This is the Brain Pickings midweek pick-me-up: Once a week, I plunge into my fourteen-year archive and choose something worth resurfacing and resavoring as timeless nourishment for heart, mind, and spirit. (If you don’t yet subscribe to the standard Sunday newsletter of new pieces published each week, you can sign up here — it’s free.) If you missed last week’s edition — a brilliant forgotten philosopher on the hidden source of music’s supreme power — you can catch up right here. And if you find any solace, joy, and value in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – over these fourteen years, I have spent tens of thousands of hours and tremendous resources on Brain Pickings, and every little bit of support helps keep it – keep me – going. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
FROM THE ARCHIVE | Walt Whitman on Democracy and Optimism as a Mighty Form of Resistance
“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her spectacular essay on optimism and despair. The illusion of permanent progress inflicts a particularly damning strain of despair as we witness the disillusioning undoing of triumphs of democracy and justice generations in the making — despair preventable only by taking a wider view of history in order to remember that democracy advances in fits and starts, in leaps and backward steps, but advances nonetheless, on timelines exceeding any individual lifetime. Amid our current atmosphere of presentism bias and extreme narrowing of perspective, it is not merely difficult but downright countercultural to resist the ahistorical panic by taking such a telescopic view — lucid optimism that may be our most unassailable form of resistance to the corruptions and malfunctions of democracy.
That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) insisted on again and again in Specimen Days (public library) — the splendid collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries that gave us his wisdom on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art enhances life, and what makes life worth living.
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)
Shortly before his sixtieth birthday and a decade after issuing his immensely prescient admonition that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” exhorting his compatriots to “always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote,” Whitman writs under the heading “DEMOCRACY IN THE NEW WORLD”:
I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.
Having lived and saved lives through the Civil War, having seen the swell of “vast crops of poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, miserably-waged populations,” having witnessed the corrosion of idealism and the collapse of democratic values into corruption and complacency, Whitman still faces a dispiriting landscape with a defiant and irrepressible optimism — our mightiest and most countercultural act of courage, then and now and always:
Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.
Zooming out of the narrow focus of his cultural moment — as we would be well advised to do with ours — Whitman takes a telescopic perspective of time, progress, and social change, and considers what it really takes to win the future:
The advent of America, the history of the past century, has been the first general aperture and opening-up to the average human commonalty, on the broadest scale, of the eligibilities to wealth and worldly success and eminence, and has been fully taken advantage of; and the example has spread hence, in ripples, to all nations. To these eligibilities — to this limitless aperture, the race has tended, en-masse, roaring and rushing and crude, and fiercely, turbidly hastening — and we have seen the first stages, and are now in the midst of the result of it all, so far. But there will certainly ensue other stages, and entirely different ones. In nothing is there more evolution than the American mind. Soon, it will be fully realized that ostensible wealth and money-making, show, luxury, &c., imperatively necessitate something beyond — namely, the sane, eternal moral and spiritual-esthetic attributes, elements… Soon, it will be understood clearly, that the State cannot flourish, (nay, cannot exist,) without those elements. They will gradually enter into the chyle of sociology and literature. They will finally make the blood and brawn of the best American individualities of both sexes.
Three years later, and ten presidencies before a ruthless government began assaulting and exploiting nature as a resource for commercial and political gain, Whitman revisits the subject under the heading “NATURE AND DEMOCRACY—MORTALITY”:
American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices — through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life — must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.
Specimen Days remains one of the most timelessly insightful books I have ever encountered. Complement this particular portion with Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy, Rebecca Solnit on lucid optimism in dark times, and Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman’s animated tribute to Leonard Cohen’s anthem to democracy, then revisit Whitman on the essence of happiness and his advice on the building blocks of character.
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The Body Politic Electric: Walt Whitman on Women’s Centrality to Democracy
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Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders
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Hannah Arendt on Loneliness as the Common Ground for Terror and How Tyrannical Regimes Use Isolation as a Weapon of Oppression
One of the most expensive things a service business or freelancer can do is promise that work will be done by a certain day. Which is something we need to do, of course, but we should charge appropriately. “It’ll be done soon,” should be way cheaper than, “It’ll be done at exactly 11 am on Tuesday.”
And one of the most important things we can do to focus our energy and commitment is be prepared to promise a date certain. It sharpens everything.
The individual soul has to realize its identity with the Supreme Universal Soul with full consciousness.
Men shall have re-orientation of life in the light of this Ancient Truth; and they will readjust their attitude towards their neighbours in everyday life.
To perceive the spiritual value of oneness is to promote real unity and cooperation; brotherhood then becomes a spontaneous outcome of true perception.
