Alain de Botton on How to Preserve the Beauty You Behold Abroad

Why should we write or draw?  Wilde thought we should make art for joy alone whereas Van Gogh believed art was a grand gesture of generosity, a means of sharing something he loved with the world, whether it was a surreal St. Remy sky or a red poppy field.  Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, believed we should make art because it teaches us about ourselves and makes our soul grow

British philosopher Alain de Botton adds one more reason to the list of why we should write and draw.  In his infinitely insightful The Art of Travel, Botton argues making art can aid us in better appreciating our travels.  In one of my favorite chapters, Botton suggests artist and art critic John Ruskin can teach us to preserve beauty.  In normal life, if we encounter a thing of particular beauty— a pristine blue sky, a field of golden poppies, a quiet suburban street dappled in spring sunlight— we might note that the scene is rather lovely but never become fully conscious of its many aesthetically-pleasing qualities.  The result?  We only ever experience beauty fleetingly.

If we want a more enduring experience of beauty, we should take out a pen and paper and get drawing.  Ruskin, who wrote several instructive books on the craft and taught drawing between 1856-1860, argues art is just as essential as languages and arithmetic.  “The art of drawing,” he writes, is of “more real importance to the human race than that of writing and should be taught to every child just as writing is.”

Why is Ruskin so passionate about art?  What is the point of learning to sketch?  Do you really need to understand the principles of color, line and composition?  Certainly painting isn’t as important as knowing the alphabet or basic math.

For Ruskin, art is invaluable because it rouses us from our usual stupor of inattention.  By requiring us to stop and study our subject, art sharpens our powers of observation.  If we look closely at a cherry blossom tree, for instance, we start to see it more clearly: its petals— which were once just a blur of pink— become more defined.  They’re not just a plain pink, we realize, they’re a delicate pink and their edges fade to white.

When we travel somewhere, we should therefore make an attempt to draw our surroundings.  Even if our “art” is as unsophisticated as a kindergartner’s crayon sketch of stick figures and trees, the exercise will be enlightening.  In trying to capture the gothic grandeur of St Mark’s Basilica, we will be able to see— truly see— its gold mosaics and breathtaking architecture.  On the other hand, if we rush past to feed pigeons on the plaza, we won’t appreciate its beauty as profoundly.

Not only did Ruskin recommend we draw pictures of our travels, he suggested we record them in a diary.  As dedicated diarist and fashion icon Anais Nin once said, “We write to taste life twice: in the moment and in retrospect.”  By attempting to capture what we see and hear and smell in writing, we a) feel these sensations more strongly and b) cement our impressions in our memory.

When we document our observations, we should be as precise as possible.  As Botton writes, “We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty survives in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it.”  Rather than simply describe the weather in Rome as “pleasant” and the sightseeing as “wonderful,” we want to paint a picture.  Inexact, catch-all adjectives like “pleasant” and “wonderful” offer a value judgement without providing any real, concrete sensory details.  What— exactly— was so “pleasant” about the weather in Rome?  Was the autumn air warm without being sweltering like it is in summer?  Did a balmy breeze blow every morning through our window?  Or were our romantic evenings strolling through Piazza Navona inviting and invigorating, slightly chilly without being uncomfortably cold?  Ultimately, our experience of beauty is directly proportional to the precision of our description: the deeper our descriptions, the deeper our experience.  To fossilize our impressions of a place in the sediment of memory, Botton— and Ruskin— advise we ask ourselves questions and strive for specificity:

“We were all, Ruskin argued, able to turn out adequate word-paintings.  A failure was only the result of not asking ourselves enough questions, of not being more precise in analyzing what we had seen and felt.  Rather than rest with the idea that a lake was pretty, we were to ask ourselves more vigorously, ‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water?  What are its associations?  What is a better word for it than big?’  The finished product might not then be marked by genius, but at least it would have been motivated by a search for authentic representation of an experience.” 

Want more travel tips from The Art of Travel?  Read how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing and how traveling to new places can inspire new thoughts.

