Marcel Proust: Imminent Death Reminds us that Life is Beautiful

In his book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton brings to light a fascinating answer by Marcel Proust to a Parisian newspaper on what we should do in the face of a near-certain death.

Someone looking for a paper to read in Paris in the 1920s might have picked up a title called L’Intransigeant. It had a reputation for investigative news, metropolitan gossip, comprehensive classifieds and incisive editorials. It also had the habit of dreaming up big questions and asking French celebrities to send in their replies. “What do you think would be the ideal education to give your daughter?” was one. “Do you have any recommendations for improving traffic congestion in Paris?” was another.

In the heat of the 1922 summer, the paper offered a particularly elaborate question.

An American scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed, and in such a sudden way, that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people. If this prediction were confirmed, what do you think would be its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm? Finally, as far as you’re concerned, what would you do in the last hours.

The last person the paper consulted on the question was the reclusive novelist Marcel Proust. Since its 1913 publication, In Search of Lost Time, was considered a masterpiece. A good sport, Proust sent the following reply of timeless advice and piercing wisdom to the paper.

I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future delays them occasionally.

But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.

de Botton furthers Proust’s response and touches on re-evaluating our priorities in the face of certain mortality, asking the important question of what, exactly, does a whole life consist of? How, should a reminder of our mortality change our lives?

Feeling suddenly attached to life when we realize the imminence of death suggests that it was perhaps not life itself which we had lost the taste for – so long as there was no end in sight, but our quotidian version of it, that our dissatisfactions were more the result of a certain way of living than anything irrevocably morose about human experience. Having surrendered the customary belief in our own immortality, we would then be reminded of a host of untried possibilities lurking beneath the surface of an apparently undesirable, apparently eternal existence.

However, if due acknowledgment of our mortality encourages us to reevaluate our priorities, we may well ask what these priorities should be. We might only have been living a half-life before we faced up to the implications of death, but what exactly does a whole life consist of? Simple recognition of our inevitable demise does not guarantee that we will latch on to any sensible answers when it comes to filling in what remains of the diary. Panicked by the ticking of the clock, we may even resort to some spectacular follies. The suggestions sent by the Parisian celebrities to L’lntransigeant were contradictory enough: admiration of alpine scenery, contemplation of the extraterrestrial future, tennis, golf. But were any of these fruitful ways to pass the time before the continent disintegrated.

Luckily for us Proust worked on a book that “set out to answer, albeit in a rather extended and narratively complex form,” a similar question to the one asked by the Parisian newspaper. The title of the book, In Search of Lost time, hints at as much.

The question of what makes a good life is one for the ages, it’s also a personal one. What makes a difference to me might not make a difference to you. Proust, however, has much to contribute to the tapestry we’re weaving daily. He understood a lesson we all too often forget in the the pursuit of goals and ambitions: the value of life is the sum of its everyday moments. Life is fragile.

How Proust Can Change Your Life goes on to explore the Proustian guidebook and gives us hope that we can learn to adjust our priorities before it’s too late, touching on, among other things, Proust’s thoughts on enjoying your vacation, reviving a relationship, achieving original and unclichéd articulation, being a good host, recognizing love, and understanding why you should never sleep with someone on a first date.

Seneca on Saving Time

Near the end of his life, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote beautiful insights into letters to his friend.

This letter, found in the wonderful collection Seneca, Volume IV, Epistles 1-65, is on the subject of saving time but contains wisdom on how we squander it as well.

Greetings from Seneca to Lucilius

Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius—set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which til lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words—that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose. What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.

Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity—time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practising. I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: every one forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.

What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile. Farewell.

The Epistles make a gentle introduction to Seneca and stoic philosophy. For more recommendations, see the stoic reading list.

Maya Angelou on Haters, Life, Reading, and Love

Maya Angelou

I’ve been slowly working my way through some of Maya Angelou’s material. Notably, Conversations with Maya Angelou, Letters to my Daughter, and What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self. Through that I’ve pulled out these 25 quotes that resonated with me. They offer timeless wisdom and advice on everything from what to do with haters to the importance of reading and love.

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.

You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.

