Hello, Maria! If you missed last week's edition – Ann Patchett on why self-forgiveness is the key to all great art, Annie Dillard on reclaiming our capacity for joy and wonder, David Whyte on the true meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak, JFK on the value of the arts, 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.
"Does what goes on inside show on the outside?," young Vincent van Gogh despaired in a moving letter to his brother while floundering to find his purpose. "Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney." A century later, Joseph Campbell stoked that hearth of the soul with his foundational treatise on finding your bliss. And yet every day, countless hearths and hearts grow ashen in cubicles around the world as we succumb to the all too human tendency toward choosing what we should be doing in order to make a living over what we must do in order to feel alive.
How to turn that invisible inner fire into fuel for soul-warming bliss is what artist and designer Elle Luna explores in her essay-turned-book The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion (public library) – an intelligent and rousing illustrated manifesto that picks up where Campbell left off, in the spirit of Parker Palmer's emboldening guide to letting your life speak and Debbie Millman's visual-essay-turned-commencement-address on courage and the creative life.
Distinguishing between a job ("something typically done from 9 to 5 for pay"), a career ("a system of advancements and promotions over time where rewards are used to optimize behavior"), and a calling ("something that we feel compelled to do regardless of fame or fortune"), Luna recounts the pivotal moment in her own life when she was suddenly unable to discern which of these she had. As an early employee at a promising startup, she was working tirelessly on a product she deeply believed in, and yet felt disorientingly unfulfilled. She found herself before a revelatory crossroads: the crossroads between Should and Must.
Should is how other people want us to live our lives. It’s all of the expectations that others layer upon us.
Sometimes, Shoulds are small, seemingly innocuous, and easily accommodated. “You should listen to that song,” for example. At other times, Shoulds are highly influential systems of thought that pressure and, at their most destructive, coerce us to live our lives differently.
Echoing Eleanor Roosevelt's famous admonition – "When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity," the longest-serving First Lady wrote in contemplating conformity and the secret of happiness, "[and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being." – Luna adds:
When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves. The journey to Should can be smooth, the rewards can seem clear, and the options are often plentiful.
She offers a counterpoint:
Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires – unavoidable, undeniable, and inexplicable. Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromises.
Must is when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own – and this allows us to cultivate our full potential as individuals. To choose Must is to say yes to hard work and constant effort, to say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees, and in so doing, to say yes to what Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
Choosing Must is the greatest thing we can do with our lives.
And yet as simple as Luna's elegant prose makes it sound, anyone who has lived through this crossroads – she has; I have – will attest that it is anything but easy; the road is strewn with difficult choices. Luna considers the osmotic relationship between Should and Must, even as we turn away from one and toward the other:
If you want to know Must, get to know Should. This is hard work. Really hard work. We unconsciously imprison ourselves to avoid our most primal fears. We choose Should because choosing Must is terrifying, incomprehensible. Our prison is constructed from a lifetime of Shoulds, the world of choices we’ve unwittingly agreed to, the walls that alienate us from our truest, most authentic selves. Should is the doorkeeper to Must. And just as you create your prison, you can set yourself free.
One of the most common ways in which we imprison ourselves is by comparing ourselves to others and, upon finding our situation inferior, placing blame – on circumstances that we feel are unfair, on the people we believe are responsible for those circumstances, or on some abstract element of fate we think is at play. The self-defeating catch is that we often end up judging our circumstances against others' outcomes, forgetting that hard work and hard choices are the transmuting agent between circumstance and outcome.
Joseph Brodsky captured this with piercing precision in the greatest commencement address of all time, cautioning: "A pointed finger is a victim’s logo... No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything."
Luna touches on this perilous tendency as she considers the origin of Should:
How often do we place blame on the person, job, or situation when the real problem, the real pain, is within us? And we leave and walk away, angry, frustrated, and sad, unconsciously carrying the same Shoulds into a new context – the next relationship, the next job, the next friendship – hoping for different results.
