Hey T Ludikrist! If you missed last week's edition – Hemingway on how to become a writer, what Mary Oliver's dog poems teach us about being human, the history of the English language animated, Susan Sontag on how the false divide between "high" culture and pop culture limits us, and more – you can catch up here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation.
Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (public library) is among my 10 favorite books on writing – a treasure trove of insight both practical and profound, timelessly revisitable and yielding deeper resonance each time. Lamott adds to the collected wisdom of great writers with equal parts candor and conviction, teaching us as much about writing as she does about creativity at large and, even beyond that, about being human and living a full life – because, after all, as Lamott notes in the beginning, writing is nothing more nor less than a sensemaking mechanism for life:
One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.
What makes Lamott so compelling is that all of her advice comes not from the ivory tower of the pantheon but from an honest place of exquisite vulnerability and hard-earned life-wisdom. She recounts her formative years and where she headed once she encountered that inevitable fork in the road where we can choose between being shut in and shut down by our traumatic experiences, or using them as fertile clay for character-building:
I started writing when I was seven or eight. I was very shy and strange-looking, loved reading above everything else, weighed about forty pounds at the time, and was so tense that I walked around with my shoulders up to my ears, like Richard Nixon. I saw a home movie once of a birthday party I went to in the first grade, with all these cute little boys and girls playing together like puppies, and all of a sudden I scuttled across the screen like Prufrock’s crab. I was very clearly the one who was going to grow up to be a serial killer, or keep dozens and dozens of cats. Instead, I got funny. I got funny because boys, older boys I didn’t even know, would ride by on their bicycles and taunt me about my weird looks. Each time felt like a drive-by shooting. I think this is why I walked like Nixon: I think I was trying to plug my ears with my shoulders, but they wouldn’t quite reach. So first I got funny and then I started to write, although I did not always write funny things. … All I ever wanted was to belong, to wear that hat of belonging.
In seventh and eighth grades I still weighed about forty pounds. I was twelve years old and had been getting teased about my strange looks for most of my life. This is a difficult country to look too different in – the United States of Advertising, as Paul Krassner puts it – and if you are too skinny or too tall or dark or weird or short or frizzy or homely or poor or nearsighted, you get crucified. I did.
So she found refuge in books, searching for "some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in [her] head." To find that, she became a writer and began fantasizing about getting published, about "the thrill of seeing oneself in print," as the highest form of existential validation. When she published her first book, she awaited the affirming grandeur of public approval and secretly thought that "trumpets would blare, major reviewers would proclaim that not since Moby Dick had an American novel so captured life in all of its dizzying complexity." Of course, none of this happened – not with the first book, nor the second or third or fourth or fifth. Instead, what Lamott found was a deeper kind of reward – that sensation "unmerited grace" that Annie Dillard so eloquently captured in her timeless meditation on the writing life. Lamott echoes Ray Bradbury on rejection and reflects:
I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.
I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.
But, one might wonder, why? Lamott answers beautifully:
My writer friends, and they are legion, do not go around beaming with quiet feelings of contentment. Most of them go around with haunted, abused, surprised looks on their faces, like lab dogs on whom very personal deodorant sprays have been tested.
But I also tell [my students] that sometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time. And sometimes when they are writing well, they feel that they are living up to something. It is as if the right words, the true words, are already inside them, and they just want to help them get out. Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.
At the heart of writing, Lamott argues, lies a capacity for quiet grit and a willingness to decondition the all too human tendency to get so overwhelmed by the enormity of the journey that we're too paralyzed to take the first step. She recounts this wonderful anecdote, after which the book is titled:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
In this bird-by-bird approach to writing, there is no room for perfectionism. (Neil Gaiman famously advised, “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”, and David Foster Wallace admonished, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”) Lamott cautions:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life. . . . Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here – and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.
Lamott echoes Susan Sontag ("That’s what a writer does – a writer pays attention to the world." and offers a beautiful definition of what it means to be a writer:
Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.
The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell” standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes. You’re outside, but you can see things up close through your binoculars. Your job is to present clearly your viewpoint, your line of vision. Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others.
