The Ephemera: A Fairytale from Benjamin Franklin on the Transience of Life & Our Smallness in the Universe

I have been reading an old book I found in a used bookstore. The book, A Treasury of the Essay moves chronologically, starting with, predictably, Michel de Montaigne, who is credited with popularizing the essay as a genre, and then through the centuries, including a whole host of European and American essayists, some to me fairly familiar, such as Jonathan Swift and Virginia Woolf, and others less so – William Cobbett and James Thurber for example.

benjamin franklinWe’re treated to excerpts of essays in a wide assortment of styles. I have enjoyed some and been bored by many.

And by a few, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. There is only one essay included by Benjamin Franklin. It is found in a letter to a lady – and reads a bit like a children’s story. I found it whimsical, captivating, and so very unexpected.

Find in the below a gentle reminder of one’s smallness in the universe, the shortness and transience of life, and the importance then of not taking ourselves and our own importance too seriously.


Benjamin Franklin to Madam Brillon de Jouy, 1778


You may remember, my dear friend, that when we lately spent that happy day in the delightful garden and sweet society of the Moulin Joly, I stopt a little in one of our walks, and staid some time behind the company. We had been shown numberless skeletons of a kind of little fly, called an ephemera, whose successive generations, we were told, were bred and expired within the day. I happened to see a living company of them on a leaf, who appeared to be engaged in conversation…I turned my head to an old grey-headed [fly], who was single on another leaf, and talking to himself. Being amused with his soliloquy, I put it down in writing

“It was,” said he, “the opinion of learned philosophers of our race, who lived and flourished long before my time, that this vast world, the Moulin Joly, could not itself subsist more than eighteen hours; and I think there was some foundation for that opinion, since, by the apparent motion of the great luminary that gives life to all nature, and which in my time has evidently declined considerably towards the ocean at the end of our earth, it must then finish its course, be extinguished in the waters that surround us, and leave the world in cold and darkness, necessarily producing universal death and destruction.

I have lived seven of those hours, a great age, being no less than four hundred and twenty minutes of time. How very few of us continue so long! I have seen generations born, flourish, and expire. My present friends are the children and grandchildren of the friends of my youth, who are now, alas no more! And I must soon follow them; for, by the course of nature, though still in health, I cannot expect to live above seven or eight minutes longer.

What now avails all my toil and labor, in amassing honey-dew on this leaf, which I cannot live to enjoy! What the political struggles I have been engaged in, for the good of my compatriot inhabitants of this bush, or my philosophical studies for the benefit of our race in general!…My friends would comfort me with the idea of a name they say, I shall leave behind me; and they tell me I have lived long enough to nature and to glory. But what will fame be to an ephemera who no longer exists? And what will become of all history in the eighteenth hour, when the world itself, even the whole Moulin Joly, shall come to its end, and be buried in universal ruin?”

To me, after all my eager pursuits, no solid pleasures now remain, but the reflection of a long life spent in meaning well, the sensible conversation of a few good lady ephemerae, and now and then a kind smile and a tune from the ever amiable Brilliante.


 

I found this a welcomed jolt of perspective that is just as useful to us now as it was in Benjamin Franklin’s day.

I was reminded while reading this of the classic Cosmos by Carl Sagan. In fact, in Cosmos is a line strikingly similar in sentiment, “We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.”

For some additional detail and the full text of Benjamin Franklin’s letter, click here.

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Hannah Arendt, Appearances, and the Meaning to be Found at the Surface

We have a complicated relationship, I think, with beauty. We hunt for it, within magazines, museums, in our travels. We document and collect beauty, in our photographs and belongings, and we attempt to create beauty, in our own art, in our homes, and of course out of ourselves, in the application of makeup, the tanning of the skin, the toning of the muscles. But yet, sometimes, we disparage beauty. Beauty must compete for its worth with usefulness, with pragmatism, and with things that have a cause, a reason for being beyond the appearance. In persons, we recognize that physical beauty is only skin deep. The real essence of the person must be something much deeper.

