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You Are Not the Target: Laura Huxley on Course-Correcting the Paths of Love and Not-Love

“In all its manifestations and however it is produced, not-love tends to beget not-love. The energy of love is needed to reconvert not-love into love.”

You Are Not the Target: Laura Huxley on Course-Correcting the Paths of Love and Not-Love

“Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” Bertrand Russell wrote in 1926, “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” And yet, again and again, we slide down the easier path of destruction, among and within ourselves, in our political and our personal lives.

The Italian-American writer, musician, filmmaker, and psychiatrist Laura Archera Huxley (November 2, 1911–December 13, 2007) frames these two parallel potentialities as the paths of love and not-love. In her 1963 book You Are Not the Target: A Practical Manual on How to Cope with a World of Bewildering Change and Uncertainty (public library), Huxley offers actionable course-correction toward the path of love, the wellspring of our constructive and creative potential, through a series of “recipes” — psychological practices with embodied elements of physical action — that address everything from processing pain to discerning one’s purpose to transmuting stress into creative energy. Drawing on her work as a psychological counselor, Huxley sets out to “quicken people toward realizing their creative potentialities in their own way in spite of all authorities, dogmas, tranquilizers, credit cards, and pace-of-mind-by-mail,” animated by the conviction that the most essential aspect of our creative potential is “to make good use of ourselves and what we are here and now, at each successive moment.”

Her husband, Aldous Huxley, writes in the foreword to the book:

These recipes work. I have tried some of them on myself and found them remarkably effective.

Laura Huxley (Photograph: John Engstead)

In her opening chapter, Huxley frames the central premise of her approach:

At one time or another the more fortunate among us make three startling discoveries.

Discovery number one: Each one of us has, in varying degree, the power to make others feel better or worse.

Discovery number two: Making others feel better is much more fun than making them feel worse.

Discovery number three: Making others feel better generally makes us feel better.

More than half a century after Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Huxley considers the ethic of love at the heart of some of our humankind’s most influential philosophical, moral, and political movements:

Total love has been recommended for centuries as the total panacea: obviously true, obviously unattainable. Theoretically we all know that total love is the solution to all our problems, but in practice most of us behave most of the time as if this truth has never been discovered.

Whenever love is outweighed by not-love the organism is in trouble. Not-love may be brought about by the wrong inflection in a voice today, or by a nutritional shortage which began years ago. It may be the result of a sexual relationship with a companion whose chemistry does not blend with ours, or with one whose chemical affinity is harmonious with ours but whose mental and emotional being is inharmonious.

Not-love may be due to a loss in the stock market, to the non-arrival of an expected letter, to weariness and fatigue at the end of yet another day of dreary routine. Not-love may be the beaming smile with which a salesman must meet an important client, or a hostess an unwanted guest. It may stem from a serious loss or from some obscure endocrine reaction to climatic or atmospheric conditions. It may be due to too much of something or too little of something. Not-love may be the result of fanatical belief or secret doubt about the deity, church, party, ideology that we have chosen or have somehow been manipulated into choosing. Not-love may spring from a sound or a color, from a form or a smell. It may be a painful ingrown toe-nail or the release of the atomic bomb.

In all its manifestations and however it is produced, not-love tends to beget not-love. The energy of love is needed to reconvert not-love into love.

Writing just a few years after Harry Harlow’s controversial studies of baby rhesus monkeys demonstrated the atrocious psychophysiological effects of love-deprivation and after Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted that “along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate,” Huxley adds:

Disguised in a thousand forms, hidden under an infinite variety of masks, love starvation is even more rampant than food starvation. It invades all classes and all peoples. It occurs in all climates, on every social and economic level. It seems to occur in all forms of life.


In a family, love starvation begets love starvation in one generation after another until a rebel in that family breaks the malevolent chain. If you find yourself in such a family, BE THAT REBEL!

Complement this particular portion of You Are Not the Target, throughout the rest of which Huxley offers a set of psychological and physiological tools designed to “help a world desperately needing love and desperately afflicted with the infectious disease of not-love,” with Albert Camus on what it really means to be a rebel, the humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, and the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to love, then revisit Aldous Huxley on how to get out of your own way.