Continue to be bold, courageous. Try to choose the wisest thing and once you’ve chosen the wisest thing go out and try to achieve it. Be it.

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s) he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

Those of us who submitted or surrendered our ideas and dreams and identities to the ‘leaders’ must take back our rights, our identities, our responsibilities.

For a person who grew up in the ’30s and ’40s in the segregated South, with so many doors closed without explanation to me, libraries and books said, ‘Here I am, read me.’ Over time I have learned I am at my best around books.

I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you. When a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don’t have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.

You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.

All men are prepared to accomplish the incredible if their ideals are threatened.

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

A cynical young person is almost the saddest sight to see, because it means that he or she has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.

I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being— what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.

If a human being dreams a great dream, dares to love somebody; if a human being dares to be Martin King, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, or Malcolm X; if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which she or he was born—it means so can you. And so you can try to stretch, stretch, stretch yourself so you can internalize, ‘Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto. I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.’ That’s one thing I’m learning.

When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.

I would say you might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever. In fact, it might even be necessary to confront defeat. It might be necessary, to get over it, all the way through it, and go on. I would teach her to laugh a lot. Laugh a lot at the — and the silliest things and be very, very serious. I’d teach her to love life, I can bet you that.

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

Remember, people will judge you by your actions not your intentions. You may have a heart of gold but so does a hard-boiled egg.

It is sad but true that sometimes we need the tragedy to help us to see how human we are and how we are more alike than we are different.

My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring still.

Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art.

Although nature has proven season in and season out that if the thing that is planted bears at all, it will yield more of itself, there are those who seem certain that if they plant tomato seeds, at harvesttime they can reap onions. – Too many times for comfort I have expected to reap good when I know I have sown evil. My lame excuse is that I have not always known that actions can only reproduce themselves, or rather, I have not always allowed myself to be aware of that knowledge. Now, after years of observation and enough courage to admit what I have observed, I try to plant peace if I do not want discord; to plant loyalty and honesty if I want to avoid betrayal and lies. – Of course, there is no absolute assurance that those things I plant will always fall upon arable land and will take root and grow, nor can I know if another cultivator did not leave contrary seeds before I arrived. I do know, however, that if I leave little to chance, if I am careful about the kinds of seeds I plant, about their potency and nature, I can, within reason, trust my expectations.

The problem I have with haters is that they see my glory, but they don’t know my story…

I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold—that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind. Love says, ‘I love you. I love you if you’re in China. I love you if you’re across town. I love you if you’re in Harlem. I love you. I would like to be near you. I’d like to have your arms around me. I’d like to hear your voice in my ear. But that’s not possible now, so I love you. Go.

To get a better sense of Angelou’s genius, you don’t have to read her Collected Poems. You can start with one of these three: Conversations with Maya Angelou, Letters to my Daughter, or What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Your Ego and the Cosmic Perspective

All you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.”

In this short video, theoretical physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson puts our ego into the perspective of the enormous universe.

There’s something about the cosmic perspective, which for some people is enlightening and for other people it’s terrifying. For those who are terrified by it, they’re here on earth and they have a certain self-identity, and then they learn that earth is tiny and we’re in this void of interplanetary space and then there’s a star that we call the Sun and that’s kind of average and there’s a hundred billion other stars in a galaxy. And our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of 50 or 100 billion other galaxies in the universe. And with every step, every window that modern astrophysics has opened to our mind, the person who wants to feel like they’re the center of everything ends up shrinking. And for some people they might even find it depressing, I assert that if you were depressed after learning and being exposed to the perspective, you started your day with an unjustifiably large ego. You thought more highly of yourself than in fact the circumstances deserved.

So here’s what you do: You say, “I have no ego at all.” Let’s start that way. “I have no ego, no cause to puff myself up.” Now let’s learn about the cosmic perspective. Yeah, we’re on a planet that’s orbiting a star, and a star is an energy source and it’s giving us energy, and we’re feeling this energy, and life is enabled by this energy in this star. And by the way, there’s a hundred billion other stars that have other planets. There might be other life out there, could be like us. It’s probably not like us, but whatever it is, it’d be fascinating to find out who it is. Can we talk to them? Can we not? Are they more advanced? Are they less advanced? By the way, the atoms of our body are traceable to what stars do.

