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Are you a body with a mind or a mind with a body? Plus: Alan Watts on gain and loss, Thomas Merton's beautiful letter to Rachel Carson, and more

Are you a body with a mind or a mind with a body? Plus: Alan Watts on learning not to think in terms of gain and loss, Thomas Merton's beautiful letter to Rachel Carson, the woman who changed the face of firefighting, and more. NOTE: This message might be cut short by your email program.
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WelcomeHello, Blue! This is the weekly email digest of by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition – Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, Oliver Sacks on the 3 essential elements of creativity, Carl Sagan on literature as a force of democracy, and more – you can catch up right here. If you missed the special edition celebrating 11 years of Brain Pickings, that is 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.

Technology, Wisdom, and the Difficult Art of Civilizational Self-Awareness: Thomas Merton’s Beautiful Letter of Appreciation to Rachel Carson for Catalyzing the Environmental Movement

“Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” marine biologist and poet laureate of science Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her soul mate, Dorothy, before the release of Silent Spring — Carson’s epoch-making 1962 book that catalyzed the modern environmental movement.

Her courageous and sobering exposé of the assault on nature by the heedless use of chemicals — a dark subject to which she brought her exquisitely luminous prose — disquieted the nation into a major controversy. Despite the propagandist backlash and merciless attacks that government and industry hurled at the author, the popular press sided overwhelmingly with Carson. Her book, soon a record-breaking bestseller, went on to inspire the first-ever Earth Day and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The avalanche of editorial enthusiasm for the rare miracle of Silent Spring was dwarfed by the thousands of letters Carson received from private citizens commending her on the moral courage of speaking inconvenient truth to power. In the winter of 1963, shortly before her untimely death, this apostle of science received a letter from an improbable admirer — the theologian and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915–December 10, 1968), who had long admired Carson’s devotion to science as an expression of our spiritual bond with nature. His missive, found in the altogether magnificent Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis (public library), is a beautiful testament to how interconnected the deepest truths of existence are, how they transcend all boundaries of discipline and credo to bring us into naked contact with reality itself — and with our responsibility to the web of life.

Reaching out with “every expression of personal esteem” and commending Carson on the “fine, exact, and persuasive book,” Merton writes:

[Silent Spring] is perhaps much more timely even than you or I realize. Though you are treating of just one aspect, and a rather detailed aspect, of our technological civilization, you are, perhaps without altogether realizing, contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization…. Your book makes it clear to me that there is a consistent pattern running through everything that we do, through every aspect of our culture, our thought, our economy, our whole way of life.

Such civilizational self-awareness is indeed Carson’s invaluable gift to posterity — that is, to us — though a gift of which we are yet to make conscientious use. With great foresight, both tragic and hopeful, Merton adds:

It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us, however we may be concerned with our society, to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them. Otherwise, our efforts will be directed to purely superficial symptoms only, and perhaps not even at things related directly to the illness. On the contrary, it seems that our remedies are instinctively those which aggravate the sickness: the remedies are expressions of the sickness itself.

I would almost dare to say that the sickness is perhaps a very real and very dreadful hatred of life as such, of course subconscious, buried under our pitiful and superficial optimism about ourselves and our affluent society. But I think that the very thought processes of materialistic affluence (and here the same things are found in all the different economic systems that seek affluence for its own sake) are ultimately self-defeating. They contain so many built-in frustrations that they inevitably lead us to despair in the midst of “plenty” and “happiness” and the awful fruit of this despair is indiscriminate, irresponsible destructiveness, hatred of life, carried on in the name of life itself. In order to “survive” we instinctively destroy that on which our survival depends.

Reflecting on his collaboration with the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm on the poetic possibilities behind the notion of original sin, Merton adds:

Technics and wisdom are not by any means opposed. On the contrary, the duty of our age, the “vocation” of modern man is to unite them in a supreme humility which will result in a totally self-forgetful creativity and service.

Complement this portion of Witness to Freedom with Rachel Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work, her brave, prescient letter against the government’s assault on science and nature, and the 1914 protest poem that emboldened her to write Silent Spring, then revisit other radiant beams of appreciation between great minds: Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, Charles Dickens’s letter of admiration to George Eliot, teenage James Joyce’s expression of gratitude to Ibsen, Baudelaire’s “cry of gratitude” to Wagner, and Darwin’s touching letter of appreciation to his best friend and greatest supporter.

