Rilke on the Only Courage Required of Us

What is courage?  For most of us, the word conjures images of valiant knights slaying dragons.  Courage— we believe— involves physical danger.

But courage, a derivative of the Old French “corage” meaning “heart,” rarely requires we put ourselves in peril.  Today our day-to-day lives don’t involve dramatic romances and epic battles.  In the modern world, our struggle is internal.  Rather than fight dragons or conquer faraway kingdoms, we face a more difficult task: mastering ourselves.

rilke & tree

In his unparalleled Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke redefines what it means to be courageous.  Courage isn’t solemn soldiers marching off to battle or noble knights jousting in a tournament, nor is it a grand display of masculine machismo or physical prowess— it’s the ability to meet the unfamiliar and unfathomable.

Why do people stay in loveless marriages— or worse— with cruel partners who mistreat them?  Why do millions stay in jobs they dislike and cities they loathe?

Because no fear is more fundamental to the human condition than fear of the unknown.  Moving to a new city, getting a new job, ending a relationship, even one that’s tumultuous and dysfunctional, demands we leave behind all we know.  If we move, we’ll have to say goodbye to our much-loved coffee shop and corner bistro— not to mention learn to navigate the labyrinth of numbered streets in a different concrete jungle.  If we leave our marriage, we’ll have to rebuild our lives…alone.  Too terrified to take a risk without knowing the outcome (what will happen if we get a divorce?  where will we live?  how will we manage on our own?  will we ever find love again or will we be doomed to eternally wander the planet alone?), we stay in the same city with the same lover.  After all, our city may be dull and our husband may have an awful temper but at least they’re familiar.  

But for Rilke, what separates the courageous from the cowardly is a willingness to leap into the unknown:

“This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.”

In a metaphor of startling beauty, Rilke suggests that though the human experience encompasses a range of emotions— the breathtaking heights of bliss and the devastating depths of despair— many of us refuse to voyage beyond our safe, familiar corner of the world.  But to be dauntless, we must dare to explore the dark, at times distressing, dungeons of our souls:

“But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.  For if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth.  In this way they have a certain security.  And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells.”

woman in the interior

“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tired together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?” the great German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche once wondered.  Poet and painter Kahlil Gibran agreed that pain was inseparable from pleasure; to know love, you must know loss, to know joy, you must know sorrow.

If the beauty and wretchedness of life are two corresponding, if opposite, halves of the same whole, we must embrace— rather than run from— what is difficult.  Losing a loved one, being rejected for a job: the toughest experiences have the greatest to teach us.  A messy breakup, a demanding boss, a roommate who’s an inconsiderate slob challenge us to be braver and bolder versions of ourselves:

“If only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.  How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses?  Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

Letters to a Young Poet is a gem of wisdom that will inspire you to follow the beckoning of your muse.  If you want more indispensable writing wisdom, rejoice in Brenda Ueland’s timeless If You Want to Write, which gave us art as infectionwhy Van Gogh painted irises and night skiesthe qualities of good writingthe importance of idleness to creativity, and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  Feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of your next project?  Read Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments— just one of many soul-sustaining lessons from Bird by Bird, her much-beloved instruction manual for writing and for life.  Struggling to edit your work?  Revisit Annie Dillard on maintaining objectivity and having the courage to cut, an excerpt from her exquisite, emboldening memoir The Writing Life.

Rilke on the Importance of Patience to Creative Work

Is there any value we so underrate as patience?  In our accelerated age of bullet trains andRilke & Moscow high speed internet, we demand instant gratification.  The slightest delays trigger head-splitting frustration.  If our friend is five minutes late for coffee or, god forbid, our web browser takes more than a split second, we feel an exasperation far out of proportion to the event.  This need for speed doesn’t just apply to petty things like coffee dates and internet connections.  We expect the big things— a fulfilling career, a loving, long-term relationship— to be delivered to our doorstep with the swiftness of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.  When we have to devote more time and effort to our dreams than we originally anticipated, we get discouraged and want to give up.  Why after an entire month of dating have we not met that special someone?  We’ve sifted through countless lame pick-up lines on OkCupid, suffered hours of strained conversation over fettuccine and red wine…shouldn’t we have found the “one” by now?  We forget that in the face of eternity a mere 3o days is laughably minuscule.

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time,” the wise Maria Popova once wrote.  No one needs to be reminded of this more than artists.  If we labor for years putting pen to paper and never win acclaim, we begin to wonder: why write at all?  why dedicate endless hours to writing a book— or composing a poem or molding a sculpture— if we never publish our work or win a Pulitzer?  What if we work and work and work and never win the recognition we so desperately desire?  What if we die penniless in a gutter like Edgar Allan Poe or in shameful obscurity like Vincent Van Gogh?

