Last September, a very twenty-first-century type of story appeared on the company blog of the ride-sharing app Lyft. “Long-time Lyft driver and mentor, Mary, was nine months pregnant when she picked up a passenger the night of July 21st,” the post began. “About a week away from her due date, Mary decided to drive for a few hours after a day of mentoring.” You can guess what happened next.
Mary, who was driving in Chicago, picked up a few riders, and then started having contractions. “Since she was still a week away from her due date,” Lyft wrote, “she assumed they were simply a false alarm and continued driving.” As the contractions continued, Mary decided to drive to the hospital. “Since she didn’t believe she was going into labor yet,” Lyft went on, “she stayed in driver mode, and sure enough—ping!— she received a ride request en route to the hospital.”
Fiverr, an online freelance marketplace that promotes itself as being for “the lean entrepreneur,” recently attracted ire for an ad campaign called “In Doers We Trust.”
“Luckily,” as Lyft put it, the passenger requested a short trip. After completing it, Mary went to the hospital, where she was informed that she was in labor. She gave birth to a daughter, whose picture appears in the post. (She’s wearing a “Little Miss Lyft” onesie.) The post concludes with a call for similar stories: “Do you have an exciting Lyft story you’d love to share? Tweet us your story at @lyft_CHI!”
Mary’s story looks different to different people. Within the ghoulishly cheerful Lyft public-relations machinery, Mary is an exemplar of hard work and dedication—the latter being, perhaps, hard to come by in a company that refuses to classify its drivers as employees. Mary’s entrepreneurial spirit—taking ride requests while she was in labor!—is an “exciting” example of how seamless and flexible app-based employment can be. Look at that hustle! You can make a quick buck with Lyft anytime, even when your cervix is dilating.
Lyft does not provide its drivers paid maternity leave or health insurance. (It offers to connect drivers with an insurance broker, and helpfully notes that “the Affordable Care Act offers many choices to make sure you’re covered.”) A third-party platform called SherpaShare, which some drivers use to track their earnings, found, in 2015, that Lyft drivers in Chicago net about eleven dollars per trip. Perhaps, as Lyft suggests, Mary kept accepting riders while experiencing contractions because “she was still a week away from her due date,” or “she didn’t believe she was going into labor yet.” Or maybe Mary kept accepting riders because the gig economy has further normalized the circumstances in which earning an extra eleven dollars can feel more important than seeking out the urgent medical care that these quasi-employers do not sponsor. In the other version of Mary’s story, she’s an unprotected worker in precarious circumstances. “I can’t pretend to know Mary’s economic situation,” Bryan Menegus at Gizmodo wrote, when the story first appeared. “Maybe she’s an heiress who happens to love the freedom of chauffeuring strangers from place to place on her own schedule. But that Lyft, for some reason, thought that this would reflect kindly on them is perhaps the most horrifying part.”
It does require a fairly dystopian strain of doublethink for a company to celebrate how hard and how constantly its employees must work to make a living, given that these companies are themselves setting the terms. And yet this type of faux-inspirational tale has been appearing more lately, both in corporate advertising and in the news. Fiverr, an online freelance marketplace that promotes itself as being for “the lean entrepreneur”—as its name suggests, services advertised on Fiverr can be purchased for as low as five dollars—recently attracted ire for an ad campaign called “In Doers We Trust.” One ad, prominently displayed on some New York City subway cars, features a woman staring at the camera with a look of blank determination. “You eat a coffee for lunch,” the ad proclaims. “You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”
Fiverr, which had raised a hundred and ten million dollars in venture capital by November, 2015, has more about the “In Doers We Trust” campaign on its Web site. In one video, a peppy female voice-over urges “doers” to “always be available,” to think about beating “the trust-fund kids,” and to pitch themselves to everyone they see, including their dentist. A Fiverr press release about “In Doers We Trust” states, “The campaign positions Fiverr to seize today’s emerging zeitgeist of entrepreneurial flexibility, rapid experimentation, and doing more with less. It pushes against bureaucratic overthinking, analysis-paralysis, and excessive whiteboarding.” This is the jargon through which the essentially cannibalistic nature of the gig economy is dressed up as an aesthetic. No one wants to eat coffee for lunch or go on a bender of sleep deprivation—or answer a call from a client while having sex, as recommended in the video. It’s a stretch to feel cheerful at all about the Fiverr marketplace, perusing the thousands of listings of people who will record any song, make any happy-birthday video, or design any book cover for five dollars. I’d guess that plenty of the people who advertise services on Fiverr would accept some “whiteboarding” in exchange for employer-sponsored health insurance.
At the root of this is the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system. The contrast between the gig economy’s rhetoric (everyone is always connecting, having fun, and killing it!) and the conditions that allow it to exist (a lack of dependable employment that pays a living wage) makes this kink in our thinking especially clear. Human-interest stories about the beauty of some person standing up to the punishments of late capitalism are regular features in the news, too. I’ve come to detest the local-news set piece about the man who walks ten or eleven or twelve miles to work—a story that’s been filed from Oxford, Alabama; from Detroit, Michigan; from Plano, Texas. The story is always written as a tearjerker, with praise for the person’s uncomplaining attitude; a car is usually donated to the subject in the end. Never mentioned or even implied is the shamefulness of a job that doesn’t permit a worker to afford his own commute.
There’s a painful distance between the chipper narratives surrounding labor and success in America and the lived experience of workers. A similar conflict drove Nathanael West, in 1934, to publish the novel “A Cool Million,” which satirized the Horatio Alger bootstrap fables that remained popular into the Great Depression. “Alger is to America what Homer was to the Greeks,” West once wrote. His protagonist in “A Cool Million,” Lemuel Pitkin, is an innocent, energetic striver, tasked with saving his mother’s house from foreclosure. A series of Alger-esque plot twists ensue. But Pitkin, rather than triumphing, ends up losing his teeth, his eye, his leg, his scalp, and finally his thumb. Morris Dickstein, in his book “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” notes, “The novel ends with Lem as a vaudeville clown being beaten nightly until he simply falls apart.” A former President named Shagpoke Whipple gives a speech valorizing Pitkin’s fate, extolling “the right of every American boy to go into the world and . . . make his fortune by industry.” Whipple describes Pitkin’s dismemberment—“lovingly,” Dickstein adds—and tells his audience that, through Pitkin’s hard work and enthusiastic martyrdom, “America became again American.”
The tree of life grew, its branches stretching toward complexity. Organisms developed systems, subsystems, and sub-subsystems, layered in ever-deepening regression. They used these systems to anticipate their future and to change it. When they looked within, some found that they had selves—constellations of memories, ideas, and purposes that emerged from the systems inside. They experienced being alive and had thoughts about that experience. They developed language and used it to know themselves; they began to ask how they had been made.
This, to a first approximation, is the secular story of our creation. It has no single author; it’s been written collaboratively by scientists over the past few centuries. If, however, it could be said to belong to any single person, that person might be Daniel Dennett, a seventy-four-year-old philosopher who teaches at Tufts. In the course of forty years, and more than a dozen books, Dennett has endeavored to explain how a soulless world could have given rise to a soulful one. His special focus is the creation of the human mind. Into his own he has crammed nearly every related discipline: evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence. His newest book, “From Bacteria to Bach and Back,” tells us, “There is a winding path leading through a jungle of science and philosophy, from the initial bland assumption that we people are physical objects, obeying the laws of physics, to an understanding of our conscious minds.”
Dennett has walked that path before. In “Consciousness Explained,” a 1991 best-seller, he described consciousness as something like the product of multiple, layered computer programs running on the hardware of the brain. Many readers felt that he had shown how the brain creates the soul. Others thought that he’d missed the point entirely. To them, the book was like a treatise on music that focussed exclusively on the physics of musical instruments. It left untouched the question of how a three-pound lump of neurons could come to possess a point of view, interiority, selfhood, consciousness—qualities that the rest of the material world lacks. These skeptics derided the book as “Consciousness Explained Away.” Nowadays, philosophers are divided into two camps. The physicalists believe, with Dennett, that science can explain consciousness in purely material terms. The dualists believe that science can uncover only half of the picture: it can’t explain what Nabokov called “the marvel of consciousness—that sudden window swinging open on a sunlit landscape amidst the night of non-being.”
