3 Reasons You Should Keep a Diary

For me, a diary is many things: a therapist’s coach, a playground, a laboratory.  It’s— to borrow Virginia Woolf’s lovely phrase— a “blank-faced confidante,” a caring friend who will always listen and never judge.  Though the practice seemed pointless at first (after all, could there be anything more self-indulgent than documenting the mundane matters of your day?  who cares?), I’ve been keeping a diary now for nearly ten years.  Nothing has been more important to my formation as a person or as a writer.

Here are three reasons why I believe you— too— should keep a journal:

1. you’ll free yourself of your inner censor’s picky perfectionism

the diary of anais nin

For Anais Nin, who began her legendary diary at the age of eleven and devoted herself to the practice for over half a century until her death, a diary was a place to explore and experiment.  Unlike in “real” writing where we’re mercilessly tortured by self-criticism and silenced by self-doubt, in a diary, we can play like a carefree child in a sandbox.  Usually, writing is fraught with anxiety (“Was our point clear?”  “Was our topic interesting/relevant?”  Did we sound silly/stupid?”) but in the private pages of our diary, we don’t have to perform— we are free to frisk and frolic.  There’s no need to obsessively-compulsively write and rewrite sentences, to endlessly tweak and alter and adjust.  We don’t have to write anything original or sharp-witted— only what genuinely intrigues/interests us.  Nor do our ideas have to march to a neat and orderly logic: topic sentence, example, evidence.  They can wander down windy roads, get lost down dead-ends.

Too often, we bring our censor to the page in the early stages of the writing process: when we’re brainstorming, when we’re just playing with ideas.  The result?  We get blocked. “What does that have to do with anything?” our censor will snap when we start to follow an interesting— if unrelated— thought, “Stay on track…no detours!”  But just as we stumble upon Maine’s best blueberry pie when we decide to stop at a diner off the main road, we often discover our best ideas when we bypass the highway and take the scenic route.

In an illuminating 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, the ever-elegant Nin argued her diary helped her amass a wealth of material and write without restriction:

“… in the diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work.  Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, brought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.”

2. you might find diamonds in dust

virginia

Perhaps the most compelling reason to keep a diary comes from dedicated diarist, Virginia Woolf.  Though it’s hard to imagine that a genius like Woolf could doubt her own talent, for the titan of modernism behind such masterpieces as Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, writing was often torment: she loathed what she wrote, she tossed entire drafts in the trash, she exasperatedly scratched sentences out.  There were days when she felt everything she wrote was obvious and trite, when she cruelly compared herself (“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence.  Oh if I could write like that!” she once wrote.) 

The fact is writing can be hell.  Some days we dread sitting at our keyboards.  We’d rather do almost anything— get a root canal, read dusty decades-old magazines in a three hour DMV line, visit our insufferable in-laws— than put one word against another.  On days like this, putting pen to paper feels as torturous as having dinner with your right-wing, Trump-supporting uncle.  Every word, every sentence is a struggle.  We freeze up rather than let words flow.  Because we long to write The Great American Novel— something history-making and monumental— we feel blocked.  Should we employ more evocative description?  Should we replace lethargic forms of “to be” with vigorous action words?  Is it okay to simply say “went” or should we use something more specific like “hurried” or “skipped” or “jumped”?

For Woolf, keeping a diary was a potent remedy for such crippling writer’s block.  In a April 20, 1919 entry from her own blank-faced confidante, she wrote the purpose of a diary was artistic— not historical.  More than just a mundane record of her day-to-day, the diary was a safe space where she could express what first came into her mind without fear of judgement or ridicule:

“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice.  It loosens the ligaments…What sort of diary should I like mine to be?  Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind.  I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.” 

In a diary, we can write with an ease and effortlessness that often eludes us.  Ironically, our writing is worlds better when we stop trying so hard.  Think of a first date.  When we try to “make an impression” and dazzle our date with impressive accomplishments, riveting stories, and hilarious jokes, we repel rather than attract our potential paramour.  But when we relax, sip our wine, and be ourselves, our chances of a second date increase tenfold.

The same is true in writing.  If we write out of ego— to impress with our scholarly, sophisticated vocabulary or to astonish with our ability to quote Dante in the original Italian or to gain literary celebrity or to win awards— we’ll a) find it impossible to write at all or b) only write god awful dross.  But if we dash things off instead of compose, if we simply surrender and let go, we can write— and write well.

Will our diary be a masterpiece of prose?  Most likely not, much of it will be worthless junk, but— in Woolf’s charming words— other times we might uncover “diamonds in dust”:

“I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles.  Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dust heap.”

3.  you’ll create yourself

susan sontag

Lastly, we should keep a diary because it’s a place where we can create ourselves.  As essayist, political activist, and public intellectual Susan Sontag wrote in her 1957 journal:

“Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate.  In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.  The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood.  It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent.  Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.”

Writing— above all— is an act of making meaning.  Sadly, most of us don’t try to make our lives mean: we simply go to work, pay bills, go grocery shopping.  Rather than form a narrative that follows a conflict’s escalation from exposition to climax to resolution, we let our days pass without scrutiny.  A breakup of a long term relationship, a heated argument with our headstrong sister, an impossible roommate are a series of unrelated episodes.  Because we don’t examine our lives, we can’t identify the unifying theme, the recurring patterns.  We have no sense of how chapters contribute to the whole novel.

But when we take the time to reflect in a diary, we better understand our lives and ourselves.  By translating our thoughts into words, we make things comprehensible.  Our diary is the narrative of our lives, a novel we can analyze and dissect and pour over. 

Have we written the same tear-filled story about our husband day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year?  Maybe it’s time to get a divorce.

How many pages have we spent wondering why our on-again/off-again “boyfriend” hasn’t called?  Maybe— our diary suggests ever so gently— he’s not our boyfriend at all.  Maybe we should drop his ass because he treats us like a booty call. 