And all you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.

So those who see the cosmic perspective as a depressing outlook, they really need to reassess how they think about the world. Because when I look up in the universe, I know I’m small, but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me.

Still curious? Tyson is full of wisdom. Check out: Why persuading with facts is not enough; Why words, names, and labels matter; and his list of books that every single intelligent person on the planet should read. And if that’s not enough, check out his fascinating book: Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.

(↬ SwissMiss)

Seneca on Wisdom

wisdom

In Seneca’s Morals: Of a Happy Life, Benefits, Anger, and Clemency, the famous stoic philosopher Seneca, who brought us combinatorial creativity, illuminates real wisdom.

Wisdom is a right understanding, a faculty of discerning good from evil, what is to be chosen and what rejected; a judgment grounded upon the value of things, and not the common opinion of them. It sets a watch over our words and deeds, and makes us invincible by either good or evil fortune. It has for its object things past and things to come, things transitory and things eternal. It examines all the circumstances of time, and the nature and operation of the mind. It stands to philosophy as avarice to money — the one desires and the other is desired; the one is the effect and the reward of the other. To be wise is the use of wisdom, as seeing is the use of eyes, and speaking of the tongue. He that is perfectly wise is perfectly happy; nay, the very beginning of wisdom makes life easy to us. It is not enough to know this; we must print it in our minds by daily meditation, and so bring a good will to a good habit.

Philosophy, after all, is a guide to living your life.

We must practise what we preach, for philosophy is not a subject for popular ostentation, nor does it rest in words, but in deeds. It is not an entertainment to be taken up for delight, or to give a taste to our leisure, but it should fashion the mind, govern our actions, and tell us what we are to do and what avoid. It sits at the helm and guides us through all hazards; nay, we cannot be safe without it, for every hour gives us occasion to use it. It informs us in all the duties of life : piety to our parents, faith to our friends, charity to the poor, judgment in counsel; it gives us peace by fearing nothing, and riches by coveting nothing.

A wise man, will always be happy …

… for he subjects all things to himself, submits himself to reason, and governs his actions by counsel, not by passion. He is not moved with the utmost violences of fortune, nor with the extremities of fire and sword; whereas a fool is afraid of his own shadow, and surprised at ill accidents, as if they were all levelled at him. He does nothing unwillingly, for whatever he finds necessary, he makes it his choice. He propounds’ to himself the certain scope and end of human life: he follows that which conduces to it, and avoids that which hinders it. He is content with his lot, whatever it be, without wishing for what he has not, though of the two, he had rather abound than want.

The business of his life, like that of nature, is performed without tumult or noise: he neither fears danger nor provokes it; but from caution, not from cowardice; for captivity, wounds, and chains he looks upon as unreal terrors. He undertakes to do well that which he does. Arts are but the servants whom wisdom commands. He is cautious in doubtful cases, in prosperity temperate, and resolute in adversity; still making the best of every condition, and improving all occasions to make them serviceable to his fate.

Some accidents there are which, I confess, may affect him, but they cannot overthrow him; such as bodily pains, loss of children and friends, or the ruin and desolation of his country. One must be made of stone or iron not to be sensible of these calamities; and besides, it were no virtue to bear them if one did not feel them.

There are three degrees of proficiency in the school of wisdom:

The first are those that come within the sight of it, but not up to it: they have learned what they ought to do, but they have not put their knowledge into practice; they are past the hazard of a relapse, but they are still in the clutches of disease; by which I mean an ill habit, that makes them over-eager upon things which are either not much to be desired, or not at all. A second sort are those that have conquered their appetite for a season, but are yet in fear of falling back. A third sort are those that are clear of many vices, but not of all. They are not covetous, but perhaps they are passionate; firm enough in some cases, but weak in others; perhaps despise death, and yet shrink at pain. There are diversities in wise men, but no inequalities; — one is more affable, another more ready, a third, a better speaker; but the felicity of them all is equal.