The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on What Self-Love Really Means and Why It Is the Basic Condition for a Sane Society

“In the experience of love lies the only answer to being human, lies sanity.”

The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on What Self-Love Really Means and Why It Is the Basic Condition for a Sane Society

“We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Joan Didion famously wrote in making her case for the value of keeping a notebook. But many of us frequently find it hard enough to be on nodding terms even with the people we currently are. “We have to imagine a world in which celebration is less suspect than criticism,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote in contemplating the perils of self-criticism and how to break free from the internal critics that enslave us. And yet can we even imagine self-celebration — do we even know what it looks like — if we are so blindly bedeviled by self-criticism? Can we, in other words, celebrate what we cannot accept and therefore cannot love?

How to break this Möbius strip of self-rejection is what the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) explores in a portion of his timeless 1956 treatise The Sane Society (public library) — the source of Fromm’s increasingly timely wisdom on our best shot at saving ourselves from ourselves.

Erich Fromm

Fromm frames love as what he calls “the productive orientation” of the psyche, an “active and creative relatedness of man to his fellow man, to himself and to nature.” He writes:

In the realm of feeling, the productive orientation is expressed in love, which is the experience of union with another person, with all men, and with nature, under the condition of retaining one’s sense of integrity and independence. In the experience of love the paradox happens that two people become one, and remain two at the same time. Love in this sense is never restricted to one person. If I can love only one person, and nobody else, if my love for one person makes me more alienated and distant from my fellow man, I may be attached to this person in any number of ways, yet I do not love.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

Just as self-compassion is the seedbed of compassion, Fromm argues that such all-inclusive love must begin with self-love:

If I can say, “I love you,” I say, “I love in you all of humanity, all that is alive; I love in you also myself.” Self-love, in this sense, is the opposite of selfishness. The latter is actually a greedy concern with oneself which springs from and compensates for the lack of genuine love for oneself. Love, paradoxically, makes me more independent because it makes me stronger and happier — yet it makes me one with the loved person to the extent that individuality seems to be extinguished for the moment. In loving I experience “I am you,” you — the loved person, you — the stranger, you — everything alive. In the experience of love lies the only answer to being human, lies sanity.

Fromm is careful to point out that in this “productive orientation,” love is not a passive abstraction but an active responsibility. Shortly before Martin Luther King, Jr. made his abiding case for the respectful and responsible love of agape, Fromm writes:

Productive love always implies a syndrome of attitudes; that of care, responsibility, respect and knowledge. If I love, I care — that is, I am actively concerned with the other person’s growth and happiness; I am not a spectator. I am responsible, that is, I respond to his needs, to those he can express and more so to those he cannot or does not express. I respect him, that is (according to the original meaning of re-spicere) I look at him as he is, objectively and not distorted by my wishes and fears. I know him, I have penetrated through his surface to the core of his being and related myself to him from my core, from the center, as against the periphery, of my being.

The Sane Society is an enormously insightful read in its totality. Complement it with Fromm on the art of living, the art of loving, and how to transcend the common laziness of optimism and pessimism, then revisit this animated primer on the difficult art of self-compassion.


Political Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How to Tame Our Raging Reactivity and Nurture Our Noblest Civic Selves

“We need … to investigate, and to cherish, whatever helps us to see the uneven and often unlovely destiny of human beings in the world with humor, tenderness, and delight, rather than with absolutist rage for an impossible sort of perfection.”

Political Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How to Tame Our Raging Reactivity and Nurture Our Noblest Civic Selves

“The heart has got to open in a fundamental way,” Leonard Cohen sang in his timeless ode to democracy — an insight not blunted by romantic mysticism but, like every Cohen lyric, honed by the complex reality of life and the most elemental truths of the human experience. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this when, in laying the groundwork for nonviolent resistance, he asserted: “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.” Half a century earlier, Tolstoy had articulated the same notion in his correspondence with Gandhi, one of Dr. King’s great influences: “Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills.”

In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (public library), Martha Nussbaum — whom I continue to consider the most effective and compelling philosopher of our time — furnishes the incisive, layered philosophical substantiation of this idea, drawing on her earlier exploration of the intelligence of emotions and on a canon of thinkers as varied as Kant, Whitman, Tagore, Mozart, and King. What emerges is a work of tremendous lucidity, but also of robust hope that we are capable of taming the wilderness of even our most ferocious emotions into a garden abloom with love, justice, equality, and human dignity.