The beauty of things, the appearance of things can seem trivial compared to this essence of the thing or being. And of course, it is. But, as with anything else, we can also consider it differently.

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Philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book The Life of the Mind invites us to consider the significance and the gravity of Appearances.

She reminds us first of the relationship between being and appearing. Implicit in the “I exist” is the “I appear.” And a necessary follower to the “I appear” is “I appear to others.”

 

The world men are born into contains many things, natural and artificial, living and dead, transient and sempiternal, all of which have in common that they appear and hence are meant to be seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled, to be perceived by sentient creatures endowed with the appropriate sense organs.

Nothing could appear, the word “appearance” would make no sense, if recipients of appearances did not exist— living creatures able to acknowledge, recognize, and react to— in flight or desire, approval or disapproval, blame or praise— what is not merely there but appears to them and is meant for their perception.

In this world which we enter, appearing from a nowhere, and from which we disappear into a nowhere, Being and Appearing coincide…Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator. In other words, nothing that is, insofar as it appears, exists in the singular; everything that is is meant to be perceived by somebody. Not Man but men inhabit this planet.

 

In addition to this world of appearances is also the world of what is unseen. Traditionally, the unseen – whether material – the brain, the heart, the organs or immaterial, as in the self or the mind, is given more weight than appearance. She quotes Kant as exemplifying this tradition in thought when he said that appearances “must themselves have grounds which are not appearances.” Arendt believes that this belief that a cause should be of a higher rank than the effect is one of the oldest and most stubborn of fallacies.

 

What Meaning Can we Find in Appearances?

Arendt asks the provoking and astounding question,

“Could it not be that appearances are not there for the sake of the life process but, on the contrary, that the life process is there for the sake of appearances? Since we live in an appearing world, is it not much more plausible that the relevant and the meaningful in this world of ours should be located precisely on the surface?”

I love this line of inquiry, not because it is necessarily wholly true but because perhaps there is some truth in the answer and most importantly because it challenges so much we take for granted so very powerfully.

I am reminded of sentences I came across recently here, “Beauty comes beforprimrose-2082038_1920e reason. It demands you look for meaning. It announces meaning in an almost violent way.”

Beauty or the appearance announces meaning. Perhaps it is the meaning, announcing itself, provoking further inquiry.

In order to answer this question, that of if meaning can be found at the surface, Arendt references the work of the biologist and zoologist Adolf Portmann. In his work, Portmann distinguishes between the Authentic Appearance and the Inauthentic Appearance. The Authentic Appearances “come to light of their own accord” and Inauthentic Appearances “such as the roots of a plant or the inner organs of an animal” are “visible only through interference.” Leaning on some of Portmann’s work, Arendt provides two arguments:

 

First argument: There are significant and meaningful differences between how the external and the internal appear that reveal a beauty and distinction unique to the external

Portmann observed the fact that external appearances are “infinitely varied and highly differentiated.” From the external we can generally differentiate from one individual to another. External features are arranged in pleasing ways, according to symmetry. Think of the human face, of butterfly wings. The internal or the inauthentic by contrast, such as bodily organs, are not pleasing to the eye, are not generally symmetrical (in higher level organisms), and cannot be used to easily distinguish between individuals.

Portmann searched for the cause of these peculiarities, which he failed to find, and attributed the characteristics to mysterious “unknown powers of creation” (point of clarification – Portmann was not a creationist and in fact was an ardent fan of Darwin, whose work informed his writing). Arendt however is interested in the expression itself and less so the cause. The uniqueness of the external as opposed to the internal is perhaps itself evidence of the importance of the external. If the insides of us were what appeared to others, she writes, we would all look alike.

