I turned the corner one afternoon to find my neighborhood grocer gone. No warning, just gone — padlocked and boarded off, closed for good, a long chain of habit suddenly severed.
We know that entropy drags everything toward dissolution, that life is a vector pointed at loss, but how rarely we realize that the lasts are last, how staggering the turning of those corners. The friend you embrace in a casual parting not knowing it is the final farewell. The lover you kiss not knowing you will never touch again. Your mother answering the phone in a voice you’ve known forever, a voice you don’t know you will never again hear.
Even science has tenderness for these unbidden finalities in its term for the last known survivor of a species: endling — an end abrupt yet somehow endearing in its smallness, its particularity, in the way a tragedy so vast and collective can culminate on the minute scale of the individual, the scale on which our lives ultimately unfold.
And so, a poem:
ENDLING by Maria Popova
Unspooling from a reel
in the sound archive
of the British Library
is the syncopating chirp of
the last Moho braccatus —
a small Hawaiian bird
After centuries of humans
silenced the species
after a hurricane
killed the last female
he alone was left
to sing the final song
of his kind —
a mating call for
a world void of mate.
In ten billion years,
the Sun will burn out.
In a hundred billion,
the galaxies will drift apart
and take away the light,
leaving the night sky
black as the inside
of a skull.
all the energy
of the cosmos
until none is left
to succor life
as the universe goes on expanding
Somewhere along the way,
there will have been a creature
to think the last thought
and feel the last feeling
and sing the last song
And it will have been beautiful,
this brief movement of being
in the silent symphony
and it will have been merciful
that only hindsight
This is the great paradox: that human life, lived between the time of starlings and the time of stars, is made meaningful entirely inside the self, but the self is a mirage of the mind, a figment of cohesion that makes the chaos and transience bearable. A few times a lifetime, if you are lucky, something — an encounter with nature, a work of art, a great love — sparks what Iris Murdoch so wonderfully termed “an occasion for unselfing,” dismantling the cathedral of illusion and rendering you one with everything that ever was and ever will be. Because time is the substance of being, past and future meld into one, then vanish altogether. For a moment you become one with the absolute — not a self islanded in time, but an oceanic particle of eternity.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow termed such moments of timelessness and selflessness peak experiences — “the most blissful and perfect moments of life” — and placed them atop his seminal hierarchy of needs, in the realm of transcendence. He believed that every religion arose from them — from “the private, lonely, personal illumination, revelation, or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer.” After interviewing thousands of people about their peak experiences, Maslow uncovered the core common denominator — a profound sense that the universe is a harmonious totality to which one belongs and of which one is an indelible part, as essential to the integrated whole as any other, existing outside time.
I know of no more beautiful or deeply felt account of such contact with eternity than the one Richard Jefferies (November 6, 1848–August 14, 1887), patron saint of modern conservation, relays in his altogether breathtaking spiritual autobiography The Story of My Heart (public library).
In the final years of his short life, Jefferies touched transcendence while climbing a hill he climbed regularly. (This is part of the mystery we are — why peak experiences unfold when they do, often in the midst of something familiar, something encountered countless times before without this shimmer of the miraculous.) Crowning his magnificent account of the experience is the revelation that presence — this prayerful attention to the here and now — is the supreme portal to eternity. A generation after Kierkegaard insisted that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity” and a century before Mary Oliver drew on Blake and Whitman to observe that “all eternity is in the moment,” Jefferies reflects:
Realising that spirit, recognising my own inner consciousness, the psyche, so clearly, I cannot understand time. It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly floats in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity; now is the immortal life. Here this moment, by this tumulus, on earth, now; I exist in it. The years, the centuries, the cycles are absolutely nothing; it is only a moment since this tumulus was raised; in a thousand years it will still be only a moment. To the soul there is no past and no future; all is and will be ever, in now.
And yet it is only through the body — this perishable reliquary of life — that the mind can grasp the abstraction of timelessness; it is only through absolute presence with the aliveness of the moment that the soul can sing with the ecstasy of eternity. Jefferies writes:
I dip my hand in the brook and feel the stream; in an instant the particles of water which first touched me have floated yards down the current, my hand remains there. I take my hand away, and the flow — the time — of the brook does not exist to me. The great clock of the firmament, the sun and the stars, the crescent moon, the earth circling two thousand times, is no more to me than the flow of the brook when my hand is withdrawn; my soul has never been, and never can be, dipped in time. Time has never existed, and never will; it is a purely artificial arrangement. It is eternity now, it always was eternity, and always will be.
We move through the world largely unaware that our emotions are made of concepts — the brain’s coping mechanism for the blooming buzzing confusion of what we are. We label, we classify, we contain — that is how we parse the maelstrom of experience into meaning. It is a useful impulse — without it, there would be no science or storytelling, no taxonomies and theorems, no poems and plots. It is also a limiting one — the most beautiful, rewarding, and transformative experiences in life transcend the categories our culture has created to contain the chaos of consciousness, nowhere more so than in the realm of relationships — those mysterious benedictions that bridge the abyss between one consciousness and another.
