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[Sunday reprise] Oliver Sacks on gratitude, Martha Nussbaum on why embracing our neediness is the key to healthy relationships + a very special bonus

Oliver Sacks on gratitude, the measure of living, and the dignity of dying; philosopher Martha Nussbaum on the intelligence of emotions and why embracing our neediness is the key to healthy relationships; Rebecca Solnit on how modern noncommunication is changing our experience of time, solitude, and communion; and a very special bonus. Email not displaying correctly?
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Henry Beston’s Beautiful 1948 Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Humanity by Breaking the Tyranny of Technology and Relearning to Be Nurtured by Nature

Henry Beston’s Beautiful 1948 Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Humanity by Breaking the Tyranny of Technology and Relearning to Be Nurtured by Nature

“Oh, work that is done in freedom out of doors, work that is done with the body’s and soul’s goodwill, work that is an integral part of life and is done with friends — is there anything so good?”

Tchaikovsky on Depression and Finding Beauty Amid the Wreckage of the Soul

Tchaikovsky on Depression and Finding Beauty Amid the Wreckage of the Soul

“Life is beautiful in spite of everything! … There are many thorns, but the roses are there too.”

James Baldwin and Margaret Mead on Religion

James Baldwin and Margaret Mead on Religion

“If any particular discipline … does not become a matter of your personal honor, your private convictions, then it’s simply a cloak which you can wear or throw off.”

How the Clouds Got Their Names

How the Clouds Got Their Names

How a boy who spent his schooldays staring out the classroom window shaped the science of the skies.

The Silent Friends: A Beautiful Short Film Celebrating Our Abiding Bond with Trees

The Silent Friends: A Beautiful Short Film Celebrating Our Abiding Bond with Trees

A cinematic ode to our oldest living companions.

Marcus Aurelius on Mortality and the Key to Living Fully

Marcus Aurelius on Mortality and the Key to Living Fully

“The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.”

The Still Point of the Turning World: T.S. Eliot Reads His Timelss Ode to the Nature of Time in a Rare Recording

The Still Point of the Turning World: T.S. Eliot Reads His Timelss Ode to the Nature of Time in a Rare Recording

“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

WelcomeHello, Blue! If you missed this week's early edition on Thanksgiving, here it is again at its usual time. And if you missed last week's edition – Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, Marcus Aurelius on the true measure of a life well lived and how to befriend our mortality, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead on religion, and more – you can read it right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting my work with a modest donation – every little bit comes enormously appreciated and helps more than you can imagine.

A Very Special Extra

This week, The New York Times published my first review for them, of Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall's remarkable book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. The piece was a labor of love many weeks in the making, but I knew that the book – an expansive and enormously stimulating story of how we got to where we are now by one of the most brilliant women in the entire history of science – was well worth the investment. So I poured tremendous time, thought, and care into the review and spent more time with this book than with any other in my entire reading life. This is what my galley looked like after I was done:

I hope you find as much joy in reading it as I did in writing it – and if you do, please consider passing it along to kindred spirits who might also enjoy it. Here's to more amazing science books by amazing women claiming the audience they deserve.

You can find Dr. Randall on Twitter under @lirarandall.

Oliver Sacks on Gratitude, the Measure of Living, and the Dignity of Dying

Oliver Sacks on Gratitude, the Measure of Living, and the Dignity of Dying

“Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts,” proclaimed a 1924 guide to the art of living. That one of the greatest scientists of our time should be one of our greatest teacher in that art is nothing short of a blessing for which we can only be grateful — and that’s precisely what Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015), a Copernicus of the mind and a Dante of medicine who turned the case study into a poetic form, became over the course of his long and fully lived life.

In his final months, Dr. Sacks reflected on his unusual existential adventure and his courageous dance with death in a series of lyrical New York Times essays, posthumously published in the slim yet enormously enchanting book Gratitude (public library), edited by his friend and assistant of thirty years, Kate Edgar, and his partner, the photographer Bill Hayes.

Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes

Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes

In the first essay, titled “Mercury,” he follows in the footsteps of Henry Miller, who considered the measure of a life well lived upon turning eighty three decades earlier. Dr. Sacks writes:

QuoteLast night I dreamed about mercury — huge, shining globules of quicksilver rising and falling. Mercury is element number 80, and my dream is a reminder that on Tuesday, I will be 80 myself.

Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood, when I learned about atomic numbers. At 11, I could say “I am sodium” (Element 11), and now at 79, I am gold.


Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.

Having almost died at forty-one while being chased by a white bull in a Norwegian fjord, Dr. Sacks considers the peculiar grace of having lived to old age:

QuoteAt nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — “I’m glad I’m not dead!” sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect… I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible — and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “an intercourse with the world.”

I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.

Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes

Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes

But pushing up from beneath the wistful self-awareness is Dr. Sacks’s fundamental buoyancy of spirit. Echoing George Eliot on the life-cycle of happiness and Thoreau on the greatest gift of growing older, he writes:

QuoteMy father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.

Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes

Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes

In another essay, titled “My Own Life” and penned shortly after learning of his terminal cancer diagnosis at the age of eighty-one, Dr. Sacks reckons with the potentiality of living that inhabits the space between him and his death:

QuoteIt is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

Gliding his mind’s eye over one of Hume’s most poignant lines — “It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.” — Dr. Sacks considers the paradoxical way in which detachment becomes an instrument of presence:

QuoteOver the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

Oliver Sacks by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Such intensity of aliveness, Dr. Sacks observes, requires a deliberate distancing from the existentially inessential things with which we fill our daily lives — petty arguments, politics, the news. With his characteristic mastery of nuance, he points to a crucial distinction:

QuoteThis is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

Decades after his beloved aunt Lennie taught him about dying with dignity and courage, Dr. Sacks lets this lesson come abloom in his own life. True to the defining enchantment of his books, he turns his luminous prose inward, then outward, and in a passage that calls to mind William Faulkner’s sublime living obituary, he exits this world — the world of writing and the world of life, for the two were always one for Dr. Sacks — with a breathtaking epitaph for himself:

QuoteI cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Gratitude is a bittersweet and absolutely beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Dr. Sacks on the life-saving power of music, the strange psychology of writing, and his story of love, lunacy, and a life fully lived, then revisit my remembrance of Dr. Sacks’s singular spirit.

The Intelligence of Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How Storytelling Rewires Us and Why Befriending Our Neediness Is Essential for Happiness

“The power of ‘the Eye of the Heart,’ which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions,” the great British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher wrote in his 1973 meditation on how we know what we know. He was responding to the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi who, seven centuries earlier, extolled “the eye of the heart” as seventy-fold more seeing than the “sensible eyes” of the intellect. To the intellectually ambitious, this might sound like a squishy notion — or a line best left to The Little Prince. But as contemporary scientists continue to shed light on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that our emotional lives are equipped with a special and non-negligible kind of bodily and cognitive intelligence.

The nature of that intelligence and how we can harness its power is what Martha Nussbaum, whom I continue to consider the most compelling and effective philosopher of our time, examines in her magnificent 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (public library). Titled after Proust’s conception of the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought,” Nussbaum’s treatise offers a lucid counterpoint to the old idea that our emotions are merely animal energies or primal impulses wholly separate from our cognition. Instead, she argues that they are a centerpiece of moral philosophy and that any substantive theory of ethics necessitates a substantive understanding of the emotions.

Martha Nussbaum

Nussbaum writes:

QuoteA lot is at stake in the decision to view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to the perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and the role these tumultuous experiences play in thought about the good and the just.


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