 

Second argument: Beings have the innate urge to self-display beyond the functional

Portmann writes of a natural “urge to self-display” that transcends the functional – that transcends what is deemed necessary for sexual attraction and adaptation.  Arendt elaborates,

Whatever can see wants to be seen, whatever can hear calls out to be heard, whatever can touch presents itself to be. It is indeed as though everything that is alive— in addition to the fact that its surface is made for appearance, fit to be seen and meant to appear to others— has an urge to appear, to fit itself into the world of appearances by displaying and showing, not its “inner self” but itself as an individual.

And what is being expressed? Yes, words and sounds, but even more so, even more often, it is the physical, the us, the body, the self in acts of appearing and being seen.

 

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Arendt concludes that the belief that our “inner life” is more relevant to what we “are” than what appears on the outside, is an illusion. Note that Arendt does not explicitly state that the outer life is more relevant and the inner life less relevant. Rather, I’ve come to think that the argument can be understood as a defense for an equal exploration of both cause and effect, of inner and outer. What is expressed, what appears, can be as important the cause of the expression or appearance. And in searching for the cause of the appearance, we cannot discount the importance and the meaning of the appearance itself.

Furthermore, for me, it lends additional possibilities as well as mystery to our conceptions of appearances as well as our conceptions of beauty and form, whether of ourselves or of our world, a mountain, a butterfly, a stone.

 

“Gastronomy is the Art of Using Food to Create Happiness”

“Gastronomy is the art of using food to create happiness,” writes Theodore Zeldin.

Zeldin, both a philosopher and a historian has dedicated much of his life to discovering what it means to be human and what it means to be happy. One of his books, An Intimate History of Humanity, is a treasure. Each chapter explores a different theme, emotion, or element of the human life. Examples of chapter titles include, “How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations” and “Why the crisis in the family is only one stage in the evolution of generosity.”

Underlying all his writing, regardless of the subject, is the common thread of pleasure and happiness – and it is no different in his exploration of our relationship with food.

Eating is one of the most basic ways by which we experience pleasure. Zeldin posits that our approach to eating and receiving pleasure from eating mirrors our broader approaches to pursuing other types of pleasure in life.

 

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According Zeldin, there are Three Ways of Eating and each corresponds to a different way of searching for happiness.

Zeldin’s Three Ways of Eating:

1) Eating until one is full

“The first and most traditional way, putting faith in old recipes and well-tried methods. The aim is to be contented, to be comforted, to feel cozy, to purr. This is the cautious approach to pleasure, with the motto ‘Protect yourself from foreign bodies.’”

This is a search for contentment, for satiation, in a way that is safe and without risk or danger (and excitement).

2) Eating as amusement

A second way of eating is, “treating food as an amusement, a form of permissiveness, a caress of the senses,” “creating conviviality around delicious odours.”

This variety of a search for happiness is for temporary relief from ordinary hardship, in the one who “yearns for distractions and surprises, who seeks a different kind of happiness in frivolity in being jokey, cynical, ironical, refusing to be made permanently miserable by the big problems, like starvation and stupidity.”

3) Food as a means of exercising creativity

“When peace and quiet, or wit and detachment, began to pall, a different yearning was born, to make a personal, original contribution to life. The search for a third kind of happiness – which moderns call creativity – demanded a way of eating which corresponded…

Creative cooks found qualities in food that nobody suspected were there, uniting ingredients that never used to mix. Creative diners are constantly engaged in losing their fear of strange foods, and of foreign bodies.”

With this third way of eating, cooking and eating become forms of art. Cooking is another medium for expression and our food, the canvas and materials through which we can create.

“Every time a recipe is not strictly followed, every time a risk is taken with changed ingredients or proportions, the resulting food is a creative work, good or bad, into which humans have put a little of themselves.”

 

His point with these three ways of eating, he is careful to note, is not to categorize us into “three different kinds of people, each of them stuck with their habits.” No, rather, it’s to suggest that there may be more to the way we cook and eat than may appear at surface level.

Zeldin likely hopes for more of the third way of eating. I direct you to this final paragraph from the text, which (with an idealism that appears in most of Zeldin’s work) expresses well his belief that there is much more to learn from how we eat and also his hope for further “exploration on the whole of nature” and “ever-widening horizons of pleasure and understanding.”

