The Marginalian
The Marginalian

On Giving Up: Adam Phillips on Knowing What You Want, the Art of Self-Revision, and the Courage to Change Your Mind

On Giving Up: Adam Phillips on Knowing What You Want, the Art of Self-Revision, and the Courage to Change Your Mind

“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” Virginia Woolf wrote. Nothing is more vital to the capacity for change than the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind — that stubborn refusal to ossify, the courageous willingness to outgrow your views, anneal your values, and keep clarifying your priorities. It is incredibly difficult to achieve because the very notion of the self hinges on our sense psychological continuity and internal consistency; because we live in a culture whose myths of heroism and martyrdom valorize completion at any cost, a culture that contractually binds the present self to the future self in mortgages and marital vows, presuming unchanging desires, forgetting that who we are is shaped by what we want and what we want goes on changing as we go on growing.

Changing — your mind, your life — is also painfully difficult because it is a form of renunciation, a special case of those necessary losses that sculpt our lives; it requires giving something up — a way of seeing, a way of being — in order for something new to come abloom along the vector of the “endless unfolding” that is a life fully lived, something that leaves your new emerging self more fully met.

One of English artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips offers a salve for that perennial difficulty in On Giving Up (public library) — an exploration and celebration of giving up as “a prelude, a precondition for something else to happen, a form of anticipation, a kind of courage,” “an attempt to make a different future” that “get us the life we want, or don’t know that we want.”

He considers how countercultural such reframing is:

We tend to value, and even idealize, the idea of seeing things through, of finishing things rather than abandoning them. Giving up has to be justified in a way that completion does not; giving up doesn’t usually make us proud of ourselves; it is a falling short of our preferred selves… Giving up, in other words, is usually thought of as a failure rather than a way of succeeding at something else. It is worth wondering to whom we believe we have to justify ourselves when we are giving up, or when we are determinedly not giving up.

At the heart of the book is the recognition that renunciation is the fulcrum of change. We give things up, Phillips observes, “when we believe we can no longer go on as we are.” (For many, this is the central crisis of midlife.) It is a kind of sacrifice in the service of a larger, better life — but this presumes knowledge of the life we want, and it is often experiences we didn’t know we wanted that end up magnifying our lives in the profoundest ways. (Nothing illustrates this better than The Vampire Problem.)

Phillips considers the paradox:

The whole notion of sacrifice depends upon our knowing what we want… Giving up, or giving up on, anything or anyone always exposes what it is we take it we want… To give something up is to seek one’s own assumed advantage, one’s apparently preferred pleasure, but in an economy that we mostly can’t comprehend, or, like all economies, predict… We calculate, in so far as we can, the effect of our sacrifice, the future we want from it… to get through to ourselves: to get through to the life we want.

Falling Star by Witold Pruszkowski, 1884. (Available as a print.)

“I did not know that I could only get the most out of life by giving myself up to it,” the psychiatrist and artist Marion Milner wrote a century ago in her clarifying field guide to knowing what you really want — which is, in the end, the hardest thing in life, for our self-knowledge is cratered with blind spots, clouded by conditioning, and perennially incomplete. Phillips — who draws on Milner’s magnificent book, as well as on Kafka and Judith Butler, Henry and William James, Hamlet and Paradise Lost — observes that, in this regard, giving up is a kind of “gift-giving.” He writes:

Not being able to give up is not to be able to allow for loss, for vulnerability; not to be able to allow for the passing of time, and the revisions it brings.

And what would life be without continual acts of self-revision?

It is our ego-ideals — the stories we tell ourselves and the world about who we are and who we ought to be, fantasies of coherence and continuity mooring us to a static idealized self — that feed what Phillips calls the “tyranny of completion.” But human beings are rough drafts that continually mistake themselves for the final story, then gasp as the plot changes on the page of living. We do this largely because we are captives of comfort in our habits of thought and feeling, victims of certainty — that supreme narrowing of the mind — when it comes to our own desires. That we don’t fully know what we want because we are half-opaque to ourselves, that something we didn’t think we wanted may end up enlarging our lives in unimaginable ways, is a kind of uncertainty that unravels us. But if we can bear the frustration of the figuring, we may live into a larger and more authentic life.