How to get to know Should in the most intimate way possible, so that we can begin to swivel toward different results by moving toward Must, is what Luna examines in the remainder of The Crossroads of Should and Must. In this wonderful Design Matters conversation with one of her creative heroes and influences, Debbie Millman, Luna discusses how the book came to be, the unusual journey that precipitated it, and why her original essay resonated – beyond her wildest expectations – with so many people across so many walks of life:
Must is fantastic, and Must is just on the other side of Should. Should is this world of expectations – it's like a camouflaged force. That's one of the tricky things about Should – it can kind of creep in there when you're not looking. It's easier – it's this invisible force moving against us [and] it often comes very early on in life. It can come from the time into which we're born, the society or the community into which we're born, the body into which we're born... It can be a lot of different things that happen early in life [which] really take on that trajectory ... and have us often running a different race than the one we were intended to run.
Subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes, then explore these ten favorite episodes from a decade of conversations with creative icons.
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“An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length," Virginia Woolf marveled at the extraordinary elasticity of how we experience time, which modern psychologists are only beginning to fathom. Nearly a century later, Sarah Manguso – a Woolf of our own – tussled with the same perplexity in contemplating the pleasures and perils of time's inevitable ongoingness. And yet however convincing our intuitive sense that time is a mutable abstraction shaped by the subjective grab-bag of attributes and experiences we call the self, there remains the empirical nature of time as a measurable, observable, concrete dimension of reality – and the rift between these two conceptions of time is one of the most disorienting yet fascinating aspects of existence.
In the altogether spectacular Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (public library), philosopher Rebecca Goldstein – who has also explored the most intimate facet of our confounding relationship with time, the mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person – chronicles how the emergence of modern physics in the twentieth century, particularly Einstein's theory of relativity, rattled our intuitive notions of time as a subjective experience.
Einstein and Gödel on one of their regular walks in Princeton, New Jersey.
Goldstein examines the immutable incompleteness of our understanding of time, which preoccupied both Gödel and Einstein:
Despite the popular distortions, to a certain extent encouraged by the vague suggestions of the word "relativity," Einstein was ... as far from interpreting his famous theory in subjective terms as it is possible to be. On the contrary, on his interpretation, relativity theory offers a realist description of time that is startlingly distinct from our subjective theory of time. The great yawning chasm between the "out yonder" and the "in here" is stretched even wider, on the Einsteinian hypothesis, since objective time – the time that is described in the equations of relativity theory – is lacking the very feature that seems to provide the essential stab to our subjective experience of time: its inexorable flow, ultimately lighting all our yesterdays the way to dusty death. Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?
And yet, Goldstein points out, Einstein's physics actually counters rather than confirming this intuitive subjectivity of the human experience of time:
The nature of reality that spills forth from Einstein's physics is so much more startling than the simplistic, undergraduate-beloved shibboleth: everything is relative to subjective points of view. In Einstein's physics, there is no passage of time, no unidirectional flow from the fixed past and toward the uncertain future. The temporal component of space-time is as static as its spatial components; physical time is as still as physical space. It is all laid out, the whole spread of events, in the tenseless four-dimensional space-time manifold.
Illustration for Alice in Wonderland by Lisbeth Zwerger
Time, then, becomes not an attribute of the outer world – the universal "out yonder" – but an orienteering compass for the inner world. (One is reminded of Henry Miller's meditation on the art of living: “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”) Goldstein captures this beautifully:
The distinctions we make between the past and the present and the future – distinctions which are so emotionally fraught and without which we can't even begin to describe our inner worlds – only have relevance within those inner worlds. Objective time, as it is characterized in relativity, can't support the distinction between the past and the present and the future. Or, as Einstein told [philosopher and Vienna Circle member] Rudolf Carnap, "the experience of the now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics."