Hunger is still being satisfied without full awareness of what it is one is hungry for. Some delicious foods have no nutritional value, others are disagreeable until a taste for them is acquired, others still do not stop one feeling hungry but stimulate one to eat yet more, to prolong the pleasure of eating, like a lover seeking to prolong an embrace. Trying to make sense of such behavior can clarify a lot more than one’s taste in food – for example, how far one is interested by new sorts of pleasure, or innovation and creativity in general, whether one is willing to risk disappointment or failure, whether one wants to be brave and free more than to be applauded, whether one likes to discuss one’s pleasures, whether one enjoys giving pleasure to others. Gastronomy is a branch of knowledge in its infancy, focusing not just on self-indulgence but on exploration, not just on self-exploration but on the exploration of the whole of nature. It can look forward to ever-widening horizons of pleasure and understanding, even though it has its dark side, for it has done little to deal with the obscenities of famine and cruelty, and it will perhaps only receive proper recognition when it does. Nevertheless, forks and spoons have probably done more to reconcile people who cannot agree than guns and bombs ever did.

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson on Self-Discovery and Learning

A Life of Self-Discovery: Guidance from Ralph Waldo Emerson on Learning About Ourselves

 

One could argue that the heart of Emerson’s true education occurred outside of the classroom. Although he attended Harvard University, he was an unexceptional student who graduated without distinction. He felt at odds with his peers and kept mostly to himself. He however read extensively and throughout his life was exposed to and influenced by the ideas of those such as Thomas Carlyle, Montaigne, Goethe, and Swedenborg. His true education, he conducted himself.

6908d0d4a2fbd7296fa4efab5fd1c241d4f37c33Emerson and the Transcendentalists believed in the strength of the individual and in the greatness of the individual human spirit. He believed that there is genius, beauty, and wisdom within each of us, if we listen to and find it. By nurturing oneself, listening to oneself, and by learning from one’s experiences and emotions, one can discover one’s own truth and self. And this process of discovery is both the journey and the end goal of life.

Emerson was thus on a lifelong journey to discover himself and his writings are his chronicles of that journey.

 

Learning as an Individual Task

Ultimately and above all else, he champions the importance of determining one’s truth by oneself. Learning is not done by imitation or by conforming to what others do or to what society might expect us to do. Each of us is different and therefore what is right and true for each of us will be different. The below is taken from his seminal essay, Self-Reliance.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

Thus, we must each do our own work on ourselves, in our own way.

He warns against the temptations and dangers of conformity,

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

 

There are no Shortcuts

And he argues that in order to know something, you have to go through the process of obtaining the knowledge yourself. There are no shortcuts to really knowing,

Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, – must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. What the former age has epitomized into a formula or rule for manipular convenience, it will lose all the good or verifying for itself, by means of the wall of that rule. Somewhere, sometime, it will demand and find compensation for that loss by doing the work itself. Ferguson discovered many things in astronomy which had long been known. The better for him.

 

Learning from Real, Raw Experience

Really knowing thus comes from the process of the mind ‘go[ing] over the whole ground.’ And this process of ‘knowing’ can take many forms. Ever the intellectual, Emerson nevertheless extols the knowledge that can only be gleaned from real, raw life,

Who knows himself before he has been thrilled with indignation at an outrage, or has shared the throb of thousands in a national exultation or alarm? No man can antedate his experience, or guess what faculty or feeling a new object shall unlock, any more than he can today the face of a person whom he shall see tomorrow for the first time.

And to some degree, he chases these feelings, even those of a darker shade,

There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth.

The world is our classroom and just as “the child amidst his baubles, is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force” so “in the game of life: love, fear, justice, appetite, man, and God interact.

 

It All Comes Back to Ourselves

And for Emerson, all his efforts towards learning are always somehow in the end, directed back towards himself, for to Emerson, oneself is the beautiful mystery. He writes,

We go to Europe, or we pursue persons, or we read books, in the instinctive faith that these will…reveal us to ourselves.