Art by Francisco de Holanda, 1550s. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Building upon his excellent earlier writing on why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in love, Phillips writes:

Our frustration is the key to our desire; to want something or someone is to feel their absence; so to register or recognize a lack would seem to be the precondition for any kind of pleasure or satisfaction. Indeed, in this account, frustration, a sense of lack, is the necessary precondition for any kind of satisfaction.


The traditional story about lack and desire describes a closed system; in this story I can never be surprised by what I want, because somewhere in myself I already know what is missing; my frustration is the form my recognition takes, it is a form of remembering.

Wanting is recovery, not discovery… There is a part of oneself that needs to know what it is doing, and a part of oneself that needs not to… a part of oneself that needs to know what one wants and a part of oneself that needs not to.

It is in the continual investigation of our desires, with all the frustration of our polyphonous parts, that we find the recovery and gift-giving which giving up can bring — a way of giving our lives back to ourselves and giving ourselves forward to our lives. Phillips distills the central predicament:

The question is always: what are we going to have to sacrifice in order to develop, in order to get to the next stage of our lives?

Couple On Giving Up with John O’Donohue on beginnings, Allen Wheelis on how people change, and Judith Viorst on the life-shaping art of letting go, then revisit Phillips on why we fall in love, breaking free from the tyranny of self-criticism, and the relationship between “fertile solitude” and self-esteem.


The Messiah in the Mountain: Darwin on Wonder and the Spirituality of Nature

The Messiah in the Mountain: Darwin on Wonder and the Spirituality of Nature

Here we are, matter yearning for meaning, each of us a fragile constellation of chemistry and chance hurtling through a cold cosmos that has no accord for our wishes, takes no interest in our dreams. “I can’t but believe that all that majesty and all that beauty, those fated and unfailing appearances and exits, are something more than mathematics and horrible temperatures,” Willa Cather wrote to the love of her life while watching the transcendent spectacle of Jupiter and Venus rising in the summer sky. “If they are not, then we are the only wonderful things — because we can wonder.”

That we can wonder is what saves us. The price evolution had us pay for our exquisite consciousness is an awareness of our mortality — an awareness unbearable without the capacity for wonder at the miracle of existing at all, improbable as we each are against the staggering odds of never having been born, alive on an improbable world unlike any other known. Wonder is the religion nature invented long before we told our first myths of prophets and messiahs, the great benediction of our fate as borrowed stardust on short-term loan from an entropic universe.

A century before the pioneering neuroscientist Charles Scott Sherrington formulated his notion of “Natural Religion,” placing at its center our capacity for and responsibility to wonder, before Rachel Carson insisted that wonder is our greatest antidote to self-destruction and that “natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society,” the young Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) discovered that experiences of wonder — which he defined as “a chaos of delight” — are profoundly spiritual and come most readily in raw nature.

Charles Darwin in his twenties

In early 1835, with the Beagle docked in Chile for repairs four years into its voyage, the twenty-six-year-old Darwin hired muleteers and set out to cross the Andes on foot and hoof, relishing the exposed face of Earth’s geologic history in the dramatic landscape. By mid-March, he reached the Piuquenes pass connecting Argentina and Chile and began the trying ascent. Breathing became “deep and laborious.” He felt the tightness in his chest. The mules panted and stopped every fifty feet. But when he stumbled upon some fossil shells on the ridge, he “entirely forgot” the altitude sickness in his delight.

And then, approaching the summit against wind “impetuous and extremely cold,” he encountered something belonging to the enchanting canon of the unphotographable.

Standing there amid the austere beauty of the mountain and the elements in their extreme, with petrified pieces of deep time in his pocket, Darwin touched God.