Einstein himself articulated this with piercing precision in a condolence letter to the widow of his longtime friend, the physicist Michele Besso:
In quitting this strange world he has once again preceded me by just a little. That doesn't mean anything. For us convinced physicists the distinction between the past, the present, and the future is only an illusion, albeit a persistent one.
Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time from the early 1720s, found in Cartographies of Time
Ultimately, these illusions are the direct result of the stories we buy into, which are in turn a direct result of the power structures that purvey the stories we call truth. In that sense, they are, after all, not absolute but relative to the baseline of our manufactured beliefs. Goldstein observes the general dynamics of which our time theories are but a particular symptom:
The necessary incompleteness of even our formal systems of thought demonstrates that there is no nonshifting foundation on which any system rests. All truths – even those that had seemed so certain as to be immune to the very possibility of revision – are essentially manufactured. Indeed the very notion of the objectively true is a socially constructed myth. Our knowing minds are not embedded in truth. Rather the entire notion of truth is embedded in our minds, which are themselves the unwitting lackeys of organizational forms of influence.
Incompleteness is a completely mind-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with Goldstein on the paradox of personal identity, Thomas Mann on how time confers meaning upon existence, and the psychology of why different experiences warp our sense of time.
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The history of jazz is strewn with Y chromosomes and credit-hogging egos, which makes pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams (May 8, 1910–May 28, 1981) all the more dazzling an outlier – a generous genius who, like Mozart, began playing the piano at the age of four. At a time when women sang and danced but rarely played an instrument, Williams became a virtuoso pianist who went on to write and arrange for legends like Duke Ellington and mentored a generation of emerging icons, including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Ellington himself, who believed she was "like soul on soul," aptly captured her spirit and legacy in noting that "her music retains a standard of quality that is timeless."
In The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend (public library), writers Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald tell Williams's uplifting story of passion, perseverance, and prolific contribution to creative culture. What emerges is not only a wonderful addition to the loveliest picture-books celebrating creative luminaries, but also a bold antidote to the striking statistics that only 31 percent of children's books feature female protagonists and a mere 0.3 percent include characters of color.
The story, illustrated by the inimitable Giselle Potter – the talent behind Gertrude Stein's posthumous alphabet book, Toni Morrison's dark allegory for freedom, and an original love letter to dreams – begins with a long train ride little Mary took with her mother and sister from their hometown of Atlanta to Pittsburg, known as "The Smoky City" for its fuming steel mills, where they were to live with her aunt and uncle.
The night she left Georgia, Mary couldn't see anything but lights out the train window ... but she could hear! She listened to the train and clapped out its sound on her knees.
She sang the sound of its whistle.
"Chug-ga, chug-ga, chug-ga ... Toot! Toot!"
The train went faster, leaving home behind:
"Clackety-clack! Clackety-clack! Clackety-clack!"
Mary clapped and sang softly, so that Mama and her sister, Mamie, could sleep.
By the time they arrived at the big station in Pittsburgh the next morning, Mary had sung herself to sleep, too.
Music was Mary's most exuberant love – a love seeded by her mother, who was an organ player at their church back in Georgia, attesting once again to the power of attentive, creatively supporting parenting in cultivating artistic genius.
When Mary was three, Mama played a tune, holding Mary on her lap.
As the last notes sounded through the room, Mary reached out and played them back to her mother. Mama stood up and Mary went tumbling. Mama cried to her neighbors, "Come hear this! Come hear my baby girl play!"
But they had to sell the organ when they moved, so Mary stopped playing. To make matters direr, their new home was far from welcoming – hostile to newcomers, the neighbors threw bricks through their windows and tirelessly taunted the family with unwholesome epithets. The local children called Mary cruel names, pulled her hair, and ridiculed her clothing.