Late last year, Dennett found himself among such skeptics at the Edgewater Hotel, in Seattle, where the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research had convened a meeting about animal consciousness. The Edgewater was once a rock-and-roll hangout—in the late sixties and seventies, members of Led Zeppelin were notorious for their escapades there—but it’s now plush and sedate, with overstuffed armchairs and roaring fireplaces. In a fourth-floor meeting room with views of Mt. Rainier, dozens of researchers shared speculative work on honeybee brains, mouse minds, octopus intelligence, avian cognition, and the mental faculties of monkeys and human children.
At sunset on the last day of the conference, the experts found themselves circling a familiar puzzle known as the “zombie problem.” Suppose that you’re a scientist studying octopuses. How would you know whether an octopus is conscious? It interacts with you, responds to its environment, and evidently pursues goals, but a nonconscious robot could also do those things. The problem is that there’s no way to observe consciousness directly. From the outside, it’s possible to imagine that the octopus is a “zombie”—physically alive but mentally empty—and, in theory, the same could be true of any apparently conscious being. The zombie problem is a conversational vortex among those who study animal minds: the researchers, anticipating the discussion’s inexorable transformation into a meditation on “Westworld,” clutched their heads and sighed.
Dennett sat at the seminar table like a king on his throne. Broad-shouldered and imposing, with a fluffy white beard and a round belly, he resembles a cross between Darwin and Santa Claus. He has meaty hands and a sonorous voice. Many young philosophers of mind look like artists (skinny jeans, T-shirts, asymmetrical hair), but Dennett carries a homemade wooden walking stick and dresses like a Maine fisherman, in beat-up boat shoes and a pocketed vest—a costume that gives him an air of unpretentious competence. He regards the zombie problem as a typically philosophical waste of time. The problem presupposes that consciousness is like a light switch: either an animal has a self or it doesn’t. But Dennett thinks these things are like evolution, essentially gradualist, without hard borders. The obvious answer to the question of whether animals have selves is that they sort of have them. He loves the phrase “sort of.” Picture the brain, he often says, as a collection of subsystems that “sort of” know, think, decide, and feel. These layers build up, incrementally, to the real thing. Animals have fewer mental layers than people—in particular, they lack language, which Dennett believes endows human mental life with its complexity and texture—but this doesn’t make them zombies. It just means that they “sort of” have consciousness, as measured by human standards.
Dennett waited until the group talked itself into a muddle, then broke in. He speaks slowly, melodiously, in the confident tones of a man with answers. When he uses philosophical lingo, his voice goes deeper, as if he were distancing himself from it. “The big mistake we’re making,” he said, “is taking our congenial, shared understanding of what it’s like to be us, which we learn from novels and plays and talking to each other, and then applying it back down the animal kingdom. Wittgenstein”—he deepened his voice—“famously wrote, ‘If a lion could talk, we couldn’t understand him.’ But no! If a lion could talk, we’d understand him just fine. He just wouldn’t help us understand anything about lions.”
“Because he wouldn’t be a lion,” another researcher said.
“Right,” Dennett replied. “He would be so different from regular lions that he wouldn’t tell us what it’s like to be a lion. I think we should just get used to the fact that the human concepts we apply so comfortably in our everyday lives apply only sort of to animals.” He concluded, “The notorious zombie problem is just a philosopher’s fantasy. It’s not anything that we have to take seriously.”
“Dan, I honestly get stuck on this,” a primate psychologist said. “If you say, well, rocks don’t have consciousness, I want to agree with you”—but he found it difficult to get an imaginative grip on the idea of a monkey with a “sort of” mind.
If philosophy were a sport, its ball would be human intuition. Philosophers compete to shift our intuitions from one end of the field to the other. Some intuitions, however, resist being shifted. Among these is our conviction that there are only two states of being: awake or asleep, conscious or unconscious, alive or dead, soulful or material. Dennett believes that there is a spectrum, and that we can train ourselves to find the idea of that spectrum intuitive.
“If you think there’s a fixed meaning of the word ‘consciousness,’ and we’re searching for that, then you’re already making a mistake,” Dennett said.
“I hear you as skeptical about whether consciousness is useful as a scientific concept,” another researcher ventured.
“Yes, yes,” Dennett said.
“That’s the ur-question,” the researcher replied. “Because, if the answer’s no, then we should really go home!”
“No, no!” Dennett exclaimed, as the room erupted into laughter. He’d done it again: in attempting to explain consciousness, he’d explained it away.
In the nineteenth century, scientists and philosophers couldn’t figure out how nonliving things became living. They thought that living things possessed a mysterious life force. Only over time did they discover that life was the product of diverse physical systems that, together, created something that appeared magical. Dennett believes that the same story will be told about consciousness. He wants to tell it, but he sometimes wonders if others want to hear it.
“The person who tells people how an effect is achieved is often resented, considered a spoilsport, a party-pooper,” he wrote, around a decade ago, in a paper called “Explaining the ‘Magic’ of Consciousness.” “If you actually manage to explain consciousness, they say, you will diminish us all, turn us into mere protein robots, mere things.” Dennett does not believe that we are “mere things.” He thinks that we have souls, but he is certain that those souls can be explained by science. If evolution built them, they can be reverse-engineered. “There ain’t no magic there,” he told me. “Just stage magic.”
It’s possible to give an account of Dennett’s life in which philosophy hardly figures. He is from an old Maine family. By the turn of the eighteenth century, ancestors of his had settled near the border between Maine and New Hampshire, at a spot now marked by Dennett Road. Dennett and his wife, Susan, live in North Andover, Massachusetts, a few minutes’ drive from Tufts, where Dennett co-directs the Center for Cognitive Studies. But, in 1970, they bought a two-hundred-acre farm in Blue Hill, about five hours north of Boston. The Dennetts are unusually easygoing and sociable, and they quickly became friends with the couple next door, Basil and Bertha Turner. From Basil, Dennett learned to frame a house, shingle a roof, glaze a window, build a fence, plow a field, fell a tree, butcher a hen, dig for clams, raise pigs, fish for trout, and call a square dance. “One thing about Dan—you don’t have to tell him twice,” Turner once remarked to a local mechanic. Dennett still cherishes the compliment.
In the course of a few summers, he fixed up the Blue Hill farmhouse himself, installing plumbing and electricity. Then, for many years, he suspended his academic work during the summer in order to devote himself to farming. He tended the orchard, made cider, and used a Prohibition-era still to turn the cider into Calvados. He built a blueberry press, made blueberry wine, and turned it into aquavit. “He loves to hand down word-of-mouth knowledge,” Steve Barney, a former student who has become one of the Dennetts’ many “honorary children,” says. “He taught me how to use a chain saw, how to prune an apple tree, how to fish for mackerel, how to operate a tractor, how to whittle a wooden walking stick from a single piece of wood.” Dennett is an avid sailor; in 2003, he bought a boat, trained his students to sail, and raced with them in a regatta. Dennett’s son, Peter, has worked for a tree surgeon and a fish biologist, and has been a white-water-rafting guide; his daughter, Andrea, runs an industrial-plumbing company with her husband.
A few years ago, the Dennetts sold the farm to buy a nearby waterfront home, on Little Deer Isle. On a sunny morning this past December, fresh snow surrounded the house; where the lawn met the water, a Hobie sailboat lay awaiting spring. Dennett entered the sunlit kitchen and, using a special, broad-tined fork, carefully split an English muffin. After eating it with jam, he entered his study, a circular room on the ground floor decorated with sailboat keels of different shapes. A close friend and Little Deer Isle visitor, the philosopher and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, had e-mailed a draft of an article for Dennett to review. The two men are similar—Humphrey helped discover blindsight, studied apes with Dian Fossey, and was, for a year, the editor of Granta—but they differ on certain points in the philosophy of consciousness. “Until I met Dan,” Humphrey told me, “I never had a philosophical hero. Then I discovered that not only was he a better philosopher than me; he was a better singer, a better dancer, a better tennis player, a better pianist. There is nothing he does not do.”