“View of Nature in Ascending Regions” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio, 1893. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In an account later included in his memoir A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World (public library | free ebook), he writes:

When near the summit, the wind, as generally happens, was impetuous and extremely cold. On each side of the ridge we had to pass over broad bands of perpetual snow, which were now soon to be covered by a fresh layer. When we reached the crest and looked backwards, a glorious view was presented. The atmosphere resplendently clear; the sky an intense blue; the profound valleys; the wild broken forms: the heaps of ruins, piled up during the lapse of ages; the bright-coloured rocks, contrasted with the quiet mountains of snow, all these together produced a scene no one could have imagined. Neither plant nor bird, excepting a few condors wheeling around the higher pinnacles, distracted my attention from the inanimate mass. I felt glad that I was alone: it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah.

Complement with Coleridge’s transcendent experience of a thunderstorm and René Daumal on the mountain and the meaning of life, then revisit Darwin’s deathbed reflection on what makes life worth living and the bittersweet story of his beloved daughter.


John Gardner on the Key to Self-Renewal Across Life and the Art of Making Rather Than Finding Meaning

John Gardner on the Key to Self-Renewal Across Life and the Art of Making Rather Than Finding Meaning

A person is not a potted plant of predetermined personality but a garden abloom with the consequences of chance and choice that have made them who they are, resting upon an immense seed vault of dormant potentialities. At any given moment, any seed can sprout — whether by conscious cultivation or the tectonic tilling of some great upheaval or the composting of old habits and patterns of behavior that fertilize a new way of being. Nothing saves us from the tragedy of ossifying more surely than a devotion to regularly turning over the soil of personhood so that new expressions of the soul can come abloom.

In the final years of his long life, former U.S. Secretary of Heath, Education, and Welfare John Gardner (October 8, 1912–February 16, 2002) expanded upon his masterwork on self-renewal in the posthumously published Living, Leading, and the American Dream (public library), examining the deepest questions and commitments of how we become — and go on becoming — ourselves as our lives unfold, transient and tender with longing for meaning.

Butterfly metamorphosis by Philip Henry Gosse from Entomologia terrae novae, 1833. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

With an eye to the mystery of why some people and not others manage to live with vitality until the end, and to the fact that life metes out its cruelties and its mercies with an uneven hand, Gardner writes:

One must be compassionate in assessing the reasons. Perhaps life just presented them with tougher problems than they could solve. It happens. Perhaps they were pulled down by the hidden resentments and grievances that grow in adult life, sometimes so luxuriantly that, like tangled vines, they immobilize the victim. Perhaps something inflicted a major wound on their confidence or their self-esteem. You’ve known such people — feeling secretly defeated, maybe somewhat sour and cynical, or perhaps just vaguely dispirited. Or perhaps they grew so comfortable that adventures no longer beckoned.

Recognizing that the challenges we face are both personal and structural, that we are products of our conditions and conditioning but also entirely responsible for ourselves, he adds:

We build our own prisons and serve as our own jailkeepers… but clearly our parents and the society at large have a hand in building our prisons. They create roles for us — and self-images — that hold us captive for a long time. The individual intent on self-renewal will have to deal with ghosts of the past — the memory of earlier failures, the remnants of childhood dramas and rebellions, the accumulated grievances and resentments that have long outlived their cause. Sometimes people cling to the ghosts with something almost approaching pleasure — but the hampering effect on growth is inescapable.

Art by Giuliano Cucco from Before I Grew Up by John Miller

Of the lessons we learn along the vector of living — things difficult to grasp early in life — he considers the hardest yet most liberating:

You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you, they are thinking about themselves. You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.

But no learning is harder, or more countercultural amid this cult of achievement and actualization we live in, than the realization that there is no final and permanent triumph to life. A generation after the poet Robert Penn Warren admonished against the notion of finding yourself and a generation before the psychologist Daniel Gilbert observed that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Gardner writes:

Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. The purpose is to grow and develop in the dimensions that distinguish humankind at its best.

