Epicurus on Consumption, Consumerism & What Is (and Isn’t) Required for Happiness

Black Friday.  Mall madness.  Deadly stampedes of Walmart shoppers determined to get half off a Samsung television set.  Black Friday is a carousal of consumption.  Companies flood our inboxes with sales (20% off!  30% off!  50% off!), encouraging us to splurge in the name of “saving” money.  Afraid of missing out on a “once-in-a-lifetime” deal, we buy far more than we actually need.

Why are we so consumed with consumption?

Because we think things will bring us happiness.

In his clever The Consolations of Philosophy, continually charming Alain de Botton uses the wisdom of ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus to refute this deluded, distinctly American notion.  According to Epicurus, only three things are absolutely essential to happiness: thought, freedom and friendship.

Despite the hedonistic associations of his name, Epicurus didn’t support the reckless pursuit of pleasure.  Though he appreciated the finer things in life, he also understood material wealth wasn’t necessary.  To be satisfied, one only needed enough money to provide for the basic requirements of living.

Before you excessively spend this Black Friday, Botton suggests you seriously consider a few questions: could you buy a Chanel bag or an expensive cashmere sweater and still not be happy?  Conversely, could you still experience some measure of satisfaction if you never procured the much-lusted after object?

When you ask yourself these questions, Botton contends, you’ll usually find the worldly objects you crave are not prerequisites for happiness.  If— after years of yearning— you finally acquire a Gucci 1961 Jackie bag, you will still be miserable if you and your husband are constantly fighting.  Similarly, a supremely soft cashmere sweater will offer little consolation if your father just had a heart attack.  You can be just as melancholic on a sun-soaked beach in the Caribbean as you are on a gloomy day in your cramped London apartment.  Lavish things and splendid surroundings do not guarantee contentment.

But why, if material objects cannot promise happiness, do we obsess about their attainment?  Why do we make making money the aim of our existence?

According to Botton, we seek solutions for spiritual problems in material objects.  Rather than organize our heads, we buy Tupperware to organize our cabinets.  Rather than pick up the phone and have a vulnerable conversation with a friend, we treat ourselves to a pair of cat eye sunglasses from Yves Saint Laurent.  Rather than dedicate the time to reflect and identify our life’s purpose, we trade genuine fulfillment for fleeting gratification.  We mindlessly swipe our credit cards for useless junk just to feel the buzz of a dopamine hit and momentarily escape the utter meaninglessness of our existence.  It’s no coincidence that the phrase “retail therapy” has entered our language: in the 21st century, we believe the cure to our psychological ills can be bought on the free market.

In many ways, capitalism depends on us misunderstanding our own needs.  Our most fundamental needs are for love, for friendship, for freedom, for purpose, for meaning.  However, priceless concepts like connection and camaraderie can’t be purchased at Bloomingdales for 20% off on Black Friday.

And therein lies the problem: we cannot buy what we want.

Therefore, companies must trick us into buying their products.  By subliminally appealing to our unconscious needs, they convince us to shop.

When we buy a tube of glamorous red rouge, for instance, we’re buying a promise: to be beautiful and, therefore, loved/admired/heard/seen.

Or say we come across an advertisement that depicts a celebratory scene of attractive 20-somethings clinking champagne glasses in the city.  We subconsciously hear one message: if we drink this particular brand of bubbly, we’ll finally find the companionship we crave.

But we must not believe the lies of advertising.  Love cannot be located in lipstick and friendship cannot be found in a bottle of champagne.  To live well, we must differentiate our real from our invented needs.  We don’t need a Birkin or elegant, extravagant home furnishings.  But we do require a good book and a confidant who listens to us, makes us laugh and helps us not take life too seriously.

Anna Quindlen on Why We Should Write

“Why write?”  I’m tormented by this question nearly every day.  Why bring yourself to your desk, day after day, and try to tame the monsters of your thoughts and pin them to the page?  Why suffer the seemingly unbearable periods of self-hatred and self-doubt if no one cares what we have to say?

In our results-oriented culture, we demand things “pay off.”  Writing a novel is only worthwhile if it becomes a bestseller.  Making a movie is only valuable if it makes us millions of dollars.  Composing a poem is only useful if it gets us somewhere.

The point of creating— we think— is to be seen and heard.  We perform for an audience.  We tap dance for applause.  We write so someone can read our words.

In many ways, we’re motivated by extrinsic rewards.  We write for awards and acclaim, for fame and fortune, for the coveted status of literary icon.  No matter how seemingly superficial, many of us secretly dream of rave reviews in the New York Times, our authorial black-and-white photograph on the back of a book cover.

What do we desire more than anything?

To be respected and esteemed.

If we turn 30 and still have never been published, we may be tempted to give up on our dreams.  We may stay awake late at night chastising ourselves for not choosing a more conventional career.  “Maybe,” we wonder during these midnight terrors, “we should’ve just made our parents proud and become doctors.”

At this moment when we’re most discouraged, we must remember why we write in the first place.  In her clarion call to write, Write for Your Life, populist of the page Anna Quindlen suggests there are far more pressing reasons to put pen to page.  We should write— not for stardom or celebrity— but because the act of writing gives life form and shape.  So much of life is fleeting, transitory.  Unless made solid, our experiences are like grains of sand spilling through a sieve.  Many years from now when we reflect upon our lives, our most cherished memories will be hazy and indistinct.  Writing is a net, a way to catch memory before it flutters away.  

Writing is a means to immortality.  Life is brief, as momentary as the flap of a butterfly’s wing.  Words on a page, however, are long-lasting.  If we have a passing thought, it darts across our consciousness only to forever fade.  But if we record our thoughts— our musings and meditations, our judgements and observations, our daydreams and reveries— they will endure long after we have passed away. 

Recounting a rather mundane moment when she helped a blind woman cross the street, Quindlen writes,

“…and for a few minutes it was nothing but an interior anecdote, passing eventually, as these things do, into memory.

