Alan Watts on How Our Anxieties Are Born Out of Our Desire for Security

My first introduction to Alan Watts was through the plethora of inspirational videos based on his writing that are out there on YouTube. Back when I was quitting my job, it seemed like every other person I told sent a Alan Watts link my way. And there are a lot of them out there. Spiritual Mind, the YouTube channel I was directed to most, seems to put out a new one almost every day. The videos, as a side note, are pretty good. They’re simple, but persuasive messages of encouragement to live according to one’s own standards, ambitions, and dreams. To do what you want with your one life.

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Watts, (1915 – 1973), a British philosopher, was well known for having been able to convey and interpret ancient Eastern teachings in ways that are understandable to and palatable by Western society. His writing addressed complex ideas, explained simply. He tackled, among other subjects, human consciousness, happiness, human identity, religion, contemplation, and anxiety – topics that are timeless and still as relevant as ever today.

In 1951, Watts published The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message For An Age of Anxiety.  A few years prior, in 1947, W.H. Auden had declared the period an “Age of Anxiety” with his epic poem of the same title. In the first pages of his book, Watts writes,

“[S]cience and industry have so increased both the tempo and violence of living…There is, then, the feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity. In the past hundred years so many long-established traditions have broken down – traditions of family and social life, of government, of the economic order, and of religious belief. As the years go by, there seem to be fewer and fewer rocks to which we can hold, fewer things which we can regard as absolutely right and true, and fixed for all time.”

But set aside some of the specific phrasing and Watts could easily be describing our time. In fact, I would venture to guess that every generation perhaps before and certainly since Watts has also thought themselves very anxious, having of course to deal with exceptional never before seen challenges affecting their particular times. And so it goes forever and ever, each generation feeling that they face new challenges and so are – of course, unavoidably, painfully anxious. We are anxious and anxious about being anxious.

A lot of books and articles addressing anxiety do so by identifying causes of anxiety. A quick google search led me to material explaining how our current anxiety is a result of social media and the comparisons it encourages, the election of Donald Trump, drug use, economic recessions, more people living further away from relatives, as well as a general decrease in ‘opportunities to make real connections with others.’

Watts, however, takes a different approach.

He too identifies causes of anxiety – but inner causes of anxiety. Watts identifies patterns of thinking and mental constructions that are widespread today that, almost regardless of the state of the world or individual circumstances, create anxiety. Naturally, it also follows then that awareness of and identification of these patterns can help to ease anxiety – regardless of the state of the world or of our individual circumstances.

There’s a lot of great material in the book – and there’s a reason that, together in volume, it amounts to a book rather than an article – and in paraphrasing, much is of course lost.

But the meat of Watt’s point – evident too in his title – is that a desire for security contributes to anxiety. Of course, it’s natural to want to feel secure. We want to have money in the bank to protect ourselves for emergencies, we do go and take out various insurance policies on our home, our car, our life, we do solicit advice and conduct research before making big decisions, we do look after our health, we do invest, we do strive for high paying jobs. All of these and many other actions help to provide structure and stability in our lives and are good and proper things to do and strive for.

The challenge comes though in the fact that – really, there is no such thing as real stability and security. And that, despite whatever preventative, precautionary measures we can undertake or stress about taking, we are always left with insecurity. You never know what can happen, and to a certain extent it is impossible to anticipate everything. We have to become comfortable with insecurity.

Insecurity is a part of being alive, of being. To protest against this insecurity is to struggle against – everything – life. And being in the state of struggling and anxiety makes us feel more insecure, and so on. Watts states it as such,

“It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated ‘I’ which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.

To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath.”

And similarly,

“For most of us this conflict is ever gnawing within us because our lives are one long effort to resist the unknown, the real present in which we live, which is the unknown in the midst of coming into being. Living thus, we never really learn to live with it. At every moment we are cautious, hesitant, and on the defensive. And all to no avail, for life thrusts us into the unknown willy-nilly, and resistance is as futile and exasperating as trying to swim against a roaring torrent.”

An answer – or a way we can respond to the inclination to feel insecure – is to be better at being present. Feelings of insecurity are born out of a fixation on the possibilities of the future and also on comparisons to the past. Therefore, a clearer focus on each individual moment will make it impossible to be as insecure. You cannot truly be present in an activity AND be anxious about some insecurity. If you are present in an activity – that’s it. If there’s anxiety there too, then you’re not really being present.

