Pema Chodron on Having the Courage to Grow Up

What does it mean to grow up?  Is it putting on a suit and tie and commuting an hour each way to work?  solemnly sipping black coffee over the morning paper?  getting married and buying a 3 bedroom house?

Most of us would say growing up means being responsible: adults pay their rent on the 1st of every month, they thoroughly research their options before investing in a washer and dryer, they have a retirement fund and plan for the future.  To be an adult, we have to make decisions with our heads, not our hearts: we have to resist buying the gorgeous Spanish-style bungalow because it’s way out of our budget and doesn’t even have a backyard; we have to logically assess the strengths and shortcomings of a potential partner rather than allow ourselves to be blinded by first love.

In her simply-worded guide to spiritual surrender Wisdom of No Escape, ordained Buddhist monk Pema Chodron argues growing up is facing a few fundamental— if frightening— facts: we are born alone, we’ll die alone, and we alone our responsible for our existence.  With equal parts tough love and gentle compassion, Chodron asserts it’s our duty to continuously push the boundaries of our comfort zone and leap out of the nest:

“In every human life (whether there are puberty rites or not) you are born, and you are born alone.  You go through that birth canal alone, and then a whole process begins.  And when you die, you die alone.  No one goes with you.  The journey that you make, no matter what your belief about that journey, is made alone.  The fundamental idea of taking refuge is that between birth and death we are alone.  Therefore, taking refuge in the buddha, the dharma, and the sangha does not mean finding consolation in them, as a child might find consolation in Mommy and Daddy.  Rather, it’s a basic expression of our aspiration to leap out of the nest, whether you feel ready for it or not, to go through puberty rights and be an adult with no hand to hold.  It expresses your realization that the only way to begin the real journey of life is to feel the ground of loving-kindness and respect for yourself and then to leap.  In some sense, however, we never get to the point where we feel one hundred percent sure, ‘I have had my nurturing cradle.  It’s finished.  Now I can leap.’  We are always continuing to develop maitri and continuing to leap.  The other day I was talking about meeting our edge and our desire to grab something when we reach our limits.  Then we see that there’s more loving-kindness, more respect for ourselves, more confidence that needs to be nurtured.  We work on that and keep leaping.”

the wisdom of no escape

Most of us possess a harsh inner critic who punishes us whenever we misbehave.  No matter how small the infraction— we send an email with “there” instead of “their,” we indulge in one too many glasses of wine before bed, we yield to the temptation to smoke despite our determined resolution to quit— our stern inner schoolmistress sends us to the corner for time-out, our shoulders slumped, a humiliating dunce cap on our heads.

Though it’s our job to assume complete responsibility for our lives, we must forgive ourselves when we falter.  Rather than relentlessly reprimand ourselves, we should be gentle.  After all, it’s terrifying to leave the comfort of the nest and spread our wings on our own.  When we’re courageous enough to interview for a new job or leave a twenty year marriage, what we need isn’t nasty disparagement or unmerciful censure, a slap on the wrist or whack with a ruler— we need loving-kindness, a reassuring hand and sympathetic squeeze on the shoulder.  It is nerve-wracking to interview for another position, it is overwhelming to end a long-term relationship and start over.  Just as exquisitely erudite British philosopher Alain de Botton insists self-love is the foundation of emotional health, Ms. Chodron believes difficulty is an invaluable opportunity to befriend ourselves:

“Taking refuge means that we feel that the way to live is to cut the ties, to cut the umbilical cord and alone start the journey of being fully human, without confirmation from others.  Taking refuge is the way that we begin cultivating the openness and goodheartedness that allow us to be less and less dependent.  We might say, ‘We shouldn’t be dependent anymore, we should be open,’ but that isn’t the point.  The point is that you begin where you are, you see what a child you are, and you don’t criticize that.  You begin to explore, with a lot of humor and generosity toward yourself, all the places where you cling, and every time you cling, you realize, ‘Ah!  This is where, through my mindfulness and my tonglen and everything that I do, my whole life is a process of learning how to make friends with myself.'”