 

How the types of stories we tell define who we are

The way we remember the events in our lives, and in particular, the traumas in our lives, can shape us as much or more than the events themselves.

 

unknown-1769656_1280Stories have the ability to take the events of our lives – big, small, grand or trifling – and from these establish cause and effect, impart and distribute importance, tie together the disparate, cast details aside, hint at symbolism and meaning, moralize, criminalize, and summarize.

How many hundreds, thousands of stories can you tell from a day, an hour, a relationship, an encounter? How many different stories can we tell from the same memories, from the same life? I am good and you are bad – or perhaps, it’s the other way round.

The stories we tell and believe define who we are.

 

Stories Help Us Make Sense of Ourselves

In an excellent article on “life stories” and how the narratives we construct from the events in our lives define who we are and how we perceive the world, Julie Beck explores the links between personality and memory, the self and our stories.

We remember our lives not as lists of facts but in narrative arcs. In order to hold onto the multitudes of memories we create, we turn these memories into narrative. Whether or not we write them down, in our minds, we pick and choose what is important, establishing connections and creating meaning as memories are turned into stories.

A hypothetical – We may remember the painful breakup as the impetus to study abroad. The decision to study abroad may be labeled as the life changing experience that sparked a desire to move later to Asia, where we met our spouse. The bullying in high school led to a stronger sense of empathy and compassion. We establish links. Consciously or not, these narratives become a form of identity. The things we choose to remember and how we choose to remember them can reflect and shape who we are.

These can change. We can rewrite. The fondly remembered, whirlwind first few months of a romance that we hoped would last, might, after a breakup, suddenly be remembered differently – perhaps there were hints of the end lying underneath all along. Perhaps these darker memories take on a greater or at least a different importance than they did before.

And while there isn’t a right or a wrong way to remember, how we remember can significantly impact who we are and how we learn from our experiences.

 

How the Types of Stories we Tell Matter

Beck tells us of the power of the redemption story. A redemption story starts off bad but ends better and having redemption themes in one’s life is generally associated with greater well-being.

Writer Andrew Solomon has a fascinating TED Talk called, “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.” He speaks of childhood trauma, in his case being bullied at school:

I survived that childhood through a mix of avoidance and endurance. What I didn’t know then and do know now, is that avoidance and endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning. After you’ve forged meaning, you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity. You need to take the traumas and make them part of who you’ve come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt.

Solomon was able to turn his trauma into a story of triumph, a redemption story. He says that, “while we don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities…we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences.” Sometimes by going through suffering and through difficulty, we are able to learn so much more than we perhaps otherwise would if life had been easier. Solomon is careful not to glamorize suffering. “Forging meaning and building identity does not make what was wrong right. It only makes what was wrong precious.”

And Solomon isn’t the first to draw these conclusions. In James Baldwin’s beautiful, “Letter from a Region in My Mind” where he speaks of the oppression that Blacks have suffered in history in America, he writes,

This endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, learns something about himself and human life that no school on earth—and, indeed, no church—can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable.

The ability to find truth and redemption from our tragedies, and the ability to internalize this meaning into our own personal stories, can strengthen our identities and our experience of the world.

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James Baldwin

There is an important distinction to make however, that Beck, Solomon, and Baldwin all allude to. We have to be able to turn these traumas into triumphs, into redemption stories in order to obtain these lessons and meaning. Solomon tells us, “We cannot bear a pointless torment.”

Sometimes however, we never create the redemption story. Sometimes, the story isn’t told. It’s repressed. This might come from shame or fear. If a story isn’t created and told, “your memory for that event may be less flexible and give you less chance for growth.”

There can be a darker side to our stories. The alternative to the story of redemption can be one where the individual positions oneself as the victim. This is especially dangerous when a group of traumatized individuals identify themselves as victims of a group of villainized “Others.” A story of victimhood can turn into what author Amin Maalouf characterizes as the propensity of persons to turn to violence when they suspect they are being threatened. James Baldwin warned against the same as he saw the rise of militant black groups in response to their oppression.