As artists, we tend to measure our creativity by a clock.  By 30, we resolve, we’ll have written the great American novel; by 40, we’ll have secured our place in literary history among giants like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Our dreams sparkle with the grandiosity of youth.  But when we get older and fail to realize these lovely— if unrealistic— ambitions, we want to throw away our notebooks.  Why haven’t we landed on the New York Times’s bestseller list or won a Man Booker?  Shouldn’t we be further along by now? 

rilke tree

In his profoundly wise and tenderly beautiful Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke argues that if we want to be artists, we have to relinquish our need for reward.  When budding young poet Franz Kappus writes to him seeking counsel, Rilke tells him to stop measuring his progress in earthly time.  Rather than demand his life unfold according to some rigid timeline, he should be patient and have faith: all the days spent devotedly writing at his desk, all the hours spent pouring over other people’s poetry would one day add up to something.  The artist doesn’t insist that he attain certain things by certain dates— he simply creates.  As Rilke writes, 

“In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.  Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come.  It does come.  But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.  I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

For more from Letters to a Young Poet, read Rilke on how to know you’re an artist.  If you want more exquisitely written writing advice, revisit Brenda Ueland on art as infectionwhy Van Gogh painted irises and night skiesthe qualities of good writingthe importance of idleness to creativity, and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  If you want more insight into the writing life, read The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, a compendium of invaluable conversations with writers as esteemed as Anne SextonMaya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.

Rilke on How to Know You’re an Artist

Rilke & MoscowHow can you know you’re an artist?  In the most literal sense, an artist is one who has artistic talent.  Those gifted with the ability to write and paint and draw are obviously artists.  But do all artists share a common psychological makeup?  Do they possess something the rest of us don’t— receptive minds, attentive eyes, and sensitive hearts?  Is there any truth to the myth that to create is to suffer?  must artists undergo a lifetime of agony for their art?  Is the artist always a tragic, tormented figure?  a Plath with her head in the oven or an alcoholic Fitzgerald? 

No one is more tortured by this question than those who aspire to make art.  In what is perhaps the loveliest book ever written about writing, Letters to a Young Poet, budding young poet Franz Kappus seeks the counsel of the great Rainer Maria Rilke.  How, he wondered, could he know he was meant to be a writer?  Like many aspiring artists, Kappus wanted validation: validation of his work, validation of his talent.  Though over the course of their decade-long correspondence Rilke never confirmed his protege was an “artist” (I doubt the always humble German poet would imagine himself qualified to either grant or deny someone such a title), he did challenge Kappus to uncover answers for himself.  How could Kappus know he was meant to put pen to paper?  In a passage of elevating beauty and emboldening encouragement, Rilke asserts a writer is simply someone who must write:

“You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now.  No one can advise or help you— no one.  There is only one thing you should do.  Go into yourself.  Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.  This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?  Dig into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this strong, solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

In our carrots-and-sticks culture, we’re driven by rewards: we work hard because we want to climb the corporate ladder and one day have a corner office; we diligently study Keats and Shelley— not because we genuinely care about Romantic poetry— but because we want an “A” in our survey literature course.  But such extrinsic motivation has no place in art.  Being an artist isn’t a job or career— it’s a calling, a fate bestowed upon us by the universe.  If we find, as Kappus did, that we must create, we have an obligation to honor our gifts— even if our book never makes the New York Times bestseller list.  “No one becomes an artist unless they have to,” the beautiful but murderous poet Ingrid reminds her daughter in the haunting White Oleander.  Or as Rilke would say, being an artist is a cross a select few must bear:

“Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist.  Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from the outside.”

Letters to a Young Poet has inspired generations of artists and will continue to inspire generations more.  If you want more stirring words to set your soul alight, delight in the free-spirited Brenda Ueland on art as infection, why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies, the qualities of good writing, the importance of idleness to creativity, and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  If you want advice from more modern literary lights, read The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, a compendium of invaluable conversations with writers as esteemed as Anne Sexton, Maya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.  Long to add still more tools to your warehouse of writing wisdom?  Visit Ernest Hemingway on the secret of seduction, John Hersey on the impact of understatement, and Sylvia Plath on the unifying power of a recurring image.

Kahlil Gibran on Pain as Our Greatest Gift

Why do we feel pain?  Evolutionarily, pain has been essential to our survival.  When our the prophetNeanderthal ancestors suffered a brutal wound from a saber-toothed tiger or pricked their finger on a thorn, their pain receptors sent a message straight to their cerebral cortex: “Ouch, that hurts!”  The result?  Over many millennia, homo sapiens learned to associate pain with high-risk activities like hunting for caribou on the African veldt and chasing rabbits into a rose bush.  Pain is a distress signal: when we hear the sudden shriek of its alarm bells, we know to stop.  The child who ignores his mother’s warning and touches a hot stove, for example, will learn stove = burn. Pain is our body’s way of protecting us.

But when we’re crushed by the magnitude of a colossal loss like the death of a loved one or a terrible break up, we want one thing and one thing only— for the pain to stop.  “When will it end?” is the most common question among the bereaved and brokenhearted.  “A month from now?  six months from now?  a year?”  We want to calculate grief with the certainty of a math theorem, to compress it into a manageable slot in our calendar.

