitude.

Complement the book with other excellent installments in The School of Life's series, including Philippa Perry's How to Stay Sane, John Armstrong's How to Worry Less About Money, Alain de Botton's How to Think More About Sex, and Roman Krznaric's How to Find Fulfilling Work.

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Fox's Garden: A Tender Wordless Story About the Gift of Grace and the Transformative Power of Kindness to Those Kicked Away

The question of human nature – whether we are born full of goodness or spend our lives concealing our inherently rotten souls – is perhaps the most timeless and most significant of humanity's inquiries. A subtle and infinitely heartening answer comes in Fox's Garden (public library) – a breathtaking wordless picture-book by French artist Princesse Camcam, born Camille Garoche, whose lyrical cut-paper illustrations tell a story of cruelty redeemed by kindness, of coldness melted away by the warmth of compassion that is our true nature.

One cold winter night, the fox loses her way in the forest and stumbles into a village. Kicked away by the grownups – those strange beings chronically paralyzed by their fear of the unfamiliar – she finds refuge in a shut-down greenhouse, where she gives birth to a litter of baby foxes.

A curious and warmhearted little boy, full of children's inherent openness to experience, follows her and offers a small gift – a beautiful gesture bespeaking the transformative power of acknowledging the rejected and making mindful room in one's heart for those outcast by the mindless majority.

Reminiscent of Norwegian artist Øyvind Torseter's handcrafted dioramas for My Father's Arms Are a Boat, Camcam's refreshingly analog cut-paper vignettes, meticulously lit and photographed, exude a towering tenderness that only amplifies the story's overwhelming purity of emotion.

The wordlessness mirrors the silence of the snowy winter, a backdrop against which we are reminded that, like winter, life can be a cold and barren wasteland or a whimsical wonderland of grace, depending on the eyes we bring to it and the generosity of spirit with which we approach it.

Fox's Garden comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion, champion of quietly moving masterworks of extraordinary emotional intelligence and sensitivity – lyrical treasures like The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, and Mark Twain's Advice to Little Girls, among others.

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The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long

"How we spend our days," Annie Dillard memorably wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on the life of presence, "is, of course, how we spend our lives." And yet most of us spend our days in what Kierkegaard believed to be our greatest source of unhappiness – a refusal to recognize that "busy is a decision" and that presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity. I frequently worry that being productive is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.

Despite a steadily swelling human life expectancy, these concerns seem more urgent than ever – and yet they are hardly unique to our age. In fact, they go as far back as the record of human experience and endeavor. It is unsurprising, then, that the best treatment of the subject is also among the oldest: Roman philosopher Seneca's spectacular 2,000-year-old treatise On the Shortness of Life (public library) – a poignant reminder of what we so deeply intuit yet so easily forget and so chronically fail to put into practice.

Seneca writes:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it... Life is long if you know how to use it.

Illustration for Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger

Millennia before the now-tired adage that "time is money," Seneca cautions that we fail to treat time as a valuable resource, even though it is arguably our most precious and least renewable one:

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.

To those who so squander their time, he offers an unambiguous admonition:

You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply – though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire... How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!

Nineteen centuries later, Bertrand Russell, another of humanity's greatest minds, lamented rhetorically, "What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?" But even Seneca, writing in the first century, saw busyness – that dual demon of distraction and preoccupation – as an addiction that stands in the way of mastering the art of living:

No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied ... since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it. Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn... Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.

In our habitual compulsion to ensure that the next moment contains what this one lacks, Seneca suggests, we manage to become, as another wise man put it, "accomplished fugitives from ourselves." Seneca writes:

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who ... organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day... Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.

Seneca is particularly skeptical of the double-edged sword of achievement and ambition – something David Foster Wallace would later eloquently censure – which causes us to steep in our cesspool of insecurity, dissatisfaction, and clinging:

It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it.

Illustration by Gus Gordon from Herman and Rosie

This, Seneca cautions, is tenfold more toxic for the soul when one is working for the man, as it were, and toiling away toward goals laid out by another:

Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.

In one particularly prescient aside, Seneca makes a remark that crystallizes what is really at stake when a person asks, not to mention demands, another's time – an admonition that applies with poignant precision to the modern malady of incessant meeting requests and the rather violating barrage of People Wanting Things:

All those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself.

[...]

I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself – as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap – in fact, almost without any value.

He suggests that protecting our time is essential self-care, and the opposite a dangerous form of self-neglect:

Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing... We have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from The River

He captures what a perilous form of self-hypnosis our trance of busyness is:

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.

But even "more idiotic," to use his unambiguous language, than keeping ourselves busy is indulging the vice of procrastination – not the productivity-related kind, but the existential kind, that limiting longing for certainty and guarantees, which causes us to obsessively plan and chronically put off pursuing our greatest aspirations and living our greatest truths on the pretext that the future will somehow provide a more favorable backdrop:

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

Seneca reframes this with an apt metaphor:

You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow... Just as travelers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it; so it is with this unceasing and extremely fast-moving journey of life, which waking or sleeping we make at the same pace – the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his own occupation, Seneca points to the study of philosophy as the only worthwhile occupation of the mind and spirit – an invaluable teacher that helps us learn how to inhabit our own selves fully in this "brief and transient spell" of existence and expands our short lives sideways, so that we may live wide rather than long. He writes:

Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light.

[...]

