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Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on How We Co-Create Each Other and Recreate Ourselves Through Friendship

Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on How We Co-Create Each Other and Recreate Ourselves Through Friendship

“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her exquisite meditation on the art of honorable human relationships. While it is hard enough to inoculate the integrity of the word “friend” against today’s epidemic of misuse and overuse, it can be even harder to calibrate our expectations of those who have earned the benediction of the title — the chosen few we have admitted into the innermost chambers of the heart and entrusted with going that hard way with us. “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” Seneca counseled in contemplating true and false friendship, “but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.” Two millennia later, the question of whom to welcome and to what extent remains one of the most delicate discernments with which life tasks us.

An uncommonly thoughtful, nuanced, and enriching reflection on calibrating the heart in friendship comes from pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889), who led the way for women in science and to whom I dedicated The Universe in Verse.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

In a diary entry from the first day of 1855, found in Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters (public library), Mitchell resolves to have more balanced relationships and reflects on how unwise it is to turn a single person into the center of gravity in one’s emotional universe. Instead, one’s attachments should be distributed among many people, each fulfilling a different need — one providing intellectual stimulation, another rendering us “more elastic and buoyant, more happy and radiating more happiness, because we know him,” another inspiring in us such “warmth of affection” that “our hearts grow as if in a summer feeling.” Long after Aristotle contemplated “what makes for a good happiness-enhancing friendship,” Mitchell writes:

A friend is not to be found in the world such as one can conceive of, such as one needs, for no human being unites so many of the attributes of God as we feel our nature requires…. We have therefore a circle whom we call friends, giving a name to the whole, which perhaps in its singular occupation might be used for the combination. Out of the whole circle we may make up a single friend. We love them all but we love the union of all better.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

The friends with whom we encircle ourselves, Mitchell reminds us, become instrumental in the architecture of our own character — after all, it is through relationships, as Van Gogh wrote to his brother, that we refine ourselves. Our choice of relationships can either reinforce the limiting patterns of thought and feeling that have long governed us, or decondition them by helping us learn new patterns of attachment and orientation of being. Mitchell writes:

Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware.

Who of us acts and speaks without an eye to the approbations of those he loves? Is not the assent of another a sort of second conscience? … We prop ourselves up with accomplices, we surround ourselves with those who can down for us the uprisings of conscience.

And yet this interdependence, Mitchell is careful to observe, is not a weakness of human nature but one of its greatest and most beautiful features:

Who judges a work of art and sees only with his own eyes? Who listens to a lecture and hears only with his own ears? We turn aslant as we stand before the picture to see what good judges are looking. We open the guide book to see what we ought to admire…. Insensibly our judgment is inspired by that of those around us. It is not a weakness to be deplored. We were more than conceited did we rate ourselves so much above the rest of the world that we needed no outward aids to judgment. We were born dependent, our happiness is in the hands of others. Our character is molded by them and receives its coloring from them as much as our feeling relates the parental impress.

Complement this particular fragment of Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters with Emerson on the two pillars of friendship, Andrew Sullivan on why its rewards can exceed those of romantic love, and the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic ideal of friendship, then revisit Mitchell on science, spirituality, and our conquest of truth and the art of knowing what to do with your life.

UPDATE: Find more of Maria Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.

Published September 10, 2017




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