Sense and Nonsense

Posts from the “Sunday Review” Category

David Brooks: The Moral Bucket List

Posted on April 17, 2015

David Brooks hits a home run. Would he stick to essays about living better rather than treatises on politics . . .

There is so much here that should be examined closely. The essentiality of humility and connection. We cannot walk alone, despite the cultural hype to the contrary. There is salvation in love outside ourselves . . . “should the stars walk backward” or otherwise.



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Credit Rachel Levit. Photography by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.

A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

So a few years ago I set out to discover how those deeply good people got that way. I didn’t know if I could follow their road to character (I’m a pundit, more or less paid to appear smarter and better than I really am). But I at least wanted to know what the road looked like.

Credit Rachel Levit. Photography by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

I came to the conclusion that wonderful people are made, not born — that the people I admired had achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments.

If we wanted to be gimmicky, we could say these accomplishments amounted to a moral bucket list, the experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life. Here, quickly, are some of them:

THE HUMILITY SHIFT We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.

But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.

SELF-DEFEAT External success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with your own weakness. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, realized early on that his core sin was his temper. He developed a moderate, cheerful exterior because he knew he needed to project optimism and confidence to lead. He did silly things to tame his anger. He took the names of the people he hated, wrote them down on slips of paper and tore them up and threw them in the garbage. Over a lifetime of self-confrontation, he developed a mature temperament. He made himself strong in his weakest places.

THE DEPENDENCY LEAP Many people give away the book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” as a graduation gift. This book suggests that life is an autonomous journey. We master certain skills and experience adventures and certain challenges on our way to individual success. This individualist worldview suggests that character is this little iron figure of willpower inside. But people on the road to character understand that no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason and compassion are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside.

People on this road see life as a process of commitment making. Character is defined by how deeply rooted you are. Have you developed deep connections that hold you up in times of challenge and push you toward the good? In the realm of the intellect, a person of character has achieved a settled philosophy about fundamental things. In the realm of emotion, she is embedded in a web of unconditional loves. In the realm of action, she is committed to tasks that can’t be completed in a single lifetime.

ENERGIZING LOVE Dorothy Day led a disorganized life when she was young: drinking, carousing, a suicide attempt or two, following her desires, unable to find direction. But the birth of her daughter changed her. She wrote of that birth, “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.”

That kind of love decenters the self. It reminds you that your true riches are in another. Most of all, this love electrifies. It puts you in a state of need and makes it delightful to serve what you love. Day’s love for her daughter spilled outward and upward. As she wrote, “No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”

She made unshakable commitments in all directions. She became a Catholic, started a radical newspaper, opened settlement houses for the poor and lived among the poor, embracing shared poverty as a way to build community, to not only do good, but be good. This gift of love overcame, sometimes, the natural self-centeredness all of us feel.

THE CALL WITHIN THE CALL We all go into professions for many reasons: money, status, security. But some people have experiences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up to the standard of excellence inherent in their craft.

Frances Perkins was a young woman who was an activist for progressive causes at the start of the 20th century. She was polite and a bit genteel. But one day she stumbled across the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, and watched dozens of garment workers hurl themselves to their deaths rather than be burned alive. That experience shamed her moral sense and purified her ambition. It was her call within a call.

After that, she turned herself into an instrument for the cause of workers’ rights. She was willing to work with anybody, compromise with anybody, push through hesitation. She even changed her appearance so she could become a more effective instrument for the movement. She became the first woman in a United States cabinet, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and emerged as one of the great civic figures of the 20th century.

THE CONSCIENCE LEAP In most lives there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols, all the prestige that goes with having gone to a certain school or been born into a certain family. They leap out beyond the utilitarian logic and crash through the barriers of their fears.

The novelist George Eliot (her real name was Mary Ann Evans) was a mess as a young woman, emotionally needy, falling for every man she met and being rejected. Finally, in her mid-30s she met a guy named George Lewes. Lewes was estranged from his wife, but legally he was married. If Eliot went with Lewes she would be labeled an adulterer by society. She’d lose her friends, be cut off by her family. It took her a week to decide, but she went with Lewes. “Light and easily broken ties are what I neither desire theoretically nor could live for practically. Women who are satisfied with such ties do not act as I have done,” she wrote.