Martha Nussbaum

Nussbaum writes:

All societies are full of emotions. Liberal democracies are no exception. The story of any day or week in the life of even a relatively stable democracy would include a host of emotions — anger, fear, sympathy, disgust, envy, guilt, grief, many forms of love. Some of these episodes of emotion have little to do with political principles or the public culture, but others are different: they take as their object the nation, the nation’s goals, its institutions and leaders, its geography, and one’s fellow citizens seen as fellow inhabitants of a common public space.


Such public emotions, frequently intense, have large-scale consequences for the nation’s progress toward its goals. They can give the pursuit of those goals new vigor and depth, but they can also derail that pursuit, introducing or reinforcing divisions, hierarchies, and forms of neglect or obtuseness.

In a sentiment of extraordinary prescience — for Nussbaum’s writing predates the shrill political moment of the present by a good while — she cautions:

Sometimes people suppose that only fascist or aggressive societies are intensely emotional and that only such societies need to focus on the cultivation of emotions. Those beliefs are both mistaken and dangerous. They are mistaken, because all societies need to think about the stability of their political culture over time and the security of cherished values in times of stress. All societies, then, need to think about compassion for loss, anger at injustice, the limiting of envy and disgust in favor of inclusive sympathy.

Art by Alice and Martin Provensen from a vintage adaptation of Homer for young readers

She adds what may be the finest, clearest formulation of what went wrong with the 2016 American presidential election and Brexit, well before either catastrophe:

Ceding the terrain of emotion-shaping to antiliberal forces gives them a huge advantage in the people’s hearts and risks making people think of liberal values as tepid and boring.

Nussbaum considers the antidote to such corrosive forces and the two central roles of our political emotions:

All political principles, the good as well as the bad, need emotional support to ensure their stability over time, and all decent societies need to guard against division and hierarchy by cultivating appropriate sentiments of sympathy and love.

In the type of liberal society that aspires to justice and equal opportunity for all, there are two tasks for the political cultivation of emotion. One is to engender and sustain strong commitment to worthy projects that require effort and sacrifice — such as social redistribution, the full inclusion of previously excluded or marginalized groups, the protection of the environment, foreign aid, and the national defense. Most people tend toward narrowness of sympathy. They can easily become immured in narcissistic projects and forget about the needs of those outside their narrow circle. Emotions directed at the nation and its goals are frequently of great help in getting people to think larger thoughts and recommit themselves to a larger common good.

The other related task for the cultivation of public emotion is to keep at bay forces that lurk in all societies and, ultimately, in all of us: tendencies to protect the fragile self by denigrating and subordinating others… Disgust and envy, the desire to inflict shame upon others—all of these are present in all societies, and, very likely, in every individual human life. Unchecked, they can inflict great damage. The damage they do is particularly great when they are relied upon as guides in the process of lawmaking and social formation… But even when a society has avoided falling into that trap, these forces lurk in society and need to be counteracted energetically by an education that cultivates the ability to see full and equal humanity in another person, perhaps one of humanity’s most difficult and fragile achievements. An important part of that education is performed by the public political culture, which represents the nation and its people in a particular way. It can include or exclude, cement hierarchies or dismantle them — as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its breathtaking fiction that the United States has always been dedicated to racial equality, so stirringly does.

One particularly timely and illuminating aspect of the book deals with the question of protest, free speech, and the parameters within which dissent is constructive rather than destructive. A century and a half after Thoreau’s abiding treatise on how to use civil disobedience to advance justice, Nussbaum writes:

The space for subversion and dissent should remain as large as is consistent with civic order and stability.

She opens the book with Walt Whitman, who not only illuminated these ideals of truth, justice, and equality with the sidewise gleam of his poetry but also shone on them a direct rhetorical beam in what remains one of humanity’s greatest meditations on democracy. Considering his particularly transcendent form of dissent, Nussbaum writes:

What Whitman is striving to create is a public ritual of mourning expressing renewed dedication to the unfinished task of realizing America’s best ideals, a “public poetry” that will put flesh on the bones of liberty and equality.