boy in dunce cap - Version 2

Though courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to act in spite of it, we often scold ourselves for being afraid.  You sissy…you shouldn’t be scared!”  Yet fear is actually a sign we’re not cowards— if we’re afraid, we must be stepping outside our comfort zone.  Growing up means being brave enough to leave the comfort of mother’s nest and strike out on our own.  We become bigger, bolder versions of ourselves when we take monumental leaps, even minuscule steps, into the unknown:

“This need to cling, this need to hold the hand, this cry for Mom, also show that that’s the edge of the nest.  Stepping through right there— making a leap— becomes the motivation for cultivating maitri.  You realize that if you can step through that doorway, you’re going forward, you’re becoming more of an adult, more of a complete person, more whole.”

In Chodron’s philosophy, we have one purpose: to confront all aspects of the human condition with compassion and courage.  Recalling Rainer Maria Rilke’s lovely sentiment that “all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage,” Chodron asserts life’s trials have something to teach: our jealousy of a romantic rival, for instance, might reveal our lack of self-love, the schoolgirl insecurity we feel when we catch the man we love looking desirously at someone else might point to unresolved trauma and trust issues from being cheated on.  To be a bodhisattva, or spiritual warrior, we must face— rather than flee— the lessons our dragons have to impart:

“Working with obstacles is life’s journey.  The warrior is always coming up against dragons.  Of course the warrior gets scared, particularly before battle.  It’s frightening.  But with a shaky, tender heart the warrior realizes that he or she is just about to step into the unknown, and then goes forth to meet the dragon.  The warrior realizes the dragon is nothing but unfinished business presenting itself, and that it’s fear that really needs to be worked with.  The dragon is just a motion picture that appears there, and it appears in many forms: as the lover who jilted us, as the parent who never loved us enough, as someone who abused us.  Basically what we work with is our fear and our holding back, which are not necessarily obstacles.  The only obstacle is ignorance, this refusal to look at unfinished business.  If every time the warrior goes and meets the dragon, he or she says, ‘Hah!  It’s a dragon again.  No way I am going to face this,’ and just splits…[we] become more and more timid and more and more afraid and more of a baby.  No one’s nurturing you, but you’re still in that cradle, and you never go through your puberty rites.”

children playing sandbox - Version 2

More than anything, growing up means being in control of ourselves.  Unlike children, we can no longer get away with throwing temper tantrums in supermarkets or hurling petty insults at anyone who pisses us off.  As adults, it’s (unfortunately) no longer acceptable to call people “butt heads” or push the friend who hurts our feelings into the sandbox.  We have to maintain our composure, no matter what.

Sadly as many of us grow up, we develop emotional armor to protect ourselves from feeling much at all: we adopt a seemingly sophisticated cynicism to avoid getting our hopes up; we pretend not to care whether a new love interest calls.  Humans are a fragile species, helpless against a million and one threats: cancer diagnoses and heart attacks; Somali pirates and Islamic extremists; drunk drivers and plane crashes; dictators and genocides; money-hungry multi-national corporations and rigged elections; earthquakes and flash floods; world wars and pandemics.  We can’t defend ourselves against the inescapable sadness and suffering of existence.  To be vulnerable is the human condition.  Yet we spend our lives hiding behind a fortress.  Our defense mechanisms— our habit of making everything a joke, our unwillingness to get too close to people and open up— are bulwarks meant to protect us from being seen, being hurt, being judged.  But because we shut out potentially painful experiences like disappointment and rejection, we deny ourselves acquaintance with more exulted emotions like intimacy, connection and love.  To be truly alive, Chodron believes, we have to open— rather than shut down— our hearts:

“When you leave the cradle…you are in this beautiful suit of armor because, in some sense, you’re well protected and feel safe.  Then you go through your puberty rites, the process of taking off the armor that you might have had some illusion was protecting you from something, only to find that actually it’s shielding you from being fully alive and fully awake.  Then you go forward and meet the dragon, and every meeting shows you where there’s still some armor to take off.”

