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"Something is always born of excess," Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in June of 1945 as she contemplated the value of emotional excess, adding: "Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them." And yet our compulsive pursuit of balance – take, for instance, the tyrannical notion of work/life balance – is predicated on eradicating "excess," pitting it as a counterpoint rather than a complement to equilibrium and inner wholeness.
That paradoxical relationship is what the celebrated psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips examines in On Balance (public library) – a marvelous collection of essays on "the balancing acts that modern societies involve us in," exploring the many myths that bedevil our beliefs about balance and impede our pursuit of it.
With an eye to John Stuart Mill's 1834 proclamation that "there seems to be something singularly captivating in the word balance, as if, because anything is called a balance, it must, for that reason, be necessarily good," Phillips writes:
The people we fall in love with we find singularly captivating, as are any of the people (or ideas) that inspire us, for better or for worse. What is strange about Mill’s simple observation is that it is the singularly captivating that tends to make us lose our balance. Mill intimates with his peculiar logic that the idea of balance can unbalance us.
Like anger, beneath which David Whyte has so poetically observed lies an indication of what really matters to us, these unbalancing acts, Phillips argues, are a vital and indicative part of our aliveness:
We should not, perhaps, underestimate our wish to lose our balance, even though it’s often easier to get up than to fall over. Indeed, the sign that something does matter to us is that we lose our steadiness.
Phillips considers the necessary excess of optimism and why an artificial balance is sometimes more dangerous than surrendering to such "singularly captivating" loss of steadiness:
We can only be really realistic after we have tried our optimism out. It is not always clear in which areas of our lives it is realistic (or even optimistic) to aspire to the balanced view; or indeed in which parts of our lives the balanced view helps us to get the lives that we want. Balancing acts are entertaining because they are risky, but there are situations in which it is more dangerous to keep your balance than to lose it.
Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli from Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical by Noémie Révah
In one of the most rousingly and rewardingly unbalancing essays in the book, titled "On Being Too Much for Ourselves," Phillips considers an especially anguishing aspect of our relationship with excess, fueled largely by our pathological busyness. Phillips, who has previously explored the crucial role of "fertile solitude" in cultivating self-reliance, writes:
It is not unusual for us to feel that life is too much for us. And it is not unusual to feel that we really should be up to it; that there may be too much to cope with – too many demands – but that we should have the wherewithal to deal with it. Faced with the stresses and strains of everyday life it is easy now for people to feel that they are failing; and what they are failing at, one way or another, is managing the ordinary excesses that we are all beset by: too much frustration, too much bad feeling, too little love, too little success, and so on. One of the things people most frequently say in psychoanalysis is, ‘Perhaps I am overreacting, but . . .’; and one of the commonest complaints today is about feeling too much or feeling too little. I want to suggest that we are simply too much for ourselves, but that this too-muchness is telling us something important... My proposition is that it is impossible to overreact. That when we call our reactions overreactions what we mean is just that they are stronger than we would like them to be. In other words, we sometimes call ourselves and other people excessive as a way of invalidating or tempering the truths we tell ourselves or that other people tell us. It is impossible to overreact.
Our choice of language often betrays our repressed reactions more than we realize, but never more so than in Freudian slips – those awkward moments when our words inadvertently reveal what we mean but didn't intend to say. Phillips considers this particularly common and colorful example of overreaction:
When we make Freudian slips we try to cover our tracks by claiming that we have said more than we mean, when in fact we have meant more than we had wanted to say... We may feel like we are saying too much, but we may be saying just the right amount; adding things to the conversation that are worth talking about and trying out. We can’t decide not to make Freudian slips; but even when we use ordinary language intentionally, we often say more than we intend. If I say to you that I am a great admirer of your work, I am telling you about my greatness as well as yours; when I say, "See you tomorrow," I am assuming I know what isn’t going to happen in the interim. Our language, without which we couldn’t imagine our lives, is too much for us in the sense that it can surprise us: we hear in it – and we say in it – more than we intend to. And more than we attend to.