In a sentiment that mirrors the driving principle of nature itself, responsible for the evolution and survival of every living thing on Earth, he considers the key to that growth:

The potentialities you develop to the full come as the result of an interplay between you and life’s challenges — and the challenges keep coming, and they keep changing. Emergencies sometimes lead people to perform remarkable and heroic tasks that they wouldn’t have guessed they were capable of. Life pulls things out of you. At least occasionally, expose yourself to unaccustomed challenges.

The supreme reward of putting yourself in novel situations that draw out dormant potentialities is the exhilaration of feeling new to yourself, which transforms life from something tending toward an end into something cascading forward in a succession of beginnings — for, as the poet and philosopher John O’Donohue observed in his magnificent spell against stagnation, “our very life here depends directly on continuous acts of beginning.” This in turn transforms the notion of meaning — life’s ultimate aim — from a product to be acquired into a process to be honored.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince

Gardner recounts hearing from a man whose twenty-year-old daughter was killed in a car crash. In her wallet, the grief-stricken father had discovered a printed passage from a commencement address Gardner had delivered shortly before her death — a fragment evocative of Nietzsche’s insistence that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life.” It read:

Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.

Complement with the pioneering education reformer and publisher Elizabeth Peabody on middle age and the art of self-renewal, the great nonagenarian cellist Pablo Casals on the secret to creative vitality throughout life, and this Jungian field guide to transformation in midlife, then revisit Nick Cave on blooming into the fulness of your potentialities and Simone de Beauvoir on the art of growing older.


Nothing: The Illustrated Story of How John Cage Revolutionized Music and the Art of Listening Through Silence

Nothing: The Illustrated Story of How John Cage Revolutionized Music and the Art of Listening Through Silence

“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote. Silence is greater than music because it is its central organizing principle, the way the negative space around an object is what gives it a shape, the way you love someone for what they are not — the person who will not break a promise, the person who will not pass a collapsed bicycle without picking it up, the person who will not interrupt your reverie but will instead wait silently beside you until you open your eyes, is a particular kind of person, and it is each other’s particularity that we love. Just as a person is composed of their nos even more so than their yeses, sound becomes music through the silences between its notes — or else it would be noise.

Four days before his fortieth birthday, John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) instantly and permanently broadened the meaning of music by deepening our relationship to silence with the premiere of his now iconic composition 4’33”, inspired by his formative immersion in Zen Buddhism and “performed” by the virtuoso pianist David Tudor in a barn-like concert hall in Woodstock, New York — four minutes and thirty-three seconds of pure silence, suddenly rendering musical the ambient sounds of ordinary life.

Writer Nicholas Day and artist Chris Raschka bring the story of this quiet revolution to life in Nothing: John Cage and 4’33” (public library) — a spare, vibrant serenade to Cage’s masterpiece and its lasting existential echoes, challenging our most basic assumptions about what makes anything itself.

The story begins and ends with Tudor sitting at the piano that fateful summer evening in 1952, but in the smallness and stillness of that moment myriad questions about the nature of sound and the nature of attention come abloom, questions about how to listen and what to listen for, about who it is that does the listening, about the very nature of the self.

In the biographical afterword, Day writes:

What is music?
What is silence?
Can silence be music?
Can music be silence?


Are there even answers to these questions?
For Cage, the questions were always the important part, because the questions were more interesting than the answers. The questions often led to more questions, instead of answers.

Like Beatrice Harrison, Cage was taken to a concert as a small child and stood in the aisle spellbound through the entire performance. He fell in love with sound long before he took his first music lesson. In a sentiment common to everyone who puts anything of beauty and substance into the world, Cage would later reflect:

We make our lives by what we love.

Complement Nothing with Kay Larson’s exquisite meditation on John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the inner life of artists — one of the finest books I have ever read — and Cage’s symphonic love letters to the love of his life, then revisit other wonderful picture-book biographies of cultural icons: Keith Haring, Maria Mitchell, Margaret Wise Brown, Emily Dickinson, John Lewis, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, Wangari Maathai, and Nellie Bly.

Illustrations © Chris Raschka courtesy of Neal Porter Books/Holiday House Publishing; photographs by Maria Popova


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