That is what Rhaina Cohen explores in The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center (public library) — a journalistic investigation of the vast yet invisible world of unclassifiable intimate relationships, profiling pairs of people across various circumstances and stages of life sustained by such bonds, people who have “redrawn the borders of friendship, moving the lines further and further outward to encompass more space in each other’s lives,” people who have found themselves in finding each other.
What emerges through this portrait of a type of relationship “hidden in plain sight” is an antidote to the tyranny of the “one-stop-shop coupledom ideal” and “an invitation to expand what options are open to us,” radiating a reminder that we pay a price for living by our culture’s standard concepts:
While we weaken friendships by expecting too little of them, we undermine romantic relationships by expecting too much of them.
This is a book about friends who have become a we, despite having no scripts, no ceremonies, and precious few models to guide them toward long-term platonic commitment. These are friends who have moved together across states and continents. They’ve been their friend’s primary caregiver through organ transplants and chemotherapy. They’re co-parents, co-homeowners, and executors of each other’s wills. They belong to a club that has no name or membership form, often unaware that there are others like them. They fall under the umbrella of what Eli Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, calls “other significant others.” Having eschewed a more typical life setup, these friends confront hazards and make discoveries they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Noting that her interest in the subject is more than theoretical, catalyzed by her own expansive relationship with another woman in parallel with her marriage, Cohen considers these category-defying bonds as a countercultural act of courage and resistance:
I began to see how these unusual relationships can also be a provocation — unsettling the set of societal tenets that circumscribe our intimate lives: That the central and most important person in one’s life should be a romantic partner, and friends are the supporting cast. That romantic love is the real thing, and if people claim they feel strong platonic love, it must not really be platonic. That adults who raise kids together should be having sex with each other, and marriage deserves special treatment by the state.
With an eye to the long lineage of people who have defied the categories of their time and place — the kinds of people populating Figuring, which I wrote largely to explore such relationships — she adds:
Challenging these social norms is not new, nor are platonic partners the only dissidents. People who are feminists, queer, trans, of color, nonmonogamous, single, asexual, aromantic, celibate, or who live communally have been questioning these ideas for decades, if not centuries. All have offered counterpoints to what Eleanor Wilkinson, a professor at the University of Southampton, calls compulsory coupledom: the notion that a long-term monogamous romantic relationship is necessary for a normal, successful adulthood. This is a riff on the feminist writer Adrienne Rich’s influential concept of “compulsory heterosexuality” — the idea, enforced through social pressure and practical incentives, that the only normal and acceptable romantic relationship is between a man and a woman. Some of the first stories we hear as children instill compulsory coupledom, equating characters finding their “one true love” with living “happily ever after.”
It can be confusing to live in the gulf between the life you have and the life you believe you’re supposed to be living.
I grew up loving Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. My grandmother read it to me before I could read. I read it to myself as soon as I could. I loved the strangeness of it, and the tenderness. As a child mathematician, I loved knowing that a grown mathematician had written it. But what I most loved about the story was Alice’s fearless curiosity and compassion as she encountered all the creatures populating Wonderland. I loved the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat and Bill the Lizard because Alice loved them.
This is what makes Wonderland Wonderland: To its denizens, it is just their world, mundane as life. “This is water.” What confers wonder upon it for the reader, what makes the story a story and not a vignette of ordinary life in an ordinary world, is the view through Alice’s wonder-smitten eyes as she moves through it, and wonder is the mightiest catalyst of care.
We care because she cares.
In the century and a half since Lewis Carroll, a lineage of writers — Richard Jefferies, Henry Beston, Rachel Carson, Robert Macfarlane, Richard Powers — have applied that method to this world, reminding us that we too are living in a wonderland, as real as it is improbable, for nowhere else across the inky vastness of spacetime strewn with billions upon billions of other star systems is there another world lush with life, as far as we yet know.
“Nature writing” and “environmental writing” are odd terms, one intimating that we ourselves are not nature (which Denise Levertov captured poignantly in her poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World”) and the other casting nature as something that surrounds us, in turn implying our centrality. Those writers who have gotten humanity to care about the natural world — which is the world — have done so because they themselves have moved through it with a sense of wonder, each of them an Alice making a Wonderland of Earth.
With an eye to the basic A-to-B structure of a story propelled by a sense of purpose along the axis of its plot, he considers the challenge of creating a dramatic narrative around creatures whose primary purpose is basic survival, creatures “driven by desires the opposite of personal” and free from “ethical ambivalence or regret” — those marvelous, maddening complexities that make for the human drama. He writes:
Absent heavy-duty anthropomorphizing or projection, a wild animal simply doesn’t have the particularity of self, defined by its history and its wishes for the future, on which good storytelling depends. With a wild animal character, there is only ever a point A: the animal is what it is and was and always will be. For there to be a point B, a destination for a dramatic journey, only a human character will suffice. Narrative nature writing, at its most effective, places a person (often the author, writing in the first person) in some kind of unresolved relationship with the natural world, provides the character with unanswered questions or an unattained goal, however large or small, and then deploys universally shared emotions — hope, anger, longing, frustration, embarrassment, disappointment — to engage a reader in the journey. If the writing succeeds in heightening a reader’s interest in the natural world, it does so indirectly.