How many times have we written that we missed our regular ritual of Sunday brunch with the girlsMaybe it’s time to pick up the phone.

Are we always enviously admiring the accomplishments of our ambitious friends who volunteer for good causes and get their Master’s?  Maybe we should sign up to read to children at our local library or research grad schools.

Are we constantly complaining about how we despise our dull, dead-end jobs?  Maybe it’s time to change careers.

Or does page after page brim with a desire to explore and adventure?  Perhaps we should road trip across the country or trek to Timbuktu or abandon civilized society and live in a loincloth.

“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,” Joan Didion once wrote.  Writing makes us aware of who we are and what we want.  Keeping a diary, we realize we’re the authors of our own lives: we can take control of our narratives, we can rewrite our stories, we can revise our plots.

Why You Should Go On Long, Meandering Walks

For most of us, life leaves little room for rest or renewal.  Most days, we’re racing from home to work to our daughter’s elementary school.  Rather than concentrate on completing one thing at a time, each hour of the day, until the day is over, we carelessly rush from one task to another— or worse— attempt to do two things at the same time.  In a pandemic that requires us to spend the majority of our waking hours in front of the hypnotic blue light of the computer, it has only become more difficult to be mindful.  How can we possibly focus on one thing when— with a single click— we can skim the headlines, take Buzzfeed’s “What Disney Princess Are You?” quiz, and watch another hilarious but ultimately pointless cat video?  The high-speed twenty first century is a circus of jugging clowns and acrobats in sparkly costumes.

If— as Rebecca Solnit so poetically phrased— “the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour,” the frantic pace of modern life is too fast for thought.  Hurried and haphazard, we can’t penetrate anything beyond the surface, let alone appreciate the glory and grandeur all around us.   Rarely do we marvel at the miracle that we even exist (the probability that any of us will be born, after all, is only 1 in 400 trillion), that despite car crashes and earthquakes and forest fires and meteors and stage three breast cancer and diabetes and heart disease and serial killers, we’re still here.  Too often, we neglect the “little joys”: the smell of french toast and coffee in the morning, the laugh of a child, the dappled autumn sunlight.

long, meandering walks

A daily walk, however, can help us slow down and notice what we usually overlook.  When we stroll, we soak up the scenery: the flower beds of red geraniums, the brick house covered in ivy, the old-fashioned Victorian home on the corner with a magical tree house in the backyard and a red 1967 Mustang in the driveway.  With nowhere to get to and nothing pressing to do, we pause for a moment to leaf through the local street library only to find a pack of Tarot cards and a rare first edition of Anais Nin’s first diary.

In our accelerated lives, things usually whiz by in a black-and-white blur, but on a solitary stroll, the world bursts into vivid technicolor.  At a slower pace, we can actually see the sky: clear or cloudy, robin’s egg or carefree Renoir blue.  The instruments of nature– the breeze blowing through bare branches, the patter of rain against the pavement, the foreboding sound of an approaching storm, the reposeful chirp of crickets at dusk, the drowsy buzz of bees in the sweltering summer sun– form the soundtrack to our saunter.  We may have walked these streets countless times, but today we see things we never noticed before: a corgi across the street, two bushy-tailed squirrels chasing each other.  We start to see the humanity of our neighbors.  There’s the liberal-minded lesbian couple with Black Lives Matter signs in their front yard, the beautiful German woman who wears impossibly chic sun hats and spends her Saturdays tending her garden.  “With the utmost love and attention the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf,” observed Robert Walser.

Experts agree that something as simple as walking can do wonders for our mental and physical health.  Not only does walking daily support a healthy immune system, boost your metabolism, and help you burn calories and lose weight, it lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of stroke, heart disease and diabetes.  Walking increases self-esteem, improves overall sleep quality, and reduces stress and anxiety.  Studies have even found that a brisk 30 minute walk 3x a week is just as effective as anti-depressants.  So this year, swap another sedentary hour on the coach for a spirited saunter.

High-Minded New Year’s Resolutions from History’s Greatest Thinkers

What’s so magical about New Year’s?  Is it the celebratory pop of champagne and the excuse to kiss a stranger?  Or is it the streamers and confetti, the sparkle of cocktail dresses, the joviality of party horns, and the general mood of good cheer?

For me, New Years is so enchanting because it promises a fresh start, a chance to start over.  It’s as if life resets when the clock strikes midnight and the ball drops in Time’s Square.  It no longer matters that we resolved to go to grad school and have yet to even send away for a brochure.  Nor does it matter that our only exercise the past 365 days was walking the twenty three short steps from our couch to the refrigerator.

January 1st beckons with the promise of a new us— not just a new year.  This year we’re going to work out every day.  This year we’re going to eat salads and protein shakes instead of Chinese take out and gallons of Haagen-Daz.  Most New Year’s resolutions focus on the physical, the productive, the practical: “lose weight,” “get in shape,” “spend less time on social media.”  But what about the mind and heart?  This year rather than make the same half-hearted resolutions, let’s aspire to live more passionate lives, find wonderment in the most mundane moments, and commit ourselves to the most noble goal of all: be who we truly are.  Inspired by Maria Popova’s elevating resolutions for self-refinement, I have complied my own list of higher-minded resolutions from history’s greatest thinkers.

1. live, love & write it well in good sentences

sylvia new year's

No diarist has penetrated the human heart more deeply than Sylvia Plath.  Sadly, Plath is known—  not for her literary genius— but for her final act: dying by her own hand.  In the collective consciousness, Plath is the paragon of the “tortured artist,” a martyr for feminism who killed herself (rather symbolically) by sticking her head in the oven.  We romanticize her tragic end, her doomed marriage, her mental illness.  But though we glorify her losing battle with depression, we shouldn’t ignore the courage with which she faced her demons.