Dennett annotated the paper on his computer, and then called Humphrey on his cell phone to explain that the paper was so useful because it was so wrong. “I see how I can write a reaction that is not so much a rebuttal as a rebuilding on your foundations,” he said, mischievously. “Your exploration has helped me see some crucial joints in the skeleton. I hope that doesn’t upset you!” He laughed, and invited Humphrey and his family to come over later that day.
He then turned to a problem with the house. Something was wrong with the landline; it had no dial tone. The key question was whether the problem lay with the wiring inside the house or with the telephone lines outside. Picking up his walking stick and a small plastic telephone, he went out to explore. Dennett has suffered a heart attack and an aortic dissection; he is robust, but walks slowly and is sometimes short of breath. Carefully, he made his way to a little gray service box, pried it open using a multitool, and plugged in the handset. There was no dial tone; the problem was in the outside phone lines. Harrumphing, he glanced upward to locate them: another new joint in the skeleton.
During the course of his career, Dennett has developed a way of looking at the process by which raw matter becomes functional. Some objects are mere assemblages of atoms to us, and have only a physical dimension; when we think of them, he says, we adopt a “physicalist stance”—the stance we inhabit when, using equations, we predict the direction of a tropical storm. When it comes to more sophisticated objects, which have purposes and functions, we typically adopt a “design stance.” We say that a leaf’s “purpose” is to capture energy from sunlight, and that a nut and bolt are designed to fit together. Finally, there are objects that seem to have beliefs and desires, toward which we take the “intentional stance.” If you’re playing chess with a chess computer, you don’t scrutinize the conductive properties of its circuits or contemplate the inner workings of its operating system (the physicalist and design stances, respectively); you ask how the program is thinking, what it’s planning, what it “wants” to do. These different stances capture different levels of reality, and our language reveals which one we’ve adopted. We say that proteins fold (the physicalist stance), but that eyes see (the design stance). We say that the chess computer “anticipated” our move, that the driverless car “decided” to swerve when the deer leaped into the road.
A running joke among people who study consciousness is that Dennett himself might be a zombie. (“Only a zombie like Dennett could write a book called ‘Consciousness Explained’ that doesn’t address consciousness at all,” the computer scientist Jaron Lanier has written.) The implicit criticism is that Dennett’s account of consciousness treats the self like a computer and reflects a disengagement from things like feeling and beauty. Dennett seems wounded by this idea. “There are those wags who insist that I was born with an impoverished mental life,” he told me. “That ain’t me! I seem to be drinking in life’s joys pretty well.”
Dennett’s full name is Daniel Clement Dennett III. He was born in Boston in 1942. His father, Daniel C. Dennett, Jr., was a professor of Islamic history, who, during the Second World War, was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services and became a secret agent. Dennett spent his early childhood in Beirut, where his father posed as a cultural attaché at the American Embassy. In Beirut, he had a pet gazelle named Babar and learned to speak some Arabic. When he was five, his father was killed in an unexplained plane crash while on a mission in Ethiopia. In Dennett’s clearest memory of him, they’re driving through the desert in a Jeep, looking for a group of Bedouins; when they find the camp, some Bedouin women take the young Dennett aside and pierce his ears. (The scars are still visible.)
After his father’s death, Dennett returned to the Boston suburbs with his mother and his two sisters. His mother became a book editor; with some guidance from his father’s friends, Dennett became the man of the house. He had his own workshop and, aged six, used scraps of lumber to build a small table and chair for his Winnie-the-Pooh. As he fell asleep, he would listen to his mother play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Prelude No. 6 in E-Flat Major. Today, the piece moves him to tears—“I’ve tried to master it,” he says, “but I could never play it as well as she could.” For a while, Dennett made money playing jazz piano in bars. He also plays the guitar, the acoustic bass, the recorder, and the accordion, and can still sing the a-cappella tunes he learned, in his twenties, as a member of the Boston Saengerfest Men’s Chorus.
As a Harvard undergraduate, Dennett wanted to be an artist. He pursued painting, then switched to sculpture; when he met Susan, he told her that she had nice shoulders and asked if she would model for him. (She declined, but they were married two years later.) A photograph taken in 1963, when Dennett was a graduate student, shows him trim and shirtless in a courtyard in Athens, smoking a pipe as he works a block of marble. Although he succeeded in exhibiting some sculptures in galleries, he decided that he wasn’t brilliant enough to make a career in art. Still, he continued to sculpt, throw pots, build furniture, and whittle. His whittlings are finely detailed; most are meant to be handled. A life-size wooden apple comes apart, in cross-sections, to reveal a detailed stem and core; a fist-size nut and bolt turn smoothly on minute, perfectly made threads. (Billed as “haptic sculptures,” the whittles are currently on display at Underdonk, a gallery in Brooklyn.)
Dennett studied philosophy as an undergraduate with W. V. O. Quine, the Harvard logician. His scientific awakening came later, when he was a graduate student at Oxford. With a few classmates, he found himself debating what happens when your arm falls asleep. The others were discussing the problem in abstract, philosophical terms—“sensation,” “perception,” and the like—which struck Dennett as odd. Two decades earlier, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, Dennett’s dissertation adviser, had coined the phrase “the ghost in the machine” to mock the theory, associated with René Descartes, that our physical bodies are controlled by immaterial souls. The other students were talking about the ghost; Dennett wanted to study the machine. He began teaching himself neuroscience the next day. Later, with the help of various academic friends and neighbors, Dennett learned about psychology, computer programming, linguistics, and artificial intelligence—the disciplines that came to form cognitive science.
One of Dennett’s early collaborators was Douglas Hofstadter, the polymath genius whose book about the mind, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” became an unlikely best-seller in 1979. “When he was young, he played the philosophy game very strictly,” Hofstadter said of Dennett. “He studied the analytic philosophers and the Continental philosophers and wrote pieces that responded to them in the traditional way. But then he started deviating from the standard pathway. He became much more informed by science than many of his colleagues, and he grew very frustrated with the constant, prevalent belief among them in such things as zombies. These things started to annoy him, and he started writing piece after piece to try to destroy the myths that he considered these to be—the religious residues of dualism.”
Arguments, Dennett found, rarely shift intuitions; it’s through stories that we revise our sense of what’s natural. (He calls such stories “intuition pumps.”) In 1978, he published a short story called “Where Am I?,” in which a philosopher, also named Daniel Dennett, is asked to volunteer for a dangerous mission to disarm an experimental nuclear warhead. The warhead, which is buried beneath Tulsa, Oklahoma, emits a kind of radiation that’s safe for the body but lethal to the brain. Government scientists decide on a radical plan: they separate Dennett’s brain from his body, using radio transmitters implanted in his skull to allow the brain, which is stored in a vat in Houston, to control the body as it approaches the warhead. “Think of it as a mere stretching of the nerves,” the scientists say. “If your brain were just moved over an inch in your skull, that would not alter or impair your mind. We’re simply going to make the nerves indefinitely elastic by splicing radio links into them.”
After the surgery, Dennett is led into the brain-support lab:
I peered through the glass. There, floating in what looked like ginger ale, was undeniably a human brain, though it was almost covered with printed circuit chips, plastic tubules, electrodes, and other paraphernalia. . . . I thought to myself: “Well, here I am sitting on a folding chair, staring through a piece of plate glass at my own brain. . . . But wait,” I said to myself, “shouldn’t I have thought, ‘Here I am, suspended in a bubbling fluid, being stared at by my own eyes’?” . . . . I tried and tried to think myself into the vat, but to no avail.