“How long does it take to get over someone?” I surveyed friends and countless advice columns after I broke up with my boyfriend of ten years.  Some proposed tired-and-true formulas: “Half the length of the relationship.”  “Fuck,” I thought to myself, “that means I’ll be feeling this devastated/inconsolable/not-quite-normal for another five years!”  Others offered concrete lengths of time as if grief were an independent rather than dependent variable in an algebra problem: “You just need a year,” several friends reassured me in the desperate dimness of our local dive bar.

Certainly a year was more bearable than five but it still sounded intolerable.  How could I withstand another 365 days of pitying glances from concerned family and friends?  How could I cope with another 365 mornings of an empty bed?  How could I endure another 52 unoccupied weekends where there were once movie nights and day trips and dog walks?  In short, how could I go on?

The pain of a breakup is so excruciating because mementos of our former lover are everywhere: on the quiet neighborhood street along our normal walking route, among heads of cabbage at the grocery store.  I felt my boyfriend’s absence when I opened the wrinkled pages of a beloved book and found the Rilke poem he wrote inside the front cover, when I chanced upon a mug he bought me in the cupboard.  Standing in my kitchen, a peanut butter jar might remind me of an affectionate nickname we had for each other, a bottle of Absinthe might call to mind our first trip abroad.  Driving along the jagged cliffs of Highway 1 on a breezy spring day, I’d recall us cruising along the same road and stopping at the beach to watch the sunset on a similar day many years before.  The copy of The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway on my bookshelf incited feelings of sorrowful regret (“Would I ever find someone that thoughtful again?” I wondered) while the succulent near my kitchen window reminded me of his passion for the outdoors.  At certain times of the week when we had traditionally done things together, there was a tragic disparity between the blissful past and lonesome, loveless present: Friday nights brought back dinners at our favorite Korean restaurant; Saturday afternoons, long, leisurely strolls through the park; weekday nights, reading in the sort of companionable silence only possible when you’re deeply in love.

Sometimes the pain of losing my boyfriend was a dull ache; other times it was a steady, relentless throb.  On some days, it was a sudden, sharp twinge; on other days, it was a punch to the gut.  Occasionally my pain was only a minor inconvenience like the sting of paper cut; more often, it had the stabbing intensity of a knife through the heart.

During those terrible months, I just wanted the suffering to stop.  I was tired of feeling wretched all the time, tired of bursting into tears at the sound of a song.  I longed for warm weather, cloudless blue skies, fields of chrysanthemums but I was engulfed in a winter storm.  Bitter winds whipped my skin, temperatures dropped.  Would I ever again behold the blossoms of spring, I wondered, or was I eternally condemned to this dark season of the soul?

gibran mystical hand

In his 1923 masterwork, The Prophet, poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran suggests spring always arrives even if winter feels interminable.  Rather than bolt from pain— or desensitize it with familiar vices such as pills or Pap’s Blue Ribbon or promiscuous sex in cheap motels and grimy bathroom stalls— Gibran advises we accept the lessons it has to teach us.  Pain not only enlarges our hearts, it makes joy possible:

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.”

When we experience grief or loss, the first thing we do is feel sorry for ourselves.  “Why, oh why,” we cry melodramatically, “is this happening to us?”  Shattered and stunned, we look to the cosmos and curse the cruel, sadistic gods.  What did we do to deserve such an unfortunate fate?  How could life so heartlessly take away our husbands and jobs?

Instead of collapse into self-pity, Gibran asks us to remember that our trials and tribulations are gifts— not punishments— from God:

“Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”

The Prophet is an indispensable guide to the good life.  If you want more of Gibran’s breathtakingly beautiful and endlessly wise insights into life, revisit him on joy and sorrow, labor as a form of love and love as our most demanding work.

 

Kahlil Gibran on Joy & Sorrow

“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much asthe prophet possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?” the great German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche once wondered.  We usually think opposites are the antithesis of each other when— in fact— one contains the other.  Before the hope of a new dawn, there is the darkness of dusk; before birth, death; before calm, a storm.  Pleasure cannot exist without pain; love cannot exist without loss.  How wonderful, we think, to wipe Mondays forever from our calendars!  Yet we can only have the giddy anticipation of clocking out on Friday if we have the existential dread of returning to the office three days later. 

Poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran ponders this puzzling paradox in The Prophet, his 1923 masterwork.  Though we often want to escape the pain of distressing emotions— despair, heartbreak, anger, sadness, grief— we have to endure the wilderness to eventually arrive at the promised land of happiness and healing.  As Gibran writes, in order to experience the ecstatic elation of joy, we must first experience the despondency of sorrow: 

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.”