In The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, the same masterpiece of introspection that gave us the true definition of love and the dynamics of a healthy relationship, we witness the troubled poet’s never ending struggle to surmount the darkness.  At times, her reflections are despondent: like us, her vision is occasionally clouded by the dark, dense clouds of pessimism and self-hatred.  But more often, her writing shines with an indomitable strength of spirit.  Plath was no coward: she embraced life in both its ecstasy and agony, its bliss and torment.  Her only ambition?  To experience everything (“I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore,” she once confided in her diary).

This year, let’s pattern ourselves after Ms. Plath and accept life’s tribulations and triumphs.  The devastation of a breakup, the stress of a job layoff, the loneliness of being trapped at home during a worldwide pandemic instruct us in what it means to be human.  Rather than pity ourselves or succumb to depression, we can “live, love, and write it well in good sentences”— in other words, transmute our experience into art, whether that be words on the page or paintings on a canvas.

2. put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard

anne sexton #2

Our second new year’s resolution comes from another gifted but tormented poet, Anne Sexton, who used therapy to process her trauma and shed light on the dark, cob-webbed corners of her subconscious.  The therapist’s office was a place where she could come to terms with the past, where the ghosts of her upbringing— to borrow Alain de Botton‘s elegant metaphor— could be brought into the daylight and laid to rest. 

In her remarkable Paris Review interview, collected in the altogether indispensable volume Women Writers at Work, Sexton offered this beautifully-phrased piece of advice: “put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard.”  This year, let’s listen to our souls by sorting through our issues somewhere unexpected: on a therapist’s coach.

Why should we invest the time/money/energy in psychoanalysis?  Is devoting an hour a week (and quite a sum of money) to rambling about our childhoods really worth it?  Yes, because when we revisit painful experiences from our past, we gain insight into our at times incomprehensible behavior and can feel more self-compassion.  Recounting our traumatic upbringing to a sympathetic ear, we realize we sabotage our chances with loving, considerate partners— not because we’re irredeemable idiots— but because our dysfunctional parents failed to teach us what a healthy relationship was.  If, for example, our father was a perpetually absent workaholic who barely lifted his head from his newspaper when we joined him at the dinner table, we came to associate love with being ignored.  If, on the other hand, our mother’s idea of discipline was smacking us in the face and calling us a worthless cunt, we received one message: love = hurt.

The result is we play out these destructive patterns in adulthood.  We seek out abusive men with explosive tempers— not because we’re masochists or because we’re too dumb to know any betterbut because being mistreated is familiar.  Growing up, love wasn’t tender hugs or a “honey, how was your day?” when we returned home from school; it was long, lonely hours in front of the television set and constant belittlement, unreciprocated and occasionally cruel.

The good news, however, is we’re not doomed by our bad childhoods.  If, like Anne Sexton, we commit ourselves to rigorous self-examination in therapy (the Pulitzer prize-winning poet certainly did; she met her therapist religiously two to three times a week for eight years), we can break our unhealthy patterns and hopefully heal. 

3. find & become who you truly are

“Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, marion milnertheir passions a quotation,” poet and playwright Oscar Wilde once said.  Though we like to imagine ourselves as individuals, most of us are mere repositories for the social and cultural milieu in which we live: our most deeply held beliefs are things we’ve overheard or read, our politics are buzzwords we absorb from Fox News or CNN.  We spend our tragically short lives striving for things— fame, fortune, social standing, degrees from Ivy League universities, an important-sounding job title we can brag about at high school reunions— not because they speak to our spirit or because they have deep personal meaning but because we’re “supposed” to.  We’re supposed to want the Beaver-to-Cleaver era icons of middle class success: a husband and children, a house with a white picket fence, a once-a-year summer getaway to Hawaii replete with tropical breezes, white sand beaches and the scent of sun tan lotion.

But what happens when we actually attain these things?  Though we have a life many women would envy— a devoted husband, happy, healthy children, a reasonable amount of money in the bank— we find ourselves discontented.  Suddenly, in the middle of the night, we’re awoken by a terrible existential dread: “Is this all there is?”

In 1926, British psychoanalyst and writer Marion Milner had one such unsettling experience. Although there was nothing exactly wrong with her life, Milner realized she wasn’t leading an authentic existence.  “I was drifting without rudder or compass,” she writes, “swept in all directions by influence from custom, tradition, fashion, swayed by standards uncritically accepted from my friends, my family, my countrymen.”  Like many women, Milner never took the time to know herself, to sieve her authentic longings from the sands of social convention.  So like Henry David Thoreau, who retreated to the seclusion of Walden Pond because he wished to “live deliberately,” she embarked on a seven year experiment to discover what would truly make her happy.

The result was A Life of One’s Own, a charming field guide to living in alignment with your own values.  Much like a detective, Milner set out to solve a mystery: who was she?  what did she love? loathe?  what did she most deeply desire?  She used logical reasoning and clues from her daily life and diary to find answers.  Over the course of her nearly decade-long project, Milner plumbed the depths of her own psyche, recording her observations with a scientist’s rigor.  Her conclusion?  You must possess self-knowledge to be happy.

This year let’s learn from Ms. Milner and aim to know ourselves better.  Rather than wander aimlessly without rudder or compass, we can find direction by making time for sacred silence, for introspection.  What stirs our spirit?  What sets our heart aflame?  If we were on our death bed, what would we regret not doing?  Like Milner, we can contemplate these questions, record our observations and regularly reflect in a diary.  The goal?  To uncover what we want to do— not what we feel we should.

