The paradox of transformative experiences, astronomer Maria Mitchell on how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves through friendship, Frederick Douglass on art as a tool of progress, and more.
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Hello, Terry Travers! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition – empathy is a clock that ticks in the consciousness of another, the art of the clean and kind breakup, Sylvia Plath's never before seen visual art, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
"We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us," Adrienne Rich wrote in her exquisite meditation on the art of honorable human relationships. While it is hard enough to inoculate the integrity of the word "friend" against today's epidemic misuse and overuse, it can be even harder to calibrate our expectations of those who have earned the benediction of the title — the chosen few we have admitted into the innermost chambers of the heart and entrusted with going that hard way with us. "Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship," Seneca counseled in contemplating true and false friendship, "but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul." Two millennia later, the question of whom to welcome and to what extent remains one of the most delicate discernments with which life tasks us.
Portrait of Maria Mitchell (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)
In a diary entry from the first day of 1855, found in Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters (public library), Mitchell resolves to have more balanced relationships and reflects on how unwise it is to turn a single person into the center of gravity in one's emotional universe. Instead, one's attachments should be distributed among many people, each fulfilling a different need — one providing intellectual stimulation, another rendering us "more elastic and buoyant, more happy and radiating more happiness, because we know him," another inspiring in us such "warmth of affection" that "our hearts grow as if in a summer feeling." Long after Aristotle contemplated "what makes for a good happiness-enhancing friendship," Mitchell writes:
A friend is not to be found in the world such as one can conceive of, such as one needs, for no human being unites so many of the attributes of God as we feel our nature requires…. We have therefore a circle whom we call friends, giving a name to the whole, which perhaps in its singular occupation might be used for the combination. Out of the whole circle we may make up a single friend. We love them all but we love the union of all better.
The friends with whom we encircle ourselves, Mitchell reminds us, become instrumental in the architecture of our own character — after all, it is through relationships, as Van Gogh wrote to his brother, that we refine ourselves. Our choice of relationships can either reinforce the limiting patterns of thought and feeling that have long governed us, or decondition them by helping us learn new patterns of attachment and orientation of being. Mitchell writes:
Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware.
Who of us acts and speaks without an eye to the approbations of those he loves? Is not the assent of another a sort of second conscience? … We prop ourselves up with accomplices, we surround ourselves with those who can down for us the uprisings of conscience.
And yet this interdependence, Mitchell is careful to observe, is not a weakness of human nature but one of its greatest and most beautiful features:
Who judges a work of art and sees only with his own eyes? Who listens to a lecture and hears only with his own ears? We turn aslant as we stand before the picture to see what good judges are looking. We open the guide book to see what we ought to admire…. Insensibly our judgment is inspired by that of those around us. It is not a weakness to be deplored. We were more than conceited did we rate ourselves so much above the rest of the world that we needed no outward aids to judgment. We were born dependent, our happiness is in the hands of others. Our character is molded by them and receives its coloring from them as much as our feeling relates the parental impress.
To be human is to suffer from a peculiar congenital blindness: On the precipice of any great change, we can see with terrifying clarity the familiar firm footing we stand to lose, but we fill the abyss of the unfamiliar before us with dread at the potential loss rather than jubilation over the potential gain of gladnesses and gratifications we fail to envision because we haven't yet experienced them. Emerson knew this when he contemplated our resistance to change and the key to true personal growth: "People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them." Rilke, too, knew it when he considered how great upheavals bring us closer to ourselves: "That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter."
When faced with the most transformative experiences, we are ill-equipped to even begin to imagine the nature and magnitude of the transformation — but we must again and again challenge ourselves to transcend this elemental failure of the imagination if we are to reap the rewards of any transformative experience.
In Transformative Experience (public library), philosopher L.A. Paul illustrates this paradox and examines how we are to unbind ourselves from it in a simple, elegant thought experiment: If you were offered the chance to become a vampire — painlessly and without inflicting pain on others, gaining incredible superpowers in exchange for relinquishing your human existence, with all your friends having made the leap and loving it — would you do it?
The trouble is, in this situation, how could you possibly make an informed choice? For, after all, you cannot know what it is like to be a vampire until you are one. And if you can't know what it's like to be a vampire without becoming one, you can't compare the character of the lived experience of what it is like to be you, right now, a mere human, to the character of the lived experience of what it would be like to be a vampire. This means that, if you want to make this choice by considering what you want your lived experience to be like in the future, you can't do it rationally. At least, you can't do it by weighing the competing options concerning what it would be like and choosing on this basis. And it seems awfully suspect to rely solely on the testimony of your vampire friends to make your choice, because, after all, they aren't human any more, so their preferences are the ones vampires have, not the ones humans have.
