Happy Birthday, Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living

Here’s the link to this essay.

Reflections on how to keep the center solid as you continue to evolve.


UPDATE: The fine folks of Holstee have turned these seven learnings into a gorgeous letterpress poster inspired by mid-century children’s book illustration.

On October 23, 2006, I sent a short email to a few friends at work — one of the four jobs I held while paying my way through college — with the subject line “brain pickings,” announcing my intention to start a weekly digest featuring five stimulating things to learn about each week, from a breakthrough in neuroscience to a timeless piece of poetry. “It should take no more than 4 minutes (hopefully much less) to read,” I promised. This was the inception of Brain Pickings. At the time, I neither planned nor anticipated that this tiny experiment would one day be included in the Library of Congress digital archive of “materials of historical importance” and the few friends would become millions of monthly readers all over the world, ranging from the Dutch high school student who wrote to me this morning to my 77-year-old grandmother in Bulgaria to the person in Wisconsin who mailed me strudel last week. (Thank you!) Above all, I had no idea that in the seven years to follow, this labor of love would become my greatest joy and most profound source of personal growth, my life and my living, my sense of purpose, my center. (For the curious, more on the origin story here.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘I’ll Be You and You Be Me’ by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

Looking back today on the thousands of hours I’ve spent researching and writing Brain Pickings and the countless collective hours of readership it has germinated — a smile-inducing failure on the four-minute promise — I choke up with gratitude for the privilege of this journey, for its endless rewards of heart, mind and spirit, and for all the choices along the way that made it possible. I’m often asked to offer advice to young people who are just beginning their own voyages of self-discovery, or those reorienting their calling at any stage of life, and though I feel utterly unqualified to give “advice” in that omniscient, universally wise sense the word implies, here are seven things I’ve learned in seven years of making those choices, of integrating “work” and life in such inextricable fusion, and in chronicling this journey of heart, mind and spirit — a journey that took, for whatever blessed and humbling reason, so many others along for the ride. I share these here not because they apply to every life and offer some sort of blueprint to existence, but in the hope that they might benefit your own journey in some small way, bring you closer to your own center, or even simply invite you to reflect on your own sense of purpose.

Illustration from ‘Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35.’ Click image for more.
  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking momentdictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?
  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.
One of Maurice Sendak’s vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading. Click image for more.

Then, just for good measure, here are seven of my favorite pieces from the past seven years. (Yes, it is exactly like picking your favorite child — so take it with a grain of salt.)

Character Type and Trope Thesaurus: Explorer

Here’s the link to this article.

May 13, 2023 by ANGELA ACKERMAN 1 Comment

In 1959, Carl Jung first popularized the idea of archetypes—”universal images that have existed since the remotest times.” He posited that every person is a blend of these 12 basic personalities. Ever since then, authors have been applying this idea to fictional characters, combining the different archetypes to come up with interesting new versions. The result is a sizable pool of character tropes that we see from one story to another.

Archetypes and tropes are popular storytelling elements because of their familiarity. Upon seeing them, readers know immediately who they’re dealing with and what role the nerd, dark lord, femme fatale, or monster hunter will play. As authors, we need to recognize the commonalities for each trope so we can write them in a recognizable way and create a rudimentary sketch for any character we want to create.

But when it comes to characters, no one wants just a sketch; we want a vibrant and striking cast full of color, depth, and contrast. Diving deeper into character creation is especially important when starting with tropes because the blessing of their familiarity is also a curse; without differentiation, the characters begin to look the same from story to story.

But no more. The Character Type and Trope Thesaurus allows you to outline the foundational elements of each trope while also exploring how to individualize them. In this way, you’ll be able to use historically tried-and-true character types to create a cast for your story that is anything but traditional.

Explorer Archetype

Explorers thrive on adventure and discovery. These trailblazers are unafraid of new experiences or challenges, and boldly moving into the unknown is a part of their identity.