Alain de Botton on How Art Can Open Our Eyes & Help Us Appreciate More Deeply

Why do we feel attracted to some places and not others?  Why— for example— do we find Las Vegas repulsive but adore San Francisco?  British philosopher Alain de Botton would assert San Francisco has more allure because it has been romanticized in everything from Beat poetry to hard-boiled detective novels.  The scorching desert sun and whir of slot machines on the strip don’t possess the same charm because Las Vegas hasn’t been glamorized in as many art forms.  A place is only appealing— de Botton would say— if it has been rendered in paintings and celebrated in novels.

In many ways, artists help us see more clearly.  Different artists are guides to different things.  Chardin, for example, teaches us to see the extraordinary beauty in the ordinary— a leg of lamb, a man reading, a glass of Cabernet and loaf of bread, a blue and white vase— while Cezanne instructs us in the loveliness of baskets of apples and Monet in the exquisite color and light of water lilies.  Before Chardin, we never thought so much aesthetic pleasure could be derived from something as simple as a commonplace kitchen.  But after seeing “The Kitchen Maid,” we realize that even a maid can possess dignity.

In his endlessly interesting The Art of Travel, which illuminated how new places can inspire new thoughts and how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, Botton demonstrates how art can make us appreciate our travels more deeply.  At the beginning of Chapter VII “On Eye-Opening Art,” Botton visits a few friends in Provence, a destination which conjures romantic images of lavender fields and olive trees.  Despite its reputation as a place of unbelievable beauty, Botton finds Provence less than picturesque: the olive trees look “stunted, more like bushes than trees,” while the wheat fields evoke the “flat, dull expanses of south-eastern England where [he] had attended a school and been unhappy.”

It is only after reading a book on Van Gogh that he begins to become more attentive to his surroundings.  Van Gogh, who moved to the south of France in 1888, told his brother he left Paris for Arles for two reasons: “because he had wanted to paint the south” and because he had wanted, through his work, to help other people to “see” it.

Through his careful attention, Van Gogh does— indeed— succeed in helping Botton see Provence.  One clear morning as he sits on the terrace with a pain au chocolat, Botton sees two towering cypresses.  Why had he never noticed them?  And why had these unremarkable, rather strange trees, which were once relegated to the background, entered the foreground of his consciousness and become the central object of contemplation?

Botton credits Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses” with his newfound appreciation.  Though Botton has obviously seen cypresses before, it is only after studying Van Gogh that he recognizes their unique movement, their surreal shape, their dark green color against the golden wheat landscape.  In 1888 and 1889, the artist had been obsessed with the trees: “They are constantly occupying my thoughts,” he wrote his brother, “it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them.  The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk.  And the green has such a quality of distinction.  It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.”

Because Van Gogh cherished these trees, he devoted himself to expressing his vision and produced what are perhaps the most innovative paintings of the 19th century.  His affection for his subject inspires Botton to look more closely.  With Van Gogh as his guide, the cypress is no longer a straggly mass of green— it’s a wonder of color and harmony.  Oscar Wilde once said there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it.  With equal wit, Botton remarks, “There had surely been fewer cypresses in Provence before Van Gogh painted them.

Van Gogh also awakens Botton’s unappreciative eyes to the glorious colors of Provence’s Mediterranean landscape.  In a passage of rich description, the philosopher paints an idyllic picture of the French countryside:

“The mistral, blowing along the Rhine valley from the Alps, regularly clears the skies of clouds and moisture, leaving it a pure rich blue without a trace of white.  At the same time, a high water table and good irrigation promote a plant life of singular lushness for a Mediterranean climate.  With no water shortages to restrict its growth, the vegetation draws full benefit from the great advantages of the south: light and heat…The combination of cloudless sky, dry air, water and rich vegetation leaves the region dominated by vivid primary, contrasting colors.”

In the 19th century, most artists depicted Provence in soft complementary colors like blues and earthy browns.  Van Gogh, to borrow the words of Botton, was “incensed by this neglect of the landscape’s natural color scheme.”  “The majority of [painters] because they are not colorists…do not see yellow, orange or sulfur in the South,” the artist once complained, “and they call a painter mad if he sees with eyes other than theirs.”  Van Gogh revolted against popular conceptions of Provence and soaked his canvases in bright primary colors, juxtaposing them in striking ways: red poppies next to a yellow farmhouse, hunter’s green olive trees against clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds.