Toward the end of the story, the radio equipment malfunctions, and Dennett’s point of view is instantly relocated. It is “an impressive demonstration of the immateriality of the soul, based on physicalist principles and premises,” he writes, “for as the last radio signal between Tulsa and Houston died away, had I not changed location from Tulsa to Houston at the speed of light?” The story contains only neurons and machines, and is entirely materialist; even so, it shows that you aren’t situated “in” your brain the same way you’re situated “in” a room. It also suggests that the intuitions upon which philosophers so confidently rely are actually illusions created by an elaborate system of machinery.
Only rarely do cracks in the illusion of consciousness appear through which one might see the machinery at work. Proust inspected the state between sleep and wakefulness. Coleridge experimented with mind-altering drugs. Neuroscientists examine minds compromised by brain injury. Dennett’s approach has been to look back into evolutionary history. In the minds of other animals, even insects, Dennett believes, we can see the functional components upon which our selfhood depends. We can also see the qualities we value most in human selfhood in “sort of” form. Even free will, he thinks, evolves over evolutionary time. Your amygdala, the part of the brain that registers fear, may not be free in any meaningful sense—it’s effectively a robot—but it endows the mind to which it belongs with the ability to avoid danger. In this way, the winding path leads from determinism to freedom, too: “A whole can be freer than its parts.”
Along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, Dennett is often cited as one of the “four horsemen of the New Atheism.” In a 2006 book called “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” he argued that religion ought to be studied rather than practiced. Recently, with the researcher Linda LaScola, he published “Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind,” a book of interviews with clergypeople who have lost their faith. He can be haughty in his dismissal of religion. A few years ago, while he was recovering from his aortic dissection, he wrote an essay called “Thank Goodness,” in which he chastised well-wishers for saying “Thank God.” (He urged them, instead, to thank “goodness,” as embodied by the doctors, nurses, and scientists who were “genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive.”)
Yet Dennett is also comfortable with religion—even, in some ways, nostalgic for it. Like his wife, he was brought up as a Congregationalist, and although he never believed in God, he enjoyed going to church. For much of his life, Dennett has sung sacred music in choirs (he gets misty-eyed when he recalls singing Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”). He and Susan tried sending their children to Sunday school, so that they could enjoy the music, sermons, and Bible stories, but it didn’t take. Dennett’s sister Cynthia is a minister: “A saintly person,” Dennett says, admiringly, “who’s a little annoyed by her little brother.”
The materialist world view is often associated with despair. In “Anna Karenina,” Konstantin Levin, the novel’s hero, stares into the night sky, reflects upon his brief, bubblelike existence in an infinite and indifferent universe, and contemplates suicide. For Dennett, however, materialism is spiritually satisfying. In a 1995 book called “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” he asks, “How long did it take Johann Sebastian Bach to create the ‘St. Matthew Passion’?” Bach, he notes, had to live for forty-two years before he could begin writing it, and he drew on two thousand years of Christianity—indeed, on all of human culture. The subsystems of his mind had been evolving for even longer; creating Homo sapiens, Dennett writes, required “billions of years of irreplaceable design work”—performed not by God, of course, but by natural selection.
“Darwin’s dangerous idea,” Dennett writes, is that Bach’s music, Christianity, human culture, the human mind, and Homosapiens “all exist as fruits of a single tree, the Tree of Life,” which “created itself, not in a miraculous, instantaneous whoosh, but slowly, slowly.” He asks, “Is this Tree of Life a God one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not.” But, he says, it is “greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. . . . I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred.”
Almost every December for the past forty years, the Dennetts have held a black-tie Christmas-carolling party at their home. This year, snow was falling as the guests arrived; the airy modern shingle-style house was decorated like a Yuletide bed-and-breakfast, with toy soldiers on parade. In the kitchen, a small robotic dog-on-wheels named Tati huddled nonfunctionally; the living-room bookshelf displayed a set of Dennett-made Russian dolls—Descartes on the outside, a ghost in the middle, and a robot inside the ghost.
Dennett, dapper in his tuxedo, mingled with the guests. With a bearded, ponytailed postdoc, he considered some mysteries of monkey consciousness; with his silver-haired neighbors, many of whom had attended the party annually since 1976, he discussed the Patriots and the finer points of apple brandy. After a potluck dinner, he called everyone over to the piano, where Mark DeVoto, a retired music professor, was noodling on “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” From piles on a Dennett-built coffee table, Dennett and his wife distributed homemade books of Christmas carols.
“Hello!” Dennett said. “Are we ready?” Surrounded by friends, he was grinning from ear to ear. “Let’s go. We’ll start with ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful.’ First verse in English, second in Latin!”
Earlier, I’d asked Susan Dennett how their atheism would shape their carol-singing. “When we get to the parts about the Virgin, we sometimes sing with our eyebrows raised,” she said. In the event, their performance was unironic. Dennett, a brave soloist, sang beautifully, then apologized for his voice. The most arresting carol was a tune called “O Hearken Ye.” Dennett sang the words “Gloria, gloria / In excelsis Deo” with great seriousness, his hands at his sides, his eyes faraway. When the carol faded into an appreciative silence, he sighed and said, “Now, that’s a beautiful hymn.”
Dennett has a philosophical arch-nemesis: an Australian named David Chalmers. Chalmers, who teaches at N.Y.U. and at the Australian National University, believes that Dennett only “sort of” understands consciousness. In his view, Dennett’s theories don’t adequately explain subjective experience or why there is an inner life in the first place.
Chalmers and Dennett are as different as two philosophers of mind can be. Chalmers wears a black leather jacket over a black T-shirt. He believes in the zombie problem and is the lead singer of a consciousness-themed rock band that performs a song called “The Zombie Blues.” (“I act like you act, I do what you do. . . . / What consciousness is, I ain’t got a clue / I got the Zombie Blues.”) In his most important book, “The Conscious Mind,” published in 1996, Chalmers accused Dennett and the physicalists of focussing on the “easy problems” of consciousness—questions about the workings of neurons or other cognitive systems—while ignoring the “hard problem.” In a formulation he likes: “How does the water of the brain turn into the wine of consciousness?” Since then, the “hard problem” has been a rallying cry for those philosophers who think that Dennett’s view of the mind is incomplete.
Consider your laptop. It’s processing information but isn’t having experiences. Now, suppose that every year your laptop gets smarter. A few years from now, it may, like I.B.M.’s Watson, win “Jeopardy!” Soon afterward, it may have meaningful conversations with you, like the smartphone voiced by Scarlett Johansson in “Her.” Johansson’s character is conscious: you can fall in love with her, and she with you. There’s a soul in that phone. But how did it get there? How was the inner space of consciousness opened up within the circuits and code? This is the hard problem. Dennett regards it, too, as a philosopher’s fantasy. Chalmers thinks that, at present, it is insurmountable. If it’s easy for you to imagine a conscious robot, then you probably side with Dennett. If it’s easier to imagine a robot that only seemsconscious, you’re probably with Chalmers.
A few years ago, a Russian venture capitalist named Dmitry Volkov organized a showdown between Dennett and Chalmers near Disko Island, off the west coast of Greenland. Before making a fortune investing in Shazam and in the Russian version of PayPal, Volkov was a graduate student in philosophy at Moscow State University, where he wrote a dissertation on Dennett’s work. Now he chartered a hundred-and-sixty-eight-foot schooner, the S/V Rembrandt van Rijn, and invited Dennett, Chalmers, and eighteen other philosophers on a weeklong cruise, along with ten graduate students. Most of the professional philosophers were materialists, like Dennett, but the graduate students were uncommitted. Dennett and Chalmers would compete for their allegiance.