Between Sinew and Spirit: Are You a Body with a Mind or a Mind with a Body?

“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” computing pioneer Alan Turing wrote as he anguished at the intersection of love and loss. And yet we are creatures of atoms, with spirit and sinew inextricably entwined. A century before neuroscientists came to explore the central mystery of consciousness, Rilke knew how beholden the mind is to the body when he wrote: “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.”

So what is the direction of servitude between the body and the mind, and where does the constellation of certitudes we experience as a self reside in all of it?

In this lovely animated inquiry from TED-Ed, inspired by Isaac Asimov’s I Robot (public library), Maryam Alimardani traces the mind-body problem from Descartes’s foundational ideas to the disorienting findings of neuroscience to explore the ever-elusive locus of self.

Complement with Walt Whitman on the paradox of the self, pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg on how our minds affect our bodies, and PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk on how body and mind converge in the healing of trauma, then revisit other illuminating TED-Ed animations exploring why we fall in love, what makes you you, how melancholy enhances creativity, why some people are left-handed, what depression actually feels like, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.

The Yin-Yang of Fortune and Misfortune: Alan Watts on the Art of Learning Not to Think in Terms of Gain and Loss

“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is,” Kurt Vonnegut observed in discussing Hamlet during his now-legendary lecture on the shapes of stories. But this idea was first articulated by British philosopher and writer Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973), who began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West during the 1950s and 1960s. Fusing ancient wisdom with the evolving insights of modern psychology, Watts’s enduring teachings addressed such concerns as how to live with presence, what makes us who we are, the difference between money and wealth, the art of timing, and how to find meaning in meaninglessness.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Although he wrote beautifully and authored a number of books, Watts was a remarkably charismatic speaker and delivered some of his most compelling ideas in lectures, the best which were eventually published as Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks 1960–1969 (public library).

In a talk titled “Swimming Headless,” Watts explores the psychological dimensions of Taoist philosophy and its emphasis on cultivating the mental discipline of not categorizing everything into gain and loss. Learning to live in such a way that nothing is experienced as either an advantage or a disadvantage, Watts argues, is the source of enormous empowerment and liberation.

He illustrates this notion with an ancient Chinese parable, brought to life in this lovely animation by Steve Agnos and the Sustainable Human project:

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.

In the book adaptation, the parable makes the same point in slightly more refined language:

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.” The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The farmer steadfastly refrained from thinking of things in terms of gain or loss, advantage or disadvantage, because one never knows… In fact we never really know whether an event is fortune or misfortune, we only know our ever-changing reactions to ever-changing events.

Complement Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life with Watts on death, the difference between belief and faith, and what reality really is, then revisit philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and physicist David Bohm’s immensely stimulating East/West dialogue on love, intelligence, and how to transcend the wall of being.

The Phoenix of Equality: How Pioneering Firefighter Brenda Berkman Won Women’s Right to Heroism

“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell told her students as she paved the way for women in science. And yet a century later, Brenda Berkman found embers of that but-a-woman cavil smoldering in the innermost chamber of culture, and she set out to extinguish them with unexampled fortitude of spirit.

Berkman, now an artist in her sixties, was once a lawyer before becoming one of the first women firefighters on the New York force, where she initiated and won — at great personal cost — a landmark lawsuit that forever changed the face of the fire department and became a precedent for equality far beyond its locale. Berkman recounts the hard-earned triumph through the lens of her uniform in one of the sixty-eight stories in Emily Spivack’s altogether wonderful Worn in New York (public library) — the continuation of Spivack’s Worn Stories, one of the most rewarding books of 2014, unraveling the tapestry of cultural and personal histories that make us who we are through the storytelling thread of sartorial micro-memoirs.

Brenda Berkman’s uniform. (Photograph by Bon Jane for Worn in New York by Emily Spivack, published by Abrams Books.)