And yet even at this young age, Mary possessed that singular skill of great artists – the ability to turn trauma into raw material for art – and transmuted the trying experience into music:
Ugly names and cruel words... Mary called them "bad sounds" and she taught herself to play them out. Even without a keyboard, she could do it. Tapping on the tabletop, she beat back the bad sounds and sang out her sadness. She crooned and whispered and shouted out until her spirit was lifted free.
One day, when little Mary was picking dandelions in the street, a kindly lady from the local church passed by and invited her over for ice cream. As soon as the little girl entered the house, a treat far more delectable transfixed her – a big old piano, sitting in the corner under a lace cover. Intrigued by the little girl's interest, the lady invited Mary to play her a tune.
Mary sat down and lifted the cover. She drew a shaky breath and her fingers found the keys. They hadn't forgotten a thing. Soon she was riding those keys, playing a tune that rumbled along like a freight train.
"Lord have mercy!" said Lucille. The teacup jumped in her hand. She went to the stairs and called up.
"Cephus! Come down here and hear this child play." But Cephus was already halfway down the stairs.
Soon, the neighbors and the whole town were bewitched by Mary's talent and she became affectionately known as "the little piano girl of East Liberty." People even started paying her to play for them – something that calls to mind another pioneering woman of the era, the great children's book artist and author Wanda Gág, who was so talented as a child that she sold her drawings to feed the family.
The remainder of the wholly wonderful The Little Piano Girl goes on to tell the story of how Williams came to lift other spirits free with her music the way she had once lifted her own, electrifying people the world over and becoming one of the most influential musicians humanity has ever known.
Complement it with more magnificent picture-book biographies celebrating great artists, writers, and scientists, including those of Frida Kahlo, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Neruda.
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“I embrace you with all my heart,” Albert Camus wrote in his beautiful letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher shortly after winning the Nobel Prize. To embrace one another with our whole hearts is perhaps the greatest act of recognition and appreciation there is. To do so in more than words is the ultimate gift of our shared humanity. And yet despite this awareness – or perhaps precisely because of it; because of its enormity – we rarely give each other this gift.
How to perform this highest act of generosity is what legendary Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (b. October 11, 1926) explores in How to Love (public library), his luminous meditation on the art of "interbeing."
"Spirituality doesn’t mean a blind belief in a spiritual teaching," Nhat Hanh writes. "Spirituality is a practice that brings relief, communication, and transformation." One of the most transformative forms of secular spirituality is communication itself, in its most sincerest semblance – the intimate bravery of letting ourselves be seen, of connecting with our fellow human beings with the vulnerability necessary for openhearted living.
In the late 1960s, Nhat Hanh invented – in the most organic and inadvertent way – a simple practice that brings embodied form to the communion and mutual understanding at the heart of this spiritual intimacy. With his signature good-humored warmth, he recounts:
In 1966, a friend took me to the Atlanta Airport. When we were saying good-bye she asked, “Is it all right to hug a Buddhist monk?” In my country, we’re not used to expressing ourselves that way, but I thought, “I’m a Zen teacher. It should be no problem for me to do that.” So I said, “Why not?” and she hugged me, but I was quite stiff. While on the plane, I decided that if I wanted to work with friends in the West, I would have to learn the culture of the West.
To surmount this cultural barrier of communication, Nhat Hanh devised a fusion of East and West furnishing a universal human language for what everybody needs – a practice he called "hugging meditation," which, in requiring that we disarm all of our chronic cynicisms, appears at first intolerably awkward but blossoms into deeply rewarding:
According to the practice, you have to really hug the person you are holding. You have to make him or her very real in your arms, not just for the sake of appearances, patting him on the back to pretend you are there, but breathing consciously and hugging with all your body, spirit, and heart. Hugging meditation is a practice of mindfulness. “Breathing in, I know my dear one is in my arms, alive. Breathing out, she is so precious to me.” If you breathe deeply like that, holding the person you love, the energy of your care and appreciation will penetrate into that person and she will be nourished and bloom like a flower.