Van Gogh’s consideration for color teaches Botton to see with more sensitivity.  Before being exposed to the post-impressionist painter, Botton’s capacity to see was barely better than a blind man’s.  He couldn’t understand why people called Provence’s hills “picturesque”— to him, they were an ugly, dry, dirty brown, no different from the hills in California or England.  But after seeing Van Gogh’s “Orange Roof” and “Meadow with Poppies,” his bland surroundings become more brilliant.  “Everywhere I looked, I could see primary colors in contrast,” he writes, “Besides the house was a violet-colored field of lavender next to a yellow field of wheat.  The roofs of the buildings were orange against a pure blue sky.  Green meadows were dotted with red poppies.”

All in all, Botton’s The Art of Travel reminds us of the irreplaceable role of art and the artist.  More than just momentarily entertain or ravish our senses, a poem or painting encourages us to cherish what usually escapes our notice.  In our normal, hurried lives, we move at such a velocity that the magnificence of the world barely registers.  But when we gaze upon “Starry Night,” we can sit and savor the surreal Saint Remy sky and therefore become more conscious of its awe-inspiring crescent moon.

Alain de Botton on How to Overcome the Boredom of Sightseeing

Travel is always to some degree disappointing because we romanticize our destination without having experienced it in reality.  Before we depart for Venice, for example, our conception of the floating city comes from picture-perfect postcards and things we’ve seen in movies.  We imagine our trip will consist of quaint cobblestone streets and hand-crafted cappuccinos at Cafe Florian, the world’s oldest cafe.  As we indulge in the Caffè Anniversario 300, a decadent, distinctly Italian blend of espresso, amaretto, hazelnut, and chocolate, we imagine we’ll gaze upon the gothic beauty of St. Mark’s Basilica and nibble on salmon and spinach quiche.  With a bubbly glass of Prosecco in hand later that evening, we’ll feel like Venetian royalty.

Sadly, our image of Venice differs drastically from its reality.  Though the floating city does shimmer on the magical blue green waters of the Adriatic Sea, our glamorized conception of Venice neglected the tacky tourist traps, the suffocating sun and the notoriously crowded streets of Italy.  In postcards, cobblestone streets were a charming artifact of the old world— in reality, they make it maddeningly difficult to maneuver our luggage and walk in heels.  And though Cafe Florian does, indeed, take our breath away with its splendid baroque art and adorable pastries, it also costs 80 euros for a single coffee and a few tea cakes.

Sight-seeing especially underscores the difference between reality and fantasy.  In real life, the Colosseum and the Louvre aren’t nearly as impressive or interesting.  Indeed, the world’s great landmarks are often dreadfully boring.  Though the Colosseum once hosted epic gladiatorial battles for thousands of spectators, today it’s a mecca for overweight tourists in Hawaiian shirts and flip flop slippers.  And though the Mona Lisa is perhaps the world’s most famous painting, in real life, it’s a rather unremarkable woman sitting simply— nothing more.

No one examines the disappointments of travel with more charming British cynicism than philosopher Alain de Botton.  In his indispensable volume The Art of Travel, which explained why we travel and how traveling to new places can inspire new thoughts, de Botton shares his own disenchanting experiences abroad.  After being invited to Madrid for a conference, he decides to extend his trip a few days to go sightseeing.  But on Saturday morning, he wakes up in his hotel and doesn’t want to get out of bed despite Madrid’s grand cathedrals and breathtaking monuments.  His guidebooks glare at him from his bedside table as if to chastise him for his laziness.  How— they seem to gasp— can he pass up Plaza Mayor for a king size mattress?

Eventually, de Botton wills himself of bed to explore the city.  As he sits under the Spanish sun in Plaza Provincia, his guidebook instructs him in the bland facts of his surroundings: “The Neo-classical facade of the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande is by Sabatini but the building itself, a circular edifice with six radial chapels and a large dome 33m/108 ft wide, is by Francisco Cabezas.”  Much like a history teacher who recites the important figures and monumental dates of WWII without weaving those facts into a compelling story, most guidebooks fail to fan the flames of our curiosity.  De Botton’s travel guide offers an abundance of information but is as intriguing as a dictionary.  After all, who cares about Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande’s precise mathematical measurements?  As de Botton confesses candidly, “Unfortunately for the traveler, most objects don’t come affixed with the question that will generate the excitement they deserve.  There is usually nothing affixed to them at all, or if there is it tends to be the wrong thing.  There was a lot fixed to the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, which stood at the end of the long traffic-choked Carrera de San Francisco—  but it hardly helped me be curious about it.”