But written down, it lives.  It’s there, it’s real.  That’s the important thing.  That’s why we write things down, to give them life.  Sometimes people ask whether a particularly difficult or challenging situation is made cathartic through writing.  I’m not sure writing about things always makes us feel better, but perhaps it sometimes does make loss, tragedies, disappointments more actual.  It can turn them into somethings with a clear shape and form, and therefore make it possible to see them more deeply and clearly, and more usefully turn confusion and pain into understanding and perhaps reconciliation.  On paper our greatest challenges become A Real Thing, in a world in which so much seems ephemeral and transitory.”

What’s wonderful about books is they connect us with the finest minds from many years ago.  With the turn of a page, a lonesome 21st century reader can find a friend in Tolstoy or Kafka, Hemingway or Fitzgerald.  

In the same way, what we write can speak across continents and centuries to future generations of people.  Though it might seem horribly self-indulgent to write about our own experiences (after all, who cares if our mother died or we just broke up with our boyfriend of 10 years?), we are never just writing for ourselves: what we write inevitably helps others.  Art is an act of service, not an expression of ego.  Writing is a form of connection, a bridge that stretches across the vast distances of time and space and brings together seemingly dissimilar people.   Too often in life, we feel solitary in our struggles.  When we write truthfully about our experiences, we remind our readers that they are not alone.  

Take Anne Frank.  When she wrote in her diary, she probably felt like another teenage girl: obsessing about boys, complaining about her problematic relationship with her mother.  There were probably many mornings when she wondered “why write at all?”  Little did she know that her diary would come to represent the horrors of the Holocaust and resonate with millions around the globe.  Lesson?  We have no idea how our words will impact the world.  As Quindlen notes, 

“That is a kind of afterlife all our own stories, inconsequential and important as well, can assume when we record them.  To write the present is to believe in the future.  One of the poignant things about Anne Frank’s diary is that the very composition suggests that someday she will live to tell it all, and in some sense I suppose she does, on the page, in the attic, surviving day by day, never dreaming that by doing so she will help some of us survive, too.  She’s not really writing the story of the Holocaust, although that’s what she illuminates.  She’s telling the story of one small and unremarkable life that has come to stand for millions of others, and so became remarkable.”

Anna Quindlen on Writing as a Means of Figuring Out Who You Are & Remembering Who You Once Were

Why write?  Joan Didion believed we should write to discover what we’re thinking, what we’re looking at and what it means, what we want and what we fear.  Brenda Ueland thought we should put pen to page “because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it and what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it; i.e. share it with others?”  Susan Sontag asserted we should write to create the self while Anais Nin thought we should write to discover our own voice and overcome the picky perfectionism of our inner censor.

When we write, especially in a diary, we realize we’re the authors of our own lives: we can take control of our narratives, we can rewrite our storylines.  Writing is a compass and a map that illuminates where we want to go.  Writing is a candle in a dark night and a life raft during a turbulent storm of the soul.  Writing is a source of companionship and connection, even if the only person we’re talking to is ourselves.

In her love letter to personal writing Write for Your Life, Anna Quindlen urges us to write because writing can help us figure out who we are.  The act of formulating our thoughts on a page, arranging our incoherent ideas into semantic structures of comprehensible meaning somehow makes the chaos of life more orderly.  When we order words on a page, we order ourselves.  Writing brings us clarity about who we are and what we want.  

Take Anne Frank’s famous diary.  At the time of writing, Frank was living through one of the most horrifying conflicts in human history, hiding in a small attic from the Nazis.  Her diary, whom she affectionately called Kitty, was her closest confidante.  In her war-wrecked world, musing over things in her diary was a rare source of comfort.  As Quindlen writes, 

“What sometimes gets lost, in the many decades since her father first published Anne Frank’s diary, in the millions of copies it has sold in dozens of languages, is that when she first began, Anne Frank wasn’t writing a book.  She was talking to herself.  And she was talking to herself in a way that any of us can do too.  She was finding solace in writing her life, her thoughts and feelings, day after day.  Words to live by.

Anne Frank was living through an extraordinary experience, an extraordinary time, an extraordinary horror, and to ground herself she was committing everything to paper, much of it not particularly profound.  The curtains at the windows, the cupboard to hide the door.  She writes about how everyone thinks she is badly behaved, about how much she hates algebra and geometry.  Eventually she ran out of space in the birthday diary and continued in exercise books and accounting ledgers from the office below.  In some ways she sounds like a typical teenager: a mother who doesn’t understand her, a boy she wants to be alone with.  In others, surely not: the toilet that cannot be flushed for the entire day, the enforced silence to forestall the unexpected footsteps on the stairs, the sound of those footsteps evoking terror because of what the family Frank has heard is happening in the world outside the attic.  

But Anne’s diary is also instructive about how writing, for anyone, for everyone, for you and for me, can normalize the abnormal and feed the spirit, whether during exceptional moments of history or just ordinary moments of everyday life…For young people like Anne, it’s a way of understanding yourself, hearing your own voice, puzzling out your identity.”

One of the greatest joys of keeping a diary is sifting through it many years later.  The tattered pages transport us to an entirely different epoch, an entirely different era: when we left home for college, when we thought metal heads with Jesus hair were cute.  A diary is both a time capsule and a scrapbook.  Rereading our diary, we become historians attempting to understand another time, another civilization, another culture.  Or, as Joan Didion once said, writing is a way to keep us on nodding terms with the people we once were.

With characteristic eloquence, Quindlen writes, 

“For those far along in the span of their lifetimes, writing offers an opportunity to look back, a message in a bottle that says, This was life.  This was how it was, this was who I was.”

