Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Nietzsche on how to find yourself, the science of why we sleep, the relationship between intelligence and love, the value of uncertainty in our search for meaning, and more – you can read it right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
Adrienne Rich, in contemplating how love refines our truths, wrote: "An honorable human relationship – that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word 'love' – is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other." But among the dualities that lend love both its electricity and its exasperation – the interplay of thrill and terror, desire and disappointment, longing and anticipatory loss – is also the fact that our pathway to this mutually refining truth must pass through a necessary fiction: We fall in love not just with a person wholly external to us but with a fantasy of how that person can fill what is missing from our interior lives.
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips addresses this central paradox with uncommon clarity and elegance in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (public library).
Illustration from the vintage Danish gem An ABZ of Love, a Vonnegut favorite
All love stories are frustration stories... To fall in love is to be reminded of a frustration that you didn’t know you had (of one’s formative frustrations, and of one’s attempted self-cures for them); you wanted someone, you felt deprived of something, and then it seems to be there. And what is renewed in that experience is an intensity of frustration, and an intensity of satisfaction. It is as if, oddly, you were waiting for someone but you didn’t know who they were until they arrived. Whether or not you were aware that there was something missing in your life, you will be when you meet the person you want. What psychoanalysis will add to this love story is that the person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams; that you have dreamed them up before you met them; not out of nothing – nothing comes of nothing – but out of prior experience, both real and wished for. You recognize them with such certainty because you already, in a certain sense, know them; and because you have quite literally been expecting them, you feel as though you have known them for ever, and yet, at the same time, they are quite foreign to you. They are familiar foreign bodies.
Art from The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, Shel Silverstein's allegory of falling in love
This duality of the familiar and the foreign is mirrored in the osmotic relationship between presence and absence, with which every infatuated lover is intimately acquainted – that parallel intensity of longing for our lover's presence and anguishing in her absence. Phillips writes:
However much you have been wanting and hoping and dreaming of meeting the person of your dreams, it is only when you meet them that you will start missing them. It seems that the presence of an object is required to make its absence felt (or to make the absence of something felt). A kind of longing may have preceded their arrival, but you have to meet in order to feel the full force of your frustration in their absence.
Falling in love, finding your passion, are attempts to locate, to picture, to represent what you unconsciously feel frustrated about, and by.
Missing Out, previously discussed here, is a magnificent read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with Stendhal on the seven stages of romance, Susan Sontag on the messiness of love, and the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to love, then revisit Phillips on balance, the essential capacity for "fertile solitude," and how kindness became our guilty pleasure.
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The organism we call culture – all of our art and literature and human thought – is in a constant symbiotic dance with human nature. Our culture both reflects who we are – our values, our hopes, our fears, our ideals – and shapes who we become by immersing us in its collectively agreed upon mythology, systematically perpetuating certain values and negating others. E.B. White knew this when he considered the responsibility of the writer and asserted that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” It's a perennial dialogue between our nature and what we come to believe is our nature, perhaps best captured by the physicist David Bohm in his 1977 Berkeley lecture: “Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true."
In a particularly palpable manifestation of this symbiotic dance, the rise of workaholism and the toxic mythology of work/life balance have warped our understanding of why we work, what meaningful labor means, and how we can avail ourselves of the true rewards of our vocation. That's what psychologist Barry Schwartz explores in Why We Work (public library) – an inquiry into the diverse sources of satisfaction in work, the demoralizing effect of incentives, and how we can reimagine work culture to enlarge the human spirit rather than contract it.
Illustration by Gus Gordon from Herman and Rosie
Schwartz, who has previously studied the paradox of choice and the moral machinery of practical wisdom – casts the issue against the staggering statistic that, according to a recent Gallup study of 230,000 full-time and part-time workers in 142 countries, only 13% of people feel engaged and fulfilled by their jobs. He writes:
Work is more often a source of frustration than one of fulfillment for nearly 90 percent of the world’s workers. Think of the social, emotional, and perhaps even economic waste that this statistic represents. Ninety percent of adults spend half their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing at places they would rather not be.