“The art of living in this ‘predicament’ is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging to the past and the known on the other. It consists in being completely sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.”

And at this, we are notoriously bad.

“For the animal to be happy it is enough that this moment be enjoyable. But man is hardly satisfied with this at all. He is much more concerned to have enjoyable memories and expectations – especially the latter. With these assured, he can put up with an extremely miserable present. Without this assurance, he can be extremely miserable in the midst of immediate physical pleasure.”

And suffer greatly for it.

“After all, the future is quite meaningless and unimportant unless, sooner or later, it is going to become the present. Thus to plan for a future which is not going to become present is hardly more absurd than to plan for a future which, when it comes to me, will find me ‘absent,’ looking fixedly over its shoulder instead of into its face.”

I have to reiterate – the above doesn’t do the book justice and any meaningful gains can only be taken by reading the book itself. Or, for some ‘samplings’ of Watts, the YouTube channel Spiritual Mind is still a great starting place.

Other similar books I’ve enjoyed recently: The Tao of Pooh, A New Earth

How I Remember What I Read: Creating a Personal Database of All Things Interesting

I have trouble sometimes remembering what I read. This failing applies to nonfiction, fiction, books, and articles alike. It frustrates me endlessly. I like reading. Part of the reason I like reading is that in spite of the fact that you might be enjoying yourself, reading feels like a productive activity and one that has some educational value. I enjoy the thought that I’m learning, becoming wiser. But, what then, when you don’t remember what you read? Suddenly, what felt like productivity seems like waste.
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I comfort myself with the possibility that perhaps, even through my inability to recall particular details and facts, maybe the meaning and the meat of what I’ve read is still there somewhere waiting to be tapped into or is influencing me in small, subtle ways. But, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just all, gone.

And so, motivated by the fear that I’m not necessarily retaining what I read, I’ve been looking for a system and for tools to help.
I’ve tried a few things, from meticulously jotting down into notebooks excerpts and quotations to using applications like OneNote or Evernote, perhaps combined with bookmarking tools like Pocket. But all were lacking in one way or another. Now, after significant trial and error, I feel like I’ve got something that works. It’s not perfect (and I’m making little adjustments and improvements as I go) – but, it’s pretty good.

 

Why have a system?


What was wrong – what was missing – with the paper and pencil or Evernote solutions that I’d tried previously? Well, to get to that, I’ll illustrate exactly what I want in an ideal system:

I want to be able to recordI want to be able to keep in one place all the interesting things I findwhether it’s a couple of key sentences in an article on fitness, a paragraph or two from a brilliant essay in an online magazine, or a sentence here and there (as well as my own comments) from a book I’ve read.

I want to be able to organize. I’d like to have some sort of folder/categorizing/tagging system. That way I can keep my notes together and organized by subject or area of interest. And I’d like to have the ability to keep this pretty detailed.

And I’d like to be able to search. A year from now, I want to be able to search, by tag, within my notes, within original text, for phrases like “Memory” or “Montaigne” or “The Civil War” and see everything I’ve ever found interesting about or including that language. I want to be rid of the moments when I think maybe I read something kind of about something in a particular book, only to never locate it.

I want to use this to find things as I recall them or to find things after I’ve forgotten them. A quick skim through such a catalogue may help me rediscover thoughts or interests I had a few months ago but had since abandoned. I want to keep a careful, curated breadcrumb trail of all my interests.

In short, I need a system that allows me to record, organize, and search.

For me, what has ended up working has been the research tool Zotero.


Why Zotero, and how do I use it?


In terms of the basics of what Zotero is, I’ll let them speak for themselves. The below was pulled from their About page,

Zotero is a free, open-source research tool that helps you collect, organize, and analyze research and share it in a variety of ways. Zotero includes the best parts of older reference manager software — the ability to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references — and the best aspects of modern software and web applications, such as the ability to organize, tag, and search in advanced ways. Zotero interacts seamlessly with online resources: when it senses you are viewing a book, article, or other object on the web, it can automatically extract and save complete bibliographic references. Zotero effortlessly transmits information to and from other web services and applications, and it runs both as a web service and offline on your personal devices.

