Essential Life-Learnings from 14 Years of Brain Pickings
By Maria Popova
UPDATE 2021: Thoughts on growth and self-discovery in becoming The Marginalian — after 15 years, Brain Pickings reborn.
Brain Pickings* was born on October 23, 2006, as a short email to seven friends. Seven years and several incomprehensible million readers into its existence, I began what has since become an annual tradition — a distillation of the most important things I have learned about living while reading and writing my way through life; private learnings offered in the public commons, in the hope that these thoroughly subjective insights of a single consciousness might be of succor or salve to another. It is the only overtly personal writing I do on Brain Pickings. (Though, of course, the whole of it remains a deeply personal exercise in processing my own life and annealing my own ideas through the lives and ideas I celebrate in writing.) We are, after all, made of the same stuff.
Each year, I have drawn one new learning from that particular season of life. Each year, it has swelled into an existential challenge to prune the vastness, the lushness, the interleaved complexity of experience into a single blade of simple but not simplistic insight into the nature of life, glimpsed from the solitary pinhole of this one life. The challenge has never been more colossal than this past year — the most trying I have lived through, by orders of magnitude. Depression has lowered its leaden cloudscape over me again and again since I was fifteen, but no other year has lidded life more ominously, as the staggering collective grief we are living through together densified the black fog of private loss. In such seasons of life, one is pressed against the limits of one’s being, pressed eventually against the understanding — no, more than understanding and less than understanding: the blind elemental fact — that no matter the outer atmosphere of circumstance, one must lift the inner cloudscape by one’s own efforts, or perish under it.
I chose, by that blind instinct of survivalism we mistake for choice, to lift.
Against this contextual backdrop, here is the central learning drawn from a year so discomposing yet so vital and transformative a verse from the poetry of life. (You can read the previous thirteen here.)
14. Choose joy. Choose it like a child chooses the shoe to put on the right foot, the crayon to paint a sky. Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow, restless with need for action. Feel the sorrow, take the action, but keep pressing the weight of joy against it all, until it becomes mindless, automated, like gravity pulling the stream down its course; until it becomes an inner law of nature. If Viktor Frankl can exclaim “yes to life, in spite of everything!” — and what an everything he lived through — then so can any one of us amid the rubble of our plans, so trifling by comparison. Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus — an inner elevation by the fulcrum of choice. So often, it is a matter of attending to what Hermann Hesse called, as the world was about to come unworlded by its first global war, “the little joys”; so often, those are the slender threads of which we weave the lifeline that saves us.
Delight in the age-salted man on the street corner waiting for the light to change, his age-salted dog beside him, each inclined toward the other with the angular subtlety of absolute devotion.
Delight in the little girl zooming past you on her little bicycle, this fierce emissary of the future, rainbow tassels waving from her handlebars and a hundred beaded braids spilling from her golden helmet.
Delight in the snail taking an afternoon to traverse the abyssal crack in the sidewalk for the sake of pasturing on a single blade of grass.
Delight in the tiny new leaf, so shy and so shamelessly lush, unfurling from the crooked stem of the parched geranium.
I think often of this verse from Jane Hirshfield’s splendid poem “The Weighing”:
So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.
Yes, except we furnish both the grains and the scales. I alone can weigh the blue of my sky, you of yours.
UPDATE 2021: After 15 years, Brain Pickings was reborn as The Marginalian, with some thoughts on self-discovery and self-reinvention across a lifetime.
Published October 21, 2020