Art by Allen Crawford from Whitman Illuminated

Half a century after James Baldwin’s case for the poet’s role in a divided society and John F. Kennedy’s memorable assertion that “when power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” Nussbaum considers the political power of poetry as a tool for enlarging the scope of love and, to borrow Einstein’s phrase, for widening our circles of compassion:

Poets … cleverly hold their intended audience through sufficient rootedness in culture and history: indeed, it is rather remarkable that figures as radical as Whitman and Tagore should be so widely and intensely loved and accepted. But then they challenge their cultures to be the best they can be, and far better than they have been before. Thus a kind of political love that has its roots in specific traditions can also be aspirational and even radical. “I am he,” writes Whitman, “who tauntingly compels men, women, nations, / Crying, Leap from your seats and contend for your lives!”

Both poets suggest by their choices that the problems of their troubled societies need to be confronted in a spirit of love, through works that tap deeply into the roots of people’s anxious confrontation with their mortality and finitude.


All of the core emotions that sustain a decent society have their roots in, or are forms of, love — by which I mean intense attachments to things outside the control of our will… Love… is what gives respect for humanity its life, making it more than a shell. If love is needed even in [a] well-ordered society … it is needed all the more urgently in real, imperfect societies that aspire to justice.

Art from the 1969 children’s primer How Our Government Helps Us

Nussbaum considers the particular type of self-transcendence necessary for enacting this aspiration and the psychosocial tools that make it possible:

We need … to investigate, and to cherish, whatever helps us to see the uneven and often unlovely destiny of human beings in the world with humor, tenderness, and delight, rather than with absolutist rage for an impossible sort of perfection. A primary source of political difficulty is the ubiquitous human wish to surmount the helplessness that is so large a part of human life — to rise, we might say, above the messiness of the “merely human.” Many forms of public emotion feed fantasies of invulnerability, and those emotions are pernicious. [A democratic society] will succeed only if it finds ways to make the human lovable, inhibiting disgust and shame.

In the remainder of the thoroughly terrific Political Emotions, Nussbaum goes on to explore various frontiers of opportunity for curbing the calamitous reactivity of our political emotions and placing love at the center of our civic universe, wresting reality-tested wisdom from things as varied as the French Revolution, the opera The Marriage of Figaro, the New Deal, and Auguste Comte’s idea of “religion of humanity.” Complement it with Adrienne Rich on politics and poetry and James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s forgotten conversation about morality and the political power of art, then revisit Nussbaum on agency and victimhood, anger and forgiveness, the intelligence of our emotions, and how to live with our human fragility.


Undersea: Rachel Carson’s Lyrical and Revolutionary 1937 Masterpiece Inviting Humans to Explore Earth from the Perspective of Other Creatures

“Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”

Undersea: Rachel Carson’s Lyrical and Revolutionary 1937 Masterpiece Inviting Humans to Explore Earth from the Perspective of Other Creatures

Pioneering biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with the groundbreaking publication of Silent Spring in 1962, but the spark for this slow-burning revolution was kindled a quarter century earlier, while 28-year-old Carson was working for what would later become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When she was tasked with writing a brochure for the Fisheries Bureau, summarizing their annual research findings, Carson transmuted the science into poetry and turned in something so exquisitely lyrical that her supervisor told her they simply couldn’t publish it as their standard government report. But he encouraged her to submit it to The Atlantic Monthly as an essay. She did. It was enthusiastically accepted and published in the September 1937 issue as the trailblazing masterpiece “Undersea” under the byline R.L. Carson — a choice reflective of Carson’s era-calibrated fear that her writing wouldn’t be taken as seriously if her gender was known. Ironically, of the twenty-one contributors in that issue of the magazine, Carson’s name is the only one widely recognized today.

The essay became the backbone of Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind, which remained her favorite piece of writing, and was later included in the excellent Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (public library).

Rachel Carson

Creatively, “Undersea” was unlike anything ever published before — Carson brought a strong literary aesthetic to science, which over the next two decades would establish her as the most celebrated science writer of her time. Conceptually, it accomplished something even Darwin hadn’t — it invited the reader to step beyond our reflexive human hubris and empathically explore this Pale Blue Dot from the vantage point of the innumerable other creatures with which we share it. Decades before philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote his iconic essay “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” and nearly a century before Sy Montgomery’s beautiful inquiry into the soul of an octopus, Carson considered the experience of other consciousnesses. What the nature writer Henry Beston, one of Carson’s great heroes, brought to the land, she brought first to the sea, then to all of Earth — intensely lyrical prose undergirded by a lively reverence for nature and a sympathetic curiosity about the reality of other living beings.