She chose well. Her character stabilized. Her capacity for empathetic understanding expanded. She lived in a state of steady, devoted love with Lewes, the kind of second love that comes after a person is older, scarred a bit and enmeshed in responsibilities. He served her and helped her become one of the greatest novelists of any age. Together they turned neediness into constancy.

Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?

Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering. But they turn those moments into occasions of radical self-understanding — by keeping a journal or making art. As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.

The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.

This is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. Recognizing her limitations, the stumbler at least has a serious foe to overcome and transcend. The stumbler has an outstretched arm, ready to receive and offer assistance. Her friends are there for deep conversation, comfort and advice.

External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But the stumblers occasionally experience moments of joy. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to organizations, ideas and people. There’s joy in mutual stumbling. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.

The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquillity. For most of their lives their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.

Those are the people we want to be.


“I Love You, I Love You”

Posted on April 6, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 8.30.53 PMAt one time, maybe still, you could have read everywhere about “The Secret” and “Law of Attraction,” and this ubiquity, and the mystical panacea they promised, resulted in an understandable, predictable backlash. But if you get beyond this, you will see that their essential principles merely recast basic tenets of various religions, philosophers and self-help books.

Akhil Sharma himself recasts these tenets quite nicely in The Trick of Life in this week’s NYT Sunday Review.  Lost in depression, inertia and the fear driving them, Sharma found the way out simply to “be outside myself” because “[m]y mind had become uninhabitable.”  This revelation came in the comfort he found in thinking about a loving friend during times of crisis; and he came to practice it daily by simply praying for others. Thinking of others gave perspective, proportion to his his struggles, making them less unique, less pressing.

His second practice, picked up from an actor, is to say “I love you, I love you” when speaking to difficult people or in difficult situations. It is difficult to attack, difficult to be antagonistic, mean or insensitive, difficult to make war when the brain is bombarded with nonstop internal entreaties to compassion. That is one practice that would change humanity. You should try it. And get your friends to.

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SEVEN years into writing a novel, I started to lose my mind. My thirty-seventh birthday had just come and gone, the end of 2008 was approaching, and I was constantly aware of how little I had managed to accomplish.

I would sit at my desk at 2 in the morning, unable to sleep, and drink pot after pot of tea and try to write. The panic attacks came then. I would be staring at the screen, examining a paragraph that I had already rewritten 170 times. Suddenly the screen would start to ripple, as if I were peering through water, and I would feel a pain like a punch in the chest. Months passed this way. My chest felt constantly bruised.

One December morning, the crisis finally came. I had lain down on my living room sofa and found I could not get up. The idea of another year ending with the book not done overwhelmed me.

A day went by and then two. My wife would stand beside me with her face full of fear. Finally desperate, she phoned a good friend of mine. He drove in from out of town, three hours away, and took me for a ride in his car. I was like a sobbing infant on the ride, but my friend was like a father who drives till his child falls asleep, soothed.


Credit Eugéne Riousse

When I returned to my apartment, I lay down once more on the couch. Again I felt the weight of my stalled novel. But something had changed. My friend’s kindness kept drawing my attention, the way a piece of glass at the bottom of a stream can keep blinking in sunlight and pull your eye. Each time I thought of him, I was soothed.

A day or two after his visit, I got up from the sofa and walked down to the Hudson River, which I live not far from. I sat on a bench by the river and rested. I stared across it to the tall apartment buildings in New Jersey. Thinking of how people were living out their lives in those buildings comforted me somehow. I looked at the gray rushing water and its movement, the fact that it was coming from someplace and going someplace else also consoled me. It was then that I realized that I needed somehow to always be outside myself. My mind had become uninhabitable.

When I was 10 and he was 14, my older brother, Anup, dived into a swimming pool, struck his head on its bottom and remained underwater for three minutes. When he was pulled out, he could no longer walk or talk, could no longer feed himself, could no longer even roll over in his sleep. Only a few months before, he was heading to the Bronx High School of Science.

My parents are deeply pious Hindus. We had been in America for two years when the accident occurred, in 1981. And of course when tragedy occurs, even nonimmigrants and nonpious people find themselves turning to their most atavistic selves. My parents took Anup out of the hospital and brought him to our house. For the next 28 years, until he died, they tried to fix him through faith healing. Strange men — not priests or gurus, but engineers, accountants, candy shop owners — would come to the house and perform bizarre rituals, claiming that God had visited them in a dream and told them of a magical cure that would fix Anup.

