In Praise of Missing Out: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the Paradoxical Value of Our Unlived Lives. “In the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation,” Alain de Botton wrote in his meditation on Nietzsche and why a fulfilling life requires difficulty.
“We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Joan Didion wrote in contemplating the value of keeping a notebook. But we are just as well advised, it turns out, to keep on nodding terms with the people we could’ve been, the people we never were, the people who perished in the abyss between our ideal selves and our real selves. So argues psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (public library) — a fascinating read, acutely relevant to our culture so plagued by the fear of missing out that we’ve shorthanded it to “FOMO.” The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy on Mastering the Antidote to Anxiety, Self-Consciousness, and Impostor Syndrome. “We know that we live in contradiction,” Albert Camus wrote in his magnificent meditation on strength of character, “but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it.”
One of the most pervasive and perennial contradictions pulling the human spirit asunder is our yearning for greatness, which coexists with our chronic propensity for self-doubt. How to reduce that abiding contradiction is what social psychologist, researcher, and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy explores in Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (public library) — a potent antidote to one of the most common yet secretive and stigmatic maladies of modern life: impostor syndrome. At the heart of Cuddy’s research is the idea that the opposite of powerlessness, that ultimate fuel of impostor syndrome, isn’t power but what she terms presence — the ability to inhabit and trust the integrity of one’s own values, feelings, and capabilities.
Albert Camus on What It Means to Be a Rebel and the Heart of Human Solidarity. “You say you want a revolution,” the Beatles sang in 1968 as Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was erecting the pillars of nonviolence on the other side of the Atlantic, “Well, you know / We all want to change the world… But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out… If you want money for people with minds that hate / All I can tell you is brother you have to wait.” Perhaps such is the curse of our species: Only in violent times do we remember, in our bones and our sinews, that hate is not a weapon of rebellion but of cowardice; that no true revolution is achieved through destruction and nihilism; that the only way to change the world is through constructive and life-affirming action. No one has made this point more persuasively and elegantly than Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) in his sublime and sublimely timely 1951 book The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (public library).
What is a rebel? Albert Camus on the Will to Live and the Most Important Question of Existence. “If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance,” Alan Watts wrote in his 1951 meditation on how we wrest meaning from reality.
But if to dance or not to dance is the central question of existence, are both choices endowed with equal validity, dignity, and moral courage? Not so, argued Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) a decade earlier in The Myth of Sisyphus (public library), which begins with what has become one of the most famous opening sentences in literature and one of the most profound accomplishments of philosophy. The Psychology of Time and the Paradox of How Impulsivity and Self-Control Mediate Our Capacity for Presence.
“Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life,” Kafka once told a teenage friend.
“It’s only there that it can be won or lost.” The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky believed that what draws us to film is the gift of time — “time lost or spent or not yet had.” There Is a Crack in Everything, That’s How the Light Gets In: Leonard Cohen on Democracy and Its Redemptions. Trained as a poet and ordained as a Buddhist monk, Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934–November 10, 2016) is our patron saint of sorrow and redemption.
He wrote songs partway between philosophy and prayer — songs radiating the kind of prayerfulness which Simone Weil celebrated as “the rarest and purest form of generosity.” One of his most beloved lyric lines, from the song “Anthem” — a song that took Cohen a decade to write — remains what is perhaps the most meaningful message for our troubled and troubling times: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” It springs from a central concern of Cohen’s life and work, one which he revisited in various guises across various songs — including in “Suzanne”, where he writes “look among the garbage and the flowers / there are heroes in the seaweed,” and in the iconic “Hallelujah”: “There’s a blaze of light / In every word / It doesn’t matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah”.
And another: It is a miracle. Ursula K. Le Guin on Power, Oppression, Freedom, and How Imaginative Storytelling Expands Our Scope of the Possible. “We must always take sides,” Elie Wiesel urged in his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life. “In the wholeheartedness of concentration,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful inquiry into the effortless effort of creativity, “world and self begin to cohere.
With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” But concentration is indeed a difficult art, art’s art, and its difficulty lies in the constant conciliation of the dissonance between self and world — a difficulty hardly singular to the particular conditions of our time. Two hundred years before social media, the great French artist Eugène Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work; a century and a half later, Agnes Martin admonished aspiring artists to exercise discernment in the interruptions they allow, or else corrupt the mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy where inspiration arises.
How to hedge against that hazard is what beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. Oliver writes: It is a silver morning like any other. Against Self-Criticism: Adam Phillips on How Our Internal Critics Enslave Us, the Stockholm Syndrome of the Superego, and the Power of Multiple Interpretations. I have thought and continued to think a great deal about the relationship between critical thinking and cynicism — what is the tipping point past which critical thinking, that centerpiece of reason so vital to human progress and intellectual life, stops mobilizing our constructive impulses and topples over into the destructiveness of impotent complaint and embittered resignation, begetting cynicism?