To get a sense of what the landscape of the tool looks like while in usage, below is a screenshot of my working version of Zotero. As you can see, it looks very different from your traditional bookmarking and note-taking tools. This, for me is perhaps one of its biggest advantages. It’s designed to be a research tool, and thus the focus is on organizing and sorting your information rather than on writing or on developing ‘read-later’ lists. With this in mind, it’s incredibly powerful. Should you so desire, you could sort, tag, categorize, and annotate all your favorite quotes from all your favorite books and then search within, sort, and rearrange these quotes according to different themes or topics. You can do so quickly and without disrupting the underlying data. Every document you add is saved as an item, which you can then add notes to and tags to and store within folders.

 

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Figure 1

To provide a bit more detail, here is how I use it:

1) While reading online, if I come across something I want to store and remember, I save it with the Zotero bookmarklet and it automatically saves a copy of whatever I was viewing. In addition, any text is auto-indexed and made searchable. When saving the material, Zotero also automatically adds in any available metadata (things like Author, Website Name, Article Title, Date Published). When I next go into Zotero, a new entry will have automatically have been added and the metadata populated.

 

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Figure 2, Zotero Bookmarklet; source: zotero.org

2) With my items now in Zotero, I can sort and arrange them within a folder structure of my choosing. Zotero also allows for the same item to be stored within multiple folders – for those cases where mutual exclusivity just isn’t possible and I can’t decide if something should fall under ‘Philosophy’ or ‘Psychology.’

3) For each item in Zotero (remember, an item is a document – a book, magazine article, etc.), anything that I find myself wanting to highlight or remember, I add as a note. Notes are attached to specific items, and you create notes as you need them. For some articles, I have one to two notes. For a book, I may have over 100. To keep things organized, I’ll assign each note a number so that each note/highlight stays in sequential order, just like how it appears in the text. (If numbers aren’t used, Zotero by default sorts alphabetically.)

As an example, see Figure 3 below. The middle pane currently shows all the notes (lines prefaced by a yellow sticky note) that are attached to the item Life’s Stories, the name of an article that appeared in The Atlantic. The rightmost pane shows the details of the particular note that is currently highlighted. As I read an article, if there are particular excerpts that I find interesting or want to remember, I will copy it over as a note. By making something a note, I give myself a higher chance of finding it again in the future. It also now appears in my reading pane. Another way of thinking of it is your notes are all the quotes you would want to write down.

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Figure 3

4) On a note level as well as an item level, I assign tags according to topic or theme so as it make it easier for me to locate the note or item later. Tags work across folder structures and allow for an even more specific level of detail. Many tags can be assigned to a single note or item.

As an example, I’ll refer again to the note that appears above in Figure 3. The text of the note reads:

It can be hard to share a story when it amounts to: “This happened, and it was terrible. The end.” In research McLean did, in which she asked people who’d had near-death experiences to tell their stories to others. “The people who told these unresolved stories had really negative responses,” she says. If there wasn’t some kind of uplifting redemptive end to the story (beyond just the fact that they survived), “The listeners did not like that.”

I assigned to this note the tags ‘trauma,’ ‘resilience,’ and ‘personal narratives.‘ Although these words themselves don’t appear in the excerpt, they do describe concepts the excerpt touches on. In addition, these tags are topics I have some interest in and could imagine myself wanting to search for in the future. By adding these tags, I increase my chances of finding this note when I’m looking for it. There is certainly an art and some subjectivity in determining what words to use for tags and how many tags to assign to a note. I always try to imagine the different angles from which I might want to discover the text again in the future and then design my tags to fit that.

5) Once I have a few items in my Zotero database, I can perform advanced searches, utilizing any or all of the features mentioned above – full text searching through the original document, within particular folders, through the notes I’ve added, or through tags.


A note on physical books and other non-digitized material,

Zotero can automatically locate book metadata (author, predefined tags, publisher, call number, etc.) given an ISBN number. But, the rest of the process is of course rather manual. Typically my method now is that as I read, I highlight and add notes in the margins of the physical book. Then, every few chapters or so, I go back in and type up each highlight as a note attached to the book entry in Zotero. Each note is assigned tags that I think are relevant. I have to admit that this is a time consuming process and for books that you’re reading purely for entertainment value with less care for what you remember/get out of it, this type of process probably doesn’t make sense. However, for books where you are reading as much (or even more) for information as for entertainment, where you want to remember what you read, I find the act of going back and typing up the sentences and paragraphs that were most salient to me incredibly valuable in helping to cement, digest, and thus retain what I’ve read. And then, once done, you have the important parts of the book digitized, categorized, and more accessible to you in the future.

