The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Nick Cave on the Two Pillars of a Meaningful Life

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.

Nick Cave

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.”


How to Apologize: Reflections on Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, and the Paradox of Doing the Right Thing

“An honorable human relationship… in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love,'” Adrienne Rich wrote, “is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”

And yet if the two pillars of friendship and loving relation are truth and tenderness, as Emerson believed, something terrible and irreconcilable happens when the truth itself is untender — it becomes impossible to discern the honorable thing to do, the loving thing to do, the correct shape of loyalty. Cornered between two imperfect options, one is forced to weigh the agony of duplicity, that pernicious poison of trust, against the agony of causing hurt — a cruel reminder of how much pain human beings can inflict in just trying to be good, how altogether difficult it is to be a human being in tender and trusting relation to other human beings in a world rife with paradoxes, moral ambiguities, and impossible choices.

Art by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

To tell the truth despite its untenderness — “it is important to do this,” Adrienne Rich reminds us, “because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us” — is to be savaged by the unequaled soul-ache of having caused hurt while trying to do the right thing.

In the wake of it, trembling with desire for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, one longs for an apology so vast and powerful as to subsume the impossibility of the choice — an apology grand enough to allay all the vulnerabilities of being human, fallible, and famished for connection.

That longing comes alive in a consolation of a poem by Ellen Bass:

by Ellen Bass

Cook a large fish — choose one with many bones, a skeleton
you will need skill to expose, maybe the flying
silver carp that’s invaded the Great Lakes, tumbling
the others into oblivion. If you don’t live
near a lake, you’ll have to travel.
Walking is best and shows you mean it,
but you could take a train and let yourself
be soothed by the rocking
on the rails. It’s permitted
to receive solace for whatever you did
or didn’t do, pitiful, beautiful
human. When my mother was in the hospital,
my daughter and I had to clear out the home
she wouldn’t return to. Then she recovered
and asked, incredulous,
How could you have thrown out all my shoes?
So you’ll need a boat. You could rent or buy,
but, for the sake of repairing the world,
build your own. Thin strips
of Western red cedar are perfect,
but don’t cut a tree. There’ll be
a demolished barn or downed trunk
if you venture further.
And someone will have a mill.
And someone will loan you tools.
The perfume of sawdust and the curls
that fall from your plane
will sweeten the hours. Each night
we dream thirty-six billion dreams. In one night
we could dream back everything lost.
So grill the pale flesh.
Unharness yourself from your weary stories.
Then carry the oily, succulent fish to the one you hurt.
There is much to fear as a creature
caught in time, but this
is safe. You need no defense. This
is just another way to know
you are alive.

Couple with Maimonides’s framework of repentance, repair, and what true forgiveness takes, then revisit Ellen Bass’s perspectival poem “The Big Picture.”

“How to Apologize” originally appeared in The New Yorker and is published here with the poet’s permission.


Alone Together: An Illustrated Celebration of the Art of Shared Solitude

Alone Together: An Illustrated Celebration of the Art of Shared Solitude

“One can never be alone enough to write,” Susan Sontag lamented in her diary. “Oh comforting solitude, how favorable thou art to original thought!” the founding father of neuroscience exulted in considering the ideal environment for creative breakthrough.

All creative people, however public or performative their work may be, yearn for that contemplative space where the mind quiets and the spirit quickens. The ongoing challenge of the creative life is how to balance the outward sharing of one’s gift with the inward stewardship of the soul from which that gift springs.

How to master that delicate balance is what Dutch author-illustrator duo Marc Veerkamp and Jeska Verstegen explore in Bear Is Never Alone (public library), translated by Laura Watkinson.

In the middle of the forest, Piano Bear is performing for a rapt and ravenous audience insatiable for his music.

As all the creatures’ delight in his gift for beautiful music metastasizes into a demand, Piano Bear begins yearning for stillness and solitude. But everywhere he turns, the other animals follow with their incessant incantation of “MORE!”

Finally, pushed to his limits, Piano Bear startles the forest with a great big roar of exasperation, then immediately curls up into a ball of shyness.

Just as he thinks he is at last alone, Piano Bear notices a quiet presence that has been there in the crowd all along — a lone zebra striped with her own gift: words.

As a token of gratitude for all the beautiful music she has been silently enjoying, the zebra offers to read Piano Bear a story. Cautious at first of another intrusion, he comes to see that there is great joy in a shared solitude — a testament to Rilke’s insistence that the highest task of a bond between two souls is for each to “stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

Couple Bear Is Never Alone with Maya Angelou on our responsibility to our gifts, then revisit Hermann Hesse on solitude as the path to destiny and May Sarton’s lovely ode to the art of being alone.


The Necessity of Our Illusions: Oliver Sacks on the Mind as an Escape Artist from Reality

“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his pioneering work on transcendent experiences, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

All of us experience altered states of consciousness all the time, without the aid of mind-altering substances. When blood sugar plummets with hunger, a wholly different moodscape takes hold. Under the monthly tempest of hormones, almost a wholly different person can emerge. Every night we feel the edges of consciousness as we slip into the liminal state between wakefulness and sleep. Every day we engage in various delusions and willful blindnesses in order to maintain our self-image, keep our imperfect relationships intact, and guard our deepest hopes from the fearsome fangs of reality.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf

Given consciousness renders reality what it is, and given this selfsame consciousness is so susceptible to misperceiving reality, it is hardly a wonder that we so easily slip into illusions that appear entirely persuasive and internally coherent — from conspiracy theories to misplaced infatuations to hallucinations. And yet evolution must have had a reason to make us so vulnerable to such deviations from the path of reason — perhaps our misshapen views of reality serve us, perhaps they even save us; perhaps Virginia Woolf was right to write that “illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things.”

That is what the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) intimates in a lovely passage from his classic Hallucinations (public library):

Humans share much with other animals — the basic needs of food and drink or sleep, for example — but there are additional mental and emotional needs and desires which are perhaps unique to us. To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see overall patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future. And we need freedom (or at least the illusion of freedom) to get beyond ourselves, whether with telescopes and microscopes and our ever-burgeoning technology or in states of mind which allow us to travel to other worlds, to transcend our immediate surroundings. We need detachment of this sort as much as we need engagement in our lives… transports that make our consciousness of time and mortality easier to bear. We seek a holiday from our inner and outer restrictions, a more intense sense of the here and now, the beauty and value of the world we live in.

Complement with the psychology of willful blindness, then revisit Oliver Sacks on consciousness, artificial intelligence, and our search for meaning, the healing power of nature, and the building blocks of personhood.


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