Phillips looks at how our early childhood – those "years of intense feeling" – shapes our aversion to excess and gives rise to our compulsive quest for composure, control, and intentional organization with which to disguise our deep inner shame of being seen as "overreacting":
We have all had the experience, as children, of being too much for someone; of making someone feel things that they didn’t want to feel... Everyone starts with the experience of being too much for someone else; not only with that experience, but with that experience somewhere in the mix of who one is. Before we acquire the limiting and limited excesses of language we have lived with the excesses of need. If, even only occasionally as a child, you are too much for your parents – which then means you are too much for yourself – what can you do?
Illustration by Emily Hughes from Wild
What we do, Phillips points out, is begin to see this excess as badness – we aren't simply "too much," but too much of something undesirable, uncomfortable-making, and ultimately dangerous:
The child who experiences himself as being too much for his parents – all children to some extent – experiences himself as in some way harming them. And as the child’s survival depends upon his parents, or those who look after him, this puts him in mortal danger. For this reason alone it is very difficult for the child – and for the adult that he will become – to think of his too-muchness as anything other than a problem. And yet, of course, parents are there to absorb, and be absorbed in, their children’s excesses (and vice versa). Indeed, people know that they are in a relationship when they become a problem to each other (or, to put it slightly differently, if you want to have a relationship with someone you have to become a problem for them).
Nin, it turns out, was right after all – great excess is necessary for great works of art, and what greater an art than that of human relationships? Phillips captures this necessary too-muchness beautifully:
We are too much for ourselves because there is far more to us – we feel more – than we can manage.
The piercing precision of insight in the example with which Phillips illustrates this took my breath away, for one of my most vivid childhood memories is a newscast in my grandparents' living room announcing the death of Princess Diana, which instantly sent me into an inexplicable spiral of sobbing grief for a stranger's tragic fate. Phillips, however, argues this experience is quite explicable for the very same reasons – it bespeaks the uncomfortable too-muchness of our emotional capacity:
People didn’t overreact to the death of Diana; through the death of Diana they recognized just how much grief they were bearing, how much loss they had suffered in their lives, how they felt about the fate of young women in our culture. Indeed, grief, rather like sexuality, reminds us just how much we are too much for ourselves, how intense our loves and longings really are.
We are too much for ourselves – in our hungers and our desires, in our griefs and our commitments, in our loves and our hates – because we are unable to include so much of what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves. The whole idea of ourselves as excessive exposes how determined we are to have the wrong picture of what we are like, of how fanatically ignorant we are about ourselves.
It is in adolescence, Phillips argues, that we first begin to play with the boundaries of excess, feeling out what we might be capable of and contemplating – sometimes experiencing – its consequences. Indeed, that precipice of maturity is itself "singularly captivating" in both promise and peril. Phillips writes:
Adolescence – when children begin to have the physical capacity to murder and conceive – is our more conscious initiation into those very excesses that make us who we are; and, of course, who we might become. Adolescents are excessive compared with the children they once were and the adults they are supposed to become. But adolescence, at least for modern people, seems to be peculiarly difficult to grow out of.
Instead of growing out of it, Phillips argues, we come to fetishize it – something glaringly evident in our youth-centric, youthfulness-obsessed culture, where a dignified relationship with aging is increasingly elusive. That cult, Phillips suggests, springs from envying the very excesses of adolescence:
The contemporary idealization of adolescence is telling us something about how we manage our complicated feelings about being too much for ourselves.
Excessive behavior, in other words, is not so much something we grow out of as something we grow into.
Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for Alice in Wonderland.
And with this he returns to the essential what-to-do question of living with our all too human, all too vital imbalances:
Perhaps "excess" is a word we use to reassure ourselves that we can be something other than excessive. If we start off by being, at least some of the time, too much for other people, and become, in adolescence, definitively too much for other people, so much so that we have to leave them, and then become adults who are unavoidably too much for ourselves, what is to be done? Well, one thing that can be done is to find someone we are not too much for...