Having grown up like this, among so many crackpot rituals, I find nothing alien in exploring oddball ideas. So, sitting on the bench by the river that day, I remembered having read in Reader’s Digest — a periodical my family has undue reverence for — that when you are feeling bad, one way to make yourself feel better is to pray for others.

I BEGAN to pray for the people who were passing by. I prayed for the nanny pushing a stroller. I prayed for the young woman jogging by in spandex. I prayed for the little boy pedaling his bicycle. I prayed that each of them got the same things that I wanted for myself: that they have good health, peace of mind, financial security. By focusing on others and their needs, my own problems seemed less unique and, somehow, less pressing.

After this, when I would sit at my desk, trying to write, and despair welled up, I knew what to do. I prayed. Not for myself, or for the ability to write, but for others, whether dead or alive, known to me or not: William Faulkner as much as the crazy old lady in the grocery store.

During my breakdown, many things, tiny things I had not even registered before, had begun to torment me with guilt. I used to steal Splenda from Starbucks. I would go into a Starbucks whenever I needed the sweetener and would take a fistful of packets, even when I didn’t buy a coffee. This had never struck me as especially wrong. Now, whenever I did this, my chest would tighten as if I was about to have a panic attack. I was also not an especially diligent recycler. But now, if I mixed plastic with metals, I had nightmares so severe that I would sweat all night. Waking from these, I found my fingertips so wrinkled that it was as if I had taken a bath, or swum in a pool.

The answer to these problems turned out to be very simple, so simple I had missed it all this time. I stopped wishing away the guilt and started acting in ways I didn’t need to feel guilty about, even a little. No more stealing Splenda. No more mixing recyclables.

All this praying and punctilious honesty might seem absurd, but it did let me finish my novel. The style of it is very different from my first. The nouns in my sentences used to fall in just a few places. Now they seem to bop around, nudging themselves into places I would never have thought to place them. Before, each paragraph had pushed the reader directly into the next. Now there is space between my paragraphs, and I have trust in my reader’s patience and generosity to stay with me, without shepherding him.

Just as my parents were always looking for ways, however ludicrous, to wake my brother, I find that I am constantly on the lookout for ways to keep my mind quiet, so that I might live and work in peace. Recently, I read an interview of an actor who said that when he needs to change his behavior toward someone, he merely thinks, “I love you, I love you,” as he is talking to the person.

I called my parents a few weeks ago on the second anniversary of my brother’s death. My father began telling me that he felt abandoned by my brother, that my brother’s dying feels like him leaving us. As he spoke, I started thinking: I love you. I love you. My usual response at this point would have been to tell my father that he needed to focus on the future, that what was past was past. Instead I told my father that he was wonderful, that he should think of how brave he had been to take care of his poor sick son for all those years, that his devotion had been heroic.

However odd my reasons may seem, I am glad that I said this.

Akhil Sharma is the author of the novel “Family Life.”

Sunday Review | Don’t Quote Me on This | MARIA KONNIKOVA

Posted on March 9, 2014

Facilitating an “Impulse to Shortcut Actual Thought”

In providing access to information and knowledge that would have required a potentially, and for many, likely, preclusive amount of time, research and reading, the Internet shortcut has had equally perverse consequences as well.  It facilitates natural tendencies towards intellectual laziness, where we co-opt and substitute others’ hard wrought conclusions for our own, without the benefits of the intellectual rigor, hypothesizing and failing, refinement and evolution from which those conclusions sprang.  While we are busy manipulating others’ validation , we are missing nuances they discovered from developing it on our own.  Eager to take bits and pieces of what others’ have said for our own purposes, we pay little, if any, attention to the greater, potentially contradictory, context of those convenient “truths.”

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Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 11.40.37 AM“I HATE quotation. Tell me what you know,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal one spring day in 1849. He was talking about a very specific tendency. When we’re faced with an issue that’s meant to be thought provoking (in this particular case, immortality), we reach for the easy way out. “I notice,” he writes, “that as soon as writers broach this question, they begin to quote.” Quotation becomes a way not to add depth to your thinking, but to avoid thinking in the first place.

Tamara Shopsin

Welcome to the world of the Internet. What would Emerson have made of it? Examined from one perspective, it’s a place that provides endless fodder for the type of anti-thought he despised. He would have shuddered to find himself quoted and requoted millions of times (make that millions plus one), often with little understanding of who he was or what he stood for. Decontextualized knowledge — snippets that stream past as links, tweets, posts, memes — dominates.