This, of course, is far from new – one need only look at that marvelous 1949 manifesto for avoiding work to appreciate that enduring frustration. But Schwartz's central point is that, far from a necessary sunk cost of making a living, this profound dissatisfaction with work is one of our own making – the product of how we've designed our institutions, how that design has shaped our core beliefs, and how those beliefs in turn shape who we become. By examining the dichotomy between discovery and invention – one I think about often – Schwartz argues that human nature is something we actively invent:
Does the market cater to consumer desires or does it create consumer desires? Do the media cater to people’s tastes in news and entertainment or do the media create those tastes? We are all accustomed to the difficulties surrounding discussion of these issues in modern society, and we may all have fairly strong opinions about the “cater/create” debate. Questions of just this sort are all around us, and finding the right answer to them can have profound consequences for the future of society. In a sense, the distinction I’m making is between discovery and invention. Discoveries tell us things about how the world works. Inventions use those discoveries to create objects or processes that make the world work differently. The discovery of pathogens leads to the invention of antibiotics. The discovery of nuclear energy leads to bombs, power plants, and medical procedures. The discovery of the genome leads, or will lead, to untold changes in almost every part of our lives. Of course, discoveries also change the world, by changing how we understand it and live in it, but they rarely change the world by themselves.
Illustration from Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920–35
A crucial difference between discovery and invention, Schwartz points out, is the moral dimension:
When a scientist, or anyone else, discovers something, it doesn’t occur to us to ask whether that discovery should exist. In other words, though discoveries often have moral implications, they do not, by themselves, have moral dimensions. If someone were to suggest that the Higgs boson shouldn’t exist, we’d wonder what mind-altering substance he’d ingested. Inventions, in contrast, are a whole other story. Inventions characteristically have moral dimensions. We routinely ask whether they should exist. We wonder what’s good (life improving) about them, and what the drawbacks are. We debate whether their wide distribution should go forward, and if so, with what kind of regulation.
This moral aspect of inventions renders them what Schwartz calls "idea-technologies" that modulate our behavior:
Social science has created a “technology” of ideas about human nature... In addition to creating things, science creates concepts, ways of understanding the world and our place in it, that have an enormous effect on how we think and act. If we understand birth defects as acts of God, we pray. If we understand them as acts of chance, we grit our teeth and roll the dice. If we understand them as the product of prenatal neglect, we take better care of pregnant women.
In a sentiment that echoes David Bohm's memorable words about the interplay of our beliefs and our reality, Schwartz argues that the idea-technology of human nature is more of an invention than a discovery – something that calls for great vigilance over the ideas to which we subscribe:
If we understand the concept of “technology” broadly, as the use of human intelligence to create objects or processes that change the conditions of daily life, then it seems clear that ideas are no less products of technology than are computers. However, there are two things about idea technology that make it different from most “thing technology.” First, because ideas are not objects, to be seen, purchased, and touched, they can suffuse through the culture and have profound effects on people before they are even noticed. Second, ideas, unlike things, can have profound effects on people even if the ideas are false... False ideas can affect how people act, just as long as people believe them... Because idea technology often goes unnoticed, and because it can have profound effects even when it’s false – when it is ideology – it is in some respects more profound in its influence than the thing technology whose effects people are so accustomed to worrying about.
Good data drive out bad theories. But there’s a crucial difference between theories about planets, atoms, genes, and diseases and theories about at least some aspects of human nature. Planets don’t care what scientists say about their behavior. They move around the sun with complete indifference to how physicists and astronomers theorize about them. Genes are indifferent to our theories about them also. But this is not true of people. Theories about human nature can actually produce changes in how people behave. What this means is that a theory that is false can become true simply by people believing it’s true. The result is that, instead of good data driving out bad data and theories, bad data change social practices until the data become good data, and the theories are validated.
Illustration by Vahram Muratyan from About Time
Our ideas about what motivates people to work, Schwartz cautions, have shaped the nature of the workplace in unfortunate ways – particularly when it comes to the ideology of incentives and the carrots-and-sticks approach to reward and punishment. (Daniel Pink has written about this in his excellent look at the psychology of motivation.) Schwartz illustrates this with a striking example of how incentives fail to motivate people to do the right thing and, in fact, can achieve the very opposite:
An Israeli day care center was faced with a problem: more and more parents were coming late – after closing – to pick up their kids. Since the day care center couldn’t very well lock up and leave toddlers sitting alone on the steps awaiting their errant parents, they were stuck. Exhortation to come on time did not have the desired effect, so the day care center resorted to a fine for lateness. Now parents would have two reasons to come on time. It was their obligation, and they would pay a fine for failing to meet that obligation.