In this way, writing is a means to escape our mortal coil and live forever.  When we write, we’re usually writing for ourselves: to vent, to process events, to record.  But our writing can also console our loved ones when we inevitably pass on.  In Write for Your Life, Quindlen describes the experiences of the National Writing Project’s executive director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, whose mother spent her later years writing poems.  After her mother’s death, nothing comforted Elyse more than reading her mother’s words.  Though her mother had departed this physical realm, her spirit persisted in her poems.  Her verse could speak across the vast reaches of time and space, in this life and the hereafter.  “Writing,” Quindlen notes, “is the gift of your presence forever.”  

Meditating on the relationship between writing and memory, Quindlen uses an illustrative metaphor:

“When you write, you connect with yourself, past, present and future.  I remember myself, the little girl who wrote poems, the college applicant who said without guile or humility that her goal in life was to be a writer.  Writing can make memory concrete, and memory is such a hard thing to hold on to, like a Jell-O mold, all wiggly but with solid bits embedded clearly.”

In many ways, writing is a work of magic: it exteriorizes the interior, renders the invisible thought a visible word.  Floating and half-conscious, thoughts whirl by once and disappear; words are forever.  By capturing our fluttering thoughts and committing them to paper, we better remember.  As Quindlen so beautifully observes, 

“The point is writing is a net, catching memory and pinning it to a board like people sometimes do with butterflies like the ones we hatched.  Writing is a hedge against forgetting, forgetting forever.”

 

 

Anna Quindlen’s Passionate Plea to Preserve History

For most of us, history is a series of monumental events and larger-than-life figures.  Jesus.  Napoleon.  Alexander the Great.  Winston Churchill.  Hitler.  History is excitement, drama: the invention of the wheel, the bombing of Hiroshima.  Our history books tell the tales of great men: presidents, politicians, philosophers, poets.  Rarely do we hear the ordinary stories of ordinary women and men.

However, as Leo Tolstoy once said, history is more accurately described as “an infinitely large number of infinitely small actions”— in other words, the combined effect of the many small actions of commonplace people.  In Write for Your Life, Anna Quindlen makes a passionate plea for us to write: grocery lists and bullet point notes, diaries and love letters, novels and poems.  A populist of the page, Quindlen believes writing isn’t just for writers.  All people should write: young Jewish girls hiding from Nazis, troubled teens from 1990s Long Beach, nurses and doctors.  

But why bother?  In the book’s final chapter, Quindlen suggests writing is vital because the act of putting pen to page preserves our stories in the historical record.  Sadly in many classrooms across the country, the most compelling events of human history are reduced to a meaningless list of facts and figures.  Rather than see their own potential to contribute a chapter to the story of the world, most students understand history as a series of trivial names and dates and tedious lectures.  History— we believe— is an inaccessible textbook reserved for distant lands and boring, bygone figures.  As Quindlen observes, 

“It is a sad and undeniable fact that history comes to us drained of blood and embalmed, a penology of stiff set pieces starring great men, an array of nations and dates and documents.  In classrooms, in seminars, in books, it is too often something to memorize and too seldom something to be a part of.  The distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once wrote, ‘History is lived in the main by the unknown and forgotten.  But historians perforce concentrate on the happy few who leave records, give speeches, write books, make fortunes, hold offices, win or lose battles and thrones.’

In the past those happy few wrote the story, turning history into an enormous, grand house, a little like the White House, chandeliers and columns and porticoes.  But where is the furniture?  We are the furniture.  The history people need to understand where we have come from, what to decry and what to prize, is not a history of presidents and generals.  It is the history of us, and one reason ordinary people must write is to leave their own records, to furnish the rooms of our country and our world.”

British philosopher Alain de Botton once said, telling a story is a process of simplification and selection.  Think about it: when you tell a story, you don’t include every single detail.  You emphasize certain things and eliminate others.  You omit, you compress, you only leave what is most relevant to the plot.  The narrator of the story determines what’s important vs. what’s not.

This is true of our larger historical stories as well.  But who has the power to narrate the stories of our nation, our civilization, our world?  Who can speak and who is silenced?  Who has a voice and who is exiled to the island of voicelessness?

Tragically, throughout time, men have told their stories while silencing the dispossessed and marginalized.  Men, specifically white men, have dictated which stories are significant and which are unworthy of our attention.  “History” is now commonly understood as relating to the public realm of war, government and politics.  But history isn’t just grand events or once-in-a-lifetime occurrences— it’s also the mundane moments.  History is a courageous young girl writing in her diary just as much as it is Pearl Harbor and Auschwitz.  The right to tell your own story (and therefore contribute to the larger story of history) belongs to every human.  If we don’t tell our stories, Quindlen warns, our experiences will be wiped from the historical record and forever forgotten:

“There are too few such stories written down, handed down, made part of history alongside the songs of exploration, economics, and government.  Relying on that kind of history provides a skewed view of the world because it is almost entirely the history of deeds done by white men, who wrote down what happened as they saw fit, picking and choosing and editing and deleting.  And so the rest of us became invisible, at best bit players in the sweep of history.”

Just as Rebecca Solnit argued journalists have the responsibility to rewrite the world’s broken narratives, Quindlen asserts citizens have a duty to tell their stories.  When we tell our stories, we reclaim our right to be seen, to be heard, to contribute a chapter to the chronicle of history.  By committing our thoughts to paper, whether that be in a major newspaper or the private pages of a diary, we’re asserting we matter, our lives matter.  As Quindlen writes, 

“If, in good times and in bad times and ordinary times, people who may not think of themselves as writers begin to set their stories down, in their own voices, in whichever way they choose, it will make history, make it truer, fairer, richer.  We need to hear from everyone, durable words, like the letters Sandy wrote to Harry as a war bride, the essays written by the nursing students at Yale, the recollections of those Kansas women making a home amid hardship.  We need the words of people whose words were unremarked in histories of the past.  If those unaccustomed to the act of everyday writing can find ways to recover the urge to sit down and produce thoughts, musings, letters for their children, their friends, the future, we will not only know what happened during their lifetimes, we will know how it felt.  As Anne Frank showed the world, as the Freedom Writers learned themselves, history is our story.  Those who write it, own it, today and always.”