FICTIONAL EXAMPLES: Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones Series), Captain Picard (Star Trek), Lara Croft (Tomb Raider), Evelyn O’Connell (The Mummy Franchise)

Adaptable, Adventurous, Ambitious, Appreciative, Bold, Confident, Curious, Decisive, Focused, Idealistic, Independent, Observant, Passionate, Persistent, Resourceful, Spontaneous, Wise

Abrasive, Cocky, Impatient, Impulsive, Macho, Manipulative, Obsessive, Possessive, Rebellious, Reckless, Selfish, Stubborn, Temperamental, Withdrawn, Workaholic

Nomadic tendencies (being on the move, never staying too long in one place)
Not needing much in the way of creature comforts
Having fewer attachments (to things, people, places)
Having a broad understanding of people, cultures, and customs
Knowing more than one language
Being highly spontaneous
Being a ‘figure it out as I go’ sort of person
Having a strong sense of purpose and a clear goal at all times
Able to think on their feet and adapt to changing circumstances
Being able to learn the rules of a new environment quickly
Excellent survival and navigation skills
Recovering from disappointments quickly and moving on
Being drawn in by stories
Being curious about people, places, and experiences
A desire to see and experience things first hand
Always being up for a trip, outing, or adventure
Being unafraid of new circumstances or challenges
Being a thrill-seeker
Not being turned off by danger or risk
More likely to act on instinct rather than through a deep analysis
The ability to size people up quickly
Needing to be talked out of things, rather than talked into them
Preferring their own company to the company of others
A tendency to believe the ends justify the means (when they believe in the cause)
Being a lifelong learner
Focusing on the journey, not the goal
A tendency to push to find their own limits (and then push to challenge them further)
Fearing a boring life more than anything else

Having no choice but to wait because another is in control of when things happen
Having to adhere to a routine
Being unable to travel (due to illness, legal restrictions, an injury, family responsibilities, etc.)
Being anchored by duty (becoming a caregiver to an elderly parent, having to run a family business, raising a child, etc.)
Being bound by rules and limitations
Having to give up personal freedom to serve the greater good
Being stuck in a single place for too long
Finding time for healthy, two-way relationships
Finding someone to talk through their feelings or struggles because while they may know a lot of people, few are close enough for those type of conversations
Being around people who are closed-minded and see the world in absolutes

Feeling selfish for wanting to be out discovering new things when it means others must stay behind and pick up the slack
Wanting to have relationships but knowing the other party will only end up feeling neglected
Feeling guilt for abandoning people when the next adventure calls
Guilt over risk-taking that impacts others negatively
Regret over what they chose to give up (possibly a place to call home, close family bonds, a life partner, etc.)
Knowing the personal growth they seek may come at the price of a lonely life

Finds ways to be dependable while making room for adventure
Gives back as a teacher or leader who encourages others to embrace open-mindedness
Becomes a role model to someone who is dependent or insecure, showing them how to become more independent
Is an explorer who is unselfish, putting the needs of others first


  • The “lone wolf” adventurer
  • The explorer who inspires deep loyalty despite never being around to nurture relationships
  • The adventurer who only travels to far off, obscure places
  • Being a collector of antiquities and objects when the lifestyle doesn’t support materialism

Other Type and Trope Thesaurus entries can be found here.

Need More Descriptive Help?

While this thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (16 unique thesauri and growing) is accessible through the One Stop for Writers THESAURUS database.

If you like, swing by and check out the video walkthrough for this site, and then give our Free Trial a spin.



Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.

Random readings/watchings/listenings about the writing craft–04/03/23

Day 2: Greenlight Your Story’s Concept

David Farland. Daily Meditations: Writer Tips for 100 Days (Kindle Location 131). You can read for free with KindleUnlimited.

Dinosaurs of the Sky: Consummate 19th-Century Scottish Natural History Illustrations of Birds

Here’s the link to this article.

From pigeons to parakeets, an uncommonly beautiful celebration of biodiversity.


Birds populate our metaphors, our poems, and our children’s books, entrance our imagination with their song and their chromatically ecstatic plumage, transport us on their tender wings back to the time of the dinosaurs they evolved from. But birds are a time machine in another way, too — not only evolutionarily but culturally: While the birth of photography revolutionized many sciences, birds remained as elusive as ever, difficult to capture with lens and shutter, so that natural history illustration has remained the most expressive medium for their study and celebration.

To my eye, the most consummate drawings of birds in the history of natural history date back to the 1830s, but they are not Audubon’s Birds of America — rather, they appeared on the other side of the Atlantic, in the first volume of The Edinburgh Journal of Natural History and of the Physical Sciences, with the Animal Kingdom of the Baron Cuvier, published in the wake of the pioneering paleontologist Georges Cuvier’s death.