In a sentiment reminiscent of E. B. White's timeless words on the responsibility of the writer, Lamott considers the core of being a writer:
To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.
That is, one needs to have a moral position. (I myself have long believed that the role of a great writer – or editor, or "curator," or any other custodian of cultural values – is to frame for people what matters in the world and why.) George Eliot famously observed, "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?" – a notion Lamott considers in the context of that necessary moral position:
As we live, we begin to discover what helps in life and what hurts, and our characters act this out dramatically. This is moral material. … A moral position is a passionate caring inside you. We are all in danger now and have a new everything to face, and there is no point gathering an audience and demanding its attention unless you have something to say that is important and constructive. My friend Carpenter says we no longer need Chicken Little to tell us the sky is falling, because it already has. The issue now is how to take care of one another.
She finds in writing what Carl Sagan found in science – profound awe, deep reverence, a source of spiritual elevation:
In order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? … Think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of – please forgive me – wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.
There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness. . .
Most of all, however, Lamott sees in writing not a selfish act of personal gratification but an act of warm generosity – which is, after all, what drives all of us who wake up in the morning to put something we love into the world and go to bed at night glad that we did:
If you give freely, there will always be more. … It is one of the greatest feelings known to humans, the feeling of being the host, of hosting people, of being the person to whom they come for food and drink and company. This is what the writer has to offer.
This mutual gratification is where the mesmerism of literature lies:
Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.
Bird by Bird is an absolute must-read, and must-reread, in its entirety. Complement it with Annie Dillard on writing, which inspired Lamott, and Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, which was inspired by Lamott.
For more notable advice on writing, see Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin's thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft's advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald's letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith's 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy's 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller's 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac's 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck's 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag's synthesized learnings.
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"When people talk listen completely," Hemingway counseled in his advice on how to be a writer. More than a century earlier, a little boy in Denmark, born into poverty to a shoemaker father and an illiterate washerwoman mother, was spending his days listening to the old women in the local insane asylum as they spun their yarn and spun their tales to pass the time. This unusual hub of peasant storytelling in the oral tradition of folklore became his laboratory for listening, out of which he would later concoct his own stories – stories beloved the world over, which have raised generations of children into a whimsical world of imaginative play. Hans Christian Andersen thus used that singular talent of listening to lift himself out of poverty and into international celebrity, becoming one of history's greatest storytellers and the patron saint of the fairy tale genre.
Two years after Taschen's visual treasure celebrating The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, one of the best picturebooks of 2011, comes The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) – a handsome fabric-bound tome culling twenty-three of Andersen's most beloved fairy tales, including "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Little Mermaid," "The Ugly Duckling," "The Snow Queen," and "The Princess and the Pea." Accompanying the tales are some of history's most beautiful illustrations of Andersen by artists of various nationalities, featuring such masters as Kay Nielsen, whose vintage illustrations of Scandinavian fairy tales are some of the most striking art you'll ever see, Harry Clarke, whose drawings for Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination remain timelessly haunting, and young Maurice Sendak in his formative years as an artist.
My favorite illustrations come from a duo of female artists, Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, working together in the 1920s and 1930s – the sort of work that incorporates, even pioneers, elements of graphic design just as the discipline was being coined – the influence of which can even be seen in contemporary art such as Jillian Tamaki's illustrations of Irish myths and legends:
Illustration for 'The Snow Queen' by Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, 1929
Illustration for 'The Snow Queen' by Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, 1929
Beyond the beautiful art, however, what made – and keeps – Andersen a singular force of storytelling is something else: Unlike the Grimms – literary scholars and linguists who, rather than traveling the countryside to gather first-hand oral folktales, relied on a handful of trusted sources – Andersen came of age as a peasant amidst a highly superstitious society, in a small town of 8,000 more akin to a medieval city than a European hub of culture, in which tales were used as both entertainment and moral education. Not only were his stories authentic culturally, they were also largely his own – also unlike the Grimms, who retold existing tales, historians estimate that only seven of Andersen's 200 tales were borrowed.
