Nick Cave on the Two Pillars of a Meaningful Life
By Maria Popova
We are each born with a wilderness of possibility within us. Who we become depends on how we tend to our inner garden — what qualities of character and spirit we cultivate to come abloom, what follies we weed out, how much courage we grow to turn away from the root-rot of cynicism and toward the sunshine of life in all its forms: wonder, kindness, openhearted vulnerability.
Answering a young person’s plea for guidance in finding direction and meaning amid a “bizarre and temporary world” that seems so often at odds with the highest human values, the sage and sensitive Nick Cave offers his lens on the two most important qualities of spirit to cultivate in order to have a meaningful life.
A generation after James Baldwin observed in his superb essay on Shakespeare how “it is said that his time was easier than ours, but… no time can be easy if one is living through it,” Nick prefaces his advice with a calibration:
The world… is indeed a strange and deeply mysterious place, forever changing and remaking itself anew. But this is not a novel condition, our world hasn’t only recently become bizarre and temporary, it has been so ever since its inception, and it will continue to be such until its end — mystifying and forever in a state of flux.
He then offers his two pillars of a fulfilling life — orientations of the soul that “have a softening effect on our sometimes inflexible and isolating value systems”:
The first is humility. Humility amounts to an understanding that the world is not divided into good and bad people, but rather it is made up of all manner of individuals, each broken in their own way, each caught up in the common human struggle and each having the capacity to do both terrible and beautiful things. If we truly comprehend and acknowledge that we are all imperfect creatures, we find that we become more tolerant and accepting of others’ shortcomings and the world appears less dissonant, less isolating, less threatening.
The other quality is curiosity. If we look with curiosity at people who do not share our values, they become interesting rather than threatening. As I’ve grown older I’ve learnt that the world and the people in it are surprisingly interesting, and that the more you look and listen, the more interesting they become. Cultivating a questioning mind, of which conversation is the chief instrument, enriches our relationship with the world. Having a conversation with someone I may disagree with is, I have come to find, a great, life embracing pleasure.
Couple with Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell on what makes a fulfilling life and revisit Nick Cave’s humble wisdom on the importance of trusting yourself, the art of growing older, and the antidote to our existential helplessness, then savor his lush On Being conversation with Krista Tippett about loss, yearning, transcendence, and “the audacity of the world to continue to be beautiful and continue to be good in times of deep suffering.”
Published November 28, 2023