Hundreds of different species of birds — some of them now endangered, some on the brink of extinction — populate the lavishly illustrated pages, clustered in kinship groups as living visual lists of dazzling biodiversity.

Titmice. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Sugarbirds. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Shrikes. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Shrikes. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Thrush-shrikes. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Tangers. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Gnat-catchers. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Chats. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Pittas. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Orioles. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Warblers. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Kinglets. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Owls. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)

Owls. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)

Wrens. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Eurylaimidae. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Bunting. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Finches. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Crossbills. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Jays. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Sunbirds. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Hoopoes. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Bee-eaters. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Hornbills. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Woodpeckers. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Trogon. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Cockatoos. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Lories and parakeets. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Quails. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Harrier hawks. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Pigeons. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Pigeons. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Pigeons. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)

Among the cornucopia of species depicted — pigeons and parakeets, warblers and jays, woodpeckers and owls, sunbirds and sugarbirds — none occupy more space than hummingbirds, perhaps due to their enduring enchantment partway between science and magic.

Hummingbirds. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Hummingbirds. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Hummingbirds. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Hummingbirds. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
Hummingbirds. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)

Couple with some stunning 19th-century ink illustrations of owls, dial back a century with the trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct species, and dive into the fascinating science of feathers.

Nick Cave on the Art of Growing Older

Here’s the link to this article.

“We’re often led to believe that getting older is in itself somehow a betrayal of our idealistic younger self, but sometimes I think it might be the other way around.”


Nick Cave on the Art of Growing Older

“The perilous time for the most highly gifted is not youth,” the visionary Elizabeth Peabody, who coined the term transcendentalism, wrote in her timeless admonition against the trap of complacency. “The perilous season is middle age, when a false wisdom tempts them to doubt the divine origin of the dreams of their youth.”

A century and a half after her, contemplating how to keep life from becoming a parody of itself, Simone de Beauvoir observed: “In old age we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in on ourselves.”

Moving through the stages of life and meeting each on its own terms is the supreme art of living — the ultimate test of self-respect and self-love. Often, what most blunts our vitality is the tendency for the momentum of a past stage to steer the present one, even though our priorities and passions have changed beyond recognition.

How to honor the unfolding of life without a punitive clinging to past selves is what Nick Cave explores in a passage from Faith, Hope and Carnage — one of my favorite books of 2022.

Nick Cave in Newcastle, 2022.

At sixty-five, he reflects:

We’re often led to believe that getting older is in itself somehow a betrayal of our idealistic younger self, but sometimes I think it might be the other way around. Maybe the younger self finds it difficult to inhabit its true potential because it has no idea what that potential is. It is a kind of unformed thing running scared most of the time, frantically trying to build its sense of self — This is me! Here I am! — in any way that it can. But then time and life come along, and smash that sense of self into a million pieces.

In consonance with the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön’s insight that “only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” he considers what is found on the other side of that self-shattering:

Then comes the reassembled self, the self you have to put back together. You no longer have to devote time to finding out what you are, you are just free to be whatever you want to be, unimpeded by the incessant needs of others. You somehow grow into the fullness of your humanity, form your own character, become a proper person — I don’t know, someone who has become a part of things, not someone separated from or at odds with the world.

A generation earlier, Bertrand Russell touched on this in his astute observation that growing older contentedly is matter of being able to “make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”

Complement with Grace Paley on the art of growing older, then revisit Nick Cave on self-forgivenessthe relationship between vulnerability and freedom, and the antidote to our existential helplessness.

The Beginning and the End: Robinson Jeffers’s Epic Poem About the Interwoven Mystery of Mind and Universe

Here’s the link to this article.

“Pleasure and pain, wonder, love, adoration, hatred and terror: how do these thing grow from a chemical reaction?”


The Beginning and the End: Robinson Jeffers’s Epic Poem About the Interwoven Mystery of Mind and Universe

“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” the anthropologist and philosopher of science Loren Eiseley wrote in his poetic meditation on life in 1960. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

The history of our species is the history of forgetting. Our deepest existential longing is the longing for remembering this cosmic belonging, and the work of creativity is the work of reminding us. We may give the tendrils of our creative longing different names — poetry or physics, music or mathematics, astronomy or art — but they all give us one thing: an antidote to forgetting, so that we may live, even for a little while, wonder-smitten by reality.

