Remembering astronomer Vera Rubin, Marcus Aurelius on how to motivate yourself to get out of bed each morning and go to work, Simone de Beauvoir on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, poet and philosopher John O'Donohue on what makes life's transience bearable, and more.
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“If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work,” psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote in his inquiry into what motivates us to work. But human nature itself is a moody beast. “Given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all,” John Steinbeck lamented in his diary of the creative process as he labored over the novel that would soon earn him the Pulitzer Prize and become the cornerstone for his Nobel Prize two decades later. Work, of course, has a profoundly different meaning for the artist than it does for the person punching into and out of a nine-to-five workplace. And yet even those fortunate enough to be animated by a deep sense of purpose in a vocation that ensures their livelihood can succumb to the occasional — or even frequent — spell of paralysis at the prospect of another day of work. What, then, are we to do on such days when we simply can’t muster the motivation to get out of bed?
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
To the mind’s natural protestation that staying under the blankets simply feels nicer, Aurelius retorts:
So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
Our nature, he insists, is to live a life of service — to help others and contribute to the world. Any resistance to this inherent purpose is therefore a negation of our nature and a failure of self-love. He writes:
You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you.
Many centuries before psychologists identified the experience of “flow” in creative work, he considers a key characteristic of people who love what they do:
When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.
Is helping others less valuable to you? Not worth your effort?
He revisits the subject in another meditation:
When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic— what defines a human being — is to work with others. Even animals know how to sleep. And it’s the characteristic activity that’s the more natural one — more innate and more satisfying.
To be alive is to marvel — at least occasionally, at least with glimmers of some deep intuitive wonderment — at the Rube Goldberg machine of chance and choice that makes us who we are as we half-stride, half-stumble down the improbable paths that lead us back to ourselves. My own life was shaped by one largely impulsive choice at age thirteen, and most of us can identify points at which we could’ve pivoted into a wholly different direction — to move across the continent or build a home here, to leave the tempestuous lover or to stay, to wait for another promotion or quit the corporate day job and make art. Even the seemingly trivial choices can butterfly enormous ripples of which we may remain wholly unwitting — we’ll never know the exact misfortunes we’ve avoided by going down this street and not that, nor the exact magnitude of our unbidden graces.
Perhaps our most acute awareness of the lacuna between the one life we do have and all the lives we could have had comes in the grips of our fear of missing out — those sudden and disorienting illuminations in which we recognize that parallel possibilities exists alongside our present choices. “Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live,” wrote the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in his elegant case for the value of our unlived lives. “But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”
No one has captured that ultimate existential awareness more beautifully, nor with greater nuance, than the trailblazing French existentialist philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) in her autobiography, All Said and Done (public library).
Simone de Beauvoir, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson)
From the fortunate rostrum of her own long life, De Beauvoir reflects on this constellation of chance and choice:
Every morning, even before I open my eyes, I know I am in my bedroom and my bed. But if I go to sleep after lunch in the room where I work, sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement — why am I myself? What astonishes me, just as it astonishes a child when he becomes aware of his own identity, is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about? What astonishes me, just as it astonishes a child when he becomes aware of his own identity, is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other.
With an eye to the element of chance and its myriad manifestations, she adds:
The penetration of that particular ovum by that particular spermatozoon, with its implications of the meeting of my parents and before that of their birth and the births of all their forebears, had not one chance in hundreds of millions of coming about. And it was chance, a chance quite unpredictable in the present state of science, that caused me to be born a woman. From that point on, it seems to me that a thousand different futures might have stemmed from every single movement of my past: I might have fallen ill and broken off my studies; I might not have met Sartre; anything at all might have happened.
But the most curious part of this perplexity, De Beauvoir notes, is that despite the larger cosmic accident of all life and the chance nature of our particular lives within it, we experience ourselves and our existence as non-accidental — a disconnect that fringes on the free will paradox. She writes:
Tossed into the world, I have been subjected to its laws and its contingencies, ruled by wills other than my own, by circumstance and by history: it is therefore reasonable for me to feel that I am myself contingent. What staggers me is that at the same time I am not contingent. If I had not been born no question would have arisen: I have to take the fact that I do exist as my starting point. To be sure, the future of the woman I have been may turn me into someone other than myself. But in that case it would be this other woman who would be asking herself who she was. For the person who says “Here am I” there is no other coexisting possibility. Yet this necessary coincidence of the subject and his history is not enough to do away with my perplexity. My life: it is both intimately known and remote; it defines me and yet I stand outside it.