Why We Should Delight in the Little Things in Life

“Happiness, not in another place, but this place…not for another hour, but this hour,” Walt red poppies & daisiesWhitman assured us nearly two centuries ago.  Yet how few of us truly appreciate life’s simple pleasures: the ecstasy of a deep, dream-dazed sleep after a dozen miserable nights of insomnia or the glorious freedom of a Sunday morning with no one to see and nothing to do?  Do we rejoice at the sound of our lover’s key unlocking the door or the miracle of our lost dog finding his way home?  No, instead we moan about our mortgage, gossip about the inconsequential lives of imbeciles, gripe about having to go to yet another pointless meeting, and impatiently tap our feet and let out an exasperated sigh when an elderly coupon-clipping lady holds up the line at the grocery store.

Why do we become so joyless?  Is it because the glamorous lives of movie stars and social media influencers leave us perpetually unsatisfied and always wanting more?  because as we get older, we simply lose our capacity for wonder and become superficial social climbers obsessed with impressive job titles, designer handbags, and flashy cars?  Or is it because life almost never goes as planned and inevitably disappoints us?

According to Pema Chodron, the ordained Buddhist monk behind the much beloved Wisdom of No Escape, the great thief of joy is resentment.  When we forget what we have and only focus on what we lack and what we want, we conclude contentment is not in this place but another place, not in this hour but another hour.  We’ll be happy, we tell ourselves, when we get the hip mid-century living room or the stylish wardrobe befitting a Vogue cover.

But what does the attainment of our ambitions actually get us?  Do we feel less melancholic/despondent/angsty/anxiety-ridden when we fulfill our desires?  No, getting what we want only makes us want more: the vintage velvet coach doesn’t look quite as charming in real life as it did on our Pinterest board, the blouse and trousers don’t look as chic on us as they did on that perfectly-proportioned fashion model.  So we seek satisfaction in yet something else: a 1950s gold lamp, a Prada handbag hoping these things will finally satiate us.

For Chodron, the only way to escape this hedonic treadmill is to delight in what we usually neglect or ignore.  To be awake to the beauty of ordinary moments— the unparalleled pleasure of clean sheets fresh out the dryer or the delight of an impromptu picnic in a field of tulips or the delectable bliss of chocolate raspberry gelato— is to step beyond the smallness of our own experience, beyond our bottomless desires and endless “more, more, more,” and into a wider perspective that recognizes the preciousness of every fleeting instant of our finite time on Earth.  As Proust once reminded us, beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths.  In a similar sentiment, Chodron urges us to marvel at the overlooked miracles all around us:

“That sense of wonder and delight is present in every moment, every breath, every step, every movement of our own ordinary everyday lives, if we can connect with it.  The greatest obstacle to connecting with our joy is resentment.

Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how precious things are.  Resenting what happens to you and complaining about your life are like refusing to smell the wild roses on your morning walk, or like being so blind that you don’t see a huge black raven when it lands in the tree that you’re sitting under.  We can get so caught up in our own personal pain or worries that we don’t notice that the wind has come up or that somebody has put flowers on the table.”

For centuries, artists created “memento mori,” works meant to remind us of death’s inevitability.  Latin for “remember that you have to die,” a memento mori often featured a skull or an hourglass, unsettling symbols of mortality.  Though Jean Morin’s skull paintings or the elaborate crypts of friars’ bones beneath Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church in Rome might seem morbid or disturbing, they communicate an important— perhaps the most important— fact of life: we will die“What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be,” reads a haunting inscription in the Santa Maria catacombs.  Whether you’re a pitiful peasant or a great king, in a hundred years, you— too— will be skull and bones, forgotten beneath the sands of time and reduced to a few insignificant words on a tombstone.

the skull jean morin

When we’ll perish, we cannot know.  We could die fifty years from now, an old woman who’s done everything she set out to do— won the Pulitzer Prize, beheld the majesty of the Sistine Chapel, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, seen Machu Picchu— or we could die unexpectedly on the way to work tomorrow.  The grim reaper rarely announces his arrival: we die suddenly of a heart attack and collapse over our morning coffee, we say “I love you” to our mother like we have hundreds of times, wave goodbye and never return.

Some say death is the domain of melancholy emo kids and brooding philosophers, but it’s actually something we should all ponder.  When we reckon with death— that we will most certainly die but we can never know how or when— we will finally live.  No longer will we overlook the loneliness-lessening comfort of recognizing ourselves in a character from a book, nor will we take for granted simple pleasures like a good laugh or hot chocolate on a chilly autumn afternoon.  We’ll no longer postpone visiting that quaint town in the English countryside or procrastinate on doing the things we’ve always wanted to.  Life with its clean sheets and tulip fields and chocolate raspberry gelato, we realize, is too precious to squander.

Pema Chodron on How to Break Our Habitual Patterns & Live More Mindfully

mindful Pema

What is a habit?  Oxford English Dictionary defines habit as a “settled or regular tendency or practice.”  Brewing a cup of coffee, stumbling into the bathroom and brushing our teeth, rising at six every morning: each is a habit, a task we ordinarily undertake.  Habits may make up the mundane material of our day-to-day, but they dictate our destiny (“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our our lives,” as Annie Dillard so exquisitely says.)  It’s simple: if we have good habits, we’ll lead good lives.  If, for example, we’re in the habit of exercising daily and eating only healthy, wholesome foods, we’ll be fit and full of vigor.  If, on the other hand, we’re in the habit of smoking half a pack of Marlboros and guzzling a gallon of Jameson every night, we’ll waste our days miserably hung over.

The beauty of habits is they’re automatic: they don’t require much— if any— effort.  When we leave for the office every morning, we don’t have to consciously think “turn the key in the ignition,” “shift from break to drive,” “press the accelerator.”  Nor do we have to consciously think to find our way there.  Because we drive to and from work twice a day, five times a week, we instinctively know where to get on and off the freeway, where to make a right or left turn.