Ironically, travel is often one thing: boring.  Despite the novelty of medieval architecture and cobblestone streets, a foreign land can be just as uninteresting as our own city.  Travel guides and museum placards are partially to blame.  Rather than capture the horror and chaos of Picasso’s “Guernica,” a placard at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art will merely mention its history (painted in response to the bombing of Guernica by Nazi Germany), its date of creation (1937), and its technique (oil on canvas).  Such dry facts are about as relevant to our real lives as the slope-intercept formula y= mx +b.

De Botton soon realizes that if he wants his trip to be more than a yawns-worthy visit to a museum, he has to find a way to make sight-seeing— to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s term— “life enhancing.”  No matter how passionately a travel guide might argue for the significance of a Picasso painting, it will mean little to us unless we give it meaning.  Instead of simply accept expert opinion and agree that “Guernica” is one of the most moving anti-war paintings, we should ask ourselves how it can be meaningful to us personally.  What can it teach us about how to live?  How can it illuminate some aspect of the human experience?  We must ask thoughtful questions and be active rather than passive.  As de Botton writes, “For the person standing before the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, a question might be, ‘Why have people felt the need to build churches?’ or even, ‘Why do we worship God?'”  From there, a tourist might wonder why there are different churches in different places or why humans invented religion at all.

Lesson?  For the small seed of curiosity to sprout, we must nurture it.  Or as de Botton would say, the Neo-classical facade of a Spanish church or a mid-century Cubist painting can only be interesting if we’re interested.

There’s Always a Plane Taking Off Somewhere: Alain de Botton on the Airplane as a Symbol of Hope & Possibility

No matter how exciting our destination, we usually look forward to the airport with dread.  To make our impossibly early boarding time, we have to wake up at 5 in the morning; once we arrive, we have to find parking and navigate impossibly long security lines.  If we’re departing from the airport of a major city— Beijing or Charles de Gaulle or Heathrow— finding our gate can feel like a journey in itself.  Like a Homeric hero, we have to overcome many obstacles on the route to our goal: rude TSA agents, labyrinthine corridors, incomprehensible airport directories, confusing shuttle schedules.  As we rush to find our terminal, we hear the sounds of shrieking children and luggage rolling along linoleum floors.  Over the intercom, a kindly voice reminds a Mr. Anderson to please come to gate 4B as his 8:45 plane is about to depart.  Though we’re trying to hurry (after all, we don’t want to be Mr. Anderson and keep our flight waiting), a gray-haired couple in their late 70s is walking unimaginably slow directly in front of us.  When we finally maneuver around them and get to our terminal, we realize we’re in the wrong one: we should be on the other side of the airport.  “God damn it,” we mutter to ourselves.  Frantic, we race past tourists in fanny packs and towering carts of luggage as if we were Olympians trying to make it through an obstacle course.

We eventually arrive.  Despite our worries that we’d miss our flight, we still have over an hour to kill before our departure time.  If stress is the dominant emotion while finding your gate, boredom is the dominant emotion while waiting to board.  With nothing else to occupy us, the hands of time grind to a halt: seconds feel like minutes, minutes feel like hours.  To pass the time, we people watch and mindlessly scroll through our phones.  When that no longer entertains us, we flip through magazines at Hudson News and grab a Starbucks. Most of us imagine the airport is a hell of torturous boredom and anxiety; however, according to British philosopher Alain de Botton, the same sharp intellect who has written so compellingly on love, status anxiety, and emotional health, it is also a stirring symbol of possibility and hope.  In his elegant travel guide The Art of Travel, the same volume that suggested we should travel to new places to have new thoughts and carefully observe to better appreciate our travels abroad, de Botton asserts the airport is as life-affirming as Molly Bloom’s ecstatic cries of “yes” at the end of Ulysses.