——-AVATAR MEHER BABA
[GEMS FROM THE DISCOURSES OF MEHER BABA By Meher Baba. An Avatar Meher Baba Trust eBook June 2011. Copyright © 1945 by Circle Productions, Inc. (a New York Corporation), Copyright © Adi K. Irani, 1967 Copyright © 2007, Avatar Meher Baba Perpetual Public Charitable Trust, Ahmednagar, India.]
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1-Sentence-Summary: Resisting Happiness shows you how to get more joy in your life by exploring the roadblocks you unknowingly put in the way of it, explaining why it’s a choice, and giving specific tips to help you make the decision to be content.
Read in: 4 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
You want to be happy. But every time you try to catch joy, it seems to slip through your fingers, replaced by worry and stress. You can’t put a price on fulfillment because it’s so valuable, but it also comes at the cost of hard work.
The trouble is, figuring out just where to put in the effort to make it happen isn’t always so easy. In the information age, there are infinite routes you can go down to try to grab a sense of wellbeing. The trick is just to find the right ones for you.
Interestingly, you need to begin looking for happiness by identifying what’s making you sad. Once you uncover these roadblocks, then you can begin removing them to let joy have free reign in your life.
Figuring this all out is just the topic of Matthew Kelly’s book Resisting Happiness. You’ll see what practicality, philosophy, and Kelly’s personal experiences teach about how to eliminate what holds you back from true fulfillment in life. And you’ll learn every step you need to take to get there in your own life.
3 of the best principles I got from this book are:
- Remember to read and that money isn’t everything if you want more meaning in life.
- Learn the joy of being alone.
- Practice delaying gratification and make sure you keep good friends close to reach your full potential.
Let’s get right into it and discover what Kelly has to teach us about happiness!
Lesson 1: For a more meaningful life, remember to read and that money isn’t everything.
In college, reading wasn’t at the top of my to-do list. It was difficult to manage a schedule full of classes and a social life and still find time to get into a good book.
But what I didn’t realize was that my lack of reading was one of the things holding me back from happiness.
Today I see that reading is an important window into the world around me. And as I pick the right authors, it’s like having their guidance right next to me when I’m trying to figure something important out.
Think of books like friends that you can turn to for an escape when life gets difficult. They have the power to change your perspective and improve your attitude.
Another important factor that could be holding you back from joy is placing too much emphasis on money. You do need it, but looking for opportunities to help others without the expectation of a reward is a sure path to fulfillment.
Picture this. The author goes to his neighbor Joe and offers to pay him $1,000 an hour to plan trees at the elementary school down the street. Joe puts in a couple of hours of half-hearted work and leaves richer but feeling empty.
Contrast this with the feeling Joe would have if the author asked him to volunteer his time. He might work hard all day to do what the school needs rather than just get paid and ends up happier and more fulfilled as a result.
Lesson 2: Nurture the relationship you have with yourself through solitude.
One time in college I was having difficulties with relationships and tried what I thought was a strange idea at the time. I took a day off work and made a plan to hang out with myself for the entire day. I even left my cell phone at home!
It turned out to be one of the most memorable and enjoyable days of my life. I spent time eating food I love, took a drive into the mountains for a picnic, and watched one of my favorite movies.
Unknowingly, I’d unblocked one of the most common roadblocks in the way of happiness-discovering the joy of being by myself.
Loneliness can be a scary prospect, especially if you’re used to always being with other people. You might even go to great lengths, making stupid decisions and getting into bad relationships, just to avoid it.
But consider that by spending more time alone, you’re nurturing a relationship with the one person you’ll never be without-yourself! It might sound counterintuitive, but more time alone will help you beat loneliness.
You also get a chance to dive into who you really are every time you plan to spend time by yourself. In fact, this is the only time you have to get to know your personality, so use it wisely and get plenty of it!
Lesson 3: If you want to reach your full potential, you’ll need to have good friends and to practice delaying gratification.
Being alone is important but it’s not everything. You’ve got to have friends, but the right kind if you want to truly be happy.
In tenth grade, I was terrified of social situations. I wouldn’t even ask a girl on a date I was so scared. But at the beginning of the next year, I met a group of friends that improved all of that.
I began spending a lot of time with one in particular who completely changed my life. The first weekend after we’d met he pushed me to ask a girl to the Homecoming dance.
I didn’t want to, but I knew that it was good for me so I did it anyway. Not only did I have a great time, but I also got out of my comfort zone and grew as a person.
In the months afterward, I transformed from an awkward and shy kid to a far more confident young man. If it weren’t for the help of friends that cared about my progress, I wouldn’t be who I am today!
Don’t keep holding yourself back from reaching your full potential by hanging around with mediocre people. Find a new friend group, and specifically look for high-quality people that you know will push you to be your best self.
It will change your life, and in the process, you’ll find a lot more fulfillment along the way!
Resisting Happiness Review
Resisting Happiness is a great book and one that I would highly recommend to anyone. I really like the idea that the path to joy comes from removing the roadblocks we put in the way of it. The tips this book gives are already giving me a lot of great ideas about what makes my life more fulfilling and how to double down on those practices!