Which is more powerful: joy or sorrow?  comfort and calm or angst and anguish?  bliss or hell?  Gibran contends joy and sorrow are not irreconcilable antipodes— they’re two corresponding, if opposite, halves of the same whole:

“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”  

joy & sorrow

Longing for more gushing beauty and poised poetry?  Delight in Gibran’s timeless wisdom on pleasure and pain, labor as a form of love, and love as our most demanding work.

Kahlil Gibran on Labor as a Form of Love

Since God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, work has been understood as burdensome toilthe prophet.  Though the nature of work has changed over the centuries, our conception of work has largely remained the same since the Bible.  Both the 19th century factory worker and the 20th century accountant understood work as a necessary evil: if they wanted roofs over their heads and food on their tables, they had to work, whether that be for 12 backbreaking hours a day in the wretched conditions of a soot-covered textile mill or for 40 hours a week staring at a screen in the mind-numbing monotony of a cubicle.  As positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed in his groundbreaking Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, we view work as “an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of our freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible.”

But though the majority of us consider work drudgery, a job can be more than an obligatory occupation done to pay the bills: it can be an act of service, a demonstration of our deepest convictions, an expression of our truest selves.

In his timeless classic The Prophet, poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran argues we should reframe our attitude toward work.  Why?  Because when we dread Monday mornings at the office, when we spend our days shooting crumbled paper into trash cans and bitterly composing what we think are pointless emails, work feels futile.  But when we work with love and devoted attention, when we connect what we do to a higher meaning, our labor— and our lives— seem more worthwhile:

“And all work is empty save when there

is love;

And when you work with love you bind

yourself to yourself, and to one another,

and to God.”

adam & eve

What, exactly, does it mean to work with love?  For Gibran, working with love is working with a lover’s tenderness and an artist’s attention.  Rather than hurry through mundane tasks, we should treat the commonplace chores of life as if they were consecrated.  If we’re washing dishes at a restaurant, we should scrub each dish as if it were to be the place setting for a glorious banquet held in our significant other’s honor.  If we’re brewing coffee as a barista, we should prepare each cappuccino as if it were a hand-crafted indulgence for our lover.  And if we’re at our 9-to-5 office job, we should act as if we’re writing an expressive, heartfelt letter to our beloved— not just another humdrum email.  As Gibran writes, working with love is:

“…to weave the cloth with threads

drawn from your heart, even as if your

beloved were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even

as if your beloved were to dwell in that

house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap

the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved

were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion with

a breath of your own spirit.”

Labor can be a poignant expression of love.  Through our work, we serve our fellow man: the farmer sows the seeds and reaps the harvest that feeds nations, the doctor heals the wounded and tends to the sick.  Yet most of us begrudge work.  Take a school teacher who views herself as a glorified babysitter.  She loathes writing lesson plans and resents every Saturday night she has to decline an invitation to grade midterms.  Eventually her students get the sense that she doesn’t care and they stop caring altogether.  They read her perfunctory comments scribbled in embittered red ink on their terms papers and— rather than really reflect on how they can do better— only put forth the bare minimum of effort on their next paper.  After all, why would they want to learn the Pythagorean theorem or Einstein’s theory of relativity, why would they devote the time and energy required to memorizing their timetables or composing a beautifully-crafted, logically sound essay, if their own teacher obsessively monitors the minutes until class is over?  In some of the 20th century’s most breathtakingly beautiful prose, Gibran asserts bitterness transforms what could be a noble act of service into obligatory, much despised labor:

“For if you bake bread with indifference,

you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half

man’s hunger.

And if you grudge the crushing of the

grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the

wine.

And if you sing though as angels, and

love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears

to the voices of the day and the voice of

the night.”

For more of Gibran’s enduring wisdom, contemplate his lovely meditations on joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, and love as our most demanding work.

Kahlil Gibran on Love as Our Most Demanding Work

 

Though we’re told relationships require we sacrifice our independent identities, a loving, lastingthe prophet union is only possible if both partners preserve their own separate sense of selves.  Real love not the idealized love peddled by Hollywood and Hallmark cardsis a union of two autonomous I’s: it’s a concentration, not a dilution, of self.  As prolific poet and dedicated diarist Sylvia Plath once wrote, love is not one person eclipsing another but a coming together of “two over-lapping circles, with a certain strong riveted center of common ground, both with separate arcs jutting out in the world.”

Relationships cannot complete us nor can they rescue or redeem.  We might imagine love— to borrow the lovely words of Edna St. Vincent Millay— can “clean the blood” and “set the fractured bone” but love cannot mend the broken soul.  Despite prevailing myth, prince charming will never gallop in on a white horse and save us; we have to save ourselves.