In June, when the Arctic sun never sets, the lowlands of Disko are covered with flowering angelica. The philosophers piled into inflatable boats to explore the fjords and the tundra. The year before, in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Dennett had published a paper called “The Mystery of David Chalmers,” in which he proposed seven reasons for Chalmers’s resistance to his views, among them a fear of death and a pointless desire to “pursue exhaustively nuanced analyses of our intuitions.” This had annoyed Chalmers, but on the cruise the two philosophers were still able to marvel, companionably, at the landscape’s alien beauty. Later, everyone gathered in the Rembrandt’s spacious galley, where Volkov, a slim, voluble man in sailor’s stripes, presided over an intellectual round-robin. Each philosopher gave a talk summarizing another’s work; afterward, the philosopher who had been summarized responded and took questions.
Andy Clark, a lean Scottish philosopher with a punk shock of pink hair, summarized Dennett’s views. He wore a T-shirt depicting a peacock with a tail made of screwdrivers, wrenches, and other tools. “It obviously looks like something quite colorful and full of complexity and ‘peacockness,’ ” he said. “But, if you look more closely, that complexity is actually built out of a number of little devices.”
“A Swiss Army peacock!” Dennett rumbled, approvingly. He was in his element: he loves parties, materialism, and the sea.
After the introduction and summarizing part was over, Chalmers, carrying a can of Palm Belgian ale, walked to the front of the room and began his remarks. Neurobiological explanations of consciousness focus on brain functions, he said. But, “when it comes to explaining consciousness, one needs to explain more than the functions. There are introspective data—data about what it’s like to be a conscious subject, what it’s like experiencing now and hearing now, what it’s like to have an emotion or to hear music.” He continued, “There are some people, like Dan Dennett, who think that all we need to explain is the functions. . . . Many people find that this is not taking consciousness seriously.” Lately, he said, he had been gravitating toward “pan-proto-psychism”—the idea that consciousness might be “a fundamental property of the universe” upon which the brain somehow draws. It was a strange idea, but, then, consciousness was strange.
Andy Clark was the first to respond. “You didn’t actually give us any positives for pan-psychism,” he said. “It was kind of the counsel of despair.”
Jesse Prinz, a blue-haired philosopher from cuny, seemed almost enraged. “Positing dualism leads to no further insights and discoveries!” he said.
Calmly, nursing his beer, Chalmers responded to his critics. He said that he couldmake a positive case for pan-proto-psychism, pointed out that his position wasn’t necessarily antimaterialist (a pan-psychic force could be perfectly material, like electromagnetism), and declared that he was all in favor of more neuroscientific research.
Dennett had lurked off to the side, stolid and silent, but he now launched into an argument about perspective. He told Chalmers that there didn’t have to be a hard boundary between third-person explanations and first-person experience—between, as it were, the description of the sugar molecule and the taste of sweetness. Why couldn’t one see oneself as taking two different stances toward a single phenomenon? It was possible, he said, to be “neutral about the metaphysical status of the data.” From the outside, it looks like neurons; from the inside, it feels like consciousness. Problem solved.
Chalmers was unconvinced. Pacing up and down the galley, he insisted that “merely cataloguing the third-person data” could not explain the existence of a first-person point of view.
Dennett sighed and, leaning against the wall, weighed his words. “I don’t see why it isn’t an embarrassment to your view,” he said, “that you can’t name a kind of experiment that would get at ‘first-personal data,’ or ‘experiences.’ That’s all I ask—give me a single example of a scientifically respectable experiment!”
“There are any number of experiments!” Chalmers said, heatedly. When the argument devolved into a debate about different kinds of experimental setups, Dennett said, “I think maybe this session is over, don’t you? It’s time to go to the bar!” He looked to Chalmers, who smiled.
Among the professional philosophers, Dennett seemed to have won a narrow victory. But a survey conducted at the end of the cruise found that most of the grad students had joined Team Chalmers. Volkov conjectured that for many people, especially those who are new to philosophy, “it’s the question of the soul that’s driving their opinions. It’s the value of human life. It’s the question of the special position of humans in the world, in the universe.”
Despite his affability, Dennett sometimes expresses a weary frustration with the immovable intuitions of the people he is trying to convince. “You shouldn’t trust your intuitions,” he told the philosophers on the Rembrandt. “Conceivability or inconceivability is a life’s work—it’s not something where you just screw up your head for a second!” He feels that Darwin’s central lesson—that everything in biology is gradual; that it arrives “not in a miraculous, instantaneous whoosh, but slowly, slowly”—is too easily swept aside by our categorical habits of mind. It could be that he is struggling with the nature of language, which imposes a hierarchical clarity upon the world that’s powerful but sometimes false. It could also be that he is wrong. For him, the struggle—a Darwinian struggle, at the level of ideas—continues. “I have devoted half a century, my entire academic life, to the project, in a dozen books and hundreds of articles tackling various pieces of the puzzle, without managing to move all that many readers from wary agnosticism to calm conviction,” he writes, in “From Bacteria to Bach and Back.” “Undaunted, I am trying once again.”
For many years, I took Chalmers’s side in this dispute. I read Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained,” but I felt that something crucial was missing. I couldn’t understand how neurons—even billions of neurons—could generate the experience of being me. Terrence Deacon, an anthropologist who writes about consciousness and neuroscience, refers to “the Cartesian wound that separated mind from body at the birth of modern science.” For a long time, not even the profoundly informed arguments that Dennett advanced proved capable of healing that wound.
Then, late last year, my mother had a catastrophic stroke. It devastated the left side of her brain, wrecking her parietal and temporal lobes and Broca’s area—parts of the brain that are involved in the emotions, the senses, memory, and speech. My mother now appears to be living in an eternal present. She can say only two words, “water” and “time.” She is present in the room—she looks me in the eye—but is capable of only fleeting recognition; she knows only that I am someone she should recognize. She grasps the world, but lightly.
As I spent time with my mother, I found that my intuitions were shifting to Dennett’s side of the field. It seems natural to say that she “sort of” thinks, knows, cares, remembers, and understands, and that she is “sort of” conscious. It seems obvious that there is no “light switch” for consciousness: she is present and absent in different ways, depending on which of her subsystems are functioning. I still can’t quite picture how neurons create consciousness. But, perhaps because I can take a stance toward my mother that I can’t take toward myself, my belief in the “hard problem” has dissolved. On an almost visceral level, I find it easier to accept the reality of the material mind. I have moved from agnosticism to calm conviction.
On a morning this past winter, Dennett sat in an armchair in his Maine living room. The sky and the water were blue and bright. He’d acquired two copies of the Ellsworth American, the local newspaper; later, he and Susan would sit by the fireplace and compete to see who could finish the crossword first. In the meantime, he was thinking about the nature of understanding. He recalled a time, many years ago, when he found himself lecturing a group of physicists. He showed them a slide that read “E=mc2” and asked if anyone in the audience understood it. Almost all of the physicists raised their hands, but one man sitting in the front protested. “Most of the people in this room are experimentalists,” he said. “They think they understand this equation, but, really, they don’t. The only people who really understand it are the theoreticians.”
Before the morning slipped away, Dennett decided to go out for a walk, down to where the lawn ended and a rocky beach began. He’d long delighted in a particular rock formation, where a few stones were piled just so, creating a peephole. He was disappointed to find that the tides had rearranged the stones, and that the hole had disappeared. The dock was pulled ashore for the winter, its parts stacked next to his sailboat. He walked down the steps anyway, occasionally leaning on his walking stick. For a few minutes, he stood at the bottom, savoring the frigid air, the lapping water, the dazzling sun.
While she highlights some of the classic women in science, she’s also profiled some less familiar faces – and discoveries.
Here are a dozen of our favorites.
Meghan Bartels wrote an earlier version of this post.
Florence Bascom: Helped us understand how mountains form
Florence Bascom (1862-1945) discovered her love for geology on a childhood trip with her father and a geologist friend of his.
She worked for the US Geographical Survey, particularly specializing in the Piedmont Plateau between the Appalachians and the Atlantic coastal plain. She was voted one of the top 100 geologists in 1906 in an edition of a magazine called, ironically, American Men of Science.