Illustration from Hug Me by Simona Ciraolo
At the heart of hugging meditation, Nhat Hanh points out, are the core Zen principles of interconnectedness and "interbeing," with each other as well as with the universe. With the great simplicity and sincerity of Zen writings, he considers both the interpersonal and the intrapersonal rewards of the practice:
When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings. Hugging with mindfulness and concentration can bring reconciliation, healing, understanding, and much happiness. The practice of mindful hugging has helped so many people to reconcile with each other – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends and friends, and so many others.
Illustration by Ben Shecter for The Hating Book by Charlotte Zolotow
But beyond the action itself the most important commitment – an intention of absolute presence with the other and with the moment's ephemeral aliveness, which is perhaps the task most challenging yet most sorely needed for our spiritual survival in the modern world. Nhat Hanh outlines both the philosophical foundations and practical steps to mastering this delicate art of holding one another's wholeness while fully inhabiting that blink of existence:
Hugging is a deep practice; you need to be totally present to do it correctly. When I drink a glass of water, I invest one hundred percent of myself in drinking it. You can train yourself to live every moment of your daily life like that.
Before hugging, stand facing each other as you follow your breathing and establish your true presence. Then open your arms and hug your loved one. During the first in-breath and out-breath, become aware that you and your beloved are both alive; with the second in-breath and out-breath, think of where you will both be three hundred years from now; and with the third in-breath and out-breath, be aware of how precious it is that you are both still alive.
When you hug this way, the other person becomes real and alive. You don’t need to wait until one of you is ready to depart for a trip; you may hug right now and receive the warmth and stability of your friend in the present moment.
Complement How to Love, more of which you can read here, with Jack Kerouac on how to meditate and Sam Harris on the paradox of meditation.
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Centuries after Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer
, contemplated the relationship between science and religion
, and decades after Carl Sagan did the same in his exquisite Varieties of Scientific Experience
, physicist-turned-science-writer Margaret Wertheim
offers perhaps the most elegant and emboldening reconciliation of these two frequently contrasted approaches to the human longing for truth and meaning.
Wertheim is the creator of the PBS documentary Faith and Reason, author of deeply thoughtful books like Pythagoras's Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, and cofounder of The Institute for Figuring – "an organization dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and engineering." In her intellectually invigorating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Wertheim recounts how she moved away from the Catholic faith of her childhood and toward science, while maintaining a nonreligious sense of spiritual curiosity. In discussing her beliefs, she offers one of the most luminous conceptions of what secular spirituality stands to offer in the modern world, especially for those of us who hold dear the values of science, and how a deeper sense of resonance with the universe can elevate and ennoble human life:
I don't know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face-to-face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars.
I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision.
And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God. And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it's almost impossible to answer the question without dogma. And ... I’m very, very saddened by the fact that militant atheism has become so to the fore of our society – I think it's destructive and unhelpful, and I don't think it does science any service.
One way I think we can understand the God question in relation to science is this: that prior to the coming into being of modern science, [in] the Christian conception of God, God had two functions – God was the creator of the universe, but he was first and foremost the redeemer of mankind. And with the coming into being of modern science, God’s position as redeemer got shoved into the background, and all of the questions and the public discussion became about God the creator. And that was why Darwinism was so critical – because [Darwin] appeared to challenge the idea of God as the creator of man. And we, I think, [in] the modern West focus so much on the debate about the creative function of God that, outside of theological circles, we don't seem to be able to discuss, as it were, the concept of redemption... And I think we need to be able to discuss that... We need to start thinking about that.
Complement with Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Einstein on whether scientists pray, Flannery O'Connor on dogma and the difference between religion and faith, and Douglas Rushkoff on science, God, and why consciousness exists.
If you aren't yet subscribing to On Being – a vitalizing source of moral encouragement and some of the most important cultural programming of our time – gladden yourself and subscribe. Tippett's full conversation with Wertheim is but one of countless reasons to do so:
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