And though we romanticize love as champagne and chocolate and roses, love is difficult, at times, unbearably so.  For every romantic proposal of marriage, there’s a heart-wrenching divorce; for every declaration of undying devotion, a broken promise; for every tender kiss and affectionate nickname, a spiteful word and slammed door.  Love demands we let down our defenses and allow another to penetrate the usually impenetrable fortress of our hearts.  When we love someone, we’re essentially lowering a drawbridge so they can sidestep our moats.  If we let them infiltrate our castle, we risk being heartbroken when they leave or otherwise betray us.  Ultimately, to open ourselves to love is to open ourselves to loss.  As the great Rilke once said, “For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”  

The inherent difficulty of loving is what poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran explores in his breathtaking masterpiece The Prophet, a trove of wisdom on such timeless topics as joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, love and work.  In one of his most beloved passages, Gibran implores us to obey love, though it always has the capacity to hurt:

When love beckons to you, follow him,

     Though his ways are hard and steep.

     And when his wings enfold you yield to

him,

     Though the sword hidden among his

pinions may wound you.

     And when he speaks to you believe in

him,

     Though his voice may shatter your dreams

as the north wind lays waste the garden.

     For even as love crowns you so shall he

crucify you. Even as he is for your growth

so is he for your pruning.

     Even as he ascends to your height and

caresses your tenderest branches that quiver

in the sun,

     So shall he descend to your roots and

shake them in their clinging to the earth.

     Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto

himself.

     He threshes you to make you naked.

     He sifts you to free you from your husks.

     He grinds you to whiteness.

     He kneads you until you are pliant;

     And then he assigns you to his sacred

fire, that you may become sacred bread for

God’s sacred feast.” 

gibran painting

Since biblical times, man has imagined himself the almighty ruler of the universe.  God, we believed, made us in his likeness and gave us dominion over sea and earth.  Unlike the beasts and babes, he endowed us with disproportionately large brains.  Over the course of our history, we’ve accomplished extraordinary feats from painting the Sistine Chapel to cloning sheep.  Yet despite our impressive artistic and scientific achievements, we’re not all-powerful or all-knowing.  No matter how hard we try to unravel the mighty mysteries of love, certain things will always lie beyond our control or understanding: we can never command passion or know why, exactly, we prefer brunettes to blondes.  As Gibran reminds us, we’re not at the helm of our own hearts:

     “And think not you can direct the course

of love, for love, if it finds you worthy,

directs your course.”

Gibran concludes with a list of commandments meant to embolden us to love despite its inseparability from loss.  In matters of the heart, he argues, we should resolve:

     “To melt and be like a running brook

that sings its melody to the night.

     To know the pain of too much tenderness.

     To be wounded by your own understanding of love;

     And to bleed willingly and joyfully.

     To wake at dawn with a winged heart

and give thanks for another day of loving;

     To rest at the noon hour and meditate

love’s ecstasy;

     To return home at eventide with gratitude;

     And then to sleep with a prayer for the

beloved in your heart and a song of praise

upon your lips.”

For more illuminating insights into love, read Alain de Botton on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionmentdating as a form of performative playacting, love as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning significance.  Disillusioned from one too many disastrous relationships?  Find hope in Mr. de Botton’s impassioned plea to never relinquish love.

Alain de Botton’s Case for Politeness

polite society

For most of human history, politeness was an admirable trait.  Belonging to polite society not only meant you were upper class— it meant you conducted yourself with refinement and taste.  The polite woman had exquisite manners: she knew how to maneuver her fork and knife, how to taste the caviar, how to elegantly sip her champagne.  And because she was worldly and well-traveled, she could effortlessly entertain.

However, our attitude toward politeness changed with the Romantic movement.  Because the romantics valued individual expression above all else, they viewed strict 19th century social customs as unhealthy constraints.  In the prim, prudish Victorian age, formal etiquette dictated every aspect of life from how you greeted your guests to how long you could acceptably chat with an acquaintance at a busy intersection.  A “lady” should only wear white gloves to dinner and never, never use both hands to raise her dress while crossing the street.  Perhaps most ironically, repressed Victorians believed “no topic of absorbing interest may be admitted to polite conversation” because “it might lead to discussion and debate.”

Rather than regard politeness as an indication of a kind and civilized person, the romantics saw it as a sign of superficiality.  Those courteous dignitaries and chic debutantes who knew the proper etiquette at parties were not well-bred— they were phony.  What society termed “politeness” was really just the Machiavellian ability to manipulate others for your own gain: those at society’s highest rungs only wrote darling thank you cards and threw extravagant soirees to increase their social standing.

In romantic thought, candor was a much more admirable trait.  According to the romantics, the individual was an instrument of God while society fettered the soul in chains.  Rather than restrain ourselves, they believed we should cast off the shackles of so-called social niceties: after all, why should we have to hold our tongue when our great uncle says something insensitive/borderline racist at Thanksgiving?  why should we refrain from discussing politics or religion for fear of offending?  and why, exactly, should we allow other people’s hypersensitivity limit our God-given right to self-expression and our democratically-protected right to free speech?