In the same era, the science-inspired poet Robinson Jeffers (January 10, 1887–January 20, 1962) took up this reckoning in the final years of his life in an immense and ravishing poem that became the title of his collection The Beginning and the End (public library | free ebook), published the year after his death.

Robinson Jeffers by Edward Weston

Jeffers was not only an exquisite literary artist, but a visionary who bent his sight and insight far past the horizon of his time — he wrote about climate change long before it was even a tremor of a worry in the common mind, even though he died months before Rachel Carson published her epoch-making Silent Spring, which awakened the human mind from its ecological somnolence and seeded the environmental movement. But although he is celebrated as one of the great environmental poets, he was as enchanted by the wonders of nature on Earth as beyond it, for he understood better than any artist since Whitman that these are parts of a single and awesome reality, and we are part of it too — not as spectators, not as explorers, but as living stardust.

Born into an era when the atom was still an exotic notion for the average person and molecules a mystifying abstraction, Jeffers drew richly on the fundamental realities of nature — in no small part because his brother, Hamilton Jeffers, was one of the era’s most esteemed astronomers, having gotten his start at the Lick Observatory — the world’s first real mountaintop observatory, where the first new moon of Jupiter since the Galilean four had been discovered months before Hamilton was born.

Jupiter and its then-four moons by the self-taught 17th-century astronomer and artist Maria Clara Eimmart

Jeffers wrote about black holes and the Big Bang, about amino acids and novae, about the indivisibility of it all — nowhere more beautifully than in “The Beginning and the End.”

Sixty springs after he returned his borrowed stardust to the universe, his eternal poem came alive in a redwood-nested amphitheater down the mountain from the Lick Observatory, as the opening poem of the fifth annual Universe in Verse, read by my darling astronomer friend Natalie Batalha, who led the epoch-making discovery of more than 4,000 potential cradles for life by NASA’s Kepler mission and now continues her work on the search for life beyond our solar system with the astrobiology program at UC Santa Cruz.

As usual, Natalie prefaced her reading with a poignant reflection that is itself nothing less than a prose poem about the nature of life and its responsibility to nature — that is, to itself:

We are Earth. We are the planet. We are the biosphere. We are not distinct from nature.

Yet, at the same time, we are, as life — as living things: ourselves, the redwoods, the birds overhead — we are the pinnacle of complexity in the universe, from the Big Bang until now. It took 13.7 billion years for the atoms to come together to form this portal of self-awareness that is you.


Given this ephemeral existence that we have, of self-awareness, what are you going to do with your moment? What are we, as a species, going to do with our moment?


by Robinson Jeffers

The unformed volcanic earth, a female thing,
Furiously following with the other planets
Their lord the sun: her body is molten metal pressed rigid
By its own mass; her beautiful skin, basalt and granite and the lighter elements,
Swam to the top. She was like a mare in her heat eyeing the stallion,
Screaming for life in the womb; her atmosphere
Was the breath of her passion: not the blithe air
Men breathe and live, but marsh-gas, ammonia, sulphured hydrogen,
Such poison as our remembering bodies return to
When they die and decay and the end of life
Meets its beginning. The sun heard her and stirred
Her thick air with fierce lightnings and flagellations
Of germinal power, building impossible molecules, amino-acids
And flashy unstable proteins: thence life was born,
Its nitrogen from ammonia, carbon from methane,
Water from the cloud and salts from the young seas,
It dribbled down into the primal ocean like a babe’s urine
Soaking the cloth: heavily built protein molecules
Chemically growing, bursting apart as the tensions
In the inordinate molecule become unbearable —
That is to say, growing and reproducing themselves, a virus
On the warm ocean.

Time and the world changed,
The proteins were no longer created, the ammoniac atmosphere
And the great storms no more. This virus now
Must labor to maintain itself. It clung together
Into bundles of life, which we call cells,
With microscopic walls enclosing themselves
Against the world. But why would life maintain itself,
Being nothing but a dirty scum on the sea
Dropped from foul air? Could it perhaps perceive
Glories to come? Could it foresee that cellular life
Would make the mountain forest and the eagle dawning,
Monstrously beautiful, wings, eyes and claws, dawning
Over the rock-ridge? And the passionate human intelligence
Straining its limits, striving to understand itself and the universe to the last galaxy.


What is this thing called life? — But I believe
That the earth and stars too, and the whole glittering universe, and rocks on the mountain have life,
Only we do not call it so — I speak of the life
That oxydizes fats and proteins and carbo-
Hydrates to live on, and from that chemical energy
Makes pleasure and pain, wonder, love, adoration, hatred and terror: how do these thing grow
From a chemical reaction?