Illustration for 'The Darning Needle' by Maurice Sendak, 1959
From a young age, Hans felt a deep sense of loneliness and inadequacy, finding refuge in the asylum's spinning room while his peers took to the playground. Luckily, his father, poor as he was, loved literature and owned a cupboard of books – rare luxury given both the family's income and their cultural environment. Though he died when Hans was only eleven, he would read the little boy stories and plays constantly, providing him with a makeshift education at once uncommon and unlikely. Later, writing in his diary, Hans described reading as his "sole and most beloved pastime." It was this confluence of reading and listening that made him the great storyteller he became. Editor Noel Daniel writes in the introduction:
Reading suited Andersen's temperament and powers of imagination to a T. But Andersen was also a great listener – in the spinning room of the asylum, to his father's story time, to the actors of the theater he adored. He listened acutely to the characters and voices around him, and it trained his ear. He developed an inner ear for the sights and sounds of whole imaginary worlds, like the haughty tone of the deluded sewing needle in "The Darning Needle," or the emperor's comical inner monologue of self-doubt in "The Emperor's New Clothes," or the little silver bells in the palace that "tinkled so that no one could pass by without noticing them" in "The Nightingale."
Illustration for 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier' by Kay Nielsen, Danish, 1924
Most compelling of all his tales, however, is Andersen's own rags-to-riches story: Poor commonfolk as he was by birth, he was relentlessly determined to be a success. Daniel writes:
'I will become famous,' Andersen wrote in his diary, underscoring that his professional drive to greatness was not the polite narcissism of the restrained and well educated. His drive to greatness ran deep in the troubled psychic waters of his soul. Rarly on, his patrons recognized a powerful self-confidence in Andersen. He possessed a gritty drive to perform, a marvelous soprano voice (before it cracked), a gift for telling stories, and, along with all of this, an irritating ego.
Part of Andersen's genius lay in his ability to somehow perceive, while growing up in the poorest corner of Odense, that high society was mobile enough that if he cracked it, he would go far. He armored himself with steely ambition, an electric imagination, and not an ounce of stage fright. . . .
Illustration for 'The Little Mermaid' by Czech artist Josef Palecek, 1981
Modern psychology could easily reverse-engineer the two things that made Andersen live up to his aspiration: On the one hand, the creative power of "positive constructive daydreaming" as he escaped into the spinning room and learned to listen, and his unrelenting grit on the other. Even so, to break into high society, he still had to endure the humiliating ghost of his socioeconomic caste and to cultivate that vital capacity for courage in the face of rejection. Daniel explains:
Royal patronage dependent on good breeding and connections was way out of Andersen's league, and his path to success was fraught with deprivation and repeated rejection. But incredibly, he persisted. Ultimately, he was noticed by the director of the Royal Theater, Jonas Collin, who helped secure a royal stipend for the teenager. What followed was a painful five-year period of being schooled with eleven-year-olds when Andersen was seventeen at the insistence of his sponsors. They had demanded that he either get a proper education before advancing as a writer, or go home and learn a trade. The latter had been the fate of his father and was absolutely out of the question for Andersen.
One of the earliest illustrations of Andersen's fairy tales, by British artist Eleanor Vere Boyle for an 1872 edition of 'Thumbelina'
Illustration for 'The Swineherd' by Dutch artist Einar Nerman, 1923
And yet despite the humiliation, Andersen found in the experience just enough positive reinforcement to plow forward. Thanks to Denmark's monarchic rule, the country – unlike its European peers, intensely focused on politic and economic development – was in the midst of a Golden Age of creative culture and the arts, so with Collin's help, Andersen was able to secure an artist's allowance, which gave him some freedom to hone his writing. But even when he did eventually break into the upper ranks of society through his tireless efforts – in his lifetime, he would become Denmark's most renowned author and would frequently keep the company of kings – Andersen remained weighed down by his uneasy sense of insufficiency, the same feeling of un-belonging that drove him to the spinning room while his friends played outside. Daniel puts it beautifully, if heartbreakingly:
Andersen was forever dancing between self-assuredness and feelings of inferiority and emotional vulnerability. He never escaped feeling unequal to the royals, celebrities, and dignitaries he socialized with as his fame grew, writing in his diary, "I had and still have a feeling as though I were a poor peasant lad over whom a royal mantle is thrown."