Where would we be without such automated, unconscious processing?  Imagine how much energy we’d expend navigating streets!  Or deciding what to do when if we didn’t have daily rituals to divide our days!  Habits streamline our lives and sculpt the formless clay of existence into a beautiful, orderly shape.  Philosopher William James went so far as to advise we make as many useful actions habitual as possible.  “The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work,” he believed.

Yet we don’t want to act from habit alone.  British philosopher Alain de Botton views habits more pessimistically, “Much of life is ruined for us by a blanket or shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters,” he writes, “Habit dulls our senses and stops us from appreciating.”  After all, if we act out of habit, if we mechanically, mindlessly follow a routine, we’re by definition not thinking.  We’re reacting rather than responding.  It’s a habit to either sit and sulk or shoot back with a cutting comment when our mother makes a passive-aggressive comment about our dining room’s disarray.  It’s a habit to get defensive and retaliate when our boyfriend brings up something that bothers him, even when he does so in a constructive rather than critical way.

Rather than fall into familiar roles and act out the same habitual patterns, ordained Buddhist monk and master of mindfulness Pema Chodron suggests we pause and get fully present before we react in the same unhelpful ways.  In her life-changing Practicing Peace, she makes a radical, revolutionary assertion: war and peace begin with individuals, not with nations.  If we want to create a more loving world, if we want to build a society based on loving-kindness and mutual respect rather than hostility and hate, we must first look at ourselves: how do we behave with others day to day?  do we act with compassion and understanding or do we judge and discriminate?  if there’s conflict, do we seek to find a compromise or do we wage war against our enemies?  The key to peaceful relationships whether between nations and citizens or friends and family is thinking before we act and before we speak.  Maintaining our composure, of course, is difficult when we feel wronged or angry.  As Chodron writes:

“When we’re feeling aggressive— and I think this would go for any strong emotion— there’s a seductive quality that pulls us in the direction of wanting to get some resolution.  We feel restless, agitated, ill at ease.  It hurts so much to feel the aggression that we want it to be resolved.  Right then, we could change the way we look at this discomfort and practice patience.  But what do we usually do?  We do exactly what is going to escalate the aggression and the suffering.  We strike out, we hit back.  Someone insults us and, initially, there is some softness there— if you can practice patience, you can catch it— but usually you don’t even realize there was any softness.  You find yourself in the middle of a hot, noisy, pulsating, wanting-to-get-even state of mind.  It has a very unforgiving quality to it.  With your words or your actions, in order to escape the pain of aggression, you create more aggression and pain.”

What do we do when someone hurts or humiliates us?  When someone attacks us, our first impulse is to fight back.  Say our sister accuses us of being cheap.  Outraged, we want to defend ourselves and collect evidence to support our case.  Has she forgotten all the times we so generously picked up the tab?  or that we just covered her share of the security deposit at our new place?  How dare she call us cheap?  Blood boiling, we want to shout and scream: She was the money-grubbing miser.  She was wrong.  She owed us an apology.

But where does hurling accusations get us?  When two parties are in conflict, does criticizing or pointing fingers ever accomplish anything?  Even if someone wrongs us first— makes an unfair allegation, calls us names— do we reach an amicable compromise by launching our own crusade?  No, usually bombarding our enemies with bullets of belittlement only makes them fortify their walls and assault us more viciously.  For there to be any hope of resolution, we must not add fuel to the flames:

“If we want suffering to lessen, the first step is learning that keeping the cycle of aggression going doesn’t help.  It doesn’t bring the relief we seek, and it doesn’t bring happiness to anyone else either.  We may not be able to change the outer circumstances, but we can always shift our perspective and dissolve the hatred in our minds.”

It’s a common misconception that Eastern religions advocate pacifism that borders on passivity.  Buddhism recalls images of monks meditating serenely in monasteries or sitting cross-legged beneath bonsai trees, their tranquil faces radiating joy and peace.  To be spiritually enlightened, we imagine we have to be similarly all-loving and all-forgiving.  If a cashier is rude to us, if a hostess is discourteous after we’ve been waiting an interminable two hours to be seated, we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be irritated/irate/angry.

Buddhism may advise us to pause and reflect before we rant and rave, but it never recommends we repress or deny our feelings.  We should validate how we feel: it is upsetting when the grocery store clerk barely raises his head to say hello, it is infuriating when the hostess doesn’t apologize for the long wait.  We can feel our feelings but choose how to express them.  The goal is to bring more alertness, awakeness, and aliveness to our interactions with our fellow human beings.  Or—to paraphrase the poetic Rebecca Solnit— we can feel ire without inflicting it.  No matter how strong the urge to exact revenge or unleash our rage, Chodron encourages us to simply stay with our difficult feelings:

“So when you’re like a keg of dynamite just about to go off, patience means slowing down at that point— just pausing— instead of immediately acting on your usual, habitual response.  You refrain from acting, you stop talking to yourself, and then you connect with the soft spot.  But at the same time you are completely and totally honest with yourself about what you are feeling.  You’re not suppressing anything; patience has nothing to do with suppression.  In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself.  If you wait and don’t fuel the rage with your thoughts, you can be very honest about the fact that you long for revenge; nevertheless you keep interrupting the torturous storyline and stay with the underlying vulnerability.  That frustration, that uneasiness and vulnerability, is nothing solid.  And yet it is painful to experience.  Still, just wait and be patient with your anguish and discomfort…This means relaxing with that restless, hot energy— knowing that it’s the only way to find peace for ourselves or the world.”

No human ability is more powerful than the word.  “In the beginning was the word,” the Bible reminds us.  Words birth new nations, begin and end bloody world wars.  They can build bridges or erect walls, promote forgiveness or harden a grudge, resolve differences or incite rancor.  They can be stitches and slings or bullets and bombs.  They can bandage wounds or leave lifelong scars.