This hypothetical situation, she points out, is an apt analogue for our most important life decisions:
When you find yourself facing a decision involving a new experience that is unlike any other experience you've had before, you can find yourself in a special sort of epistemic situation. In this sort of situation, you know very little about your possible future, in the same way that you are limited when you face a possible future as a vampire. And so, if you want to make the decision by thinking about what your lived experience would be like if you decided to undergo the experience, you have a problem… You find yourself facing a decision where you lack the information you need to make the decision the way you naturally want to make it — by assessing what the different possibilities would be like and choosing between them. The problem is pressing, because many of life's big personal decisions are like this: they involve the choice to undergo a dramatically new experience that will change your life in important ways, and an essential part of your deliberation concerns what your future life will be like if you decide to undergo the change. But as it turns out, like the choice to become a vampire, many of these big decisions involve choices to have experiences that teach us things we cannot know about from any other source but the experience itself.
In many ways, large and small, as we live our lives, we find ourselves confronted with a brute fact about how little we can know about our futures, just when it is most important to us that we do know. For many big life choices, we only learn what we need to know after we've done it, and we change ourselves in the process of doing it. I'll argue that, in the end, the best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we'll become.
North Pacific Giant Octopus by photographer Mark Laita from his project Sea
Unless you've had the relevant experiences, what it is like to be a person or an animal very different from yourself is, in a certain fundamental way, inaccessible to you. It isn't that you can't imagine something in place of the experience you haven't had. It's that this act of imagining isn't enough to let you know what it is really like to be an octopus, or to be a slave, or to be blind. You need to have the experience itself to know what it is really like.
This brings out another, somewhat less familiar fact about the relationship between knowledge and experience: just as knowledge about the experience of one individual can be inaccessible to another individual, what you can know about yourself at one time can be inaccessible to you at another time.
"True art, when it happens to us, challenges the 'I' that we are," Jeanette Winterson wrote in her arresting meditation on how art transforms us. That transformation is one of the most powerful personal experiences a human being can have, but it is also one of the most powerful motive forces of progress for humanity as a whole. In art, we depict our ideals and, in depicting them, we challenge ourselves to face the gap between aspiration and actuality, which in turn challenges us to stretch ourselves and close that gap. "All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation," young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary, and the object of that contemplation, directly or obliquely, is precisely that discomfiting disconnect between the ideal and the real that drives us to strive for reform. Art, argued the Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren, "is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, a society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth."
A century earlier, the pioneering social reformer and writer Frederick Douglass (c. February 1818–February 20, 1895) made the most exquisite and enduring case for this function of art in an essay titled "Pictures and Progress," penned in the mid-1860s and found in the indispensable The Portable Frederick Douglass (public library).
To the eye and spirit, pictures are just what poetry and music are to the ear and heart.
Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures.
Reason is exalted and called Godlike, and sometimes accorded the highest place among human faculties; but grand and wonderful as is this attribute of our species, still more grand and wonderful are the resources and achievements of that power out of which come our pictures and other creations of art.
This faculty of the imagination, Douglass argues, isn't merely the source of aesthetic stimulation but the inner hand outstretched toward our highest ideals — the one which gives us, to borrow Susan Sontag's penetrating phrase, "the model of self-transcendence." He writes:
Art is a special revelation of the higher powers of the human soul. There is in the contemplation of it an unconscious comparison constantly going on in the mind, of the pure forms of beauty and excellence, which are without to those which are within, and native to the human heart. It is a process of soul-awakening self-revelation, a species of new birth, for a new life springs up in the soul with every newly discovered agency, by which the soul is brought into a more intimate knowledge of its own Divine powers and perfections, and is lifted to a higher level of wisdom, goodness, and joy.
This power of the critical imagination, Douglass argues, becomes our mightiest means of bridging the real and the ideal, which is at the heart of all progress:
The process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself, giving it form, color, space, and all the attributes of distinct personality, so that it becomes the subject of distinct observation and contemplation, is at [the] bottom of all effort and the germinating principles of all reform and all progress… It is the picture of life contrasted with the fact of life, the ideal contrasted with the real, which makes criticism possible. Where there is no criticism there is no progress, for the want of progress is not felt where such want is not made visible by criticism. It is by looking upon this picture and upon that which enables us to point out the defects of the one and the perfections of the other.
Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers — and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.
But, writing with an eye to photography as a new technology of picture-making, Douglass adds an admonition that applies to every new technology that ever was and ever will be:
This picture-making faculty is flung out into the world like all others, capable of being harnessed to the car of truth or error: It is a vast power to whatever cause it is coupled. For the habit we adopt, the master we obey, in making our subjective nature objective, giving it form, color, space, action and utterance, is the one important thing to ourselves and our surroundings. It will either lift us to the highest heaven or sink us to the lowest depths, for good and evil know no limits.
Art, he cautions, should harness beauty but must always be governed by truth above all else:
Truth is the soul of art, as of all things else.
With the clear perception of things as they are, must stand the faithful rendering of things as they seem. The dead fact is nothing without the living expression.