Ultimately, the airport reminds us that if our life feels stagnant— if we’re dissatisfied with our jobs, if we’re bored of our husbands— things don’t have to remain as they are.  Too often, we imagine we’re “stuck” in our lives, that today will be exactly like tomorrow.  But for a few hundred dollars, we can buy a plane ticket and move to an entirely different country and become entirely different people.  The airport’s endless list of departures to romantic, far-flung places— London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Budapest, Rome— isn’t just a catalog of cities: it’s a portal into other possible lives, other possible worlds.  In the same way that we can board a flight to Santorini and completely change our surroundings, we can alter what seems unalterable.  If we’re unhappy as a San Francisco computer engineer, the list of departures seems to suggest, we can be an Oxford PhD or a Viennese pastry chef.  Nothing is beyond our capacity to change: we can get a divorce if we’re tired of being belittled by our abusive husband, we can quit our jobs and start our own business.  Our lives are a novel that can always be rewritten.  Or as de Botton writes with equal parts wisdom and wit:

“Nowhere is the appeal of the airport more concentrated than in the television screens which hang in rows from terminal ceilings announcing the departure and arrival of flights and whose absence of aesthetic self-consciousness, whose workmanlike casing and pedestrian typefaces, do nothing to disguise their emotional charge or imaginative allure.  Tokyo, Amsterdam, Istanbul.  Warsaw, Seattle, Rio.  The screens bear all the poetic resonance of the last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses: at once a record of where the novel was written and, no less importantly, a symbol of the cosmopolitan spirit behind its composition: ‘Trieste, Zurich, Paris.’  The constant calls of the screens, some accompanied by the impatient pulsing of a cursor, suggest with what ease our seemingly entrenched lives might be altered, were we to walk down a corridor and on to a craft that in a few hours would land us in a place of which we had no memories and where no one knew our names.  How pleasant to hold in mind, through the crevasses of our moods, at three in the afternoon when lassitude and despair threaten, that there is always a plane taking off somewhere.”

Alain de Botton on How Traveling to New Places Can Inspire New Thoughts

Why travel?  The actual act of traveling— hailing a cab, boarding a bus, riding a train— is exhausting.  The airport is my personal conception of hell, even more so than the DMV.  The harsh, florescent lights, the disgusting food, the interminable lines, the endless waiting.  Why endure the hell of Heathrow to visit the beautiful white sand beaches of Rio de Janeiro or the sun-soaked hills of Tuscany?  What is it, exactly, that compels us to voyage to far-flung places?  Do we travel merely for rest and relaxation or can travel have a deeper philosophical meaning?  Can sipping a cappuccino in Rome or wind-surfing in Fiji teach us something?

In his charming, incomparably insightful The Art of Travel, British philosopher Alain de Botton suggests traveling to new places enlarges our perspective and inspires us to think differently.  Though it might seem indulgent to reserve two weeks of every year for a holiday, nothing is more vital to our mental and emotional well-being.  At home, we often feel stuck: in our monotonous jobs, in our passionless marriages.  Travel makes us realize we can change our lives.  Just as our plane can begin on the ground but soar through the skies only a few seconds later, we can always start over.  On a plane, we’re reminded anything is possible: one morning, we can wake up in gloomy grey London only to arrive eight hours later in clear, cloudless Barbados.  As de Botton writes, the plane can “inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives.”

Most of the time we’re occupied with the trivial: did our neighbor across the street see when we tripped and fell?  how were we going to pay this month’s credit card bill?  what should we make for tonight’s dinner?  why hasn’t our package arrived yet?  did it get lost in the mail?

We rarely, if ever, draw things to scale.  A fight about dirty dishes isn’t just another ordinary lover’s quarrel— it’s a Shakespearean tragedy filled with tragic flaws and tragic heroes.  “How can my husband not wash his dish right away?  He never appreciates me!” we declare melodramatically, “Maybe I should leave him.  He’s a selfish pig!”  If we get a flat tire on the way to work, it isn’t merely inconvenient, an unfortunate way to start the day— it’s indisputable proof that the whole universe is against us and life isn’t worth living.

But when we takeoff from San Francisco International Airport, we gain invaluable perspective.  In a few minutes, the spectacular lights of the city shimmer and recede into the sea, the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge disappears behind a mysterious mist.  As we climb into the sky— 5,000 feet, 10,000 feet— our lower Haight apartment gets smaller and smaller until it’s as insignificant as a period.