 


The Result?


In the end, I have a carefully organized, easily searchable, personal database of anything and everything that I’ve ever read and found interesting. I can look up a topic or keyword and find documents I had forgotten about. Through my tagging system, I can make connections between different things I’ve read, where it may not have been evident before that it was possible for connections to be made. Through a cursory skim, I am inspired over and over again. And I actually have a chance at finding that particular quote that was in that one book about that one thing, should my memory fail me.

Zotero is free and open source, so I encourage you to give it a try and see if it works for you. https://www.zotero.org/ (In case it wasn’t obvious, this isn’t sponsored by Zotero/I have no affiliation with them. I just like their software.)

*And if you’re really into data, you can export your Zotero data in a variety of formats to have a different sort of personal database to play with.

 

 

 

The Memories That Hide in Bookshelves: On the Books We Share in Relationships

When a relationship ends, what do you have? Memories? Photos? If you’re me, books. I’m big on books and knowing what the other is reading, what they like to read. And sometimes, perhaps early on, or a few weeks, a few months in to seeing someone, there may be a book, recommended sincerely, which I will accept and endeavor to read.

So I have, hidden in plain sight amongst my shelves, books that hold within them much more than their stories. When I read a book that has been recommended to me, I read it in the context of, in the full knowledge of, the fact that it was chosen for me by someone else. Just as I will fondly remember the seaside every time I think about the book Mrs. Dalloway as it was read against the backdrop of the ocean, I will forever associate certain books with certain individuals as they were read in the context of, against the backdrop of – them. And if we’re dating, or thinking about dating, the experience of reading that book is all the more vivid, and important, because of that person. And when the relationship ends, the book is still there, on my shelf.Thus, intertwined with the stories are memories, associations, pains, and hopes. And a glance at the spine of a book can quickly bring that all back.

The types of feelings vary, some are lighter than others. Skimming through the titles and testing the feelings, I sway from rushes of nostalgia – to the grateful, ‘Good Riddance!’

How does your bookshelf look? These are five titles that for me bring all the memories back:

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly and The Guy I Wish I Could’ve Liked More


This was a good recommendation from a good guy. First, on the book itself – Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French Elle magazine suffers a stroke and when he wakes up from a coma, he finds himself “locked-in.” That is, though his mind is fully functioning, his only way of communicating at all with the outside world is through blinking with his left eye. As one can imagine, this is catastrophic and Bauby struggles to come to terms with this new reality. However, with the help of a nurse, he learns to communicate, to spell out letters and then words through this blinking (differing numbers of blinks per letter). Through this method, Bauby himself was able to write this book. It’s moving and heart-wrenching and kind of amazing. How does one cope with a tragedy like this? How does one learn to hope?

The guy was probably as good as the book – kind, intelligent, considerate – and I feel a small pang of guilt and regret whenever I think of this book. And while I bought the book while I was still talking to him, I read it after we’d stopped. In the back of my mind then, while I was reading and enjoying the book, were thoughts like What a great book – why didn’t you give him more of a chance? He was the perfect gentleman and very considerate. A mutual friends today still guilts me today for ending it. But, you can’t pick who you like. And now the book serves as a bittersweet reminder of the fact.

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby


Lord of the Flies
 and Being Scared Off


Full disclosure: I have never read this book. Somehow, it was never assigned to me in school and I never picked it up later in life. And even now that I own a copy, I’m not sure I’ll bring myself to read it. But who knows, maybe one day, I will.

As to how I came to obtain the book. I met this really nice person while I was living in Copenhagen. First date, since I was new to the city, was on one of those double-decker city sight seeing buses. It was fun, different, thoughtful. He was very friendly and talkative. And while I wasn’t overwhelmingly attracted to him, I was drawn to his “niceness” and based on that, agreed to see him again. Between Date One and Date Two, there were a lot of text messages, a call even. It was all nice and sweet and nothing to complain about, except that I could feel that invisible pressure that comes when you know things are a bit one sided. And then there was Date Two. About five minutes in, I was feeling uncomfortable. He was too interested, too forward, in a way that was miles ahead of what I could match. I had secretly resolved that I probably wouldn’t agree to see him again, when, maybe ten minutes into the date, he pulled out – a present. My heart dropped. It was nicely wrapped. It was an old, worn copy of Lord of the Flies. Inside the front cover were a letter and two photographs. It turns out that this was his copy of his favorite book. He’d read it while traveling and the photographs were of the places he’d been to while reading it. My heart sank as far down as it could possibly go.