With simplicity and sagacity, Chodron suggests we all have our own choice of armor:

“I will spend my life taking this armor off.  Nobody else can take it off because nobody else knows where all the little locks are, nobody else knows where’s it’s sewed up tight, where it’s going to take a lot of work to get that particular iron thread untied.  I may have a zipper that goes right down the front and has padlocks all the way down.  Every time I meet the dragon, I take off as many padlocks as I can; eventually I’ll be able to take the zipper down.  I might say to you, ‘Simple.  When you meet the dragon you just take off one of your padlocks and then your zipper will come down.’  And you say, ‘What is she talking about?’ because you have sewn a seam up under your left arm with iron thread.  Every time you meet the dragon, you have to get out these special snippers that you have hidden away in a box with all your precious things and snip a few threads off, as many as you dare, until you start vomiting with fear and say, ‘This is enough for now.’…To the next person you meet, you say, ‘All you have to do is get your little snippers out of your precious box and you start—” and they look at you and say, ‘What is he talking about?’ because they have big boots that come all the way up and cover their whole body and head.  The only way to get the boots off is to start with the soles of the boots, and they know that every time they meet the dragon, they actually have to start peeling.  So you have to do it alone.  The basic instruction is simple: take off that armor.  That’s all anyone can tell you.  No one can tell you how to do it because you’re the only one who knows how you locked yourself in there to begin with.”

At the foundation of Wisdom of No Escape is the idea that we must wholeheartedly accept ourselves.  If you want more uplighting inspiration from Pema Chodron, read how to stay and how pain enlarges our hearts.  Want more enlightening Buddhist philosophy?  Learn how to live intentionally from Thich Nhat Hanh and how to entirely inhabit the present moment from Alan Watts.

Rilke on Possessing the Persistence to Wait

“Wait without hope,” modernist poet T.S. Eliot advised in 1941.  Mr. Eliot seems rather grim considering he wrote these words during history’s deadliest war: wait…without hope?  Where was the rousing patriotism and “never give in” determination of Winston Churchill?

Though it might seem defeatist to “wait without hope,” waiting isn’t pessimistic— it’s practical.  There are times in life— when you lose your life savings, when your mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, when your husband of twenty years leaves you— when waiting is all you can do. 

No book is a more comforting companion in despairing times than Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke’s life-affirming letters to budding young poet, Franz Kappus.  Suffering his own dark season of the soul, Kappus wrote seeking counsel.  When we are in that morose and  melancholy place, when the debilitating drizzle of depression drowns our will to go on, what— he wondered— did it take to live through the horror and the hopelessness to the other side, to penetrate the seemingly impenetrable darkness and find one small slant of light?

For Rilke, the answer was simple: have faith.  We have to trust that— no matter how devastating the dark of winter— spring always arrives.  If we simply wait, frost will melt, grass will grow, flowers will bloom.  Or as Rilke so beautifully writes:

 “You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.” 

rilke bench

When we feel forsaken in the desolation of the desert, what does it take to go on?  Anne Lamott, author of the much beloved classic Bird by Bird, contends we survive the wilderness by seeking shelter from the sweltering heat and searching for sources of water.  That means finding comfort in the small things: a cup of chamomile tea, a morning stroll through a picturesque landscape or charming park.  Poet of politics Rebecca Solnit urges us to simply do what we can.  Rilke offers a similar suggestion.  When Mr. Kappus confides he’s lonely and despondent, Rilke tells him to be kind with himself.  Like a patient who has fallen ill, he needs to be nursed back to health:

“In you, dear Mr. Kappus, so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like someone who is recovering; for perhaps you are both.  And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself.  But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait.  And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.”

Want more stirring wisdom to set your soul aloft?  Read Rilke on how to know you’re an artist, the importance of patience to creative work, and the only courage required of us.

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.