I think they were here already. I think the rocks
And the earth and the other planets, and the stars and galaxies
Have their various consciousness, all things are conscious;
But the nerves of an animal, the nerves and brain
Bring it to focus


The human soul.
The mind of man…
Slowly, perhaps, man may grow into it —
Do you think so? This villainous king of beasts, this deformed ape? — He has mind
And imagination, he might go far
And end in honor. The hawks are more heroic but man has a steeper mind,
Huge pits of darkness, high peaks of light,
You may calculate a comet’s orbit or the dive of a hawk, not a man’s mind.

Complement with other highlights from The Universe in Verse — including readings and reflections by Rebecca Solnit, Yo-Yo Ma, Patti Smith, and more — then savor Jeffers’s breathtaking letter to the principal of an all-girls Catholic school about moral beauty and the interconnectedness of the universe.

Do Not Despise Your Inner World: Advice on a Full Life from Philosopher Martha Nussbaum

Here’s the link to this article.

“Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger.”

Martha Nussbaum


When he was twenty-one, artist and writer James Harmon stumbled into a bookstore and found himself mesmerized by a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the central concerns in which — love, fear, art, doubt, sex — resonated powerfully with his restless young mind and inspired him to envision what advice to young people might look like a century after Rilke. So he set out to create an antidote to the “toxic cloud of tepid-broth wisdom” found in books “with the shelf life of a banana” that the contemporary publishing world peddled and reached out to some of the most “outspoken provocateurs, funky philosophers, cunning cultural critics, social gadflies, cyberpunks, raconteurs, radical academics, literary outlaws, and obscure but wildly talented poets. The result, a decade in the making and the stubborn survivor of ample publishing pressure to grind it into precisely the kind of mush Harmon was determined to avoid, is Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — an anthology of thoughtful, honest, brave, unfluffed advice from 79 cultural icons, including Mark HelprinKatharine HepburnBette Davis, and William S. Burroughs.

One of the most poignant letters comes from philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who makes an eloquent case for the importance of cultivating a rich inner life by celebrating emotional excess as a generative forceembracing vulnerabilitynot fearing feelings, and harnessing the empathic power of storytelling.

Martha Nussbaum

Do not despise your inner world. That is the first and most general piece of advice I would offer… Our society is very outward-looking, very taken up with the latest new object, the latest piece of gossip, the latest opportunity for self-assertion and status. But we all begin our lives as helpless babies, dependent on others for comfort, food, and survival itself. And even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve. As we grow, we all develop a wide range of emotions responding to this predicament: fear that bad things will happen and that we will be powerless to ward them off; love for those who help and support us; grief when a loved one is lost; hope for good things in the future; anger when someone else damages something we care about. Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions, and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them. Perhaps males, in our society, are especially likely to be ashamed of being incomplete and dependent, because a dominant image of masculinity tells them that they should be self-sufficient and dominant. So people flee from their inner world of feeling, and from articulate mastery of their own emotional experiences. The current psychological literature on the life of boys in America indicates that a large proportion of boys are quite unable to talk about how they feel and how others feel — because they have learned to be ashamed of feelings and needs, and to push them underground. But that means that they don’t know how to deal with their own emotions, or to communicate them to others. When they are frightened, they don’t know how to say it, or even to become fully aware of it. Often they turn their own fear into aggression. Often, too, this lack of a rich inner life catapults them into depression in later life. We are all going to encounter illness, loss, and aging, and we’re not well prepared for these inevitable events by a culture that directs us to think of externals only, and to measure ourselves in terms of our possessions of externals.

What is the remedy of these ills? A kind of self-love that does not shrink from the needy and incomplete parts of the self, but accepts those with interest and curiosity, and tries to develop a language with which to talk about needs and feelings. Storytelling plays a big role in the process of development. As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves. As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories — in literature, film, visual art, music — that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world. So my second piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: Read a lot of stories, listen to a lot of music, and think about what the stories you encounter mean for your own life and lives of those you love. In that way, you will not be alone with an empty self; you will have a newly rich life with yourself, and enhanced possibilities of real communication with others.

Complement with some timeless meditations on the meaning of life from other cultural icons, then revisit Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility and the intelligence of the emotions.