In addition to her research, she also taught several important geologists of the next generation at Bryn Mawr College.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Championed the ecological importance of The Everglades
President Clinton talks with Marjory Stoneman Douglas after presenting her with a Medal of Freedom.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) moved to Miami to write for the Herald, where her father worked. She left to work for the Red Cross during World War I, then returned to the Herald before branching out on her own as a writer.
She was able to see the value and importance of the Everglades despite finding them “too buggy, too wet, too generally inhospitable.” She wrote a book called “The Everglades: Rivers of Grass,” which raised awareness about the threats the ecosystem faced.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: Figured out what the Sun was made of
Celia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was the astronomer who discovered that the sun is made of hydrogen and helium.
She went to college in Britain for botany, then attended by chance a lecture given by a prominent physicist, which she found so intriguing she changed fields (the lecturer, Arthur Eddington, became an important mentor for her). She moved across the Atlantic to study at Harvard, where she spent the rest of her career.
Her dissertation was called “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.” In addition to our sun, she also studied variable stars, taking more than a million photographs of them with her team.
Rita Levi-Montalcini: Made a breakthrough in understanding the nervous system
Rita Levi-Montalcini celebrating her one hundredth birthday in Rome.
Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012) was the first Nobel Prize winner to reach the age of 100. Born in Italy, she talked her father into letting her study medicine.
During the Jewish persecution and World War II, she had to leave her university and eventually flee to the countryside with her family, but she kept working on science, dissecting chick embryos.
After the war, she moved to the US, where she discovered nerve growth factor, which guides the development of the nervous system. She later became an Italian senator for life.
Chien-Shiung Wu: Helped figure out how to enrich uranium
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) grew up in China, then moved to the US for her PhD studies.
She was recruited by the Manhattan Project during World War II. During her interview for the top-secret work, she was able to guess what they were researching from an equation left on a blackboard.
She helped figure out how to enrich uranium to fuel nuclear bombs. She was snubbed by the Nobel Prize committee for her work showing that nature isn’t always symmetrical. (The Prize was awarded to two men who first floated the idea, even though she was the one who proved itexperimentally.)
Katherine Johnson: Calculated Apollo 11’s flight path to the moon
President Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Katherine Johnson.
Katherine Johnson (1918- ) did the math that launched the manned Mercury mission into orbit around the Earth and calculated the flight path for the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon.
She also helped write the first textbook about space.
As a child, she loved to count – and from that springboard she graduated college at 18 and spent three decades at NASA.
Rosalyn Yalow: Developed a technique that tests for diabetes, birth defects, and more
Rosalyn Yalow (1921-2011) spent most of her life in New York City. She and her lab partner developed a technique for studying hormones that is still used today, called radioimmunoassay.
They used the process to differentiate between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. It can also determine whether an unborn child has certain birth defects and to make sure the supplies in blood banks are clean.
Esther Lederberg: Discovered that bacteria mutate randomly
Esther Lederberg (1922-2006) studied bacteria and viruses, helping her work by inventing a technique called replica plating, which made it easy to study certain bacterial colonies across a set of Petri dishes.
The technique contributed to a Nobel Prize for her husband.
From this work, she confirmed that bacteria mutate randomly, including acquiring resistance to particular antibiotics before ever having been exposed to that particular chemical.
She also discovered a type of virus called a lambda phage, which lies low in a cell until the cell is going to die from other causes. It’s now used as a model for human viruses like herpes and tumor viruses.
Annie Easley: Helped write the code behind the Centaur rocket system
Annie Easley (1933-2011) planned to become a nurse, but was inspired to work for the precursor of NASA when she read an article about local twin sisters who worked there as human computers.
She became first a mathematician and then a computer programmer, working particularly on the code for the Centaur rocket launcher and navigation system.
She also tutored inner-city children (she had previously helped neighbors learn to pass Jim Crow voting tests) and worked on energy issues.
Patricia Bath: Invented a device that removes cataracts
A recent science fair presentation about Patricia Bath.
Patricia Bath (1942- ) invented a device for removing cataracts that fog people’s vision.
The organization she founded, the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, provides vitamin A eye drops to newborns.
May-Britt Moser: Discovered how our brains make mental maps
May-Britt Moser talked with Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf at the Nobel banquet in 2014.
May-Britt Moser (1963- ) helped discover grid cells, special nerve cells in the brain that create mental maps of places we’ve been – work that won the Nobel Prize.
As a psychologist in Norway, she began studying the brains of rats, particularly as they completed mazes. She has also studied how the brain filters out unnecessary information to focus on particular issues and what happens when your brain thinks you’re somewhere you aren’t.
Francoise Barre-Sinoussi: Helped determine the cause of AIDS
Francoise Barre-Sinoussi (1947- ) is a French scientist who helped discover HIV and determine that the virus causes AIDS.
She had been studying retroviruses and was asked to join a team looking to determine whether AIDS was caused by one (it is, as she determined in two weeks).
She then researched how the immune system responds to HIV and AIDS in hopes of finding a cure. Although she retired last year, she is still outspoken in encouraging the world to rally against AIDS and fight the stigma surrounding the disease.
And so many more …
Tech Insider learned about all of these women from Rachel Ignotofsky’s beautiful book, “Women in Science,” which features full profiles of 50 scientists, plus tidbits on women in science more generally – not to mention gorgeous illustrations.
She also compiled a great list of resources for learning more about any of these scientists.
Stephen Hawking has one of the greatest minds of our time. He is well known for his work in theoretical physics, and was born on January 8, 1942, (300 years after the death of Galileo) in Oxford, England. As a young child, he wanted to study mathematics, but once he began college, he studied Natural Sciences. Then, during his first year in Cambridge at the age of 21, Hawking began to have symptoms of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Doctors gave him two and a half years to live.
Now, at the age of 74, he continues to teach, research, and provide the world with beautiful messages. He says that his expectations were reduced to zero when he was given the ALS diagnosis. Ever since then, every aspect of his life has been a bonus.
One of the most brilliant minds did not allow these life challenges to stop him. He continued studying. Hawking has twelve honorary degrees. He has dedicated his life to finding answers about the universe, the Big Bang, creation and scientific theories.He cannot speak or move, bounded to a wheelchair, but he has found ways to inspire the world, encouraging us to find the mysticism in the stars. He says:
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. If you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”
Recently during a lecture in January at the Royal Institute in London, Hawking compared black holes to depression, making it clear that neither the black holes or depression are impossible to escape. “The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up; there’s a way out,” he said.
When asked about his disabilities, he says: “The victim should have the right to end his life, if he wants. But I think it would be a great mistake. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.” He continues with an inspiring message about disabilities:
“If you are disabled, it is probably not your fault, but it is no good blaming the world or expecting it to take pity on you. One has to have a positive attitude and must make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in; if one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well. In my opinion, one should concentrate on activities in which one’s physical disability will not present a serious handicap. I am afraid that Olympic Games for the disabled do not appeal to me, but it is easy for me to say that because I never liked athletics anyway. On the other hand, science is a very good area for disabled people because it goes on mainly in the mind. Of course, most kinds of experimental work are probably ruled out for most such people, but theoretical work is almost ideal.
My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in. I have managed, however, only because of the large amount of help I have received from my wife, children, colleagues and students. I find that people in general are very ready to help, but you should encourage them to feel that their efforts to aid you are worthwhile by doing as well as you possibly can.”
Stephen Hawking does not only encourage the scientific minds to pay attention, but inspires the rest of us to take notice that there is connection between the stars and each one of us. His disabilities have not stopped his curious mind and sense of wonder.
His daughter, Lucy, shared with the crowd at the lecture, “He has a very enviable wish to keep going and the ability to summon all his reserves, all his energy, all his mental focus and press them all into that goal of keeping going. But not just to keep going for the purposes of survival, but to transcend this by producing extraordinary work writing books, giving lectures, inspiring other people with neurodegenerative and other disabilities.”
The positive psychology movement might not be your cup of tea — especially if you view it as some kind of Pollyanna sugarcoating of hardships, that’s superficial at best, downright denial at worst. Looking on the bright side all the time may simply ring false. But there is one positive feeling that we would be wise to cultivate, if nothing else than for our personal well-being. That feeling is gratitude.