“For every time you regret that you did not say something, you will regret a hundred times that you did not keep your silence,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote.  Though it’s tempting to slight our sisters when they say something mean or strike back with a spiteful comment when our boyfriend hurts our feelings or otherwise insults our dignity, retaliating only perpetuates the cycle of suffering.  Yes, our boyfriend is a jackass for confessing he finds another woman attractive, but what do we accomplish by getting revenge?  We make him insecure and jealous?  Do we promote an atmosphere of trust by exaggeratedly checking out every remotely good-looking guy we pass on the street?  Do we strengthen our relationship by intentionally drooling over every six-packed movie star we see on TV?  No, no matter how much we want retribution for our lover’s insensitivity, our job in life is to keep our side of the street clean:

“At this point you’re getting to know anger and how it easily breeds violent words and actions, and this can be decidedly unnerving.  You can see where your anger will lead before you do anything.  You’re not repressing it, you’re just sitting there with the pulsating energy— going cold turkey with the aggression— and you get to know the naked energy of anger and the pain it can cause if you react.  You’ve followed the tug so many times, you already know.  It feels like an undertow, that desire to say something mean, to seek revenge or slander, that desire to complain, to just somehow spill out that aggression.  But you slowly realize that those actions don’t get rid of the aggression, they increase it.  Instead you’re patient— patient with yourself— and this requires the gentleness and courage of fearlessness.”

Every difficult conversation, every moment of doubt, fear, and insecurity offers an opportunity: will we reenact the same predictable patterns and believe our same habitual stories or will we behave in a new way?  Will we be courageous enough to be vulnerable and open up or will we defend ourselves against possible attack by hiding behind an impregnable stockade?

Often times, anger and aggression mask a deeper vulnerability.  Why, for instance, are we so outraged at discovering that our partner still stays in contact with his ex?  We feel indignation perhaps because we find such a relationship inappropriate, yes, but our swearing and screaming is really just a guise for our insecurity.  It’s easier to feel fury than realize just how utterly helpless we are at the hands of our beloved.  Those we love— more than anyone else— have the profound power to hurt us deeply: sure, they might love us now, but one day they might reunite with their ex or run off with their skanky, short-skirted secretary.  Rather than be vulnerable and reveal these anxieties to our partners (“I know you love me but it makes me feel insecure that you maintain a relationship with your ex.  I worry you still harbor feelings.”), we lash out.  We harden instead of soften, as Chodron might say: we call our husband a bunch of obscenities, we sulk and spoil our evening out to the movies, we reach out to our ex just to be petty.  We don’t dare articulate our actual feelings (“I love you/ I need you/ I’m scared you might leave me.”):

“Behind resistance— definitely behind aggression and jealousy— behind any kind of tension, there is always a soft spot that we’re trying to protect.  Someone’s actions hurt our feelings and before we even notice what we’re doing, we armor ourselves in a very old and familiar way.  So we can either let go of our solid storyline and connect with that soft spot or we can continue to stubbornly hold on, which means that suffering will continue.”

How can we break destructive, dysfunctional relationship patterns and express ourselves openly and honestly?  Chodron has a simple answer: live more mindfully.  If we return again and again to the present moment, we can observe our thoughts from a place of detached objectivity, label our thinking as “thinking,” and choose our actions accordingly: 

“Mediation teaches us how to open and relax with whatever arises, without picking and choosing.  It teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows.  We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to return again and again to the present moment.  We train in sitting with the itch…and with our craving to scratch.  We label our story lines ‘thinking’ and let them dissolve, and we come back to ‘right now,’ even when ‘right now’ doesn’t feel so great.  This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.”

Practicing Peace illuminates how we can bring more compassion to a world so often driven apart by conflict and cruelty.  With mindfulness, we can improve relationships individually and globally between men and women, between liberals and conservatives, between people of different religions, races and nationalities.  For more Chodron, read how to be courageous enough to grow up and how to let pain enlarge your heart.  If you want more Buddhist wisdom, learn how to live intentionally from Thich Nhat Hanh and how to entirely inhabit the present moment from Alan Watts.

Alain de Botton’s Case for Politeness

polite society

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

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

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

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

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

victorian era manners

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

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

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

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

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

Alain de Botton on How to Be Charming

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

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

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

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

how to be charming

1. be unafraid to be yourself

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

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

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

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

vintage couple flirting

2. be vulnerable 

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

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

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

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

vintage couple flirting #2

3. be a good listener

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

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

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

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

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

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

storm-tossed sea

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

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

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

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

the sublime

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

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

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

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

Alain de Botton on Culture as a Cure for Loneliness

young alain de bottonNo matter how much we repress or deny it, a large portion of the human experience is disagreeable.  Heartbreak and sorrow, despair and melancholy are as much part of life as love and joy, happiness and hope.  For some part of our lives, the sky will be a somber shade of gray— not just a cloudless cheerful blue.  Though difficult emotions are universal, we’re often ashamed to admit when we’re suffering a dark season of the soul and finding it impossible to do something as simple as get out of bed and put on regular clothes.  Our society requires we keep chit chat superficial.  “How are you?” our next door neighbor asks when we pass each other in the hall.  “I’m fine,” we mutter forcing a smile, “How are you?”  It would be a breach of proper decorum (not to mention make our neighbor profoundly uncomfortable) to tell the truth.  “Oh me?  I’m horrible!  The love of my life just left me so most nights I’ve been taking Xanax and drinking an entire bottle of champagne to myself.  Fingers crossed I overdose!”

No, we must “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet” as T.S. Eliot so sharply observed in his masterpiece of modernism “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  Instead of indulge our depression— retreat under the covers or collapse into sobs— we (for the most part) go about our lives business as usual.  We brush our hair and put on mascara; we take care of the mundane errands of living; we engage in surface-level small talk at happy hour and make obligatory appearances at friends’ birthday parties.  We don’t let others see the depths of our suffering.