Today we continue to prefer candor to restraint.  In their revolt against political correctness, conservatives have pitted freedom of expression against civility and basic good taste.  While those on the right distrust politicians who equivocate in Washington’s too tactful doublespeak, they rally behind straight-shooters like Donald Trump because— not it spite of— his willingness to break the “countless unspoken rules regarding what public figures can or cannot say.”  The president’s disgusting comments about women and discriminatory proposal to ban Muslims don’t prove he’s a racist or misogynist or overall horrible human being— they prove he’s trustworthy.  “Look what he openly says about women and minorities!” Trump supporters must think, “he’ll tell it to us straight!”  Today “politically correct” has become a pejorative term associated with overly sensitive liberals and cowardly politicians who are too terrified to say what they mean.

victorian era manners

Though good old-fashioned politeness might be a relic of another age, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues respect is a tradition worth resurrecting.  In his latest volume The School of Life: An Emotional Education, the same seminar that taught us how to master the four criteria of emotional health, how books can be a balm for loneliness, how the sublime can give us greater perspective, how to be kind, and how to be charming, de Botton maintains it’s better to be too polite than too frank.  Unlike the frank person, who believes no occasion should call for self-censorship, the polite person recognizes many situations require they edit themselves.  The fact that they conceal parts of their character doesn’t make them deceptive or dishonest: it simply makes them considerate.  The polite person is all too aware there are many things about them that could disgust or otherwise offend:

“The polite person proceeds under grave suspicion of themselves and their impulses.  They sense that a great deal of what they feel and want really isn’t very nice.  They are indelibly in touch with their darker desires and can sense their fleeting wishes to hurt or humiliate certain people.  They know they are sometimes a bit revolting and cannot forget the extent to which they may come across as offensive and frightening to others.  They therefore set out on a deliberate strategy to protect others from what they know is within them.  It isn’t lying as such; they merely understand that being ‘themselves’ is a treat that they must take enormous pains to spare everyone else from experiencing— especially anyone they claim to care about.”

What separates the polite from the rest of us?  Rather than presume everyone is just like them, polite people realize others have their own opinions and preferences.  Though the polite host might prefer a refreshing pinot grigio to a buttery chardonnay, they are perfectly aware their guests might have different taste.  So what do they do?  They ask what their guests like better and accommodate:

“For their part, the polite person starts from the assumption that others are highly likely to be in quite different places internally, whatever the outward signs.  Their behavior is therefore tentative, wary and filled with enquiries.  They will explicitly check with others to take a measure of their experiences and outlook: if they feel cold, they are very alive to the possibility that you may be feeling perfectly warm and so will take the trouble to ask if you’d mind if they went over and closed the window.  They are aware that you might be annoyed by a joke that they find funny or that you might very sincerely hold political opinions quite at odds with their own.  They don’t take what is going on for them as a guide to what is probably going on for you.  Their manners are grounded in an acute sense of the gulf that can separate humans from one another.”

More than anything, polite people are sensitive people.  Though we live in a callous age where “sensitive” has become a derogatory word hurled at the easily offended, no quality is more important to human relationships.  The polite person exercises tact— not because they’re a phony people pleaser or cunning social climber— but because they know even the most self-possessed among us are insecure: an unreturned phone call, a dismissive grunt or mean-spirited joke, a cutting remark or harsh word has the profound capacity to hurt.  Lesson?  We should be sensitive because others are always teetering on the edge of a cliff— one small wind and they can descend into despair. 

Alain de Botton on How to Be Charming

What is charm?  Oscar Wilde— one of the most charismatic men in all of English letters— believed charm was the opposite of dullness; it’s “absurd to divide people between good and bad,” he wrote, “people are either charming or tedious.”  In his 1883 journal, philosopher and poet Henri-Frederic Amiel described it as the “quality in others that makes us more satisfied with ourselves” while statesmen Adlai Stevenson proposed “a beauty is a woman you notice; a charmer is one who notices you.”

Most of us imagine a charmer possesses an almost magical magnetism: they captivate crowds and their ravishing good looks attract many admirers.  The word itself evokes a certain picture: a dapperly-dressed man who regales whole cocktail parties with stories of his exciting adventures; a fashionable woman in a chic black dress and leather gloves whose dazzling wit and irresistible smile instantly make men fall in love with her.

As affable Americans, there’s nothing we admire more than charisma.  The movie stars we watch most devotedly, the politicians we most passionately campaign all share this seductive trait.  One reason we think so highly of charm is because we think it’s a gift granted to a select few; like those blessed with the ability to sing, the charming have a talent denied the rest of us.  Charisma is something you’re born with as innate as the color of your hair or the straightness of your teeth.