Read more: Seneca’s Morals: Of a Happy Life, Benefits, Anger, and Clemency which is available online for free.

​​(Image source)

Dead Poets Society

Robin Williams

To Be Read At The Opening of D.P.S. Meetings:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

A Lesson in Friendship

Around 10:00 pm one night when I was 16 my cell phone rang. My best friend was barely able to remain calm enough to get words out of his mouth.

After a bit of time, I figured out that he was at his girlfriend’s high school dance. A few things happened and a bunch of the local hooligans were gonna jump him when the dance was over at 11.

So I dutifully snuck out of the house, took the car, and drove to meet him. If he’s going down, I’m going down with him.

When I look back on this moment I can’t decide if it was a brilliant act of friendship or teenage stupidity.

The now older me asks what causes someone to drive to a near-certain walloping. The younger me still answers: friendship. If you won’t lay it on the line for your friends, who will you lay it on the line for?

I tend to agree with Henry Miller, who wrote: “Next to love friendship, in my opinion, is the most valuable thing life has to offer.”

But I never really thought about what makes a good friend.

When the chips are down and the odds are nearly impossible, I wanted people to be able to count on me. I might not be at your Super Bowl party, but if you needed help I would drop everything and be there in an instant.

This was the type of friend I wanted to be and to a large extent that’s the friend I still am.

Those Super Bowl parties, however, are way more important than I thought.

All through my life my friends have confessed their deepest struggles and conflicts with me. If you polled them, I’d probably be the first person they would call if they killed someone and needed to bury the body. In the words of Dr. Dre, “Well if you ever kill … I’ll show you where the ocean is.”

I was the wartime consigliere. However in times of peace — which is the vast majority of friendships — I wasn’t the first person people called. I was missing something that didn’t really dawn on me until recently.

No matter what was going on in my life – no matter my struggles, errors, or mistakes, I never called them. I wanted to be self-sufficient.

“The wise man is self-sufficient,” said Lucilius. He wants for nothing. He needs nothing. Chrysippus declared that the wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things. “On the other hand,” he says, “nothing is needed by the fool.”

I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve ever called anyone and said something to the effect of: I really need you right now.

I never knew how many of these cards you’d get in a lifetime and I certainly didn’t want to waste one on whatever was troubling me at the moment. This has been one of my biggest shortcomings.

Seneca has some good thoughts on the matter. In epistle III, he writes:

There is a class of men who communicate, to anyone whom they meet, matters, which should be revealed to friends alone, and unload upon the chance listener whatever irks them. Others, again, fear to confide in their closest intimates; and if it were possible, they would not trust even themselves, burying their secrets deep in their hearts. But we should do neither. It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter the more safe.

If I had struggles in my life my friends would sometimes never know. I’m not entirely sure if I was hiding these things from them or hiding them from myself.

A few days ago when I told one of my best friends some big news, he replied saying something to the effect of ‘as with many things in your life Shane, I had no idea.’ The message between the lines was clear: I would have been here for you, why didn’t you let me be there for you?

In that instant it hit me. I wasn’t the friend I needed to be because friendship is more than being there for them it’s also allowing them to be there for you.

For the longest time I thought that avoiding being vulnerable to people was strength. It’s not. It takes a lot more strength to make yourself vulnerable than it does to keep the walls up and stay protected.

Since this blog is about learning the best of what other people have figured out, I wanted to share this personal lesson with you.

Lincoln on Leadership

A Lincoln

Fight the Good Fight

The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.

Try Honey Before Vinegar

If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. On the contrary … mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all avenues to his head and his heart; and tho’ your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.

Work Hard, Then Work Harder

The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today. Never let your correspondence fall behind. Whatever price of business you have in hand, before stopping, do all the labor pertaining to it which can then be done.

Believe In Yourself

Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.

The Idea of Democracy

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy—Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference is no democracy.

Stay Committed

I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.

Know Your Friends

I distrust the wisdom if not the sincerity of friends who would hold my hands while my enemies stab me.

Heal Their Wounds

On the whole, my impression is that mercy bears richer fruits than any other attribute.

Accept Lessons As They Come

In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be avenged.

​​(h/t historynet.com)