But ask just about anyone, however stern a critic of online culture she may be, if she’d like the Internet to disappear tomorrow, and she would laugh in your face. Because the Internet is also a place where all of Emerson’s work is available and searchable. If you choose to delve deeply, the steppingstone for thought and analysis is there for the taking. It’s the dream of the Alexandrian library realized, only this time it can’t be destroyed by fire.

Like pretty much every other 20-something, I’m online constantly, from the moment I wake up to bedtime. My iPhone sleeps by my bed. I Twitter and I Facebook — so much that I use both as verbs. I grew up with neither cellphone nor television, but I’ve come to rely on our ability to stay connected. I need the Internet for my work. I need it for my research. I need it, often, for my sanity.

With one important caveat. When I need to write or think, I shut the whole thing down. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get sucked into the very sort of vortex Emerson warned against, to drift from fragment to fragment without pausing to consider the whole that any of them imply. I become a link zombie, mindlessly hungry for more: The lure of quotation wears me down.

The problem is one of limited time and energy meeting limitless content: knowledge being elbowed out by sheer information, context be damned.

Take this example. I’m writing an article on individual rights in politics. Gamely, I Google freedom quotes, which leads me to this one: “Liberty is precious.” Perfect. But what if I then learn that the speaker is Lenin? And that he immediately followed those sweet words with “so precious that it must be rationed”?

As it happens, my televisionless childhood came courtesy of my Russian immigrant parents, who fled the Soviet Union to make sure I avoided just such truisms, which become chilling once you realize their context.

In art, decontextualization can give an object new meaning. Artists from René Magritte onward have used it to great effect. We see a decontextualized object “in a new light.” In writing, though, that new meaning can be troubling.

When we strip away context, we strip away everything that enables us to determine what something really means. Words themselves become decorative — evocative, perhaps, but denuded of their essence. To recapture comprehension, a more classic touch is needed, a detailed picture, with precise strokes and every element fully rendered. There’s a reason the Soviets loved slogans.

Before the advent of the Internet, I would have had to read Lenin’s writing, heard it discussed, or seen it in a collection of quotations to know to even look for that particular excerpt. And had I done so? I probably never would have come across it. The first known reference to the phrase was in 1936, in Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s “Soviet Communism.” Lenin may well have never even said it. Now, however, the quote is its own free-floating pearl of wisdom.

Neil Postman, the author of “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” called this phenomenon “telegraphic discourse.” After the telegraph emerged, “ ‘knowing’ the facts took on a new meaning,” he wrote, “for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative.”

So this is not a new problem. It’s endemic instead to a certain approach: the laziness of not really knowing what you’re looking for but hoping to find something that fits, the intellectual equivalent of mindlessly yanking open the fridge. I’m not sure what I think about immortality, so I’ll borrow from someone who’s done the heavy lifting and hope I find a ready match.

The Internet itself is not the culprit. It doesn’t quote people on its own or force you to quote yourself. And yet online, the problem multiplies almost despite our best intentions. The Internet invites quotation. Even if you start with a specific, complete thought in mind, vowing to use the web as a resource rather than a crutch, you are often pulled into the game in spite of yourself.

The qualities that thrive online are the qualities of speed: being first and being quick. Want a post to be shared on Facebook? One study shows that the shorter you can make it, the better your chances of success. Consider the new trend of tl;dr (too long; didn’t read). The premium on brevity and immediacy is anathema to context, and perfect for cherry picking. Who shares nuance?

Emerson didn’t hate quotation, not really. What he hated was our impulse to shortcut actual thought. The Internet didn’t create that impulse, but it has made it far more tempting and easier to satisfy.

Emerson could have told us that, too. It was he who warned us, after all, that “he who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself.” Even in Emerson’s time, we were link zombies, wandering from morsel to morsel to see what we could glean. His solution? Carry your context with you; make sure that even as you flit from sight to sight then or site to site now, you do so thoughtfully, with your own “self-culture,” as Emerson called it, ever in mind. Only then can you be someone who “visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.”

Maria Konnikova is the author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.”

Brace Yourself for Maureen Dowd

Posted on March 2, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 2.10.06 PMSometimes Maureen Dowd can be just mean. And so flawed, sometimes even more so than the people she criticizes. This was the case in her most recent take down of Hillary Rodham Clinton. To be clear, I too am critical of HRC, and I believe Ms. Dowd is an invaluable voice of bringing such criticisms to the fore, although maybe in a different way than she thinks: it serves to keep Ms. Clinton honest, and more in line with what I perceive are her fundamental principles.