Illustration for 'The Ugly Duckling' by Dutch artist Theo van Hoytema, 1893
So when he wrote in The Ugly Duckling that "being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan's egg," Andersen was making an oblique, melancholy comment about his own journey. Perhaps it was out of this feeling, coupled with his ability to "listen completely" and remain in touch with his own childlike openness to the experience of the world, that he invented a whole new sensibility of children's storytelling, which Daniel so aptly terms "children's stories for children's sake" – a radical shift from the tradition of morality tales that preceded Andersen, and far removed from the Grimms' academic interest in language and imagery. Instead, Andersen crafted tales that were both dreamy and warmly relatable to children, building worlds at once emotionally complex and driven by an intuitive logic. Daniel captures the uniqueness of Andersen's microcosm:
Contemporary readers might find it hard to imagine just how different Andersen's tales were from those before him. They were beautifully paced and passionate, at times sorrowful and full of pathos, and at other times wickedly funny. Simply put, they were a pleasure to read, and they spoke directly to children's sensibilities rather than condescending to them. … While his introspection and sensitivity were imperfectly calibrated to the demands of his own life, Andersen had the ability to articulate desires petty and profound and make them into transcendent tales.
Illustrations by Japanese artist Takeo Takei, 1928
Illustrations by Japanese artist Takeo Takei, 1928
Andersen is even credited with exploring the unconscious long before Freud's seminal studies and presaging the sensibilities of twentieth-century Surrealism. Though Daniel doesn't draw the connection, it's easy to see even the seedlings of New Journalism in Andersen's focus on the subjective, which Daniel does note:
Andersen imbues a simple inkstand, a toy soldier, a bird, a pea, a spinning top with their own drives, blind spots, desires, arrogances, and courage. Andersen's characters are humanlike in their passions as well as their frailties, and often have a slightly kinked perspective, unable to see their real fate or position, as if Andersen was shining a light on the limitations of our own human subjectivity. In this way, perhaps the real subject of his tales is the inescapable condition of subjectivity as the essence of human experience.
Illustration for 'The Snow Queen' by Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, 1929
The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen is absolutely exquisite, both as a typical Taschen masterwork of visual craftsmanship and as a timeless cultural treasure of storytelling by and meta-storytelling about one of history's greatest creative heroes.
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If you've ever known someone who committed suicide, or have contemplated it yourself, or have admired a personal hero who died by his or her own hand, please oh please read this. Because, as Jennifer Michael Hecht so stirringly argues in Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It (public library), numerous social science studies indicate that one of the best predictors of committing suicide is knowing suicide – a fact especially chilling given more people die of suicide than murder every year, and have been for centuries. Suicide kills more people than AIDS, cancer, heart disease, or liver disease, more men and women between the ages of 15 and 44 than war, more young people than anything but accident. And beneath all these impersonal statistics lie exponential human tragedies – of those who died, and of those who were left to live with their haunting void.
To be sure, Hecht's interest in the subject is far from the detached preachiness such narratives tend to exude – after two of her dear friends, both fellow writers, committed suicide in close succession, she was left devastated and desperate to make sense of this deceptively personal act, which cuts so deep into surrounding souls and scars the heart of a community. So she immersed herself in the science, philosophy, and history of suicide searching for answers, emerging with an eye-opening sense of everything we've gotten wrong about suicide and its prevention. She writes:
As I examine the history of how, in the West, we have understood self-killing, I also will put forward what might seem to be a contrarian position, a nonreligious argument against suicide. It is a philosophical argument but parts of it can or even must be told in terms of history, and parts must be demonstrated through modern statistics. One of the arguments I hope to bring to light is that suicidal influence is strong enough that a suicide might also be considered a homicide. Whether you call it contagion, suicidal clusters, or sociocultural modeling, our social sciences demonstrate that suicide causes more suicide, both among those who knew the person and among the strangers who somehow identified with the victim. If suicide has a pernicious influence on others, then staying alive has the opposite influence: it helps keep people alive. By staying alive, we are contributing something precious to the world.