Would They Miss You If You Were Gone?
A simple definition for doing work that matters
Four years ago, after six months of hard work, I finally did it: My email list reached 10,000 subscribers. I was ecstatic.
10,000 people. That’s a small stadium. Imagine a sold out arena, waiting for you — just for you — to share your latest work. This would be my big break. I was sure of it. With 10,000 people marching behind me, nothing I make would ever fall flat again.
You can see where this is going. I’m about to swallow a bitter pill here.
Later that year, I heard Seth Godin define permission marketing:
If that email you were going to send to 10,000 people tomorrow — if it didn’t go out — how many of the 10,000 people would say: “Where is the email?!” If the answer is none, then you don’t have permission. You’re just being tolerated.
Convinced that my dedicated subscribers loved me, I decided to run an experiment: That week, I didn’t send out my newsletter. No announcement. No warning. I just skipped one email. What would happen? Who would ask for it? How many people? Would they be concerned? What would they say?
I woke up the next morning to a sobering realization: No one had emailed me. No one had asked for the newsletter. I waited. One day. Two. Three. Nothing. Crickets. No one missed me when I was gone. Ouch.
The all-important question in marketing, art, and doing great work is this: “What does it mean to matter?” According to Seth, there is a simple answer:
Would they miss you if you were gone? I don’t know who they are, I don’t know what gone means, but those people that you’re seeking to have an impact on, would they miss you if you didn’t show up tomorrow?
In my case, people didn’t. Maybe, they thought my newsletter was nice. Maybe, they enjoyed an article or two of mine. Clearly, however, none of my readers considered my work essential. They could easily do without it.
It hurts to find out that the tribe you’ve assembled with your blood, sweat, and tears will disband the second you stop talking to them, but the message it sends is clear: You never formed a real tribe in the first place. You just talked enough people into following along. You convinced them to take the flyer, to try the free sample, to sign up for the trial subscription — but you didn’t do the hard work of building a loyal relationship.
You just did “the hustle dance,” as Seth calls it:
Would they miss you if this new product, this new project didn’t come to the world? Or do you have to do that whole hustle dance, “Look at me, look at me,” jump up and down, offer for a limited time, bla bla bla… To game it so they’ll actually transact with you. That work doesn’t feel like it matters to me.
It’s easy to think you’re doing work that matters. That, somehow, your marketing is different. You have good intentions. You really want your audience to succeed. But you might still cut corners. We all succumb to the temptation sometimes.
Clickbait is still clickbait, even if you deliver on your promise. Selling is still selfish if your main goal is to make money. Giving gifts is not generous if it comes with expectations. In many ways, reciprocity has been corrupted.
If what you’re doing feels like playing a game, chances are, not many will miss you when you’re gone. You’re just another player who dropped out. Fine. Less competition. Less hassle. Less clutter in my inbox.
Here’s another question: Where is the sacrifice? How much are you really sweating? If we can’t see your effort in what you make for us, how can we know you mean what you say?
The only way to show people you have their best interest at heart is to actually do. You can’t fake it. You either do something selfless, or you don’t. It’s one of the few things in life that are surprisingly black and white and, most of the time, plain to see — at least on a long enough timeline.
When I didn’t hear back from my fans, when no one missed me when I was gone, I was devastated. I questioned everything I was doing. I changed things. I tried to do better.
Last year, I started another newsletter. I put in hard work. Real work. It grew fast. It was free. I sent it every day. I came up with themes. I wanted to help so badly. I really tried.
To this day, it’s not as big as my first one. It has about 5,000 subscribers. But, often, when I missed a day or didn’t share something in a while, a few people checked in. “Hey, Nik, are you okay?” “Hey Nik, where are the emails?”
It’s great to see you’re moving in the right direction. It feels good to be missed when you’re gone.
It’s okay. You’re not perfect. Take your time. Learn to stop dancing. Start making. Take your ego out of the equation. Not for a while. Not for this one thing. Completely.
Watch what happens. Watch how, slowly, the magic unfolds. Watch them start to miss you when you’re gone.
Write like a pro,
PS: Want to take your writing game to the next level? Check out Write Like A Pro.
Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 12, Verse 1
अर्जुन उवाच |
एवं सततयुक्ता ये भक्तास्त्वां पर्युपासते |
ये चाप्यक्षरमव्यक्तं तेषां के योगवित्तमा: || 1||
evaṁ satata-yuktā ye bhaktās tvāṁ paryupāsate
ye chāpy akṣharam avyaktaṁ teṣhāṁ ke yoga-vittamāḥ
BG 12.1: Arjun inquired: Between those who are steadfastly devoted to Your personal form and those who worship the formless Brahman, who do You consider to be more perfect in Yog?