Picking and choosing as she will (which is usually an ominous sign and a method lending itself to a self-serving and imbalanced narrative), Ms. Dowd highlights what seems to me to be some pretty fundamental and essential, if not unfortunate, features of current political life: 1) politicians must be constantly aware of and vigilant regarding their public image, 2) everything politicians do, publicly and privately, goes into the determination of their image, and 3) this reality causes their consultants and staff to micromanage public and private details at a painful, seemingly laughable (but only if not cognizant of how this really, really does matter) level.

Still, Ms. Dowd mocks HRC & Co. for stuff like actually paying attention to the potential messages flowing from her twentieth wedding anniversary  and calculating the best way to deal with President Clinton’s shortcomings. For the latter, Dowd parades out Monica Lewinsky again. Here is when it gets humorous because Dowd actually criticizes the assessment that a woman who kept kept and herself parades out a semen stained dress (I mean, truly, how does that realistically manage to happen) is not, as described by many, including HRC, a bit of an ego- or “erotomaniac,” “nutty and slutty.” And, yes, it is not a stretch that the former President tried to distance himself from her as quickly as possible once this became clear.

Still, not unexpectedly, Ms. Dowd reaches her intended destination:

It’s hard to understand why so many calculations are needed to seem “real,” just as it’s hard to understand how Hillary veers from feminist positions to un-feminist ones.

Ms. Dowd should know, for chrissakes, that being real doesn’t always faithfully translate in the press. Such is the incessant, near vapid picking over of everything done by HRC and others, and the constant warping, decontextualizing, manipulation and morphing by the pundits, operatives, opponents, and opportunists, not to mention the press, some of whom misrepresent and mislead to reinforce their political message. To not be obsessively aware, to not attempt to minimize and neutralize the entrenched critics, would not only be foolish but political suicide. Lawyers call it malpractice. Yes, the Clinton’s have been around for awhile and it is likely because they get this and do this better than anyone else. Certainly Ms. Dowd must get this too, right?

The real question is, towards what aims? For the rest of us occupying the same political sphere as I think Ms. Dowd does, those aims are true.

And for the record, the “issue about her that is so troubling and hard to fathom,” namely, as Ms. Dowd describes it, being both tireless and talented public servant and tired yet insecure and defensive is because (insert drum roll here), Ms. Rodham Clinton is, well, kinda human. She is not perfect. None of us are. God knows, none of our politicians nor our press are; and neither are you. But Secretary Clinton’s talents offset her weaknesses absolutely and relatively, meaning, her balance is better than most. And I, for one, am glad that her handlers are there to help her get it right. Or at least better.

©Copyright TW Matters™ 2014

NYT SundayReview | What You Learn in Your 40s | Pamela Druckerman

Posted on March 1, 2014

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PARIS — IF all goes according to plan, I’ll turn 44 soon after this column appears. So far in my adult life, I’ve never managed to grasp a decade’s main point until long after it was over. It turns out that I wasn’t supposed to spend my 20s frantically looking for a husband; I should have been building my career and enjoying my last gasp of freedom. I then spent my 30s ruminating on grievances accumulated in my 20s.

This time around, I’d like to save time by figuring out the decade while I’m still in it. Entering middle age in Paris — the world’s epicenter of existentialism — isn’t terribly helpful. With their signature blend of subtlety and pessimism, the French carve up midlife into the “crisis of the 40s,” the “crisis of the 50s” and the “noonday demon” (described by one French writer as “when a man in his 50s falls in love with the babysitter”).

The modern 40s are so busy it’s hard to assess them. Researchers describe the new “rush hour of life,” when career and child-rearing peaks collide. Today’s 40ish professionals are the DITT generation: double income, toddler twins.

The existing literature treats the 40s as transitional. Victor Hugo supposedly called 40 “the old age of youth.” In Paris, it’s when waiters start calling you “Madame” without an ironic wink. The conventional wisdom is that you’re still reasonably young, but that everything is declining: health, fertility, the certainty that you will one day read “Hamlet” and know how to cook leeks. Among my peers there’s a now-or-never mood: We still have time for a second act, but we’d better get moving on it.