But because everyone else is also hiding their suffering, we end up feeling alone.  “We therefore end up not only sad, but sad that we are sad— without much public confirmation of the essential normality of our melancholy,” British philosopher Alain de Botton writes in The School of Life: An Emotional Education, his instruction manual for emotional fulfillment that is both deeply philosophical and practically useful.  For him, this loneliness isn’t a common cold— it’s a chronic condition as potentially life-threatening as cancer.  Lucky for us, consolation can be found in one thing: culture.  If our world is suffering an epidemic of loneliness, art is the antidote.  Why?  Because art reminds us that—despite how things may seem— we are never alone with our sorrows:

Culture is a “record of the tears of humanity, lending legitimacy to despair and replaying our miseries back to us with dignity…art is a tool that can help release us from our numbness and can provide for catharsis in areas where we have for too long been wrong-headedly brave.”

In the same way “The Star Spangled Banner” unites us in our shared national values and gives us a sense of identity, art affirms we share a common humanity: we’re are all citizens in a country of suffering.  Terror and anxiety, depression and despondency: they belong to the whole of the human racenot us alone.  The beauty of art is it momentarily relieves us of the dreadful sense that we’re somehow abnormal.  No, it’s normal to occasionally misjudge others as the otherwise intelligent Elizabeth Bennet misjudges Mr. Darcy.  It’s even normal— like Hamlet— to occasionally contemplate suicide.  When we encounter ourselves in a work of art, we realize everyone— even those with six-figure salaries and important-sounding job titles and gorgeous Instagram photos— is neurotic, maladjusted, and fucked up.  As de Botton writes: 

“It is like the way a national anthem works: by singing it the individual feels part of a greater community and is strengthened, given confidence, even feeling strangely heroic, irrespective of their circumstances.  [Art] is like an…anthem for sorrow, one that invites us to see ourselves as part of a nation of sufferers which includes, in fact, everyone who has ever lived.

[…]

Other people have had the same sorrows and troubles that we have; it isn’t that these don’t matter or that we shouldn’t have them or that they aren’t worth bothering about.  What counts is how we perceive them.  We encounter the spirit or the voice of someone who profoundly sympathizes with suffering but who allows us to sense that through it we’re connecting with something universal and unashamed.  We are not robbed of our dignity; we are discovering the deepest truths about being human— and therefore we are not only not degraded by sorrow but also, strangely, elevated.”  

cezanne apples

Sadly, rather than seek solace in art, we try (and fail) to find solace in other people, particularly a significant other.  Beginning in the late 18th century, romanticism popularized the notion that one human being, our Platonic soul mate, would be able to completely understand us.  According to romantic thought, “true lovers could see deep into each other’s souls”; in other words, once we found our ideal lover, we’d no longer have to say how we felt– our partner would just know; once we found our “other half,” we’d never again feel alone.  

However lovely the romantic conception of love, it’s ultimately the stuff of fairytales.  No matter how wonderful our partner is, no matter how compatible we are, they’ll never know every region of our heart— nor can we know theirs.  Those we love will always— to some extent— be as strange as strangers in a subway car:

“What replaced religion in our imaginations, as we have seen, is the cult of human-to-human love we now know as Romanticism, which bequeathed to us the beautiful but reckless idea that loneliness might be capable of being vanquished, if we are fortunate and determined enough to meet the one exalted being known as our soulmate, someone who will understand everything deep and strange about us, who will see us completely and be enchanted by our totality.  But the legacy of Romanticism has been an epidemic of loneliness, as we are repeatedly brought up against the truth: the radical inability of any one other person to wholly grasp who we truly are.”

Human interaction almost always disappoints us.  Though there’s nothing we crave more than connection, most day-to-day conversation revolves around a series of uninteresting topics (the unusually nice weather, the most recent drama at the office) and obligatory questions (“so, how are you?”/”do anything fun this weekend?”).  Even our closest relationships lack real intimacy.  After all, what do we discuss during a night out with the girls?  our innermost thoughts?  our deepest convictions?  No, chatter over brie and chardonnay usually centers around last Saturday’s sexcapades or the latest TikTok. 

Fortunately, books can supply us with the connection we so long forA novel is a window into another’s consciousness, another’s interior world.  When we read Mrs. Dalloway, for example, we are allowed to see beyond Clarissa the socialite and see her most intimate secrets, her most haunting regrets and most private hopes.  A fictional character won’t shrug off “how are you?” with a polite but insincere “I’m fine” like most of us do— they’ll tell the truth.

“What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library!  A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote.  What’s wonderful about books— and films and paintings and poems— is they connect us with the finest minds from centuries and civilizations ago.  With the turn of a page, a lonesome 21st century reader can find a friend in Tolstoy or Kafka, Hemingway or Fitzgerald:

“The arts provide a miraculous mechanism whereby a total stranger can offer us many of the things that lie at the core of friendship.  And when we find these art friends, we are unpicking the experience of loneliness.  We’re finding intimacy at a distance.

[…]

Confronted by the many failings of our real-life communities, culture gives us the option of assembling a tribe for ourselves, drawing their members across the widest ranges of time and space, blending some living friends with some dead authors, architects, musicians and composers, painters and poets.”

tobias & the angel

Though humankind has always suffered from loneliness, through the ages, we’ve found different ways to cope.  When religion played a more prominent role in day to day life, the belief in God was our coping mechanism.  No longer were we doomed to wander the planet alone— we had an all-forgiving, all-loving presence with us.  Even if we were by ourselves— lost at sea, stranded on a deserted island, quarantined in our homes— we had God to guide us.