I made it through the rest of the dinner. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him then that I wasn’t interested, and a part of me was debating whether I should give him a chance. The next day I called him and told him I didn’t think it would work. He said I could keep the book.

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Lord of the Flies by William Golding


This Side of Innocence
 and Discovering Another Person


This Side of Innocence by Taylor Caldwell isn’t, at least today, very well known. I had to order a used copy online and I think it’s out of print. First published in 1946, it was a bestseller. I liked it. There’s an unhappy marriage, secret passions and infidelity, the breaking up of a marriage, followed by a new marriage that is always tainted by the betrayal. There’s this general sense of woundedness and hurt and the elusiveness of happiness, especially in love. A passage I highlighted that captures this sense well is, “Happiness. Not even the founders of America had declared it as an inalienable right of man. Only the ‘pursuit of it.’ There was wisdom, there was understanding, there was sad cynicism. One only pursued it. It was rarely, if ever, attained, and then only briefly, like the sun shining for a moment through a rack of dark clouds.” Along with this view on happiness, there’s also this underlying empathy throughout the book and a recognition that pain exists in all.

I read this book, his favorite, and he agreed to read my favorite book. We didn’t know each other well. He lived somewhere else (we’d met at his going away party), but that process of reading each other’s favorites was really kind of special. I believe your favorite books are your favorites because they seem very true to you. How things happen and in particular how things end as well as any social, political, or philosophical undercurrents all ring true to you and describe to you either how you think the world is, or how the world ought to be. And that’s the way it felt when I read this book. This, I thought, is how he sees the world, and what a privilege for me to know.

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This Side of Innocence by Taylor Caldwell

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Losing Yourself


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a great book. It’s a really popular book, an international bestseller even. It’s just not really my kind of book. I’ve never been one for thrillers. And yet I read this book and the other two books in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. This is a whopping 1,780 pages of book that, to be frank, I didn’t really enjoy. I read them because an ex boyfriend really wanted me to read them with him, and so I did. And unlike the previous example, where the reading was a process of discovery and learning about the other person, this – wasn’t. We were just reading the book at the same time and comparing how far along we’d gotten.

Now that it’s a few years later and I can look at that relationship with clearer eyes, these three books serve as a strange symbol for what not to do and how things can go wrong. Simple things, like, don’t rearrange your life for someone else, recognize when you’re just giving, giving, giving into nothing, and don’t, don’t read 1,780 pages (“recreationally” at least) that you don’t enjoy, for anyone. Or you should probably at least stop after Book One.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Forgotten Ballad to Unrequited Love: The Original Little Mermaid

“Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass. But it is very deep too. It goes down deeper than any anchor rope will go, and many, many steeples would have to be stacked one on top of another to reach from the bottom to the surface of the sea. It is down there that the sea folk live.”

Or so the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” begins.

I had always known that the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid” was vastly different from the original. I had heard that the original was sad, heartbreaking, horrible. I had assumed it was some sort of twisted tale from the dark ages, unfit in its darkness for the children of today.

But oh, I was so surprised then, when I eventually did find my way to the original story. Yes, it’s sad – or has its sad elements. But it’s also so very beautiful.

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Now, the 1989 Disney adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” is great. It’s enchanting and funny and lovely– but the thing is, it seems very much to be its own story, and a different story from the story Hans Christian Andersen told. And we can’t forget that before the 1989 film, in fact before Disney was a company, before Walt Disney the man was even born, before his parents in fact were born, the story of “The Little Mermaid” had enchanted thousands of people (millions perhaps?) in its own right. First published in 1837, it has stood the test of time. Or at least, it seems to have, until we realize that “The Little Mermaid” story most of us know isn’t at all the one of Hans Christian Andersen.

Shall we start with how the real story ends? In Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, the little mermaid doesn’t get to marry her Prince. In fact, she dies, completely heartbroken. Sad and tragic? Yes. Beautiful? Just wait.