But the day care center was in for a surprise. When they imposed a fine for lateness, lateness increased. Prior to the imposition of a fine, about 25 percent of parents came late. When the fine was introduced, the percentage of latecomers rose, to about 33 percent. As the fines continued, the percentage of latecomers continued to go up, reaching about 40 percent by the sixteenth week.
This, Schwartz notes, stemmed from how the penalty policy muddled the essential difference between a fine and a price:
A price is what you pay for a service or a good. It’s an exchange between willing participants. A fine, in contrast, is punishment for a transgression. A $25 parking ticket is not the price for parking; it’s the penalty for parking where parking is not permitted. But there is nothing to stop people from interpreting a fine as a price. If it costs you $30 to park in a downtown garage, you might well calculate that it’s cheaper to park illegally on the street. Any notion of moral sanction is lost. You’re not doing the “wrong” thing; you’re doing the economical thing. And to get you to stop, we’ll have to make the fine (price) for parking illegally higher than the price for parking in a garage.
That’s exactly what happened in the day care centers. Prior to the imposition of fines, parents knew it was wrong to come late. Obviously, many of the parents did not regard this transgression as serious enough to get them to stop committing it, but there was no question that what they were doing was wrong. But when fines were introduced, the moral dimension of their behavior disappeared. It was now a straightforward financial calculation. “They’re giving me permission to be late. Is it worth $25? Is that a good price to pay to let me stay in the office a few minutes longer? Sure is!” The fine allows parents to reframe their behavior as an exchange of a fee (the “fine”) for a “service” (fifteen minutes of extra care). The fines demoralized what had previously been a moral act. And this is what incentives can do in general. They can change the question in people’s minds from “Is this right or wrong?” to “Is this worth the price?”
Once lost, this moral dimension is hard to recover. When, near the end of the study, the fines for lateness were discontinued, lateness became even more prevalent. By the end of the study, the incidence of lateness had almost doubled. It’s as though the introduction of fines permanently altered parents’ framing of the situation from a moral transaction to an economic one. When the fines were lifted, lateness simply became a better deal.
Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland
What Schwartz suggests, essentially, is that the best motivation is predicated not on reward and punishment but on what Adam Smith called the "impartial spectator" – an imaginary figure who evaluates the morality of our actions objectively and to whom we hold ourselves accountable. Once parents were given a second, material reason to be on time, they were able to buy their way out of the first, moral one – the sense of duty to simply do the right thing under the watchful eye of the "impartial spectator."
When we lose confidence that people have the will to do the right thing, and we turn to incentives, we find that we get what we pay for.
There is really no substitute for the integrity that inspires people to do good work because they want to do good work. And the more we rely on incentives as substitutes for integrity, the more we will need to rely on them as substitutes for integrity. We may tell ourselves that all we’re doing with our incentives is taking advantage of what we know about human nature... But in fact, what we’re doing is changing human nature.
And we’re not merely changing it; we’re impoverishing it.
To cease impoverishing human nature and begin enriching it, Schwartz asserts, we need to radically revise our ideas about work and the larger ecosystem of our social institutions:
Human beings are not scorpions. People aren’t stuck being one way or another. But nor are they free to invent themselves without constraint. When we give shape to our social institutions – our schools, our communities and yes, our workplaces – we also shape human nature. Thus, human nature is to a significant degree the product of human design. If we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work. If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work.
How we can begin to do this is what Schwartz explores in the remainder of the altogether excellent Why We Work, part of the TED Books series that gave us Pico Iyer on the art of stillness and Hannah Fry on the mathematics of lasting relationships.
Complement it with German philosopher Josef Pieper's timeless 1948 treatise on how to reclaim our human dignity in the age of workaholism, Parker Palmer on how to transform purpose into vocation, and David Whyte on how to break the tyranny of "work/life balance."
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Relationships, Adrienne Rich argued in her magnificent meditation on love, refine our truths. But they also, it turns out, refine our immune systems. That's what pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg examines in The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions (public library) – a revelatory inquiry into how emotional stress affects our susceptibility to burnout and disease.
As just about every socialized human being can attest, interpersonal relationships play a significant role in our experience of stress – either contributing to it and or alleviating it. And the way we connect – something psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has termed "positivity resonance" – is deeply patterned through our earliest experiences of bonding, which train our limbic pathways. Sternberg traces the cognitive origin of these formative patterns:
Somewhere in our brains we carry a map of our relationships. It is our mother’s lap, our best friend’s holding hand, our lover’s embrace – all these we carry within ourselves when we are alone. Just knowing that these are there to hold us if we fall gives us a sense of peace. “Cradled,” “rooted,” “connected” are words we use to describe the feeling that comes of this knowledge; social psychologists call this sense embeddedness. The opposite is perhaps a more familiar term – we call it loneliness.