Want more insight into why we should write?  Visit Anna Quindlen on why we should write and writing as a means to write who we are and remember who we once were.  Still tormented by the immortal question of why we should pen to page?  Read Joan Didion’s canonical answer in her 1976 essay of the same name.  

Anne Morrow Lindbergh on How All Phases of Love Are Equally Valid

All life is motion: electrons circle an atom’s nucleus, planets hurl through space.  Earth turns on its axis at a speed of roughly 1,000 miles per hour: day dissipates into night, night disappears into day.  Life hibernates in winter only to be reawakened in spring.  Nothing is stable— not even the ground beneath our feet.  Seas crash into shorelines, transforming mighty mountains into minuscule grains.  The land we stand on isn’t steady and unchanging— it’s composed of constantly shifting Tectonic plates.  We imagine life is static but if we observed a map of our Earth 250 million years ago, it would look entirely different from what it does today.

The only constant in life is change yet nothing terrifies us more than the idea that things never remain the same.  In love, we’re especially resistant to change.  The moment we sense a shift in our relationship, we become overcome by a paralyzing sense of dread.  Maybe after a few years together, our sex has become less imaginative and less frequent.  Maybe our calendars are no longer bursting with social activities and soirées and concerts and comedy shows and parties.  Maybe our love life seems like a pathetic exercise in monotony.

In the stable security of a long-term relationship, we yearn for the rapturous intoxication of young romance.  What happened to the all-night conversations, the giddy school girl excitement of getting a text message from our beloved?  What happened to the intense, impassioned, “I need to have you” sex? 

In her immeasurably insightful book Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh suggests it is natural for some of the fervor in a relationship to fade.  In much the same way that a flower wilts in winter, our romance will occasionally decay.  Nothing lasts, all is flux, all is change.  But there’s no need to worry.  Our love will be reborn in another form in the spring.  

Lindbergh spent nearly half a century married to aviator and American hero Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly across the Atlantic alone.  In their 45 years together, Anne learned firsthand the trials and tribulations of being one half of a couple.  In a lyrical passage of uncommon insight and uncommon beauty, Morrow concedes that nothing— not even love— is everlasting:

“The ‘veritable life’ of our emotions and our relationships…is intermittent.  When you love someone you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment.  It is an impossibility.  It is even a lie to pretend to.  And yet this is exactly what most of us demand.  We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships.  We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb.  We are afraid it will never return.  We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity— in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern. The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even.  Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what is was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.  For relationships, too, must be like islands.  One must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits— islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, continually visited and abandoned by the tides.  One must accept the security of the winged life, of ebb and flow, of intermittency.”

Ultimately, life is a pendulum that swings between opposite poles: hope and despair, joy and sorrow.  The Lindberghs understood this fact perhaps more than any other couple.  In their 45 years together, they experienced agony and ecstasy, storms of adversity and moments of calm.  Called the “First Couple of the Skies,” Charles and Anne seemed to live a charmed life: over the course of their career, they flew tens of thousands of miles across four continents to explore transatlantic air routes.  Their work took them everywhere from the Orient to the Amazon jungle.  Both Charles and Anne were celebrated as heroes.

Despite their many triumphs, tragedy struck when their 20 month year old son, Charles, was kidnapped from his nursery and killed in the spring of 1932.  Besides having to cope with the unimaginable loss of their son, Charles and Anne had to endure the ensuing media frenzy and the paparazzi’s unremitting flashbulbs.

Much like life, our relationships pass through cycles.  The obsessive infatuation of a crush will eventually give way to steady companionship after a few years.  At times, the flames of passion will burn ferociously; at others, our desire will only be a few smoldering embers.  Over the course of a relationship, there will be affectionate nicknames and four-letter words, amorous whispers and  enraged screams, moments of domestic bliss and nights soaked in tears.  We must not glorify the honeymoon phase or fear our relationship changing as we get older.  Each phase of life, each phase of love has its own lessons to teach us.  As Morrow writes,

“Perhaps this is the most important thing for me to take back from beach-living: simply the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; each cycle of the wave is valid; each cycle of a relationship is valid.”

Want more wisdom from the lovely Lindbergh?  Read the pioneering aviator on love’s many phases,  why we should seek solitude and why we should shed the shell of our ordinary lives and go to the beach.  

Anne Morrow Lindbergh on Love’s Many Phases & How to Save a Relationship in Crisis

Human beings crave consistency.  We want our relationships, especially our romantic ones, to remain the same.  However, all things change.  Love goes through phases.  At different times, love waxes and wanes.

When we first fall in love, things are novel, exciting.  With the mere mention of our beloved’s name, our heart dashes, our stomach fills with butterflies.  In the beginning, the object of our adoration can do no wrong in our eyes.  Everything he says is endlessly captivating; we find his jokes hilarious, though they meander and he often doesn’t land the punchline.  We’re so in love that we can spend hours just staring into each other’s eyes.

But as days elapse into months and months elapse into years, our relationship inevitably becomes burdened by work and other responsibilities.  No longer are we two carefree, giddily-in-love twenty-somethings— we now have marriage, a mortgage, a baby.  We’re more likely to snap at our husband for forgetting to buy milk at the grocery store than stare at each other longingly.  Our conversations no longer contain hints of light-hearted flirtation and sexy bantering— they’re defined by practical, distinctly uninteresting topics like what to buy our nephew for his birthday and whose turn it is to fold the laundry.  Our relationship more closely resembles the relationship between business partners or roommates.

In her timeless treasure trove, Gift from the Sea, which also explained why we should seek out solitude and shed the shell of our ordinary lives and go to the beach, Anne Morrow Lindbergh reminds us all romantic relationships pass through such phases as certainly as night follows day.