But despite what we may believe, charm is not encoded in our DNA— it’s a skill that can be refined and improved like a kindergartner’s ability to recite his ABCs.  In his crash course on emotional intelligence The School of Life: An Emotional Education, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues charm is a core competency essential to our functioning as human beings, whether we want to climb the corporate ladder or simply seduce our crush on the first date.  Below are his three steps to developing this delightful— if somewhat mysterious— trait:

how to be charming

1. be unafraid to be yourself

Courtship always involves some level of convivial but trifling chatter.  Rather than have a thoughtful philosophical discussion or meaningful heart-to-heart, first dates most often consist of a superficial getting-to-know each other.  As we sip chardonnay in the romantic haze of a candlelit dinner, conversation is limited to a few uncontroversial topics like what we do for work and where we’ve traveled.

Sadly, dating in the digital world is even more surface-level.  No longer do charming Romeos woo us in beauteous iambic pentameter; in our shallow swipe-right culture, dull-witted men bombard us with either tasteless sexual invitations or unimaginative “hey gorgeous, how are you?’s”.  As a newfound bachelorette trying to maintain my sanity amid such mind-boggling boredom, I got to thinking: what makes one suitor interesting and another a bore?

Though we think some people are just plain tiresome, de Botton would argue a truly boring person has never walked the earth; those we call “boring” are simply too afraid to be themselves.  Most of the men who open with a timid “hi, what’s up?” aren’t yawn-worthy bores— they’re just deeply terrified of making idiots of themselves.  But the most charming among us are willing to be weird.  After all, who do we find more interesting: the guy who resorts to the same lame questions and cliched compliments or the one who is honest about his quirks and his less-than-flattering characteristics?  Charm is strangeness, or as de Botton so elegantly phrases:

“At the heart of the shy person’s self-doubt is a certainty that they must be boring.  But, in reality, no one is ever truly boring.  We are only in danger of coming across as such when we don’t dare or know how to communicate our deeper selves to others.  The human animal witnessed in its essence, with honesty and without artifice, with all its longings, crazed desires and despair, is always gripping.  When we dismiss a person as boring, we are merely pointing to someone who has not had the courage or concentration to tell us what it is like to be them.  But we invariably prove compelling when we succeed in detailing some of what we crave, envy, regret, mourn and dream.  The interesting person isn’t someone to whom obviously and outwardly interesting things have happened, someone who has traveled the world, met important dignitaries or been present at critical geo-political events.  Nor is it someone who speaks in learned terms about the great themes of culture, history, or science.  They are someone who has grown into an attentive, self-aware listener and a reliable correspondent of their own mind and heart, who can thereby give us faithful accounts of the pathos, drama and strangeness of being them.”

vintage couple flirting

2. be vulnerable 

In many ways, to be human is to believe we’ll never be good enough.  How, we wonder, could anyone ever like, let alone love us?  Our nose is too large, our face isn’t entirely symmetrical, our abs aren’t perfectly chiseled.  And though we can at times be engaging and thoughtful, we have an equal capacity to be rude and inconsiderate, dull and insufferable.

Because we’re convinced we have to be perfect in order for other people to like us, we conceal these frailties and foibles.  No where is this more true than the romantic arena.  A first date is a masquerade ball where we conceal our real self: rather than display our melancholy and self-doubt, we try our best to appear confident and cheerful, emphasizing our accomplishments and avoiding anything too objectionable.  If we stick to safe conversation topics, if we refuse to divulge anything too loathsome about ourselves (that we sometimes suffer from depression, that we’re thirty and still not entirely sure what we want to do with ourselves), maybe, just maybe, our potential paramour will like us.

But what actually makes someone likable?  For Mr. de Botton, what distinguishes a disarming person from a disagreeable one is their ability to be imperfect, to be vulnerable.  After all, who do we adore more: the date who is wonderfully self-assured, who completely and utterly loves his life and his job or the one who openly shares the more tender, potentially shameful parts of his heart, his regrets and his fears, his insecurities and his self-doubts?  As de Botton writes:

“We get close by revealing things that would, in the wrong hands, be capable of inflicting humiliation on us.  Friendship is the dividend of gratitude that flows from an acknowledgement that one has offered something very valuable by talking: the key to one’s self-esteem and dignity.  It’s deeply poignant that we should expend so much effort on trying to look strong before the world when, all the while, it’s really only ever the revelation of the somewhat embarrassing, sad, melancholy and anxious bits of us that renders us endearing to others and transforms strangers into friends.”

vintage couple flirting #2

3. be a good listener

What do all disastrous dating experiences have in common?  A shortage of physical attraction?  An absence of chemistry?  Too many awkward silences and fumbling attempts at conversation?  At the bottom of every disappointing date is a lack of connection.  But how, exactly, do we establish a bond with someone, especially someone we don’t know very well?

De Botton maintains listening is essential to success not only in dating but in life in general.  We tend to think charmers are natural-born entertainers, those rare men and women who can spin a riveting tale or deliver an impeccably-timed joke, but the most charming people are actually better listeners than speakers.  Despite what many motormouth men may think, it’s deeply unattractive to dominate a conversation.  I know I find nothing more obnoxious than a man who talks exclusively about himself.  What woman wants to endure a dinner where her date barely pauses to sip a glass of wine or ask anything— and I mean anything— about her?