Long before scientists like pioneering oceanographer Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle plunged into the depths of the ocean, Carson shepherds the human imagination to the mysterious wonderland thriving below the surface of the seas that envelop Earth:

Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere. Nor can we know the vicissitudes of life on the ocean floor, where sunlight, filtering through a hundred feet of water, makes but a fleeting, bluish twilight, in which dwell sponge and mollusk and starfish and coral, where swarms of diminutive fish twinkle through the dusk like a silver rain of meteors, and eels lie in wait among the rocks. Even less is it given to man to descend those six incomprehensible miles into the recesses of the abyss, where reign utter silence and unvarying cold and eternal night.

To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water.

North Pacific Giant Octopus by photographer Mark Laita from his project Sea

After a tour of some of the ocean’s most unusual and dazzling creatures, Carson considers the glorious and inevitable interconnectedness of the natural world, no different from the “inescapable network of mutuality” which Martin Luther King so passionately championed in the human world. She writes:

The ocean is a place of paradoxes. It is the home of the great white shark, two thousand pound killer of the seas. And of the hundred foot blue whale, the largest animal that ever lived. It is also the home of living things so small that your two hands may scoop up as many of them as there are stars in the Milky Way. And it is becoming of the flowering of astronomical numbers of these diminutive plants known as diatoms, that the surface waters of the ocean are in reality boundless pastures.

Every marine animal, from the smallest to the sharks and whales is ultimately dependent for its food upon these microscopic entities of the vegetable life of the ocean. Within their fragile walls, the sea performs a vital alchemy that utilizes the sterile chemical elements dissolved in the water and welds them with the torch of sunlight into the stuff of life. Only through the little-understood synthesis of proteins, fats and carbohydrates by myriad plant “producers” is the mineral wealth of the sea made available to the animal “consumers” that browse as they float with the currents. Drifting endlessly, midway between the sea of air above and the depths of the abyss below, these strange creatures and the marine inflorescence that sustains them are called “plankton” — the wanderers.

Art by Rambharos Jha from Waterlife

Carson continues her marine expedition farther and deeper into the ocean, to return in the final paragraphs to this central interconnectedness of life — perhaps, she poetically suggests, our only real taste of immortality:

While bottoms near the shore are covered with detritus from the land, the remains of the floating and swimming creatures of the sea prevail in the deep waters of the open ocean. Beneath the tropical seas, in depths of 1000 to 1500 fathoms, calcareous oozes cover nearly a third of the ocean floor; while the colder waters of the temperate and polar regions release to the underlying bottom the silicious remains of diatoms and Radiolaria. In the red clay that carpets the great deeps at 5000 fathoms or more, such delicate skeletons are extremely rare. Among the few organic remains not dissolved before they reach these cold and silent depths are the ear bones of whales and the teeth of sharks.

Thus we see parts of the plan fall into place: the water receiving from earth and air the simple materials, storing them up into the gathering energy of the spring wakens the sleeping plants to a burst of dynamic energy, hungry swarms of planktonic animals growing and multiplying upon the abundant plants, and themselves falling prey to the shoals of fish; all, in the end; to be redissolved into their component substances when the inexorable laws of the sea demand it. Individual elements are lost to view, only to repair again and again in different incarnations in a kind material immortality. Kindred forces to those which, in some period inconceivably remote, gave birth to that primeval bit of protoplasm tossing on the ancient seas continue their mighty and incomprehensible work. Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.

Complement the altogether fantastic Lost Woods with Carson courageous and prescient 1953 protest against the government’s assault on science and nature, the story of how she awakened the modern environmental conscience, and her touching farewell to her beloved, then revisit these gorgeous illustrations of sea creatures from Indian folklore and Susan Middleton’s mesmerizing photographs of marine invertebrates.

UPDATE: For more on Carson, her epoch-making cultural contribution, and her unusual private life, she is the crowning figure in my book Figuring.


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