Berkman tells Spivack:

I have this photograph of myself and a group of girls who were all editors of my high school’s newspaper in Richfield, Minnesota, dressed in the boys’ baseball team uniforms. To most people, that photo was a spoof or joke, but to me, it was serious. It was an example of what I wanted to be, but couldn’t be, because I was a girl. Throughout my childhood I had been a tomboy. My mother had signed me up for Little League because I wanted to play baseball. When the coach found out I was a girl, he turned me down. So the idea of wearing a uniform, especially a uniform to play a sport, got stuck in my mind as something honorable and desirable.

Berkman came of age in an era of woefully gendered career opportunities, with girls groomed to be teachers, nurses, or secretaries — if they weren’t full-time wives, that is — and boys prepared for positions of power in law, commerce, and government. She did get married, but refused to accept the limiting career paths before her. After college, she took a job in her father-in-law’s law firm and saw him represent the women of the NYPD in a sex discrimination lawsuit, which inspired her to apply to law school so that she could fight for equality herself.

When Berkman entered the NYU law school at the height of the feminist movement, she found herself seated next to a young man who was a “fire buff” — a person she defines as “someone who may or may not be a firefighter but knows everything about the fire department.” Around that time, she began running marathons and discovering the strength of her physical being. These two new strands of thought twined into the idea of becoming a firefighter.

“Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves,” Adrienne Rich asserted in her fantastic 1977 convocation speech, “we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.” That year — Berkman’s first year of law school — the firefighter test opened for women for the first time. But there was a cruel twist — this was also the year New York City instituted the harshest physical abilities test ever required of firefighters, which included a number of physical tasks having little to do with what it actually takes to fight fires. Berkman took and aced the written portion of the test but failed the physical, even though she had trained for it by carrying her husband up and down flights of stairs — the kind of activity firefighters would actually need to perform on duty.

She recounts:

Not a single one of the ninety women who passed the written exam passed the physical one.

I needed to do something about that. None of us were asking that standards be lowered merely because we were women. We were asking that the standards be job-related and that women be given a fair opportunity to meet those standards. I sued, maintaining that the exam was not job-related and that it disccriminated against women. About four years later, I won the lawsuit.

Even at the beginning of my career, my fire department uniform symbolized my right, and all women’s right, to be a firefighter.

But that right was assaulted less than a year later, when Berkman was fired for alleged lack of physical ability — even though her performance was consistently in the top tier of every task the fire department had given women. When she returned to her firehouse on the Lower East Side to collect her belongings, the male firefighters wouldn’t speak to her. As she exited in silence, they began clapping. Far more heartbreaking for Berkman than the demonstrative humiliation, however, was the fact that she was no longer allowed to wear the uniform for which she had fought so hard.

Later that year, together with another woman who had been fired under the same pretext, Berkman sued the city to get their jobs back. She won the lawsuit, was assigned to a new firehouse in Harlem, and went on to serve her city for a quarter century before retiring with three citations of honor pinned to her captain’s uniform — one for a difficult fire in a tenement (a citation the still-embittered men in the department wanted to decline because Berkamn’s name was on it), one for a construction collapse during her tenure as lieutenant, and the third for her work at World Trade Center on 9/11, where she arrived as an off-duty firefighter just as the second tower was collapsing and toiled around the clock for days.

Looking back on her hard-earned chance at heroism, Berkman tells Spivack:

I am part of a tradition that’s self-sacrificing and service-oriented — in the middle of the night, in all weather, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. And it’s a way of serving your country without having to shoot people, which appealed to me. My parents raised me to believe that you are not put on Earth just to take up space. My uniform is emblematic of my philosophy that people should try to leave the world better than they found it.

Complement this fragment of the throughly fantastic Worn in New York — which features stories by Eileen Myles, Gay Talese, Jenji Kohan, Jenna Lyons, Lena Dunham, and Thelma Golden — with a modern manifesto for bravery and perseverance by one of San Francisco’s first women firefighters, then revisit astronaut Sally Ride in conversation with Gloria Steinem about what it was like to be the first American woman in space, the story of how astrophysicist Cecilia Payne became the first woman to chair a Harvard department, and this illustrated celebration of trailblazing women in science.


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