The honeymoon phase— what Lindbergh calls the “double sunrise” phase— is pure bliss.  Because we’re not yet deadened and desensitized by habit, there’s still carnal connection, there’s still mystery, there’s still romance.

But when the flames of first love inevitably cool, we panic.  What— we wonder— happened to passion’s fiery flames?  What happened to the “spark” we had in the beginning of the relationship?  

But the fact is nothing is wrong with us if our relationship changes.  All things change: waves crash and recede, plants grow.  In much the same way that we only want to experience the flower-filled rapture of spring and avoid bleak, biting winters of the soul, we idealize the honeymoon and dread the moment we have to pack up our bags and come home.  But love is not the giddiness of a summer fling— it’s building a life with someone in the real world.  As Lindbergh writes, 

“It is true, of course, the original relationship is very beautiful.  Its self-enclosed perfection wears the freshness of a spring morning.  Forgetting about the summer to come, one often feels one would like to prolong the spring of early love, when two people stand as individuals, without past or future, facing each other.  One resents any change, even though one knows that transformation is natural and part of the process of life and its evolution.  Like its parallel, physical passion, the early ecstatic stage of a relationship cannot continue always at the same pitch of intensity.  It moves to another phase of growth one should not dread, but welcome as one welcomes summer after spring.”

Sometimes, however, there really is a problem.  Perhaps after decades together, we no longer make an effort to express our affection or spend quality time together.  Instead of visit the Van Gogh exhibit or make reservations at the French bistro, we spend our Saturday nights sitting next to each other on the coach, together but not truly together, as we mindlessly scroll through our phones.  In the rose-colored haze of nostalgia, we reminisce about the good old days when our lover surprised us with bouquets of tulips and couldn’t wait to chat over red wine and spaghetti bolognese when he came home.  

Bored of our passionless union, lonely and longing for connection, we might be tempted to seek excitement in an affair outside of our marriage.  After all, if the problem is our partner, the solution must be someone else.  Someone else will bother to plan a date every once in awhile.  Someone else will pamper us with flowers and thoughtful handwritten notes.  Someone else will occasionally listen instead of be endlessly engrossed by his phone.  

However, “someone else” is almost never the answer to our martial woes.  It’s futile to try to recapture the ecstasy of early love.  Even if we do find someone else who’s intelligent and interesting, our infatuation will eventually wear off.  At first, an affair can be sexy, stimulating: sneaking around to see each other, stealing clandestine kisses on our lunch break.  But after a few weeks or months, our furtive fling will be just as predictable as the marriage we so unsuccessfully tried to escape.

So what’s the solution?

Rather than have an affair, we should commit to rediscovering our sense of self.  Most often, a dissatisfaction with our marriage is a dissatisfaction with ourselves.  Despite the romantic notion that finding our Platonic soul mate will finally complete our incomplete souls, another person cannot save us.  Before we can be content in matrimony, we must be content with ourselves.  According to Lindbergh, women can find contentment by committing to their creativity and carving out time of their own away from the pressures of motherhood and domesticity:

“But neither woman nor man are likely to be fed by another relationship which seems easier because it is in an earlier stage.  Such a love affair cannot really bring back a sense of identity.  Certainly, one has the illusion that one will find oneself in being loved for what one really is, not for a collection of functions.  But can one actually find oneself in someone else?  In someone else’s love?  Or even in the mirror someone else holds up for one?  I believe that true identity is found, as Eckhart once said, by ‘going into one’s own ground and knowing oneself.’  It is found in creative activity springing from within.  It is found, paradoxically, when one loses oneself.  One must lose one’s life to find it.  Woman can best refind herself by losing herself in some kind of creative activity of her own.  Here she will be able to refind her strength, the strength she needs to look and work at the second half of the problem— the neglected pure relationship.  Only a refound person can refind a personal relationship.”

Though we can’t entirely resurrect the fire of first love, we can rekindle some of the flames.  One easy way to restore some of the romance of the “double sunrise” stage is to go on vacation and step away from our ordinary lives and usual routines.  At home, there are a million and one distractions that interfere with intimacy: carpool, crying children, client calls, endless emails and meetings.  But in a cabin in the countryside or a cottage by the sea, we can finally focus on our partner.  Nothing revives love like a hotel room in a foreign city (As British philosopher Alain de Botton so insightfully observed, new settings can inspire us to see things in new ways).

However, a romantic getaway doesn’t always have to involve traveling thousands of miles away.  We can rescue our relationship in our own kitchens— not just in bungalows in Bora Bora or villas in Tuscany.  Sometimes a quiet breakfast over orange juice and banana bread muffins is all we need to feel reconnected.  As Lindbergh writes gracefully, 

“Husband and wife can and should go off on vacations alone and also on vacations alone together.  For if it is possible that woman can find herself by having a vacation alone, it is equally possible that the original relationship can sometimes be refound by having a vacation alone together.  Most married couples have felt the unexpected joy of one of these vacations.  How wonderful it was to leave the children, the house, the job, and all the obligations of daily life; to go out together, whether for a month or a weekend or even just a night in an inn by themselves.  How surprising it was to find the miracle of the sunrise repeated.  There was the sudden pleasure of having breakfast alone with the man one fell in love with.  Here at the small table, are only two people facing each other.  How the table at home has grown!  And how distracting it is, with four or five children, a telephone ringing in the hall, two or three school buses to catch, not to speak of the commuter’s train.  How all this separates one from one’s husband and clogs up the pure relationship.  But sitting at a table alone opposite each other, what is there to separate one?  Nothing but a coffee pot, corn muffins and marmalade.  A simple enough pleasure, surely, to have breakfast alone with one’s husband, but how seldom married people in the midst of life achieve it.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh on Why We Should Seek Out Solitude

In our extroverted society, there’s not greater compliment than being called “sociable.”  We worship those who are gregarious and genial.  We aim to be the “life of the party” who charms with his clever jokes and interesting anecdotes— not the awkward loner shuffling his feet and staring at his phone.  Being popular and well-liked is a sign of good character; keeping to yourself is deemed pathological.