On Balance is a pleasurably discombobulating read in its totality. Complement it with Phillips on why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life, Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility, and David Whyte on the true meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak.
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Oliver Jeffers is one of the most talented and thoughtful children's book authors and artists of our time. Whether he is exploring love and loss in his unusual stories for young readers or the facts and fictions of memory in his fine art, undergirding his work is a deep fascination with duality and paradox.
In the foreword to the magnificent monograph Neither Here Nor There: The Art of Oliver Jeffers, Richard Seabrook remarks on this recurring theme, "the concept that something can mean one thing to one person, and something entirely different to another." Nowhere does this come more vibrantly alive than in Jeffers's This Moose Belongs to Me (public library) – a disarming story about a boy who believes he owns his pet moose Marcel, only to discover that so do other people, who call him by different names, while the moose himself doesn't quite get the concept of being owned and is thus oblivious to the boy's list of rules for being a good pet.
What emerges is an allegory for our rather human tendency to dig in our heels when things don't go our way, forgetting Henry Miller's timeless taunt – “And your way, is it really your way?” – and snapping into self-righteousness. When the moose doesn't obey the rules of being a pet, the boy storms off "embarrassed and enraged" – another curious psychoemotional duality the richness of which Jeffers captures with great economy of words.
Sometimes the moose wasn't a very good pet. He generally ignored Rule 7: going whichever way Wilfred wanted to go.
But the story is, above all, a parable about the nature of ownership as a mutually agreed upon figment and the comical sense of entitlement it engenders. What makes it especially enchanting is the conceptual meta-message – for the backgrounds of his illustrated vignettes, Jeffers reapporpriates classical landscape paintings by a mid-century Slovakian painter named Alexander Dzigurski, rendering the project a sort of posthumous collaboration and a creative mashup of which Montaigne would have approved.
Jeffers's message is subtle but resounding: In art – as in science, as in all of human culture – the ideas we call our own are but the combinatorial product of countless borrowings from the intellectual "property" of others. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best in his supportive letter to Helen Keller when she was accused of plagiarism: "Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources."
With another delightfully thoughtful touch, Jeffers reminds us that these borrowings can come not only from others but from ourselves – in one of the scenes, the lumberjack-bear protagonist of his previous book, The Great Paper Caper, makes a cameo against the backdrop of a borrowed landscape painting.
In his wholly wonderful Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman, Jeffers tells the story of this moosely mashup and how he tracked down the grandson of the Slovakian painter for permissions, then reflects on the deeper elements of duality in his body of work. Transcribed highlights below – please enjoy:
On the conceptual confluences that sprouted This Moose Belongs to Me, which was essentially Arthur Koestler's seminal bisociation theory of creativity in action:
I was reading, at that time, a history of Manhattan and I read about the sale of Manhattan to the Dutch. And the natives who were on the land were like, "Yeah, sure, you can buy it!" But nobody really owns land anyway, so they had to leave – and that was to the great confusion of the Dutch... There was an element of truth in that... We only own something because everybody agrees that we do. I just thought this was a really interesting concept and applied it to owning a pet...
And then, when I was sketching the drawings ... I knew that I wanted to use oil paintings... and I'd started off making all those oil paintings... At that point, I glanced over my studio and there were all of these old landscape paintings lined up for another project. And I'm thinking about this story, and the rules of how to be a good pet, and the moose doesn't really get that he's supposed to be a pet – and two things connected to each other. And I thought, "Well, if it is about ownership, then I should probably just reappropriate these paintings into this book... It seems conceptually a fit."
The book ended up mostly being a collaboration between me and this long-ago dead guy.
On the roots of his obsession with duality and its particular manifestation in a collaboration with a doctor of quantum physics around the famed fact that light can appear to be both a particle and a wave, depending on how the question is asked and how the answer is measured:
There was a sense of duality I grew up with – [Belfast] was a split city, really. There was a lot of violence, but there was also a lot of happiness. And really, that being the backbone of the culture and the existence in which I grew up, and choosing to get past, I think it leaves its marks way down there.