Sadly, many men miss out on the fundamental lesson of charm school: to be interesting, you have to be interestednot completely self-absorbed.  If you want to charm your crush, don’t boast about your salary or what kind of car you drive or blather on about your dreams or goals: ask about hers.  People love nothing more than talking about themselves.

Not only do charming people ask questions, they actually listen and care about our answers.  When they inquire why our last relationship ended, they don’t simply hear what we have to say and move on to the next unrelated question; they ask questions that build off each other.  If we reveal we broke up with our last boyfriend because he didn’t share our values, they’ll encourage us to elaborate: what values are important to us?  The result?  The conversation feels more natural and doesn’t take on the nerve-wracking, palm sweat-inducing quality of a job interview. 

In the end, the good listener understands the goal of a first date conversation, indeed, any conversation, is clarification: we exchange words not to impress or entertain but hopefully to shed some light on a potential partner.  Do they share our morals?  Do they have similar passions and interests?  Are they looking for the same things we are? 

Alain de Botton on How the Sublime Can Remind Us of Our Infinitesimal Place in the Grand Scheme of Things

storm-tossed sea

Since the Enlightenment era, we’ve sought to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos: how to harness nuclear power to obliterate entire nations of people, how to eradicate disease, how to defeat death itself.  In the last few hundred years, we’ve in many ways succeeded in this ambitious goal: we’ve discovered penicillin, we’ve built airplanes and railroads.

But though science gives us the illusion that we have command over the cosmos, we’re not sovereigns of the world.  Men are but one species of millions on Earth; our miraculous, mysteriously oxygenated marble of a planet is but one speck in an ever-expanding universe.  Each star in our sky is potentially another sun to another solar system.  No matter how invincible we imagine ourselves, a single catastrophe— a terrible earthquake, a devastating forest fire, a worldwide pandemic, a bloody war— reminds us what fragile creatures we are.  Humans are small sailboats in a storm-tossed sea: one strong gust of wind and we drown.

So how do we go on when faced with something so much mightier than we are, so beyond our control and so rife with uncertainty, be it the chance-governed universe or an international health emergency?  In his crash course on emotional intelligence The School of Life: An Emotional Education, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues the mighty— what sages and saints throughout time termed the “sublime”— can offer calm in a chaotic world.  The magnificence of a giant sequoia grove, the epic scale of the Grand Canyon, the scorched beauty of a burnt red-orange sunset in a southwest desert, the striking cliffs along the central California coast: each rid us of the arrogant belief that we’re the most all-powerful things in the cosmos.

We imagine the trivial dramas of our lives— the offhand comment our mother made about our disarray of dirty clothes, the quarrel we had with our lover over ravioli and red wine, the nerve-wracking choice between classic cream and deep beige for the dining room— are of serious consequence when in the grand scheme of things, they don’t much matter.  Our names will most likely not be found in textbooks (unless— that is— we manage to do something truly history-making like discover a cure for cancer or formulate an elegant mathematical theorem).  Schoolchildren will not study the stories of our lives or be captivated by the drama of our dating misadventures.  Chances are in a few centuries we’ll be forgotten— our entire existence reduced to a tombstone.

the sublime

While the idea that all will be buried beneath the sands of time is enough to bring on an existential crisis (after all, if nothing we do is of any consequence, isn’t life meaningless?  why live at all?), it can also be a profound relief.  If our mother makes snide comments about the cleanliness of our house, if we make the “wrong” choice and paint the dining room classic cream instead of deep beige— even if we make a more serious error and choose the wrong city or the wrong husband or the wrong career— the world will go on: the sun will set in the west and rise in the east, seeds will sprout and blossom, Earth will continue to spin on its axis at a thousand miles per hour through our wondrous, improbable universe.  When we gaze at the glorious spectacle of stars in the night sky (or any other marvel of nature), we can transcend our petty problems.  As de Botton writes:

“But there’s another way an encounter with the large-scale can affect us— and calm us down—that philosophers have called the “sublime.”  Heading back to the airport after a series of frustrating meetings, we notice the sun setting behind the mountains.  Tiers of clouds are bathed in gold and purple, while huge slanting beams of light cut across the urban landscape.  To record the feeling without implying anything mystical, it seems as if one’s attention is being drawn up into the radiant gap between the clouds and the summits, and that one is for a moment merging with the cosmos.  Normally the sky isn’t a major focus of attention, but now it’s mesmerizing.  For a while it doesn’t seem to matter much what happened in the office or that the contract will— maddeningly— have to be renegotiated by the legal team.

At this moment, nature seems to be sending us a humbling message: the incidents of our lives are not terribly important.”  

For more symposiums from the school of life, study culture as a cure for loneliness, the importance of kindness and the four criteria of emotional health.  If you want to chart the mysterious topography of the human heart, revisit de Botton on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.