Hecht argues that, historically, our ideologies around suicide have set us up for "an unwinnable battle": First, the moralistic doctrines of the major Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam condemned suicide as a sin that "God" forbids, one more offensive than even murder because you were stealing directly from divinity with no time left for repentance – a strategy based on negative reinforcement, which modern psychology has demonstrated time and again is largely ineffective. Then came The Enlightenment, whose secular philosophy championed individual agency and, in rebelling against the blind religiosity of the past, framed suicide as some sort of moral freedom – a toxic proposition Hecht decries as a cultural wrong turn. Reflecting on such attitudes – take, for instance, Patti Smith's beautiful yet heartbreaking tribute to Virginia Woolf's suicide – Hecht makes the case, instead, for two of history's relatively unknown but potent arguments against suicide: That we owe it to society and to our personal communities to stay alive, and that we owe it to our future selves:
Both religious and philosophical writers have written marvelous things about both these ideas, but they are often in the background. The reason is that a foreground argument has gotten all the press: Religious people have tended to lean heavily on the argument that God forbids suicide. Meanwhile, in response, secular, philosophical people have insisted that we are free to take our own lives. In my experience, outside the idea that God forbids it, our society today has no coherent argument against suicide. Instead, many self-described open-minded, rationalist, sophisticated thinkers emphatically defend people’s right to do it. How did the secular philosophical worldview come to claim people’s right to suicide? How did those in the modern world – who fight death so fiercely elsewhere – come to accept or at least leave unchallenged an ideology that kills? The answer is a fascinating story of a reaction against religion that somewhat accidentally led to a dark fatalism.
She traces the evolution of these attitudes:
Religion took a wrong turn by relying so heavily on divine disapproval of suicide, and on corporal (even postmortem) punishment of the offender, and secular philosophy took a wrong turn when it concluded that without God and religion, man was his own master and thus people should be free to kill themselves.
The Enlightenment enhanced the value of the self above that of community and tradition and made of each man and woman an independent being. … Thus, built right into the world’s most momentous revolution about the value of average individual human beings was a mechanism by which they were invited to judge their own lives, possibly to find them without value or worth, and to end them.
The advance of modernity brought new concern for individual rights and private property, and these, as well as the rise of the scientific medical profession, began to have an effect on government policies. In the seventeenth century suicide had still been seen, in part, as the work of the devil. By the eighteenth, “melancholia” was the dominant term in discussing suicide – and melancholia was the purview of doctors. From the worst sin possible, suicide became relatively value neutral; it could even be seen as virtuous when enacted in protest against an insult to one’s ideals. By the twentieth century, there was a general sense among secularists that people had a right to suicide, and a right to make the decision on their own.
And yet our deep-seated unease about suicide is as old as antiquity can record: Even Plato, in crafting history’s best-known image of a suicide – Socrates's famous death scene – paradoxically had Socrates state in that very same dialogue that suicide is wrong. Plato's Socrates also urged his countrymen to stay alive because of what they owed their country and their fellow citizens. Even among the Enlightenment philosophers who condoned suicide as honorable, there were the essential voices of dissent, perhaps most notable of whom was Immanuel Kant with his moving meditations on the important relationship between the individual and society – he condemned suicide as an assault against humanity, an act by which you rob the universe of your own potential goodness. Hecht synthesizes:
We are humanity, Kant says. Humanity needs us because we are it. Kant believes in duty and considers remaining alive a primary human duty. For him one is not permitted to “renounce his personality,” and while he states living as a duty, it also conveys a kind of freedom: we are not burdened with the obligation of judging whether our personality is worth maintaining, whether our life is worth living. Because living it is a duty, we are performing a good moral act just by persevering. In one of the most crucial statements in the history of suicide, Kant writes: “To annihilate the subject of morality in one’s person is to root out the existence of morality itself from the world as far as one can, even though morality is an end in itself. Consequently, disposing of oneself as a mere means to some discretionary end is debasing humanity in one’s person.” Human beings must understand themselves as a force of good, a force of morality. As human beings, it is our job to preserve these ideals. This goes a step beyond Aristotle’s community or Rousseau’s reminder of survivor’s pain, and speaks instead of something larger. To be human is a powerful, profound thing that deserves a lot of patience.