But then, I fell in with this project with Professor Quantum Physics, and through that I discovered the actual theory of duality, which looks at light in particular – light when measured in particles becomes a particle and light when measured in waves becomes a wave. What I took from that was that it's up to us, then, how we define it – we choose the equipment with which we measure, so therefore it's up to us... That was what fascinated me – that we have the ability to look at anything and make it anything we want, to some degree.
That's why I started making art about that sense of, "Can we look at things logically and emotionally, all at the same time?"
Subscribe to Design Matters here. For more of Jeffers's magic, see Once Upon an Alphabet, which was among the best children's books of 2014, and The Heart and the Bottle, a tender illustrated fable about what happens when we deny our difficult emotions.
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I think a great deal about the difference between routine and ritual as a special case of our more general and generally trying quest for balance – ripped asunder by the contrary longings for control and whimsy, we routinize daily life in order to make its inherent chaos more manageable, then ritualize it in order to imbue its mundanity with magic, which by definition violates the predictable laws of the universe. I suspect that our voracious appetite for the daily routines of cultural icons is fueled by a deep yearning to glean some insight on and practical help with this impossible balancing act, from people who seem to have mastered it well enough to lead happy, productive, creatively fruitful, and altogether remarkable lives.
Perhaps the most unexpected yet brilliant master of this elusive modern equilibrium is the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama by Manuel Bauer
In the altogether magnificent The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (public library), writer Pico Iyer – who has known the beloved spiritual leader since adolescence and, by the time he began writing this book, had visited him in his exile home for nearly thirty years – describes how the Dalai Lama begins each day:
[By] nine a.m. ... the Dalai Lama himself had already been up for more than five hours, awakening, as he always does, at three-thirty a.m., to spend his first four hours of the day meditating on the roots of compassion and what he can do for his people, the “Chinese brothers and sisters” who are holding his people hostage, and the rest of us, while also preparing himself for his death.
Compressed into this humble and humbling morning routine is the entire Buddhist belief that life is a “joyful participation in a world of sorrows.” This daily rite of body and spirit is the building block of the Dalai Lama's quiet and steadfast mission to, as Iyer elegantly puts it, "explore the world closely, so as to make out its laws, and then to see what can and cannot be done within those laws." He writes:
To understand the Dalai Lama ... especially if (as in my case) you come from some other tradition, perhaps it’s most useful to see him as a doctor of the soul.
As someone deeply invested in the crucial difference between information and wisdom, I was particularly fascinated by the Dalai Lama's information diet – that is, what daily facts he chooses to fuse with ancient wisdom in his dedication to unraveling the nature of reality and making use of it in fortifying the soul. Iyer writes:
As a longtime student of real life, ruler of his people before the age of five, he listens every morning to the Voice of America, to the BBC East Asian broadcast, to the BBC World Service – even while meditating – and devours Time and Newsweek and many other news sources (I think of how the Buddha is often depicted with one hand touching the earth, in what Buddhists call the “witnessing the earth” gesture).
And yet the Dalai Lama approaches his information diet like he does his meditation – as a deliberate practice. In that sense, "meaning diet" is far more accurate a term, for he is remarkably deliberate about which aspects of the Information Age to fold into his meaning-making mission and which to sidestep. He chooses, for instance, to avoid one of the most perilous byproducts of our era, which Susan Sontag presaged in 1977 in her famous admonition against "aesthetic consumerism." Iyer writes:
In the Age of the Image, when screens are so much our rulers, anyone who wishes to grab our attention – and to hold it – does so by converting himself into a “human-interest story,” translating his life into a kind of fable.... Those who long to be entrusted with real consequences in our lives acquire that power increasingly by presenting themselves as fairy tales.
The Dalai Lama, by nature and training, is in the odd position of trying to do the opposite: he comes to us to tell us that he is real, as real as his country, bleeding and oppressed, and that he lives in a world far more complex than a two-year-old’s cries of “Good Tibetans, bad Chinese” (the Dalai Lama would more likely say, “Potentially good Tibetans, potentially good Chinese”).