Though it is important to build relationships with others, it’s just as important— perhaps even more so— to build a relationship with ourselves.  In her classic guide to creative, contemplative living, Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh suggests solitude is an oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of the modern world.  In one of the most gracefully observed chapters “Moon Shell,” she argues we must wake up from the collective delusion that we are anything but alone:

“We are all in the last analysis, alone.  And this basic state of solitude is not something we have any choice about.  It is, as the poet Rilke says, ‘not something that one can take or leave.  We are solitary.  We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so.  That is all.  But how much better is it to realize that we are so.'”

Is there anything that fills us with more terror than being alone?  Most of us would do anything to avoid being by ourselves: we crowd our calendars with constant busyness, plans and parties; we stay in toxic relationships; we engage in empty-headed chatter and pointless conversations with people we don’t care about.  Indeed, when we have no choice but to be alone— all our friends are busy, we’re stuck sick at home— we seek solace in the hypnotizing blue light of our phones.  Rather than endure a single moment of soundlessness, we mindlessly scroll through social media in search of cheap entertainment.  We can’t imagine going on a walk without headphones or cleaning our apartment without a podcast playing in the background. 

In a 1955 passage that is perhaps even more timely today, Lindbergh laments our lost ability to sit still with the self:

“Naturally, how one hates to think of oneself as alone.  How one avoids it.  It seems to imply rejection or unpopularity.  An early wallflower panic still clings to the word.  One will be left, one fears, sitting in a straight-backed chair, alone while the popular girls are already chosen and spinning around the dance floor with their hot-palmed partners.  We seem so frightened today of being alone that we never let it happen.  Even if family, friends, and movies should fail, there is still the radio or television to fill up the void.  Women, who used to complain of loneliness, need never be alone any more.  We can do our house-work with soap-opera heroes at our side.  Even day-dreaming was more creative than this; it demanded something of oneself and it fed the inner life.  Now, instead of planting our solitude with our own dream blossoms, we choke the space with continuous music, chatter, and companionship to which we do not even listen.  It is simply there to fill the vacuum.  When the noise stops there is no inner music to take its place.”

Despite our distaste for our own company, artists and writers throughout time have understood that silence and solitude are the seedbeds of creativity.  The mind needs quiet time to imagine, to invent, to devise and to dream.  Magnanimous spirit Brenda Ueland believed inspiration most often visited in idle moments when we were alone and not doing much of anything (“The imagination needs moodling,— long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering,” she wrote in If You Want to Write, her middle finger to the capitalistic cult of productivity).  

Not only does alone time nurture the seeds of creativity, it is a means of solidifying the self.  In the pandemonium of day-to-day life, our desires and beliefs are drowned out by the ceaseless chatter of the world.  But in moments of introspection, we can define our own tastes, develop our own thoughts, make up our own minds about what matters most.  Solitude is a source of replenishment and renewal.  Like negative space in a painting, it brings balance to the composition of our lives and defines the boundaries of the soul.  Life remerges more vital, more vibrant when we’re alone:

“It is a difficult lesson to learn today — to leave one’s friends and family and deliberately practice the art of solitude for an hour or a day or a week.  For me, the break is the most difficult.  Parting is inevitably painful, even for a short time.  It is like an amputation, I feel.  A limb is being torn off, without which I shall be unable to function.  And yet once it is done, I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious.  Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before.  It is as if in parting one did actually lose an arm.  And then, like the starfish, one grows it anew: one is whole again, complete and round — more whole, even than before, when the other people had pieces of one.”  

What does it mean to be lonely?  Common belief says we’re lonely when we’re alone.  But as any one who has felt companionless despite being at a crowded party knows, loneliness has nothing to do with physical aloneness— loneliness is not an estrangement from others, but rather, an estrangement from self.

When we’re lonely, we feel like Robinson Crusoe, stranded on a deserted island far from our fellows.  If we want to cross the vast ocean of space between ourselves and other people (to “only connect” as E.M. Forester implored over a century ago), we must explore the frontier of the self.  We can only befriend others if we first befriend ourselves.  As Lindbergh writes:

“For it is not physical solitude that actually separates one from other men, not physical isolation, but spiritual isolation.  It is not the desert island nor the stony wilderness that cuts you off from the people you love.  It is the wilderness in the mind, the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger.  When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too.  If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others.  How often in a large city, shaking hands with my friends, I have felt the wilderness stretching between us.  Both of us were wandering in arid wastes, having lost the springs that nourished us— or having found them dry.  Only when one is connected to one’s core is one connected to others.”

How do we recenter ourselves when we feel pulled in a million directions by the world?  For Lindbergh, the solution is solitude.  No matter how seemingly indulgent, “every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the year, some part of each week, and each day.”  In a genius reframing of Virginia Woolf’s feminist masterwork, Lindbergh declares all women must have “time of their own”:

“…the answer is not in the feverish pursuit of centrifugal activities which only lead in the end to fragmentation.  Women’s life today is tending more and more toward the state William James describes so well in the German word, ‘Zerrissenheit’— ‘torn-to-pieces-hood.’  She cannot live perpetually in ‘Zerrissenheit.’  She will be shattered into a thousand pieces.  On the contrary, she must consciously encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today.  Quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought or reading, of study or work.  It can be physical or intellectual or artistic, any creative life proceeding from oneself.  It need not be an enormous project or great work.  But it should be something of one’s own.  Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet in a crowded day— like writing a poem, or saying a prayer.  What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh on Why We Should Shed the Shell of Our Ordinary Lives & Go on a Summer Trip to the Beach

It’s been one day since I returned home from vacation and I already miss the long, languid days at the beach, the seemingly endless, formless hours stretching before me.  Most of all, I miss the sense of freedom from obligation and duty.  Monday morning and I’m back to my normal routines: writing, teaching.  Serious adult duties like emails and meetings.