 

[The Real Story]

She doesn’t get the Prince. And yes, it is sad, but it has to be so. Because, as I’d like to explain, “The Little Mermaid” is a ballad for unrequited love, for the persistent, brave, foolhardy love that continues quietly even as it is unappreciated, unrecognized, and unseen.

And in this story and for the sake of her love, the little mermaid gives up so much. In addition to losing her voice and to forsaking her family and home, she endures great pain. Her transformation of tail to legs comes with tortuous agony, as if a sharp sword slashed through her. And although she is graceful and beautiful and lovely, each step she takes on human legs feels as if she is treading of a bed of knives that pierce her skin as she walks.

Bertall_ill_La_Petite_SirèneCoupled with the physical pain is the emotional. The Prince, foolish man, longs for the girl that saved him, for the voice and the song of the girl that saved him. Of course, we all know the Prince’s dream girl is in fact the little mermaid, but she cannot tell him. And so she suffers, as the Prince continues to see her only as an innocent child. His heart, he tells her, is saved for the girl that saved him. It is this girl and not the little mermaid that he desperately wants to find, to marry. But still the little mermaid hopes. The Prince spends time with her and cares for her and even speaks of the possibility of marrying her. Her hope must grow so large.

In the end, the Prince marries another, a girl he thinks is the girl that saved him, but of course, isn’t. And the little mermaid is given the opportunity to win back her life with her family, to return to life as a mermaid, if she can kill the Prince as he sleeps. But, she loves him, and so she can’t.

Instead as part of the bargain she made with the sea witch, she dies, turning into sea foam.

 

But here, Andersen is able to deliver the ultimate judgment. Instead of simply perishing as sea foam as other mermaids do (we are told earlier that, unlike humans, mermaids do not have afterlives), the little mermaid becomes a daughter of the air. In exchange for her goodness, for her suffering, and her loyalty, she is given the chance to win immortality, to win an immortal soul.

 

“You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole heart… Your suffering and your loyalty have raised you up into the realm of airy spirits, and now in the course of three hundred years you may earn by your good deeds a soul that will never die.”

 

So you see? It’s sad, but it’s so much more complicated than that. She loves with an intensity and a passion that is unreturned and unappreciated, but that has worth in its own right, for what it is. And this love is ultimately recognized. In the story, recognition comes from the spiritual realm. But for those of us who are less spiritual, this redemption comes also a metaphor for simple truth. Goodness, although not recognized, is still goodness and evil, though it may go unnoticed, is still evil. Andersen gave the little mermaid spiritual redemption but he also gave her ultimate recognition for what she is and for what she has done.

And although fantastical, perhaps it’s closer to truth than the Disney version. In real life, much of love is unreturned. Real life and real love can be difficult, heartbreaking even. I am reminded of David Whyte’s description of heartbreak in his book Consolations,

 

Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self.

 

And so, instead of only celebrating the successful kind of love that ends in marriage, perhaps we should also honor the more difficult types of love too. Perhaps we should honor the nobleness, the purity of the unrequited love in each other.

Leonard Cohen once said, we usually don’t deserve the love we expect. And I would add, neither do we receive the type of love we deserve. Instead, we love others with the type of love we deserve, hoping for something in return.

 

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For further reading (and viewing): Enjoy the full text of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”. For film adaptations more true to the original text, see if you can find copies of Rusalochka (Russian), Anderusen Dōwa Ningyo Hime (Japanese), and The Little Mermaid by The Reader’s Digest.  More on David Whyte’s Consolations.

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.

 

The Books We Never Finish

Words of comfort from Henry Miller on all those books we never finish

millerbooks

In reading the various lists of books people have read and recommended for 2016, I thought about what would be on my list. And as much as I was able to enjoy the process of revisiting what I had read and what had moved me, I also felt guilt. There were so many books I started and never finished or bought but never even started. This second list, my graveyard of unfinished books, was fairly long and I was surprised by what was on it. There were books by favorite authors, books that from what I had read so far I really liked, books that were the primary sources for some of my favorite quotes, even books I had recommended to others. So why hadn’t I finished them? And should I finish them?