Victor Hugo made that point even more poignantly when he wrote in Les Misérables:
Die, so be it, but don’t make others die. … Suicide is restricted. … As soon as it touches those next to you the name of suicide is murder.
Often people demand a great deal from themselves and their lives and are despondent when reality does not measure up. Milton has long been understood as having offered consolation for this affliction, reminding us that we do not always have a say in the role that we play in the world and that sometimes we must learn to see the service we are giving when we are doing nothing but waiting.
One particularly glaring modern disconnect Hecht points out is that while many people today don't subscribe to any religion, our culture's main argument against suicide remains about God. Instead, she seeks to excavate and reinstate those saner, sager historical arguments about suicide asserting "that it is wrong, that it harms the community, that it damages humanity, that it unfairly preempts your future self." Even the title of the book speaks to this conviction and the moral firmness with which Hecht believes we should address suicide, in such stark contrast with the Enlightenment's negligent permissiveness – it isn't titled Please, Stay, like a gentle invitation encouraging the desired behavior, but simply Stay, like a strict directive against the undesirable, a command issued to a dog who is about to do the wrong thing. (She offers, however, one important disclaimer: Her argument is about what's known as "despair suicide," or what she calls "darkness in the midst of life," and not about end-of-life management for the fatally ill. Nor is she passing judgment on those who have committed suicide. "I assign no blame to those already lost, I only feel sorrow for them," she writes.)
The firmness of Hecht's argument befits the findings of modern psychology – suicide is exceptionally socially harmful:
Throughout history an optimistic cavalcade of people has sidestepped the religious debate and put forward sound reasons to resist suicide based on each of our relationships to humanity, especially friends and family. Today’s sociological studies back up the historical claim that we need one another – or, rather, the specific claim that suicide causes suicides.
The most profound and chilling contagion of all, however, happens during childhood – Hecht cites a Johns Hopkins University study, which found that if a parent commits suicide before their child is 18, that child is threefold as likely to commit suicide at some future point as her peers with non-suicidal parents. (For some heartbreaking anecdotal evidence, look no further than Sylvia Plath – her son Nicholas, despite the timelessly life-affirming letters his father sent him and the charming children's books his mother wrote for him, took his own life at the age of 46; Plath had gassed herself to death when he was a year old.) Childhood incest survivors are also found to be particularly vulnerable to suicide, as are female rape victims, who are 13 times more likely to attempt suicide than the average women.
Reflecting on the social contagion of suicide, Hecht writes:
Rejecting suicide is a huge act within a community. I also think it changes the universe. Either the universe is a cold dead place with a little growth of sentient but atomized beings each all by him- or herself trying to generate meaning, or we are in a universe that is alive with a growth of sentient beings whose members have made a pact with each other to persevere.
Additionally, Hecht argues that the tenacity we develop as we endure even the most blinding of that "darkness in the midst of life" blossoms into a most valuable kind of character-building. She cites Keats, who called the world a "veil of soul-making":
Keats saw the terrible pain of life as necessary to the development of a full human being. While the heart suffers acutely, the mind is nurtured and matured through the information garnered by the anguished heart. In his extended metaphor there is no other way for a human being to be tempered into personhood. In that sense the world, with all its difficulties, is a school.
Childhood formed us all, and the more we suffered then, the harder it can be to accept ourselves as adults. True, the road to self-awareness is arduous. Some realizations bring us to low feelings much like grief, and much like grief the only solution is to live through it. We come out wiser on the other side. As Robert Frost wrote, “The only way around is through."