What is so vital about vacationing?  According to wise and warm-hearted Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a trip to a faraway place can give us much needed time to recharge.  In the cramped corners of life, we have little space: space to rest, space to reflect, space to relax, space to dream.  Most women’s lives are a “caravan of complications.”  We juggle careers along with raising children.  We grocery shop and meal plan.  We mop floors and clear out cabinets.  We do laundry.  We sew and mend clothing.  We carpool our kids to piano and choir and soccer practice.  We pay bills and make doctor’s appointments.  As Lindbergh writes, “to be a woman is to have interests and duties, raying out in all directions…like spokes from a wheel.”  

Lindbergh suggests a serene island retreat can help us cut down on distractions and regain balance in an unbalanced world.  In her lovely book Gift from the Sea, Lindbergh writes of her own restorative retreat at Captiva Island in the early 1950s.  Far removed from the million and one obligations of her everyday life as a wife and mother, Lindbergh could finally reflect on what really mattered.  The result?  A book of timeless meditations on simplicity and solitude, love and marriage, youth and age.The state of modern woman is fragmentation.  She is tugged in a thousand directions at home, at work, as a wife to her husband, as a mother to her children.  While she’s spreading blackberry jam on her toast in the morning, she’s not delighting in the dawn or the invigorating smell of fresh coffee— she’s frantically reminding her daughter to put her math homework in her backpack and rehearsing her presentation for that day’s meeting.

Just as Alain de Botton argues traveling to new places can inspire new thoughts, Lindbergh suggests a different setting— an island paradise (or secluded mountain cabin or cottage in the country)— can teach us to live differently.  Far from our routines, we act out of the ordinary.  Rather than worry about tomorrow or obsess about yesterday, we can finally appreciate today.  Under a sweltering summer sun and Caribbean blue sky, there is only us and the reassuring crash of the sea.

On her holiday, Lindbergh finds immense peace in being an island, disconnected from the “real” world and cut off from the pressures of day-to-day living:

“How wonderful are islands!  Islands in space, like this once I have come to, ringed about by miles of water, linked by no bridges, no cables, no telephones.  An island from the world and the world’s life.  Island’s in time, like this short vacation of time.  The past and future are cut off; only the present remains.  Existence in the presence gives island living an extreme vividness and purity.  One lives like a child or a saint in the immediacy of here and now.  Every day, every act, is an island, washed by time and space, and has an island’s completion.  People, too, become like islands in such an atmosphere, self-contained, whole, serene.”

For Lindbergh, a sojourn to the sea can teach us the value of simplicity.  In the ordinary world, our lives are endlessly complicated: we have countless possessions, countless things on the calendar, countless responsibilities.  But on a beach with a small suitcase and an empty planner, we rediscover a sense of serenity.  Like a prisoner of war or monk in a monastery, we realize we don’t need much to be happy.  If we are to bring this repose to our regular lives, we must simplify.  We must ask, as Lindbergh does with lyrical lucidity, “how little, not how much, can [we] get along with.  To say— is it necessary?— when [we] are tempted to add one more accumulation to [our lives], when [we are] pulled toward one more centrifugal activity.”

May Sarton on Silence, Solitude & the Significance of Doing Nothing

Most of us don’t have the capacity to be alone.  Some of us seek a romantic partner to fill the void of our incomplete soul; others of us distract ourselves with endless social obligations and busy schedules; still others of us are so desperate to escape our own company that we’ll settle for the most frivolous forms of socializing, be it superficial friendships or meaningless small talk at a bar.  But no one and nothing can spare us from the frightening fact that— fundamentally— we are alone.

Despite our terror of loneliness, solitude is vital to leading a rich, contented life.  Henry David Thoreau, who famously sequestered himself on Walden Pond, found solitude restorative and rejuvenating: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.  To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating.”  Pablo Picasso believed that “without great solitude, no serious work is possible” while Marcus Aurelius asserted “nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.” Perhaps no other writer has plumbed the soul-stretching depths of solitude with more candor and courage than May Sarton.  In 1972, Sarton, a poet with no husband and no children, lived in self-imposed isolation in a sleepy New England village.  Her soul-searching Journal of a Solitude offers an illuminating glimpse into her observant mind and generous spirit.

Like most writers, Sarton struggled to maintain a balance between her exterior and interior life.  Without the drama and excitement of outward living— corresponding with friends, going on book tours, hosting dinners and attending occasionally glamorous, often uninteresting cocktail parties— her existence would be dull and not worth exploring.  But without time to reflect, life would disintegrate into incoherence and incomprehensibility.

For Sarton, solitude was salvation and sustenance.  In her diary, she could process the chaos of  everyday existence.  To be artists, we must— like Sarton— find a balance between life and writing, between action and introspection, between the demands of the day-to-day and the demands of the spirit:

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my real life again at last.  That is what is strange— that friends, even passionate love, are not real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. 

Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid.  Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations.'”

What does it mean to be “productive”?  In our hurried hustle culture, productivity is getting things done; it’s getting results; it’s producing a concrete product.  The curse of capitalism is we become workers on an assembly line our worth measured in terms of input and output.  Reduced to economics, our value is calculated in dollars and cents, our status determined by how much we contribute to the deranged hamster wheel of production and consumption.

However, in writing and in art, productivity doesn’t always look productive.  Sometimes productivity is playing and puttering; sometimes it’s pointless daydreams and blissful reveries; sometimes it’s sitting at your desk all day and not writing a single sentence you like.  When we feel as though we’ve squandered our day, we must remember that idleness is indispensable to creativity.  As inspiring, incandescent spirit Brenda Ueland once wrote, “The imagination needs moodling,— long, inefficient, happy idling.”  