Thus a person, sitting by herself in a room, may appear to others to be quite alone; but that person, if embedded, will have a world of relationships mapped inside her mind – a map that will lead to those who can be called on for nurture and support in time of need. But others, the Gatsbys among us, might be among a crowd of dozens and yet feel very much alone. Many pieces of great literature have in fact tapped into this sense of disconnectedness. Our sense that powerful forces beyond our bodies link us to others is so ingrained that we use phrases such as “times that bind,” “family dyes,” and “bonding,” to describe those intangible connections. And the emotions they evoke are among the greatest forces that affect our hormonal, our nerve chemical, and our immune responses – and through these, our health and our resistance to disease.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss
We encode these emotions early and carry them forward through symbol and ritual, using physical experiences and objects as memory-anchors. Sternberg captures the enduring echoes of these primal patterns:
A very young child will carry a physical reminder of mother’s embrace: a security blanket, a favorite toy, something soaked with all the smells of home and love... The engagement ring and wedding band have the power in an ounce of gold to evoke the memory of the beloved... We are all tethered to our social worlds by invisible but steel strong wires.
And yet, however deeply engrained these patterns may be, relationships are also inherently alive – they grow, change, and invariably become what Leo "Dr. Love" Buscaglia memorably termed a process of "dynamic interaction." In a passage that calls to mind David Whyte's wisdom on endings and beginnings, Sternberg examines the often inevitable evolution – and sometimes revolution – of relationships:
A relationship is built of strings of moments that our mind has pulled out from where they were stored in memory, moments and memories that come with emotions attached. Memories, spliced together like this in a seamless thread, make a relationship seem continuous and whole. So, after not seeing a childhood friend for years, we can pick up where we left off, as if no time at all had intervened. In this way, too, relationships can be sustained in thought during long absences – parents away from adult children, long-distance lovers, commuting husbands and wives. But the same capacity of the brain to forge this chain of memory can lead to difficulties in a relationship if one member evolves past where the other’s memory left off. So, a child leaving home for college, who left still on the verge of adulthood and returns an independent adult, will encounter a parent’s resistance when the person who steps back into the parent’s memory is not the same as the one who left. It takes a period of adjustment on both sides to set the chain evolving back on a new course.
At times, one small corner of that map can swell and grow, reverberate and suddenly seem to take over our entire world: we fall in love; we are abandoned; we become envious; we hate. The persons who are the object of such feelings can take on gigantic proportions in our minds and dominate our whole social and emotional outlook, coloring every corner of our lives, until, through monumental effort, or simply through gradual erosion of time, they recede again to their rightful place and size.
Art by Andrea Dezsö for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
These fluid social dynamics, Sternberg points out, permeate our culture well beyond our immediate individual experience:
The social world can activate the stress response, or it can tone it down. The effects of these personal connections can be more soothing than an hour of meditation. They can also be as stressful, and more long-lived, as running at top speed for twenty minutes on a treadmill. In fact, of all the sensory signals that impinge on us from moment to moment throughout the day, it is the ones connected in some way to another person that can trigger our emotions most intensely. If emotions are really meant to move us, it is these bonds toward which they push or from which they pull. Whole industries are based on the power of such social bonds: romance novels, movies, cosmetics, fashion, advertising, popular songs. In one way or another, the whole of our popular culture strives toward sealing or healing these social connections.
And heal we must, for the social self is central to our neurobiological experience of stress:
It seems that social conflict brings out an additional and unique hormonal response that is not stimulated by other forms of stress. This unique pattern of hormonal stress response predisposes socially stressed mice to herpes infection. The hormone that does this, which is secreted in saliva, is called nerve growth factor. Those who are prone to herpes virus “cold sores” will find this situation all too familiar. It is exactly when we are stressed – perhaps with lack of sleep and too much work, but especially with prolonged anxiety over personal or workplace situations – that we invariably get a cold sore.
In the remainder of the wholly illuminating The Balance Within, Sternberg goes on to explore the neurobiological underpinnings of this emotional machinery, the role of our psychological patterning in our physiological predisposition to disease, and how we can begin to rewire our response to stress. Complement it with Naomi Wolf on the psychology of stress, orgasm, and creativity and Adam Phillips on why frustration is essential for satisfaction in love.
