The difficult art of self-compassion, Borges on our paradoxical experience of time, the untold story of the black women who powered space exploration, an illustrated ode to the love of books, and more.
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Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Jennifer Egan's advice on writing, Borges on the divided self, an illustrated cosmogony inspired by Pinocchio, Teju Cole on photography, and more – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation – I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
"Compassion," wrote historian Karen Armstrong in considering the proper meaning of the Golden Rule, "asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else." In her beautiful ode to compassion, Lucinda Williams urged: "Have compassion for everyone you meet … You do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone."
And yet even the most compassionate among us have one sizable blind spot: the self. Our culture's epidemic of self-criticism has left us woefully unskilled at self-compassion — that essential anchor of sanity, which both grounds and elevates our spirit.
In this short, immensely helpful exercise, The School of Life offers a daily self-compassion practice so simple that cynics might mistake it for simplistic — and yet out of its simplicity arises a profound reorientation to our own selves.
To survive in this high-pressured, crazy world, most of us have to become highly adept at self-criticism. We learn how to tell ourselves off for our failures, and for not working hard or smart enough. But so good are we at this that we're sometimes in danger of falling prey to an excessive version of self-criticism — what we might call self-flagellation: a rather dangerous state, which just ushers in depression and underperformance. We might simply lose the will to get out of bed.
For those moments, we need a corrective — we need to carve out time for an emotional state of which many of us are profoundly suspicious: self-compassion. We're suspicious because this sounds horribly close to self-pity. But because depression and self-hatred are serious enemies of a good life, we need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious, and fruitful life.
"If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer," the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in contemplating our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s. "It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it," Hannah Arendt wrote half a century later in her brilliant inquiry into time, space, and our thinking ego. Time, in other words — particularly our experience of it as a continuity of successive moments — is a cognitive illusion rather than an inherent feature of the universe, a construction of human consciousness and perhaps the very hallmark of human consciousness.
Wedged between Bachelard and Arendt was Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986), that muscular wrangler of paradox and grand poet-laureate of time, who addressed this perplexity in his 1946 essay "A New Refutation of Time," which remains the most elegant, erudite, and pleasurable meditation on the subject yet. It was later included in Labyrinths (public library) — the 1962 collection of Borges's stories, essays, parables, and other writings, which gave us his terrific and timeless parable of the divided self.
Borges begins by noting the deliberate paradox of his title, a contrast to his central thesis that the continuity of time is an illusion, that time exists without succession and each moment contains all eternity, which negates the very notion of "new." The "slight mockery" of the title, he notes, is his way of illustrating that "our language is so saturated and animated by time." With his characteristic self-effacing warmth, Borges cautions that his essay might be "the anachronistic reductio ad absurdum of a preterite system or, what is worse, the feeble artifice of an Argentine lost in the maze of metaphysics" — and then he proceeds to deliver a masterwork of rhetoric and reason, carried on the wings of uncommon poetic beauty.
Writing in the mid-1940s — a quarter century after Einstein defeated Bergson in their landmark debate, in which science ("the clarity of metaphysics," per Borges) finally won the contested territory of time from the dictatorship of metaphysics, and just a few years after Bergson himself made his exit into eternity — Borges reflects on his lifelong tussle with time, which he considers the basis for all of his books:
In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity, I have glimpsed or foreseen a refutation of time, in which I myself do not believe, but which regularly visits me at night and in the weary twilight with the illusory force of an axiom.
Borges compares the ideas of the 18th-century Anglo-Irish Empiricist philosopher George Berkeley, chief champion of idealist metaphysics, and his Scottish peer and contemporary, David Hume. The two diverged on the existence of personal identity — Berkeley endorsed it as the "thinking active principle that perceives" at the center of each self, while Hume negated it, arguing that each person is "a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity" — but they both affirmed the existence of time.
Making his way through the maze of philosophy, Borges maps what he calls "this unstable world of the mind" in relation to time:
A world of evanescent impressions; a world without matter or spirit, neither objective nor subjective, a world without the ideal architecture of space; a world made of time, of the absolute uniform time of [Newton's] Principia; a tireless labyrinth, a chaos, a dream.
Returning to Hume's notion of the illusory self — an idea advanced by Eastern philosophy millennia earlier — Borges considers how this dismantles the very notion of time as we know it:
Behind our faces there is no secret self which governs our acts and receives our impressions; we are, solely, the series of these imaginary acts and these errant impressions. The series? Once matter and spirit, which are continuities, are negated, once space too has been negated, I do not know what right we have to that continuity which is time.
But even the notion of a "series" of acts and impressions, Borges suggest, is misleading because time is inseparable from matter, spirit, and space:
Once matter and spirit — which are continuities — are negated, once space too is negated, I do not know with what right we retain that continuity which is time. Outside each perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither does time exist outside the present moment.