With simple practices like keeping a gratitude diary or writing letters of thanks, research has shown time and again that we can dramatically reduce depression and anxiety. We’ll also feel more socially connected with others. Other studies have found gratitude can increase willpower, keep you calm and even boost employee morale. It can literally transform our lives. And now, science has discovered that expressions of genuine gratitude can also physically change our brain — for the better.
Rewiring the Brain with Gratitude
“Fad diets aside, we all know the basic formula for greater physical health — eat less junk and exercise more. The same can be said for greater happiness. Sure, mental health is hugely complex, but the research on how to promote basic, day-to-day well-being couldn’t be clearer — just cultivate gratitude.” ~Jessica Stillman in “Gratitude Physically Changes Your Brain, New Study Says”
A brain-scanning study published in NeuroImage has brought us closer to understanding why gratitude practices trigger positive effects. Even months after a simple gratitude writing task, the researchers found the participant’s brains were still wired to feel extra thankful.
“The implication is that gratitude tasks work, at least in part, because they have a self-perpetuating nature: The more you practice gratitude, the more attuned you are to it and the more you can enjoy its psychological benefits,” writes Dr. Christian Jarrett in “How Expressing Gratitude Might Change Your Brain.”
The team of researchers from Indian University recruited 43 participants who were suffering from anxiety or depression. Half the group were given an exercise — writing letters of gratitude to people in their lives for twenty minutes, during the first three sessions of their weekly counseling — an hour total for the experiment. It was up to the participant whether or not they chose to send the letter. The rest of the group simply attended their counseling sessions without a gratitude task.
After the three months of counseling were over, all the test subjects underwent brain scans. During the scan, each were given an amount of money from a benefactor and were asked if they’d like to express their gratitude for the gift by donating some or all of funds to either a person (identified by photo and name) or a named charity. While the participants were aware this was all just an exercise, they were told one of the transactions would be chosen randomly and actually occur.
Those who gave away the money showed a distinct pattern of brain activity in the frontal, parietal and occipital regions. However, this wasn’t the most compelling discovery.
Writes Dr. Jarrett:
“The participants who’d completed the gratitude task months earlier not only reported feeling more gratefulness two weeks after the task than members of the control group, but also, months later, showed more gratitude-related brain activity in the scanner. The researchers described these ‘profound’ and ‘long-lasting’ neural effects as ‘particularly noteworthy.’”
He believes the findings suggest “that the more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mindset — you could even think of your brain as having a sort of gratitude ‘muscle’ that can be exercised and strengthened… the more of an effort you make to feel gratitude one day, the more the feeling will come to you spontaneously in the future.”
Or, as Harvard researcher and author Shawn Achor told Inc.com: “Something as simple as writing down three things you’re grateful for every day for 21 days in a row significantly increases your level of optimism, and it holds for the next six months. The research is amazing.”
To sum it up, by practicing short, simple gratitude practices, we can cultivate not only a healthful mindset, but actually physically change our brain to encourage even more grateful orientation in the future. The more we recognize the good in life, the happier we’ll be — which leads to increased success overall.
It was a cold, grey and windy morning in New York City, one of the thousands I’ve experienced here where everyone’s neck automatically shortens by two inches as they are attempting to shrink into their winter coats while holding onto their Starbucks coffee and battling through the crowds in Manhattan.
The train was more crowded than usual thanks to the presence of people who would otherwise walk or bike to work, and I stood for what seemed like an eternity with purses rubbing against my back and elbows in my ribs, while attempting to ground my energy into mother earth and breathe in the mixed aromas of BO, coffee and stale subway air.
On days like this I could really use some divine guidance, but I knew enough not to expect an ascended master to show up in the subway car and grace me with a pair of wings to fly out of the dark tunnels. My wings had to come from myself, and at that moment, my only savior was to practice allowing, or being in the moment without judgment or resistance.
Being In the Now
The practice of being in the now has always been a struggle for me and I cannot even blame New York for it, though I have noticed folks outside of New York are a lot more laid back and do not lose it when they have to wait more than 8 minutes for their food to be served at restaurants.
We live in a time where we have a million ways to escape the present moment such as replaying past scenarios, obsessing over the future, multi-tasking, watching reality shows, throwing tantrums on Twitter or in real life, the list goes on and on. No wonder drugs such as Ambien, Prozac and Xanax are household favorites next to sugar and Plasma TVs.
Lao Tzu said it best, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” How many of us are actually at peace? What is the cost for living outside the now?
Come back to the breath, come back to this moment. I could either allow it to unfold, or I could launch into full attack mode by fighting the smell and the crowd with endless mental chatter that would contain occasional R rated rants. Speaking from experience, I had never won that fight and despite the ferocious battle in my head, reality would always go on like the love from the movie Titanic.
The mind loves to categorize, judge, speculate, worry, project, complain, compare and compete. The mind convinces us its voice is the absolute authority because it has the label “commander-in-chief” written across its forehead. The mind wants us to believe we are that voice and there is no separation between our thoughts and our essence. The dirty secret the mind refuses to share with us is that its voice is always filtered by the belief system we currently hold onto and our past conditioning, so if we were bitten by a dog when we were kids, even if Fluffy the poodle yawns in front of us, we are given a dose of anxiety and commanded to run. Left untamed, the mind can turn into an over-indulged tyrant like Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones who wants to convince us eating the entire pie of pizza plus the tres leches made by granny with 3 bottles of wine is a far more pleasing option than eating spinach and seaweed for dinner. Throughout the years, I had to learn the hard way not to trust everything my mind eagerly shared with me on a day to day basis.
Back to the breath, the breath that connects us to the source.
Back to the moment, the moment that is neither good nor bad, it simply is.
Back to the now, the now that anchors us in our Being.
Back to the present, the present that can only be claimed and opened if we invite ourselves into its space.
Life’s Gentle Reminders
As I walked out of the train into Time Square, I realized I was running a little late for my appointment and since I had a rather long walk, thoughts of worry began rushing into my mind like the Manhattan traffic and the “Do Not Walk” sign at every red light simply did not help.
Had I not believed my thoughts, I would have seen it as one of life’s gentle reminders for me to slow down and center. However, since I chose to believe the priority at that moment was to squeeze as many seconds out of the present moment as possible, something that would have made Lao Tzu turn in his grave, that led me to the rather unconscious and self-sabotaging decision of running through red lights just because my life was obviously not as important as those 15 seconds (though I was hoping for 45) I would have gained from throwing myself in front of the buses that were crossing and honking.
Eventually, life’s reminders became not so gentle and with a loud honk, I began running like a maniac from a cab that apparently auditioned for The Fast and Furious. Living in a city where it is not only the norm but also an encouraged practice to race against time, even if it does not get us physically killed, to be constantly rushing from point A to point B whether they are physical locations or life goals leads to mental and emotional death that is characterized by continuous stress, restlessness, inability to show up in the current moment and living like the walking dead while staring at the iPhone. When we are constantly living elsewhere, it drastically reduces the quality of the life we are living now simply because no one is here to live it.
We have made a rather interesting agreement with divinity and that is, whenever we play small, to me it means surrendering our free will to the mind, our external environment reflects the inner helplessness right away again and again until we shift out of our unconsciousness and come back to the present moment where full consciousness resides. Life’s gentle reminders can turn quite fierce when you ignore them, and running from a speeding cab proves the point. For some people, reminders show up as illnesses so they are forced to take care of their bodies and for others, failures and endless misery in careers and relationships direct their attention from external solutions to internal insights.
I know moving to a more relaxed environment such as Costa Rica like we have been planning to would help my sweetheart and I live a more balanced life, but I do not for one second expect the shift to come from the outside. If I do not practice presence while I am in New York City — which has to be one of the world’s finest “presence practice classrooms” simply because I have nowhere to go but inward — I would probably be shifting the responsibility of my inner peace to the mosquitoes and howler monkeys while I am meditating on the beach in Costa Rica.