The Dalai Lama by Manuel Bauer
At the heart of this message is a larger testament to the most essential characteristic of reality – something Alan Watts, who began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West when the Dalai Lama was still a teenager, captured memorably when he wrote: “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.”
Indeed, contacting this interconnectedness of all beings and all lives is the very impetus for the Dalai Lama's morning routine and his information diet – a beautiful assurance that beneath our obsession with routine and ritual lies a deeper, more expansive longing for meaning, for orienting ourselves in this vibrating universe of interconnectedness that we call reality.
Iyer articulates this elegantly:
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a body (not difficult to do, since in part that is what you are). You have eyes, ears, legs, hands, and, if you are lucky, all of them are in good working order. You never, if you are sane, think of your finger as an independent entity (though you may occasionally say, “My toe seems to have a mind of its own”). You are never, in your right mind, moved to hit your own foot, let alone sever it; the only loser in such an exercise would be yourself.
This is all simplistic to the point of self-evidence. But when the Buddhist speaks of “interdependence” (the central Buddhist concept of shunyata, often rendered as “emptiness,” the Dalai Lama has translated as “empty of independent identity”), all he is really saying is that we are all a part of a single body, and to think of “I” and “you,” of the right hand’s interests being different from the left’s, makes no sense at all. It’s crazy to impede your neighbor, because he is as intrinsic to your welfare as your thumb is. It’s almost absurd to say you wish to get ahead of your colleague – it’s like your right toe saying it longs to be ahead of the left.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is famous for his laughter, the sudden eruption of almost helpless giggles or a high-pitched shaking of the body. Seen from the vantage point of one who meditates several hours a day, traveling to the place where everything is connected, much of our fascination with surface or with division seems truly hilarious... Talking about friends and enemies is a little like holding on to this hair on your arm and claiming it as a friend, because you see it daily, and calling the hair on your back an enemy, because you never see it at all. Talking of how you are a Buddhist and therefore opposed to the Judeo-Christian teaching is like solemnly asserting that your right nostril is the source of everything good, and your left nostril a place of evil. The doctrine of “universal responsibility” is not only universal but obvious: it’s like saying that every part of us longs for our legs, our eyes, our lungs to be healthy. If one part suffers, we all do.
Suddenly, the Dalai Lama's morning routine and his information diet are revealed in a whole new light of meaning – they are a form of self-empowerment in the journey toward shedding self-centeredness. (Lest we forget, as another great Buddhist teacher has put it, "you first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist.")
Buddhists do not (or need not) seek solutions from outside themselves, but merely awakening within; the minute we come to see that our destinies or well-being are all mutually dependent, they say, the rest naturally follows (meditation sometimes seems the way we come to this perception, reasoning the way we consolidate it). If you believe this, human life offers you many more belly laughs daily, as the Dalai Lama exemplifies.
And there, with a good-humored smirk, Iyer reminds us that his perspective isn't perched on a holier-than-thou branch in the tree of life but grounded in his reality as a Westerner and a writer, and thus a creature of ego trying to learn the very lesson he is channeling:
Why despair, indeed, when you can change the world at any moment by choosing to see that the person who gave your last book a bad review is as intrinsic to your well-being as your thumb is?
The Open Road is an illuminating read in its totality, propelled by Iyer's deeply pleasurable prose. Complement it with Iyer on what Leonard Cohen knows about the art of stillness and his superb On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, in which he recounts the experience of shadowing the Dalai Lama in order to capture his inner light:
On Being is one of these nine favorite podcasts for a fuller life – do your soul a favor and subscribe.
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"The world is blue at its edges and in its depths," Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on the color of distance and desire. No creature compresses the edgeless grandeur of our Pale Blue Dot into a single body as perfectly as the blue whale – an animal absolutely awesome in the true sense of the word. That awe-striking being is what London-based illustrator Jenni Desmond celebrates in the marvelous nonfiction children's book The Blue Whale (public library) – a loving science lullaby about our planet's biggest creature, and a beautiful addition to the finest children's books celebrating science.