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Longing is one of those acutely reality-warping emotions that magnify their object – be it a person or an outcome – to astonishing proportions until it eclipses just about everything else in your landscape of priorities. In the memorable words of John O'Donohue, "a relentless magnet draws all your thoughts towards it." The object of your longing becomes the backdrop against which every moment of the day is lived, a restless motor generating a constant low-level hum of unshakable anticipation, the torturous and intoxicating bridge between frustration and satisfaction by which love traverses the abyss of loneliness.
The strange machinery of how longing possesses the soul is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in a portion of the endlessly rewarding Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) – his wonderful collection of short essays "dedicated to words and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty," which gave us Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means and the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak.
Art from Salvador Dalí's series for Dante's 'Divine Comedy'
Longing is the transfiguration of aloneness ... like a comet's passing tail, glimpsed only for a moment but making us willing to give up our perfect house, our paid for home and our accumulated belongings.
In the longing and possession of romantic love, it is as if the body has been loaned to someone else but has then from some remote place, taken over the senses – we no longer know ourselves. Longing calls for a beautiful, grounded humiliation; the abasement of what we thought we were and strangely, the giving up of central control while being granted a watchful, scintillating, peripheral discrimination. The static willful central identity is pierced and wounded, violated and orphaned into its own future as if set adrift on a tide.
Perhaps most disorienting of all is how longing imposes its own rhythm and pace of expectancy, suffused with unbearable urgency – an hour spent in waiting feels like eternity, at once utterly deadening in its dread and utterly enlivening in its potential for ecstatic relief, calling to mind Virginia Woolf's enduring insight into the elasticity of time. Whyte captures this beautifully:
Longing has its own secret, future destination, and its own seasonal emergence from within, a ripening from the core, a seed growing in our own bodies; it is as if we are put into relationship with an enormous distance inside us leading back to some unknown origin with its own secret timing indifferent to our wills, and gifted at the same time with an intimate sense of proximity, to a lover, to a future, to a transformation, to a life we want for ourselves, and to the beauty of the sky and the ground that surrounds us.
In a sentiment that calls to mind psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the relationship between risk and solitude, Whyte adds:
Longing is nothing without its dangerous edge, that cuts and wounds us while setting us free and beckons us exactly because of the human need to invite the right kind of peril. The foundational instinct that we are here essentially to risk ourselves in the world, that we are a form of invitation to others and to otherness, that we are meant to hazard ourselves for the right thing, for the right woman or the right man, for a son or a daughter, for the right work or for a gift given against all the odds. In longing we move and are moving from a known but abstracted elsewhere, to a beautiful, about to be reached, someone, something or somewhere we want to call our own.
Because of the irrational intensity and urgency that longing imposes, its exasperation crescendoes in the face of silence – that maddening gap between stimulus and response, filled with uncertainty oscillating between desire and dread. "Silence," Susan Sontag wrote in her superb meditation on the aesthetics of silence, "remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue." But to the person bedeviled by longing, the speech of silence is the shrillest sound of doom and rejection. Whyte writes:
Silence is frightening, an intimation of the end, the graveyard of fixed identities. Real silence puts any present understanding to shame; orphans us from certainty; leads us beyond the well-known and accepted reality and confronts us with the unknown and previously unacceptable conversation about to break in upon our lives.
And yet surrendering to silence is how we befriend the very uncertainty that makes longing so unbearable:
In silence, essence speaks to us of essence itself and asks for a kind of unilateral disarmament, our own essential nature slowly emerging as the defended periphery atomizes and falls apart. As the busy edge dissolves we begin to join the conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, robust vulnerability, revealing in the way we listen, a different ear, a more perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion, and belonging to a different person than the one who first entered the quiet.
Reality met on its own terms demands absolute presence, and absolute giving away, an ability to live on equal terms with the fleeting and the eternal, the hardly touchable and the fully possible, a full bodily appearance and disappearance, a rested giving in and giving up; another identity braver, more generous and more here than the one looking hungrily for the easy, unearned answer.
Consolations remains one of the most luminous books I've ever encountered, filled with Whyte's spiritually sumptuous meditations on such perennial human concerns as ambition, despair, honesty, heartbreak, and joy. Complement this particular portion with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why we fall in love, John O'Donohue on the pull of desire, and Margaret Mead's magnificent love letters.
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