He illustrates this paradox of the present moment — a paradox found in every present moment — by guiding us along one particular moment familiar from literature:
During one of his nights on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn awakens; the raft, lost in partial darkness, continues downstream; it is perhaps a bit cold. Huckleberry Finn recognizes the soft indefatigable sound of the water; he negligently opens his eyes; he sees a vague number of stars, an indistinct line of trees; then, he sinks back into his immemorable sleep as into the dark waters. Idealist metaphysics declares that to add a material substance (the object) and a spiritual substance (the subject) to those perceptions is venturesome and useless; I maintain that it is no less illogical to think that such perceptions are terms in a series whose beginning is as inconceivable as its end. To add to the river and the bank, Huck perceives the notion of another substantive river and another bank, to add another perception to that immediate network of perceptions, is, for idealism, unjustifiable; for myself, it is no less unjustifiable to add a chronological precision: the fact, for example, that the foregoing event took place on the night of the seventh of June, 1849, between ten and eleven minutes past four. In other words: I denny, with the arguments of idealism, the vast temporal series which idealism admits. Hume denied the existence of an absolute space, in which all things have their place; I deny the existence of one single time, in which all things are linked as in a chain. The denial of coexistence is no less arduous than the denial of succession.
This simultaneity of all events has immense implications as a sort of humanitarian manifesto for the commonness of human experience, which Borges captures beautifully:
The vociferous catastrophes of a general order — fires, wars, epidemics — are one single pain, illusorily multiplied in many mirrors.
Borges ends by returning to the beginning, to the raw material of his argument and, arguably, of his entire body of work, of his very self: paradox. He writes:
And yet, and yet… Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny … is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.
"No woman should say, 'I am but a woman!' But a woman! What more can you ask to be?" astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in American science, admonished the first class of female astronomers at Vassar in 1876. By the middle of the next century, a team of unheralded women scientists and engineers were powering space exploration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Meanwhile, across the continent and in what was practically another country, a parallel but very different revolution was taking place: In the segregated South, a growing number of black female mathematicians, scientists, and engineers were steering early space exploration and helping American win the Cold War at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Long before the term "computer" came to signify the machine that dictates our lives, these remarkable women were working as human "computers" — highly skilled professional reckoners, who thought mathematically and computationally for their living and for their country. When Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon, his "giant leap for mankind" had been powered by womankind, particularly by Katherine Johnson — the "computer" who calculated Apollo 11's launch windows and who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama at age 97 in 2015, three years after the accolade was conferred upon John Glenn, the astronaut whose flight trajectory Johnson had made possible.
Katherine Johnson at her Langley desk with a globe, or "Celestial Training Device," 1960 (Photographs: NASA)
Just as islands — isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity — have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life.
Against a sobering cultural backdrop, Shetterly captures the enormous cognitive dissonance the very notion of these black female mathematicians evokes:
Before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley's West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female.
Shetterly herself grew up in Hampton, which dubbed itself "Spacetown USA," amid this archipelago of women who were her neighbors and teachers. Her father, who had built his first rocket in his early teens after seeing the Sputnik launch, was one of Langley's African American scientists in an era when words we now shudder to hear were used instead of "African American." Like him, the first five black women who joined Langley's research staff in 1943 entered a segregated NASA — even though, as Shetterly points out, the space agency was among the most inclusive workplaces in the country, with more than fourfold the percentage of black scientists and engineers than the national average.
Margot Lee Shetterly
Over the next forty years, the number of these trailblazing black women mushroomed to more than fifty, revealing the mycelia of a significant groundswell. Shetterly's favorite Sunday school teacher had been one of the early computers — a retired NASA mathematician named Kathleen Land. And so Shetterly, who considers herself "as much a product of NASA as the Moon landing," grew up believing that black women simply belonged in science and space exploration as a matter of course — after all, they populated her father's workplace and her town, a town whose church "abounded with mathematicians."
Building 1236, my father's daily destination, contained a byzantine complex of government-gray cubicles, perfumed with the grown-up smells of coffee and stale cigarette smoke. His engineering colleagues with their rumpled style and distracted manner seemed like exotic birds in a sanctuary. They gave us kids stacks of discarded 11×14 continuous-form computer paper, printed on one side with cryptic arrays of numbers, the blank side a canvas for crayon masterpieces. Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother's age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.
The community certainly included black English professors, like my mother, as well as black doctors and dentists, black mechanics, janitors, and contractors, black cobblers, wedding planners, real estate agents, and undertakers, several black lawyers, and a handful of black Mary Kay salespeople. As a child, however, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that's just what black folks did.
Katherine Johnson, age 98 (Photograph: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair)
But despite the opportunities at NASA, almost countercultural in their contrast to the norms of the time, life for these courageous and brilliant women was no idyll — persons and polities are invariably products of their time and place. Shetterly captures the sundering paradoxes of the early computers' experience:
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