There are many reasons we may want to finish what we’re started – For books that are bought, there is the dollar value of the book that shouldn’t be squandered, if the book seems uninteresting – well maybe it’ll get better in a few chapters, and for the educational/informative book, the thought – even if I’m not enjoying this book, perhaps it’s good for me. And today, when I don’t finish books, I feel all these pressures. The books nag at me, like unvacuumed floors or dry-cleaning waiting to be picked up,  egging me on from my bedside table and their prolonged stay on my “Currently Reading” Goodreads list.

So what stops me from finishing books? My initial list of reasons, looking at the books that remain unfinished this year, reads like this: 1) The book is repetitive and I feel like I’ve already gotten “the point” (applies typically to nonfiction), 2) I want to start reading something else, 3) The book isn’t interesting (anymore) , 4) I get busy, 5) Who knows? I forgot.

What I think it comes down to though is: I stop reading a book because I want to use my time differently, whether I want to start reading something else or perhaps not read at all. The quality of the book and how I connect with the book ultimately impacts this feeling/decision, but not entirely. As alluded to before, I really like and admire many of the books I’ve stopped reading. Some of my favorite quotes come from Angle of Repose (from the portion of the book I actually read) and based on what I’ve read so far of Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, I’ve recommended it to a few friends.

Is the excuse “I want to stop reading this book so I can spend my time doing something else” good enough? Does it depend perhaps on what the “something else” is? What if it’s reading, but just a different book? That sounds like an apples to apples, zero loss/zero gain transaction.

I want to put this thought on pause for a moment and draw upon Henry Miller’s thoughts on reading. In his book, The Books In My Life, he describes the primary reasons for reading,

We read now, as I see it, primarily for these reasons:

one, to get away from ourselves;
two, to arm ourselves against real or imaginary dangers;
three, to “keep up” with our neighbors, or to impress them, one and the same thing ;
four, to know what is going on in the world;
five, to enjoy ourselves, which means to be stimulated to greater, higher activity and richer being.

Other reasons might be added, but these five appear to me to be the principal ones—and I have given them in the order of their current importance, if I know my fellow man. It does not take much reflection to conclude that, if one were right with himself and all was well with the world, only the last reason, the one which holds least sway at present, would be valid. The others would fade away, because there would be no reason for their existence.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? Reasons one to four don’t really matter – or they shouldn’t (although Miller thinks we presently act as if the first four reasons matter more). And if the fifth reason Miller lists is truly the “correct” reason to read, that we should read “to enjoy ourselves, which means to be stimulated to greater,  higher activity and richer being” – then perhaps it’s a question of measuring the activity of reading the particular book in question (the one we’re considering abandoning) versus the competing activity (whether it’s a different book or something else) against the standard of this question. Which of these activities would bring greater enjoyment/stimulation? If we’re going to enjoy the other book or other activity more, then perhaps it’s okay to stop reading whatever it is we’re currently reading.

Of course, this forces us to ignore quite a few influences that may exist – namely some of the first four reasons for reading: the parents, teacher or friend or Oprah that told us to read such and such book as well as that nagging part of the mind that says we’ll be a better person if we just finish this book on how to persuade others. But Miller is saying that reading should be about enjoyment and enjoyment in the purest sense, what we ourselves find enjoyable, without pressures from elsewhere. And so if midway through a book, another book or activity seems to be more enjoyable – shouldn’t we be entitled to leave a book unfinished? Whether it’s a pause for a day, a week, years…or forever, I would say yes. Perhaps we’ll return to it, perhaps we won’t.

And if we are abandoning a book not for another book, but to spend that same time doing something…else? Returning to Henry Miller,

One of the results of this self-examination—for that is what the writing of this book amounts to—is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more. As a glance at the Appendix will reveal, I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ” well-educated ” man—yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of”books.” But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully.

and

Here an irrepressible impulse seizes me to offer a piece of gratuitous advice. It is this : read as little as possible, not as much as possible! Oh, do not doubt that I have envied those who drowned themselves in books. I, too, would secretly like to wade through all those books I have so long toyed with in my mind. But I know it is not important. I know now that I did not need to read even a tenth of what I have read. The most difficult thing in life is to learn to do only what is strictly advantageous to one’s welfare, strictly vital.

as well as

If it be knowledge or wisdom one is seeking, then one had better go direct to the source. And the source is not the scholar or philosopher, not the master, saint, or teacher, but life itself—direct experience of life.

So there you go. Perhaps you really should stop reading that book then.