Among the clouds, we recover our sense of proportion.  In a few days, it won’t matter that our husband was inconsiderate and forgot to wash his dish or that a flat tire made us late to an important meeting.  We are one of Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants, our planet is but an inconsequential speck.  Who cares if we tripped in front of our neighbor?  If we ordered take out one Wednesday night instead of cooked a proper dinner?   A Shakespearean tragedy is a girl gone missing or a baby dying or a genocide or a world war or a gruesome murder— not a delayed package or an overdue credit card bill.  At 42,000 feet, our problems seem more surmountable.

In ancient Greece, philosophers believed there was a direct relationship between the macrocosm, the cosmos or world as a whole, and the microcosm, the individual.  Similarly, de Botton asserts the outer world corresponds to our inner one.  “There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts, new places,” he writes with his trademark wit.  Just as we have more “a ha” moments when we leave the customary setting of our desks, we have more novel, interesting thoughts in novel, interesting places.  Wandering through an open air market in Egypt among the exotic smell of spices and incense, we can come up with more imaginative ideas than if we were simply strolling through heads of lettuce at our local supermarket.

“What ails us?” is the first question we should ask whenever we book a plane ticket.  The destination we select should remedy our affliction.  If we’re feeling overwhelmed by the commotion of the city, for example, we might seek out quiet places: a charming cabin nestled among California redwoods, a quaint fairy tale cottage in an English hamlet.  On the other hand, if we’re feeling cramped in our tiny New York City apartment, we might journey to large landscapes: Yosemite, Muir Woods, the Grand Canyon.  Under a broad blue sky, we can have broader thoughts.  How can we not feel expansive in the presence of the breathtaking beauty of El Capitan, 200 foot tall sequoias, and majestic million year old red rock?

In our normal lives, we are confined to our normal identity but on a plane to Dubai or a train through the French countryside, we can get reacquainted with our authentic selves.  In many ways, home limits us; as de Botton observes, “The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.” 

Unlike in real life, where we’re often hurrying from one thing to the next, travel offers plenty of idle time to reflect, be it at a grand chandelier-adorned subway station in Moscow or a bus stop twenty minutes outside of Stockholm.  With nothing to do but gaze outside our window, we can daydream and wonder, ponder and puzzle.  Where would we most want to live if we could live anywhere in the world?  What do we imagine is our purpose in life?  What have we always wanted to do?  Learn Italian or do the tango?  Usually the din of daily life is too deafening to hear the answers but on a serene train ride through the Swiss Alps, we can finally make out the soft whispers of the true self.

With his rare ability to find meaning in the mundane, de Botton claims an unfamiliar hotel room can also free us from familiar ways of thinking.  Have you ever wondered why sex in a hotel is always more satisfying?  Unlike in our everyday bedroom where we’re constantly distracted by the nagging demands of domesticity— whining children, dirty dishes, dirty laundry— in a hotel room among out-of-the-ordinary objects like mini shampoo bottles, individually wrapped soaps, room service menus and paper view TV, we can rediscover our forgotten sexuality.  In a new setting, we can see our husband in new ways: no longer is he a partner in the joint business of running a household or, worse, a roommate, he is our lover, our other half, our soul mate.  Though we’re usually too tired to give each other a peck on the cheek, in a hotel far from home, we have the irrepressible urge to rip off each other’s clothes and kiss amorously beneath the sheets.  A hotel room is an aphrodisiac that rekindles our desire, our longing.  So if you want to reignite the spark in your relationship, de Botton would say, exchange handcuffs and kink for a mini bar and fresh towels in a foreign city.

Most travel guides are compendiums of top ten lists that instruct us where to go.  Such books are undoubtedly helpful (after all, how else would we find the most idyllic view in Santorini or the best dim sum in San Francisco?) but they don’t teach us how to make the most of our travels.  The Art of Travel is a must-have in every tourist’s backpack for the very reason that it doesn’t include definitive lists of “must see” monuments in Rome: while practical guides like Lonely Planet offer invaluable advice on what hotel to book and when to visit, de Botton’s one-of-a-kind volume illuminates why we travel, how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, and how to preserve the fleeting beauty we encounter once we return home.

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.