Nietzsche, too, argued that human suffering is necessary for the soul's growth and admonished against "the religion of comfortableness," which he believed hindered true happiness. Like Albert Camus, he envisioned happiness and unhappiness as "sisters and even twins that either grow up together or … remain small together":
Nietzsche urges us to see that human suffering is necessary, but what is not necessary is painfully regretting that suffering. Our condition hands us difficulty, and unless we are careful to stop ourselves, we add more difficulty to our lot by fearing and loathing that difficulty. We suffer and then hate ourselves for suffering. We are much better off accepting the pain, seeing it as universal, noting that it can be borne, and, when possible, expressing it.
Returning to those Enlightenment philosophers like Hume and Rousseau who opposed suicide as socially unjust, Hecht writes:
If you have any energy at all for participating in this world, perhaps live now only for those small kindnesses and consolations you can render. Perhaps seek to help those equally burdened by sadness. Confess your own sadness to those in sorrow. Your ability to console may be profound. The texts urge human beings to try to know that they are needed and loved. We all deserve each other’s gratitude for whatever optimism and joy we can hustle into this strange life by sheer force of personality, even by that most basic contribution, staying alive.
She later adds, referencing Hamlet's famous contemplation of suicide by way of "a bare bodkin":
It is an intellectual and moral mistake to see the idea of suicide as an open choice that each of us is free to make. The arguments against suicide ask us to commit ourselves to the human project. They ask humanity to set down its daggers and cups of hemlock and walk away from them forever. Let us be done with bare bodkins.
Citing David Foster Wallace – one of modern history's most worshipped, even fetishized fallen heroes, who shared some of the most memorable wisdom on life yet took his own at the age of 44 – Hecht points to his famous words on heroism and reframes it:
Often our courage is needed not to dramatically change reality but to accept it and persist in it.
She cites another celebrated author who took her own life, Anne Sexton, and this heartbreaking note on the pain of life, found in one of her letters:
I don’t want to live. … Now listen, life is lovely, but I Can’t Live It. I can’t even explain. I know how silly it sounds … but if you knew how it Felt. To be alive, yes, alive, but not be able to live it. Ay that’s the rub. I am like a stone that lives … locked outside of all that’s real. … I wish, or think I wish, that I were dying of something for then I could be brave, but to be not dying, and yet … and yet to [be] behind a wall, watching everyone fit in where I can’t, to talk behind a gray foggy wall, to live but to not reach or to reach wrong … to do it all wrong … believe me, (can you?) … what’s wrong. I want to belong. … I’m not a part. I’m not a member. I’m frozen.
Hecht pulls from it a universality that lies at the heart of her case against suicide:
Sexton’s expression of anguish is extraordinary. Yet such feelings are not uncommon. To live through this painful feeling is hard work and requires prodigious courage. That courage comes first from recognizing that we are not alone. Sexton’s confession here is of feeling cut off from community, yet she expresses something that a huge number of people experience. If we can grasp that commonality, the pain can become easier to bear.
Ultimately, Hecht argues for cultivating a culture of suicide resistance and attaching honor not to the act of suicide, as some Enlightenment philosophers did, but to perseverance itself. By equipping ourselves with alternative responses to life's suffering, she proposes, we'll work towards removing suicide from our list of options – a strategy that hopes to bar it as a psychoemotional possibility much like a barrier on a bridge can preempt the physical act of jumping. Optimizing for such a moment of pause, Hecht suggests, might be the small miracle that allows us to catch our breath and persevere:
If we can take suicide off the docket for the moment, that moment may turn out to be enough.
The very reason to do that, Hecht reiterates in returning to her core argument, is not for our present suffering selves but for each other. She puts it beautifully:
We are indebted to one another and the debt is a kind of faith – a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.
Stay is more than a must-read – it's a cultural necessity. Complement it with what the psychology of suicide prevention teaches us about controlling our everyday worries.
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