Like Einstein’s universe, it is both boundless and finite. Boundless: it runs back through time and space to the very beginnings of the world and to its utmost limits. In my being I sum up the earthly inheritance and the state of the world at this moment.
And yet life is also a finite reality. It possesses an inner heart, a centre of interiorization, a me which asserts that it is always the same throughout the whole course. A life is set within a given space of time; it has a beginning and an end; it evolves in given places, always retaining the same roots and spinning itself an unchangeable past whose opening toward the future is limited. It is possible to grasp and define a life as one can grasp and define a thing, since a life is “an unsummed whole,” as Sartre puts it, a detotalized totality, and therefore it has no being. But one can ask certain questions about it.
Of course, as De Beauvoir’s American peer and contemporary Susanne Langer has memorably pointed out, our questions invariably shape our answers. But to this central question of whether and to what degree we are contingent upon chance, De Beauvoir offers an answer that radiates the ultimate antidote to regret:
Chance … has a distinct meaning for me. I do not know where I might have been led by the paths that, as I look back, I think I might have taken but that in fact I did not take. What is certain is that I am satisfied with my fate and that I should not want it changed in any way at all. So I look upon these factors that helped me to fulfill it as so many fortunate strokes of chance.
Simone de Beauvoir, 1952 (Photograph: Gisèle Freund)
In his insightful reflection on the crucial difference between talent and genius, Schopenhauer likened talent to a marksman who hits a target others cannot hit, and genius to a marksman who hits a target others cannot see. Among humanity’s rare genius-seers was pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928–December 25, 2016) — a coruscating intellect animated by a sinewy tenacity, who overcame towering cultural odds by the sheer force of her unbridled curiosity and rigorous devotion to science. In confirming the existence of dark matter, Rubin revolutionized our understanding of the universe, paved the way for modern women in science, and recalibrated the stilted norms of her profession.
Rubin fell in love with the night sky as a young girl, but knew no astronomer, living or dead, to hold as a role model. Eventually, she came upon a children’s book about 19th-century trailblazer Maria Mitchell — America’s first professional female astronomer and the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — whose story reframed Rubin’s landscape of possibility and emboldened her to pursue stargazing as a vocation rather than a hobby. “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be an astronomer,” she told Alan Lightman many years later in their wonderful 1990 conversation.
Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s
Rubin received a scholarship to Vassar, where Maria Mitchell had taught the first class of women astronomers as the first woman on the faculty nearly a century earlier. “As long as you stay away from science, you should do okay,” her chauvinist high school physics teacher counseled her upon receiving the admission news. Mercifully, she didn’t heed the unsubtle message — driven by the same tenacious obsessiveness that underlined her groundbreaking discoveries, she plunged straight into science and graduated from Vassar in 1948 as the only astronomy major in her class. Rejected from Princeton’s graduate program, which only admitted men, Rubin instead obtained her master’s degree from Cornell and Georgetown while nursing one child and pregnant with her second. (She would go on to raise four children, all of whom would become scientists.)
In her work on spectroscopy, Rubin drew on the revolutionary discoveries of the Harvard computers — the unheralded team of 19th-century women astronomers who classified stellar spectra decades before women were able to vote. In 1965, she broke a colossal glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to observe at the Palomar Observatory, home to the world’s most powerful telescopes at the time. She went on to do pioneering work on galaxy rotation, based on which she confirmed the existence of dark matter — a cornerstone of our modern understanding of the cosmos.
Vera Rubin with her “measuring engine” used to examine photographic plates, 1974
For decades, Rubin remained a tireless champion of science as a pillar of society. “We need senators who have studied physics and representatives who understand ecology,” she asserted in her electrifying 1996 Berkeley commencement address — a remark of chilling timeliness and urgency today.
That Rubin died without her Nobel Prize is nothing short of a travesty, bespeaking the flawed cultural machinery by which such honors are meted out. But there is higher-order consolation in the wise words of astrophysicist Janna Levin, whose own career was built on the path Rubin paved:
Scientists do not devote their lives to the sometimes lonely, agonizing, toilsome investigation of an austere universe because they want a prize.
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