Today religion has fallen from its central place in culture: the majority of us don’t say grace before meals or attend church except for special occasions like Christmas and Easter.  So if God is dead, where can we turn for counsel?  how can we not feel completely and utterly on our own?  De Botton believes we can assemble our own tribe of guardian angels, only our angels aren’t winged creatures with harps and golden halos— they’re novelists and artists, poets and painters.  For us in the modern era, a museum is a cathedral and a book is secular scripture:

“You might feel physically isolated in the car, hanging around at the airport, going into a difficult meeting, having supper alone yet again or going through a tricky phase of a relationship, but you are not psychologically alone.  Key figures from your imaginary tribe (the modern version of angels and saints) are with you: their perspective, their habits, their way of looking at things in your mind, just as if they were really by your side whispering in your ear.  And so we can confront the difficult stretches of existence not simply on the basis of our own small resources but accompanied by the accumulated wisdom of the kindest, most intelligent voices of all ages.”

All in all, de Botton argues culture offers the companionship that is so difficult to find in the real world.  For more symposiums from the school of life, study the importance of kindness and the four criteria of emotional health.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on love, revisit him on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.

Alain de Botton on the Importance of Kindness

 

young alain de botton“Nothing makes our lives, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote.  Many hundreds of years before, Plato advised us to be kind because “everyone you know is fighting a hard battle.”  Rumi perhaps put it most poetically: “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.  Help someone’s soul.”  Though random acts of kindness— letting someone merge into your lane at the height of rush hour, holding open a door, buying the next person in line a cappuccino— can lighten an overburdened heart and cheer a dispirited soul, we don’t often consider whether we’re kind enough to people.  We are, however, acutely aware when people are less than pleasant to us.  When someone is inconsiderate, we don’t consider the motives that underlie their bad behavior— we either rage at their stupidity or nostalgically mourn the loss of good manners.  Humanity, we insist, is made of fools and monsters.

Yet the world would be a much lovelier place if we were more generous in our assessments of other people.  In his endlessly erudite The School of Life: An Emotional Education, disarmingly witty British philosopher Alain de Botton uses the folktale of Androcles and the lion to illustrate how kindness can build bridges instead of walls.  First told by the Roman philosopher Aulus Gellius, the tale has been told time and time again both orally and in Aesop’s Fables.  In the story, a lion lives alone in the forests of the Atlas mountains.  One day he starts terrorizing a nearby village.  The more the lion roars, the more the women weep and the men toss and turn.  Afraid for their lives, the villagers assign guards to stand watch and send out heavily armed hunting parties to find— and kill— the monster.

It’s at this time that a shepherd boy named Androcles follows his sheep high into the mountains.  One evening as the sun falls below the horizon, he finds a cave and decides to seek shelter.  Inside, the darkness is impenetrable.  It’s only when he lights a candle that he sees he isn’t alone: there, not a few feet in front of him, is the bloodthirsty monster!

At first, Androcles is horrified.  Certainly the savage beast would tear him to shreds.  But then he notices something: the lion has a thorn in his paw.  The animal doesn’t want to hurt him— he’s in pain, that’s all.  Suddenly, Androcles only feels pity for the poor creature.  Rather than slay him, he strokes his mane and tenderly removes the thorn.  Grateful for the boy’s help, the lion licks his hand.  With one small gesture of kindness, the ferocious lion becomes as docile as a house cat.  Not only that, but two mortal enemies become lifelong friends.

androcles

What can the modern reader take away from this age-old folktale?  For de Botton, the story of Androcles and the lion is a poignant reminder that “hurt people hurt people.”  Too often in life we’re unforgiving when people grieve us.  If a friend says something insensitive, if our boyfriend, who is usually so attentive and affectionate, becomes cold and distant, if a cashier exhales exasperated when we take too long rummaging through our purse at the grocery store, we chalk up their behavior to their irredeemable character.  And then what do we do?  We squander the rest of our afternoon ranting and raving about what assholes they are.  How dare our “friend” be such an inconsiderate jerk!  How dare that cashier treat us as if we were the rude ones!

But rather than condemn our friend or the young girl at the cash register, we should act as psychologists and ponder the origins of their behavior.  Why did our friend make that nasty off-hand remark about our latest fling “not lasting” very long?  Was she simply a bitch?  Was she maliciously trying to hurt us?  Most likely not.  Perhaps she has her own insecurities because she once slept with the “fling” in question and— on some level— is jealous of us.  Perhaps she never liked that we were seeing each other and—instead of express her feelings or even admit them to herself— she acts out her bitterness and discomfort by subtly taking stabs at us.  Or perhaps she’s just oblivious to how passive aggressive she sounds.  And what of the ill-mannered girl at the grocery store checkout?  Perhaps she exhaled so loudly— not because we were taking too long to find change— but because she was tired from a double shift or she had just dealt with a disgruntled costumer before us.

Lesson?  When our fellow humans are petty or ungracious or just plain mean, they usually don’t mean to be.  Their back-handed compliments, their judgmental comments about our living rooms being in disarray: all spring from their own self-loathing and insecurity.  Like the lion, they are just in terrible pain.  As de Botton so astutely observes:

“The lion…has no capacity to understand what is hurting him and what he might need from others.  The lion is all of us when we lack insight into our own distress.  The thorn is a troubling, maddening element of our inner lives— a fear, a biting worry, a regret, a sense of guilt, a feeling of humiliation, a strained hope or an agonized disappointment that rumbles away powerfully but just out of range of our standard view of ourselves.  The art of living is to a large measure dependent on an ability to understand our thorns and explain them with a modicum of grace to others— and, when we are on the other side of the equation, to imagine the thorns of others, even those whose precise locations or dimensions we will never know for certain.”

No other thinker has educated us in the subject of emotional acuity more than Alain de Botton.  For more seminars from the school of life, study his four criteria of emotional health.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on love in all its madness and mystery, revisit him on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.