In giving a commencement address on the subject, I found myself contemplating anew this fine but firm line between critical thinking and cynical complaint. To cross it is to exile ourselves from the land of active reason and enter a limbo of resigned inaction. But cross it we do, perhaps nowhere more readily than in our capacity for merciless self-criticism. We tend to go far beyond the self-corrective lucidity necessary for improving our shortcomings, instead berating and belittling ourselves for our foibles with a special kind of masochism.
Authority wants to replace the world with itself. The Art of Living: The Great Humanistic Philosopher Erich Fromm on Having vs. Being and How to Set Ourselves Free from the Chains of Our Culture. A pioneer of what he called “radical-humanistic psychoanalysis,” the great German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) was one of the most luminous minds of the twentieth century and a fountain of salve for the most abiding struggles of being human.
In the mid-1970s, twenty years after his influential treatise on the art of loving and four decades after legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead turned to him for difficult advice, Fromm became interested in the most basic, most challenging art of human life — the art of being. At the height of a new era that had begun prioritizing products over people and consumption over creativity, Fromm penned a short, potent book titled To Have or To Be?
The Central Paradox of Love: Esther Perel on Reconciling the Closeness Needed for Intimacy with the Psychological Distance That Fuels Desire. “There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love,” the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in his 1965 classic on mastering the art of loving. One chief reason we flounder in this supreme human aspiration is our unwillingness to accept the paradoxes of love — paradoxes like the necessity of frustration in romantic satisfaction and the seemingly irreconcilable notion that while love longs for closeness, desire thrives on distance. How to live with those paradoxes, rather than succumbing to the self-defeating urge to treat them as problems to be solved, is what Belgian psychotherapist and writer Esther Perel explores in Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence (public library).
Perel writes: Love is at once an affirmation and a transcendence of who we are.Beginnings are always ripe with possibilities, for they hold the promise of completion. Cynicism, Self-Comparison, and What Makes for the Survival of the Soul: A Commencement Address. I have long relished the commencement address as one of our few cultural forms that render us receptive to sincerity — receptive to messages we might dismiss as trite in any other context, but which we recognize here as the life-earned truth of the human being at the podium, shared in a spirit of goodwill with a group of young humans just starting out on the truth-earning gauntlet called life.
So I was thrilled to deliver the address to the 2016 graduating class at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, my own alma mater. Speech text below. I want to talk to you today about the soul. Not the soul as that immortal unit of religious mythology, for I am a nonbeliever. And not the soul as a pop-culture commodity, that voracious consumer of self-help chicken soup.
Bertrand Russell on the Vital Role of Boredom and “Fruitful Monotony” in the Conquest of Happiness. Between the time Kierkegaard contemplated boredom and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips made his bewitching case for why the capacity for it is essential for a full life, Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) tussled with the subject more elegantly than any other thinker before or since. In a chapter titled “Boredom and Excitement” from his altogether indispensable 1930 classic The Conquest of Happiness (public library) — an effort “to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer” — he teases apart the paradoxical question of why, given how vital it is to our wholeness, we dread boredom as much as we do.
The Will to Doubt: Bertrand Russell on Free Thought and Our Only Effective Self-Defense Against Propaganda. “We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny,” W.H. Auden observed in his commonplace book. Half a century earlier, Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970), the great poet laureate of reason, addressed the central equation of free thinking in his 1922 Conway Memorial Lecture, later published as Free Thought and Official Propaganda (public library | free ebook) — a short and searing book charged with Russell’s characteristic intellectual electricity, the immense power of which melts an entire century into astonishing timeliness speaking directly to the present day.
Three decades before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for “his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought,” Russell writes: When we speak of anything as “free,” our meaning is not definite unless we can say what it is free from. I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out. The Daily Stoic: Timeless Wisdom on Character, Fortitude, Self-Control, and the Art of Living from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
Few words have been more corrupted by appropriation and misuse than the modern derivative of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Today, stoic is a word rendered vacant of the original quest for enlivenment that animated Stoic philosophy, instead warped to connote the very opposite — a kind of unfeeling forbearance that borders on pursed-lipped resignation. But two millennia ago, Stoicism emerged as a life-affirming platform for being — a kind of supervitamin for the soul, fortifying the human spirit against the trials of daily life, against the onslaught of the world, and, above all, against its own foibles. At its heart was the idea that the four cardinal virtues of courage, justice, wisdom, and self-control are the seedbed of human flourishing, and that all of our suffering arises from our perception and interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves — an idea that has as much in common with Buddhism as it does with Bertrand Russell.
In a passage reminiscent of Dr.