Alongside Desmond's immeasurably warm and largehearted illustrations is her simply worded, deeply intelligent synthesis of what marine biologists know about this extraordinary mammal – in fact, she worked closely with Diane Gendron, a marine biologist who studies blue whales. At the heart of the book is a compassionate curiosity about the beings with whom we share this world, effecting what the great Mary Oliver called a “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”
Indeed, despite the gaping disparity of scales, we have more in common with this gentle giant of the ocean than we realize – the blue whale, like us, is a highly intelligent mammal and one of the few creatures with a lifespan comparable to our own.
There is a charming meta touch to the story – the protagonist, a little boy with a crown that evokes Maurice Sendak's Max, is learning and dreaming about blue whales by reading this very book, which he is seen holding in a number of the scenes.
Although the whaling industry of yore may have inspired some legendary art, more than 360,000 blue whales were killed in the first half of the twentieth century as these magnificent creatures were being reduced to oil, blubber, baleen, and meat. A global ban on whale hunting made them a protected species in 1966, but other forms of our arrogant anthropocentrism are putting them in danger anew as our our commercial fishing entangles them in its indiscriminate nets, our passenger ships pollute their habitats, and our general human activity continues to raise ocean temperatures.
And yet it isn't with alarmism or bitter lamentation but with love befitting this largest-hearted of earthly creatures – its heart alone weighs around 1,300 pounds – that Desmond invites us into the world of the blue whale. She writes in the preface:
Blue whales are magnificent and intelligent creatures, and like all of the natural world they deserve our admiration and care. It is only then that they will flourish and multiply in their native ocean home.
And so it is with admiration and care that Desmond opens our eyes to the glory of this beautiful and intelligent creature – a creature whose own eye measures only six inches wide.
Next to its gargantuan weight of 160 tons, "about the same as a heap of 55 hippopotami," and size of up to 100 feet, "the same length as a truck, a digger, a boat, a car, a bicycle, a motorcycle, a van, and a tractor – all lined up," this minuscule eye devoid of tear glands and eyelashes makes for terribly poor eyesight.
But for this handicap of sensorial proportion the blue whale makes up in its astounding skin sensitivity and hearing – its ears, tiny holes located next to its minuscule eyes, can hear other whales' songs up to 1,000 miles away. Because whales navigate the expanse of the ocean by sound, the noise of human-made vessels can disorient them, traumatize them, and even precipitate the kinds of mental illness Laurel Braitman explores in her excellent Animal Madness.
Desmond writes that no terrestrial animal can be nearly as big as the blue whale, for it would be impossible for a skeleton to support this much weight out of the water – the blue whale's tongue alone weighs three tons "and its mouth is so big that 50 people can stand inside it." This number, in fact, is a testament to what a whimsical cross-pollination of art, science, and sheer imagination this project is – Gendron manually measured how many people could stand in a boat the size of a blue whale's mouth. (Fifty. Check.)
We learn, too, that while adult blue whales eat tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill, baby whales – being mammals – eat not krill but their mother's milk for the first eight months of life, consuming nearly 50 gallons of milk every day and growing by as much as nine pounds an hour.
But the most astounding fact about the blue whale are its sleep habits, which make even the most irregular human sleepers look like professional slumberers. Desmond explains:
Blue whales sleep by taking very short naps while slowly swimming close to the ocean's surface. This is called logging. They sleeping this way because they have to remember to open their blowhole in order to breathe. Blue whales can never completely lose consciousness, not even in sleep, otherwise they would drown.
Unlike blue whales, people can drift into sleep without having to remember to breathe and keep themselves float, so we can fall asleep over a favorite book and begin to dream...
The Blue Whale, endlessly wonderful from cover to cover, comes from Brooklyn-based independent picture-book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of some of the finest children's books of our time – including an uncommonly tender Japanese take on The Velvete
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