And a possible key towards preventing victim thinking? Philosopher Jonathan Sacks in his book on violence recommends empathy. “To be cured of potential violence toward the Other, I must be able to imagine myself as the Other.”

Truth is multifaceted. And almost as important as how the action played out, is how the action is told after the fact, whether it as a part of our own personal story, or in a story of something bigger than ourselves. We can teach and we can also hurt each other depending on the types of stories we tell. In life and in history, the stories outlive the actions.

“The story of things done outlives the act” and “a thing said walks in immortality if it has been said well.” The bards also, Homer-like, “straightened the story . .  . in . .  . magic words to charm all men thereafter.” They did not merely report, they also set it right — Aias had slain himself from shame, but Homer had known better and “honored him above all men.” (from The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt)

 

On Glimpsing More of Those We Love

The beauty of discovering our loved ones through their writing, from the to-do list to letters to marginalia

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I was listening to a podcast some weeks ago where one of my role models, Krista Tippett, was interviewing another of my role models, Maria Popova. It was a lovely conversation that explored the meaning and wisdom Maria Popova seeks to create through her popular blog, brainpickings.org. Anyways, Maria Popova said something that resonated with me. She was speaking of her great grandfather who she never met and of discovering some of his books.

“And he had — his marginalia were extraordinary. And I felt this strange kinship with him through the years, through the cultures and the eras and these different media. Because what I do when I read is essentially what he did, which is he wrote in the margins all these notes on things that he didn’t understand and wanted to understand. He underlined passages that he noted were beautiful language. And words that he didn’t know that he would look up in the dictionary, he would circle them and then write the translation. But it was this sort of intellectual dance with another mind that you could see in the margins of his books. And I was just very moved by it.”

And what a beautiful thought. She was able to see a very authentic and private side of the great grandfather she never knew through his notes and marginalia. I think there’s something special about it being his own personal notes. Not really meant for other eyes, our private notes are less self-conscious, less filtered, and thus more intimate, raw, and authentic.

I was reminded of something the philosopher Theodore Zeldin has once said, that one may often know better one who is dead that we have never met from what they have left in their private writing and letters than we may know those we interact with in the flesh. In the flesh, in “real life,” we conceal so much and present only small reflections of ourselves to those we meet and interact with. And even with those we love, how often do conversations go beyond the surface, past the day to day conversations about an upcoming dinner to plan for, a child’s problems at school, or an event on the evening news? And when we do go a bit deeper (into feelings or religion, for example), aren’t we so careful not to offend?

And so it is a luxury, something quite special I think when we’re allowed into the private notes of someone we love, or someone we might have loved. And when we can have ‘conversations’ with someone from the past, through interacting with their written words.

My dad wrote once about discovering the letters of his grandmother among his father’s possessions after his father passed away. He found several letters and scraps of letters written by his grandmother in the weeks before she died. Several of them are crumbling and close to falling apart from how often it appears they’ve been reread. My dad, in discovering these letters was incredibly touched. He had a record of letters from mother to son, revealing a grandmother he never knew and a side of his father too that he hadn’t seen. My dad wrote of the find, “It is literally hearing a voice from the past. Someone I remember so little about because I was so ‘wee’ when she passed away has now been revealed to me and I now feel as if I ‘know’ them a lot better, it’s almost like being graced with a peek into their soul.

There’s something very beautiful about being granted access to more of those we love and especially in the intimate way of reading their writing, which is the very closest thing to their thoughts.

Even the mundane can be special. I recall a tweet I saw from Alain de Botton in January, “Glimpsing someone else’s to-do list – like watching them sleeping – tends always to be endearing.” Isn’t it? It’s the person, the person themselves without the pretensions and cover up that we’re interested in and each opportunity we have of glimpsing this is truly special. Even the to-do list and marginalia in books.