Often times, we’re accomplishing a great deal when we appear to be “doing nothing.”  When we’re doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, our minds are actually pondering the puzzle of how to conclude our symphony; when we’re luxuriating in a bubble bath, solutions to once unsolvable problems bubble up unbidden from our subconscious.  Indeed, we usually get our best ideas— not when we’re at our desks, completely and utterly absorbed in a project— but when we’re doing something seemingly unrelated: going on a midsummer stroll, folding fresh laundry (One is reminded of Mozart, who said it was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly”).

In a delightfully defiant passage, Sarton imagines what is (and isn’t) a waste of our time and challenges capitalistic notions of productivity:

It is never a waste of time to be outdoors, and never a waste of time to lie down and rest even for a couple of hours.  It is then that images float up and then I plan my work.  But it is a waste of time to see people who have only a social surface to show….Time wasted is poison.”

What makes life worth living?  In a November 11th entry, Sarton suggests living a contented life depends on having a higher goal, a mission, a purpose:

“We are whole or have intimations of what it means to be whole when the entire being— spirit, mind, nerves, flesh, the body itself— are concentrated toward a single end.”  

Sadly, many people— particularly women— don’t have enough open, obligation-free hours to “concentrate on a single end.”  They’re too busy juggling careers, changing diapers, carpooling their children to soccer practice.  Most women’s days revolve around the needs of their husband and children.  Rarely do they have time to pursue their own passions.  The result?  They feel aimless, adrift.  Without a lighthouse to guide them back to the shores of the self, many women float without a purpose or direction.  Much like Virginia Woolf, another accomplished diarist and feminist, Sarton laments:

“It is harder for women, perhaps to be ‘one-pointed,’ much harder for them to clear space around whatever it is they want to do beyond household chores and family life.  Their lives are fragmented…this is the cry I get in so many letters— the cry not so much for ‘a room of one’s own’ as time of one’s own.”

If you’re feeling disconnected from yourself, heed Sarton’s advice and carve out time of your own.  In the noise of everyday life, you might lose sight of who you are but in the silence of solitude, you’ll once again hear the whisperings of your own soul.  

May Sarton on Why We Write & Why We Shouldn’t Worry About Worldly Definitions of Success

Why write?  In her legendary December 1976 essay “Why I Write,” the late great Joan Didion confessed, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear.”  Writer, teacher and all around wonderful human being Brenda Ueland gave an even more poetic answer: “Because there’s nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.  Because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it.  And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it; i.e. share it with others?”

Few writers have pondered this perennial question more profoundly than poet, novelist, and dedicated diarist May Sarton.  In her timeless Journal of Solitude, Sarton records and reflects on her life during a single year at her quiet home in the idyllic woods of New Hampshire.  Written with a poet’s ear for rhythm and a philosopher’s insight, Journal of Solitude explores such themes as depression, despair, solitude, writing and the writing life.  

According to Sarton, many aspiring writers write for the wrong reasons.  Rather than focus on perfecting their craft, they worry about getting published.  They hunger for fame, fortune, success.  Their eyes glitter with grandiose visions of holding their New York Times best-selling book in their hands.  As Sarton writes in a September 17, 1972 entry, too many writers are obsessed with “making it” and buy into the myth of the overnight success:

“But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or craft.  Instant success is the order of the day; ‘I want it now!’  I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines.  Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start at the first try.”

Human beings are impatient when we want something.  Rather than plant a seed and watch it grow, we dig it up every ten seconds.  “Why hasn’t my flower blossomed yet?” we whine exasperatedly.  But a plant can only grow if we pot it in rich soil, water it every so often, tend the weeds, and wait patiently.  

The same goes for writing.  We can’t hurry the process, we can’t demand that we produce “x” useable pages like factory workers on an assembly line.  A work is born in its own time.  Our lives unfold in divine time— not according to the ego’s rigid, unrealistic deadlines.  Sometimes it will take ten years to realize our artistic dreams, sometimes half a century.  But as Rainer Maria Rilke once told a young poet, “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.”

Though she knows “making it” isn’t the most important thing, Sarton still wants success.  Her masterpiece of introspection unflinchingly charts the challenging terrain of the artist’s life: the peaks of a perfectly-formed sentence, the valleys of rejection letters and ripped pages.  Despite her undeniable talent, Sarton doubts herself, finds herself debilitated by writer’s block and gets frustrated at her dismissal by critics.  Like any artist, Sarton dreams of one thing: recognition. 

After receiving a scathing review in the Sunday Times, Sarton descends into a pit of depression.  Indignant and dejected, she confesses to her diary:

“The darkness again.  An annihilating review in the Sunday Times.  I must have had a premonition, as I felt terribly low in my mind all weekend.  Now it is the old struggle to survive, the feeling that I have created twenty-four ‘children’ and every one has been strangled by lack of serious critical attention.  This review is simply stupid.”

Despite her disappointment, Sarton finds comfort in remembering why she writes.  It’s not for acclaim or applause, it’s not to earn the admiration of millions or the rubber stamp of approval from the New York Times.  Though she reveres solitude as a vital seedbed for her creativity, Sarton ultimately creates to cross the vast seas of seclusion and connect with other souls.  By expressing her small, singular life, Ms. Sarton hopes to capture something universal— in other words, help her readers feel less alone.

In a revelatory moment of self-awareness, Sarton realizes she’s become too preoccupied with worldly notions of success:

“I have become convinced since that horrible review (unimportant in itself) that it is a message,  however deviously presented, to tell me that I have been over-concerned with the materialistic aspects of bringing out this novel, the dangerous hope that it become a bestseller, or that, for once, I might get a leg up from the critics, the establishment, and not have once more to see the work itself stand alone and make its way, heart by heart, as it is diverted by a few people with all the excitement of a person who finds a wildflower in the woods that he has discovered on his own.  From my isolation to the isolation of someone somewhere who will find my work there exists a true communion.  I have not lacked it in these last years, and it is a blessing.  It is free of ‘ambition’ and it ‘makes the world go away,’ as the popular song says.  This is what I can hope for and I must hope for nothing more or less.”