The Marginalian
The Marginalian

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.


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.


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


What It’s Like to Be a Falcon: The Peregrine as a Portal to a Way of Seeing and a State of Being

What It’s Like to Be a Falcon: The Peregrine as a Portal to a Way of Seeing and a State of Being

We shall never know the sky, you and I — never know how to pierce a mountain with a pupil or sweep a meadow with a wing — and so we shall never know this world in its totality. It is our creaturely destiny to remain earthbound, trapped in frames of reference shaped by our senses, but it is our biological benediction to have a consciousness crowned with an imagination — that periscope of wonder capable of reaching beyond our sensorium, beyond the self, projecting us into other realities and other ways of being.

In the mid-1950s, a near-sighted English office worker set out to do for the sky what Rachel Carson had done for the sea thirty years earlier — invite our human imagination, grounded yet boundless, into the world of another creature dwelling in another sphere. J.A. Baker (August 6, 1926–December 26, 1987) spent a decade following earth’s fastest flying bird on bicycle and on foot, possessed by its “restless brilliance.” When he unloosed The Peregrine (public library) into the atmosphere of culture in 1967 — an atmosphere shaped by the new ecological conscience awakened by Carson’s Silent Spring five years earlier — it was a clarion call and a consecration, entirely original, yet emanating Thoreau’s meticulous observation, Whitman’s ecstatic language, and Carson’s soulful reverence for the realities of nature in all their brutal beauty. An epoch later, it remains an ode to wonder, a field guide to observation as devotional practice, a passionate and poetic reminder that by attending closely and tenderly to any one thing, we recover our natural reverence for everything, our love of the world in all its strangeness and splendor.

Baker writes:

You cannot know what freedom means till you have seen a peregrine loosed into the warm spring sky to roam at will through all the far provinces of light.

Peregrine at Auchencairn by Archibald Thorburn, 1923. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

On the hierarchy of explanation, elucidation, and enchantment to which all writing about the natural world and the science of reality belongs, Baker is a virtuosic enchanter. The writing is at times almost unbearably beautiful — about the bird (“He was a small speck now, like the pupil of a distant eye. Serenely he floated. Then, like music breaking, he began to descend.”), and about the world lensed through the bird (“The day hardened in the easterly gale, like a flawless crystal. Columns of sunlight floated on the land. The unrelenting clarity of the air was solid, resonant, cold and pure and remote as the face of the dead.”) Echoing Carson’s insistence that “it is not half so important to know as to feel” — the ethos that made her own writing so enchanting and unexampled — Baker captures the key to writing at the level of enchantment:

I do not believe that honest observation is enough. The emotions and behaviour of the watcher are also facts, and they must be truthfully recorded.

Like me, Baker was a latecomer to the love of birds, having long seen them “only as a tremor at the edge of vision.” And then something broke open, broke free. For ten years, he spent his winters “looking upward for that cloud-biting anchor shape, that crossbow flinging through the air,” learning along the way a new way of seeing — the peregrine’s way. (“To see takes time,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote, “like to have a friend takes time.”) In consonance with the most eternal line from The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Baker observes:

The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.

Peregrines from Coloured Illustrations of British Birds and Their Eggs by Henry Leonard Meyer, 1864. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

There is, of course, first the biological marvel of the peregrine’s sight, which renders visible not just to the soul but the eye itself layers of reality invisible to us:

The eyes of a falcon peregrine weigh approximately one ounce each; they are larger and heavier than human eyes. If our eyes were in the same proportion to our bodies as the peregrine’s are to his, a twelve-stone man would have eyes three inches across, weighing four pounds. The whole retina of a hawk’s eye records a resolution of distant objects that is twice as acute as that of the human retina. Where the lateral and binocular visions focus, there are deep-pitted foveal areas; their numerous cells record a resolution eight times as great as ours. This means that a hawk, endlessly scanning the landscape with small abrupt turns of his head, will pick up any point of movement; by focusing upon it he can immediately make it flare up into larger, clearer view.

The peregrine’s view of the land is like the yachtsman’s view of the shore as he sails into the long estuaries. A wake of water recedes behind him, the wake of the pierced horizon glides back on either side. Like the seafarer, the peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water. We who are anchored and earthbound cannot envisage this freedom of the eye. The peregrine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endlessly varying quadrilateral shapes of fields. He finds his way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries.

Gyr-falcon and peregrine falcon by Archibald Thorburn, 1915. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

From this astonishing physiology of seeing arises an astonishing way of being, alien to ours — a vivid reminder that this one planet, this common home to every creature that ever was and ever will be, is composed of billions upon billions of different worlds, each particular to the consciousness that inhabits it. In one of the book’s most exquisite passages, Baker slips into the consciousness of the peregrine, body and soul:

Slowly he drifted above the orchard skyline and circled down wind, curving upward and round in long steep glides. He passed from the cold white sky of the south, up to the warm blue zenith, ascending the wind-bent thermal with wonderful ease and skill. His long-winged, blunt-headed shape contracted, dwindled, and darkened to the flinty point of a diamond as he circled high and far over; hanging and drifting above; indolent, watchful, supreme. Looking down, the hawk saw the big orchard beneath him shrink into dark twiggy lines and green strips; saw the dark woods closing together and reaching out across the hills; saw the green and white fields turning to brown; saw the silver line of the brook, and the coiled river slowly uncoiling; saw the whole valley flattening and widening; saw the horizon staining with distant towns; saw the estuary lifting up its blue and silver mouth, tongued with green islands. And beyond, beyond all, he saw the straight-ruled shine of the sea floating like a rim of mercury on the surface of the brown and white land. The sea, rising as he rose, lifted its blazing storm of light, and thundered to freedom to the land-locked hawk… I watched him with longing, as though he were reflecting down to me his brilliant unregarded vision of the land beyond the hill… He sank forward into the wind, and passed slowly down across the sun. I had to let him go. When I looked back, through green and violet nebulae of whirling light, I could just see a tiny speck of dusk falling to earth from the sun, flashing and turning and falling through an immense silence that crashed open in a tumult of shrilling, wing-beating birds.


Standing in the fields near the north orchard, I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind. Warm and firm-footed in long grass smelling of the sun, I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk. The ground became a branch to my feet, the sun on my eyelids was heavy and warm. Like the hawk, I heard and hated the sound of man, that faceless horror of the stony places. I stifled in the same filthy sack of fear. I shared the same hunter’s longing for the wild home none can know, alone with the sight and smell of the quarry, under the indifferent sky. I felt the pull of the north, the mystery and fascination of the migrating gulls. I shared the same strange yearning to be gone. I sank down and slept into the feather-light sleep of the hawk.

Couple The Peregrine — one of Werner Herzog’s five requisite books for any filmmaker — with the fascinating science of what it’s like to be an owl, what it’s like to be a whale, and what it’s like to be a dog, then revisit Helen Macdonald’s exquisite recollection of what a hawk taught her about love and loss.


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