From them you can take whatever you wish: it will not be their fault if you do not take your fill from them. What happiness, what a fine old age awaits the man who has made himself a client of these! He will have friends whose advice he can ask on the most important or the most trivial matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, who will tell him the truth without insulting him and praise him without flattery, who will offer him a pattern on which to model himself.

Perhaps most poignantly, however, Seneca suggests that philosophy offers a kind of spiritual reparenting to those of us who didn't win the lottery of existence and didn't benefit from the kind of nurturing, sound, fully present parenting that is so essential to the cultivation of inner wholeness:

We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become. These will offer you a path to immortality and raise you to a point from which no one is cast down. This is the only way to prolong mortality – even to convert it to immortality.

On the Shortness of Life is a sublime read in its pithy totality. Complement it with some Montaigne's timeless lessons on the art of living and Alan Watts on how to live with presence.

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The Science of Finding Your Soul Mate

It's been argued that the secret of lasting love is giving up the myth of "the one" – and yet the notion of a perfect soul mate is irresistibly alluring to most of us. We go after it with remarkable ambition and even try to calculate the odds of finding that special someone, that invaluable human mirror who will "tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in." But in a world of seven billion, how likely is it, really, that each of us will find that mythic other?

That's precisely what NASA-roboticist-turned-comic-creator Randall Munroe explores in a chapter of What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (public library), the altogether fantastic book based on his ever-delightful and inexhaustibly original blog xkcd.

Munroe answers a reader's seemingly simple, strangely unsettling question: "What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?" Acknowledging that this proposition is problematic – "a nightmare," he approaches the premise that each of us has "one randomly-assigned perfect soul mate" with a scientist's vital balance of skepticism and openness, and a side of a cartoonist's snark:

We’ll assume your soul mate is set at birth. You know nothing about who or where they are, but – as in the romantic cliché – you’ll recognize each other the moment your eyes meet. Right away, this raises a few questions. For starters, is your soul mate even still alive? A hundred billion or so humans have ever lived, but only seven billion are alive now (which gives the human condition a 93% mortality rate). If we’re all paired up at random, 90% of our soul mates are long dead.

If this weren't disheartening enough, Munroe assures us that things get worse when we account for the arrow of time:

A simple argument shows we can’t just limit ourselves to past humans; we have to include an unknown number of future humans as well. See, if it’s possible for your soul mate to be in the distant past, then it also has to be possible for soul mates to be in the distant future. After all, your soul mate’s soul mate is.

To make matters somewhat less messy, Munroe assumes that your soul mate is your contemporary and, with an unnecessarily judgmental remark how this would "keep things from getting creepy," that your age difference is only a few years. With these parameters, each of us is left with a pool of about half a billion potential matches. Even so, the math remains murky – Munroe explains:

What about gender and sexual orientation? And culture? And language? We could keep using demographics to try to break things down further, but we’d be drifting away from the idea of a random soul mate. In our scenario, you don’t know anything about who your soul mate will be until you look into their eyes. Everybody has only one orientation – toward their soul mate.

Returning to the mythic requirement of identification via eye contact, he delineates the infinitesimal odds of finding your soul mate:

The number of strangers we make eye contact with each day is hard to estimate. It can vary from almost none (shut-ins or people in small towns) to many thousands (a police officer in Times Square). Let’s suppose you lock eyes with an average of a few dozen new strangers each day. (I’m pretty introverted, so for me that’s definitely a generous estimate.) If 10 percent of them are close to your age, that’s around 50,000 people in a lifetime. Given that you have 500,000,000 potential soul mates, it means you’ll only find true love in one lifetime out of 10,000.

Here, Munroe veers into a science-fictional scenario reminiscent of Malcolm Cowley's 1930 prediction for the future of love, envisioning an artificial platform for maximizing eye contact exposure – a webcam-based system akin to ChatRoulette, which he dubs "SoulMateRoulette":

If everyone used the system for eight hours a day, seven days a week, and if it takes you a couple seconds to decide if someone’s your soul mate, this system could – in theory – match everyone up with their soul mates in a few decades.

In the real world, many people have trouble finding any time at all for romance – few could devote two decades to it. So maybe only rich kids would be able to afford to sit around on SoulMateRoulette. Unfortunately for the proverbial 1%, most of their soul mates are to be found in the other 99%. If only 1% of people use the service, then 1% of that 1% would find their match through this system – one in ten thousand.

After further exploring this scenario to its most outrageous extremes, Munroe arrives at a strikingly familiar outcome:

Given all the stress and pressure, some people would fake it. They’d want to join the club, so they’d get together with another lonely person and stage a fake soul mate encounter. They’d marry, hide their relationship problems, and struggle to present a happy face to their friends and family.

His conclusion, however, contrasts the hopelessness of the soul mate theory with the hopefulness that keeps our hearts alive with a sense of possibility, that immutable optimism that helps us go on living and loving:

A world of random soul mates would be a lonely one. Let's hope that's not what we live in.

Perhaps John Steinbeck put it best: “If it is right, it happens... Nothing good gets away.

In the remainder of What If?, Munroe brings his signature blend of science, snark, and sensitivity to such mysteries as how lightning picks its targets, whether vigorously stirring a cup of tea can bring it to a boil, and what it would actually be like to travel in a time machine. Complement it with scientists' answers to little kids' questions about life and an illustrated tour of today's greatest scientific mysteries.

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