Rachel Carson — who awakened the modern ecological conscience by making of science a magnifying lens for the inherent wonder of the natural world and rendering that wonder in the poetic language of universal emotion — conveyed this indirect enchantment in her magnificent National Book Award acceptance speech: “If there is poetry in my book about the sea,” she said at the ceremony where she shared a table with the poet Marianne Moore, “it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” In consonance with Carson’s credo that “the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race,” Franzen celebrates the power of writing with feeling, with wonder, with reverence for life:
We can’t make a reader care about nature. All we can do is tell stories of people who do care, and hope that the caring is contagious.
“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his revolutionary 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings — a gauntlet thrown at the classical view that emotions are the brain’s response to the outside world, hard-wired and universal. In the century-some since, we have come to discover that this embodied construction of emotion, known as interoception, is the tectonic activity shaping the psychological landscape of being, which the brain then interprets to navigate the world based on concepts derived from past experience: learned frames of reference that classify and categorize the blooming buzzing confusion of reality into comprehensible morsels of meaning.
This is the model psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett advances in her constructed theory of emotion, detailed in her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (public library) — a bold, empirically grounded challenge to the classical view that events in the outside world trigger emotions inside us, instead showing that our affect is largely the product of prediction and that we feel what our brain believes. Emerging from this revolutionary view of what it means to be human is the assuring intimation that by consciously reexamining the predictions and beliefs entrained by our past experience and culture, we can take charge of our own emotional experience — we can re-render the reality we live in, which is always lensed through our interpretation of meaning.
Barrett — who worked as a clinical psychologist before she came to lead a team of a hundred scientists at Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory — writes:
An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world… In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion.
A generation after philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed in her visionary work on the intelligence of emotions that “emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature [but] parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself,” Barrett adds:
Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise. You wouldn’t know what the sensations are, what caused them, nor how to behave to deal with them. With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensation, and sometimes that meaning is an emotion.
Unlike the core assumption of the classical view, which treats the basic emotions as inborn and universal, displayed and recognized by healthy people across different cultures in the same way, the theory of constructed emotion holds that any universality of emotion is due not to shared wiring but to shared concepts. With an eye to the various wonderfully untranslatable words denoting concepts of common experiences in a particular culture for which other cultures have no direct equivalent, she writes:
What’s universal is the ability to form concepts that make our physical sensations meaningful, from the Western concept “Sadness” to the Dutch concept Gezellig (a specific experience of comfort with friends), which has no exact English translation.
Emotions do not shine forth from the face nor from the maelstrom of your body’s inner core. They don’t issue from a specific part of the brain. No scientific innovation will miraculously reveal a biological fingerprint of any emotion. That’s because our emotions aren’t built-in, waiting to be revealed. They are made. By us. We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems. Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience.
And yet our experience is shaped by our past, encoded in the very circuitry of the brain — the neural pathways that formed our frames of reference as we responded to life. Barrett writes:
Some of your synapses literally come into existence because other people talked to you or treated you in a certain way. In other words, construction extends all the way down to the cellular level. The macro structure of your brain is largely predetermined, but the microwiring is not. As a consequence, past experience helps determine your future experiences and perceptions.
These templates of prediction are set as much by our personal experience as by our culture:
The human brain is a cultural artifact. We don’t load culture into a virgin brain like software loading into a computer; rather, culture helps to wire the brain. Brains then become carriers of culture, helping to create and perpetuate it.
It can be a responsible scientist and change its predictions to respond to the data. Your brain can also be a biased scientist and selectively choose data that fits the hypotheses, ignoring everything else. Your brain can also be an unscrupulous scientist and ignore the data altogether, maintaining that its predictions are reality. Or, in moments of learning or discovery, your brain can be a curious scientist and focus on input. And like the quintessential scientist, your brain can run armchair experiments to imagine the world: pure simulation without sensory input or prediction error.
What emerges from this new theory of emotion is nothing less than radical new understanding of being human, counter to the long-held dogma of essentialism — the intuitive but misguided idea, dating back to Ancient Greece, that everything has an immutable innate essence, which predetermines its destiny. The classical view that human emotions have a universal fingerprint in the brain and represent universal responses to the world is a form of essentialism Barrett indicts as “a self-perpetuating scourge in science.” Drawing on a wealth of research from her laboratory affirming the theory of constructed emotion, she distills this potent antidote to the old dogma:
Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world.
In the remainder of How Emotions Are Made, Barrett examines how the theory of constructed emotion can help recalibrate everything from mental health care to the criminal justice system, revolutionizing our very understanding of human nature along the way. Complement it with the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray on the interplay of reason and emotion, then revisit Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown’s unusual and lovely dissent against essentialism.