I think the biggest transition of the 40s is realizing that we’ve actually, improbably, managed to learn and grow a bit. In another 10 years, our 40-something revelations will no doubt seem naïve (“Ants can see molecules!” a man told me in college).

But for now, to cement our small gains, here are some things we know today that we didn’t know a decade ago:

If you worry less about what people think of you, you can pick up an astonishing amount of information about them. You no longer leave conversations wondering what just happened. Other people’s minds and motives are finally revealed.

People are constantly trying to shape how you view them. In certain extreme cases, they seem to be transmitting a personal motto, such as “I have a relaxed parenting style!”; “I earn in the low six figures!”; “I’m authentic and don’t try to project an image!”

•Eight hours of continuous, unmedicated sleep is one of life’s great pleasures. Actually, scratch “unmedicated.”

•There are no grown-ups. We suspect this when we are younger, but can confirm it only once we are the ones writing books and attending parent-teacher conferences. Everyone is winging it, some just do it more confidently.

•There are no soul mates. Not in the traditional sense, at least. In my 20s someone told me that each person has not one but 30 soul mates walking the earth. (“Yes,” said a colleague, when I informed him of this, “and I’m trying to sleep with all of them.”) In fact, “soul mate” isn’t a pre-existing condition. It’s an earned title. They’re made over time.

•You will miss out on some near soul mates. This goes for friendships, too. There will be unforgettable people with whom you have shared an excellent evening or a few days. Now they live in Hong Kong, and you will never see them again. That’s just how life is.

•Emotional scenes are tiring and pointless. At a wedding many years ago, an older British gentleman who found me sulking in a corner helpfully explained that I was having a G.E.S. — a Ghastly Emotional Scene. In your 40s, these no longer seem necessary. For starters, you’re not invited to weddings anymore. And you and your partner know your ritual arguments so well, you can have them in a tenth of the time.

•Forgive your exes, even the awful ones. They were just winging it, too.

•When you meet someone extremely charming, be cautious instead of dazzled. By your 40s, you’ve gotten better at spotting narcissists before they ruin your life. You know that “nice” isn’t a sufficient quality for friendship, but it’s a necessary one.

•People’s youthful quirks can harden into adult pathologies. What’s adorable at 20 can be worrisome at 30 and dangerous at 40. Also, at 40, you see the outlines of what your peers will look like when they’re 70.

•More about you is universal than not universal. My unscientific assessment is that we are 95 percent cohort, 5 percent unique. Knowing this is a bit of a disappointment, and a bit of a relief.

•But you find your tribe. Jerry Seinfeld said in an interview last year that his favorite part of the Emmy Awards was when the comedy writers went onstage to collect their prize. “You see these gnome-like cretins, just kind of all misshapen. And I go, ‘This is me. This is who I am. That’s my group.’ ” By your 40s, you don’t want to be with the cool people; you want to be with your people.

•Just say “no.” Never suggest lunch with people you don’t want to have lunch with. They will be much less disappointed than you think.

•You don’t have to decide whether God exists. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t. But when you’re already worrying that the National Security Agency is reading your emails (and as a foreigner in France, that you’re constantly breaking unspoken cultural rules), it’s better not to know whether yet another entity is watching you.

Finally, a few more tips gleaned from four decades of experience:

•Do not buy those too-small jeans, on the expectation that you will soon lose weight.

If you are invited to lunch with someone who works in the fashion industry, do not wear your most “fashionable” outfit. Wear black.

•If you like the outfit on the mannequin, buy exactly what’s on the mannequin. Do not try to recreate the same look by yourself.

•It’s O.K. if you don’t like jazz.

•When you’re wondering whether she’s his daughter or his girlfriend, she’s his girlfriend.

•When you’re unsure if it’s a woman or a man, it’s a woman.

Pamela Druckerman is the author of “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,” and a contributing opinion writer.

The Young White Faces of Slavery

Posted on February 1, 2014

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Library of Congress

“Rebecca, Charley & Rosa, slave children from New Orleans.” Charles Paxson, photographer, N.Y. Albumen print on carte de visite, c. 1864.

Library of Congress

“Isaac & Rosa, slave children from New Orleans.” M.H. Kimball, photographer. Albumen print on carte de visite, c. 1863.

Library of Congress

“Oh! How I Love the Old Flag!, Rebecca, a slave girl from New Orleans.” Charles Paxson, photographer, N.Y. Albumen print on carte de visite, c. 1864.


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