The mind is all about Doing, and the higher self is all about Being. Without mastering Being anywhere, even the most tranquil place on earth cannot offer the gift of stillness because stillness requires a conscious choice. Inner peace is not the product of the external but rather the result of an internal decision of being present, and presence comes from stepping out of the mind and into the divine observer (soul, higher self, true self, God presence, etc) which is who we truly are. The moment we choose to become aware of our stream of thought and observe it without feeding into it, we are fully conscious. In that state of presence, there can be no feeling other than peace and connectedness.
7 Ways to Access Presence
There are many ways to be in the now and one does not need to be in the middle of Time Square surrounded by stressed out New Yorkers, or in an ashram in a remote location of the world to embody it. Breath work, yoga, and meditation are certainly great ways for us to center, but watch out for the mind’s favorite way to get out of surrendering its power by providing you with a list of seemingly valid excuses as to why you cannot do this thing. They include but are not limited to: lack of funds, lack of time, lack of energy, lack of interest, yoga studio is too far, meditation is too boring, I cannot sit still, my apartment is too small, the traffic outside my window is too loud, I don’t believe any of it will work, I have to take care of “real life,” my cat doesn’t like it, my dog barks too much, etc.
Below is a list of my go-to practices that even the busiest person on Earth can adopt to cultivate presence. (Consistency is key.)
Just Breathe: Pay attention to the breath and consciously slow it down to a pace that is comfortable for you. Do it for a few moments. Repeat several times a day or as many times as you desire.
Meditating With the Senses: If sitting in a corner with candles and crystal singing bowls isn’t your thing, you can meditate literally anywhere. Whatever activity you are engaged in, bring in all of your senses and allow them to guide you. If you are taking a walk, take in the scent of the air, the texture of earth beneath your feet, pay attention to your surroundings and colors, feel the air around your fingertips, imagine tasting the air if you want to, feel your body moving, etc. You can engage your senses in any activity in life which means anything can turn into a meditation.
Let the Consciousness Flow: Anchor your presence in the body by moving your consciousness to different parts of the body and allow it to linger there for a moment. Combine it with deep breathing if you’d like. You do not need to be visual, just imagine, or pretend the consciousness is in the head, make a note of what it is like. Now drop it down to the throat, then to the heart. What is it like now? Acknowledge it and move it to another spot. Again this can be done any time, anywhere.
Channel Your Inner Michelangelo: Channeling your creative energy is a great way to cultivate presence. Even though our New York apartment does not allow me the space to spread my oil paints, I have taken to the hobby of adult coloring which is extremely soothing. My sweetheart is a drummer and can always step into his inner-bliss in his Brooklyn drum studio. But please remember, you don’t have to be Leonardo da Vinci, a Mariinsky trained ballet dancer, a Berkeley graduate or the understudy for Phantom of the Opera to do this. Singing in the shower, drawing stick figures, baking for your neighbors and making crafts for your Etsy shop are all fantastic ways to embody the present moment.
Why So Serious? Laughter instantly brings you back to this moment and this is why Seinfeld is still having its reruns. No one needs to be taught the physical and emotional benefits of having a sense of humor, even the joker from Batman, among all his faults understood the importance of letting his hair loose though he has obviously taken the idea too far. The point is, reality is really happening in our heads and two people can have two very different responses to the same situation. That BO in the subway is not dissipating whether I grind my teeth or laugh at my own silliness for attempting to fight it with the thoughts in my head. It is up to us to find humor in life and laugh whenever we can.
Popping Bubbles: My mind used to be like a yenta who didn’t sleep, as a result, I didn’t sleep for over a decade. I decided with everything she said, rather than entering a conversation with her which would only strengthen the yenta, I would imagine the thought being a bubble and watch the bubble rise from the bottom of the lake to the top. As the bubble surfaced, it would pop on its own. It was a fun way to passively allow the thoughts go if I did not get too carried away by the effort of creating bubbles. Nonetheless, the point here is to practice being aware of the thoughts without resisting them or giving them your energy.
That Thought Is Not Mine: This one takes a bit of practice and self-awareness. Most of our thoughts are not ours. At birth, we are born into a tribe whose very beliefs, values, fears and judgments are passed onto us. In addition, our thoughts are influenced daily by media, politicians, and anything that makes its way into our mind. Without constant self-inquiry and inner house cleaning, other people are essentially telling us how to live our lives.
When a thought enters the mind that says, “I am a failure,” “I am fat” or “I need to risk my life to run across the street to save myself 2 seconds,” you can bet that thought has been filtered by a limiting belief that does not belong to you because your higher self always speaks to you with love, compassion and inspiration. A simple way that depletes the energy behind the thought without declaring world war on it can simple be practicing saying to yourself, “That thought isn’t mine.” If the source of the thought naturally comes to you, more power to you. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. Just the acknowledgement and believing in this statement renders the thought powerless.
Embrace the present.
For now, living in a city that never sleeps – my home for the past 22 years – I am making a pledge to allow and embrace every moment knowing that this is why I am here: to call forth my Being so I may embrace the Present.
Will you make the same pledge, wherever you are?
“This moment is as it should be, because the whole universe is as it should be. The moment — the one you’re experiencing right now– is the culmination of all the moments you have experienced in the past. This moment is as it is because the entire universe is as it is.”
Our souls are inherently free and joyful, our life purpose is to express our authentic beingness. As well as experiencing the joy and freedom within life, our soul wants to take us to all those challenging places where we get stuck and tight. Why? So that we can work through and be free of our old patterns, conditioning and karma, that which no longer serves us and prevents us from being free. These things cause us to forget who we truly are and in working to release them, we return to lightness, liberation and joy again.
Acceptance of what is
In life we are presented with a vast array of experiences, some we perceive as good and others bad. Though ultimately they are all wonderful opportunities for learning and evolving at a soul level. We have a tendency to go towards that which brings us comfort and ease, and avoid that which we find disagreeable. The Buddha saw craving and attachment as the root of all suffering. We often swing from either craving something or trying to avoid something else. This keeps us from the present moment, rather than accepting and experiencing what is, as it is. Ultimately our circumstances are neither good or bad, they just are.
There is a book by Mary O Malley with a fantastic title – “What’s in the way is the way“. She asks the question, what if your uncomfortable challenges were for you? What if they are the fuel for your awakening and becoming. I have frequently found that situations that I would not choose, have been my greatest life lessons and most valuable gifts. The timeless poet Rumi states “Seek not for love, rather to remove the blocks to the awareness of love’s presence.” So one of the keys to dealing with life’s challenges is acceptance of what is, exactly as it is. Remember that through the natural law of attraction, you have drawn the perfect circumstances to you for your evolution and growth.
Rather than denying, suppressing or resisting your experiences, why not become curious. Explore what is being presented to you in life and what feelings or emotions are arising no matter how awful they appear to be. Awareness is an invaluable tool, as Eric Hoffer stated that “To become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are.” If we travel through our life without questioning or exploring, nothing will ever change. Simply observing and bringing attention to our distortions, old patterns and behaviours that no longer serve us, we enhance the possibilities for transformation.
“So your darkness, rather than being a mistake, is Life coming to you in a form that will show you the power of being curious about what is rather that the unconsciousness of fixing, changing, getting rid of or rising above. Your challenges are here to show you that healing isn’t about stopping the game of struggle; healing is about exploring it.” ~ Mary O Malley
Be totally honest with yourself
Witnessing and exploring our shadow sides and discomfort is not easy. It may seem less onerous to turn away and put our attention elsewhere. It is for this reason that the world is full of distractions, addictions and things that enable us to become numb to our true feelings — technology and dense foods for example. However these things don’t work in the long run, at least not if we want to develop and grow. Here is another poem from Rumi where he invites us to welcome all our experiences.
“Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honourably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” ~ Rumi
The only way out is through
It’s important that we fully embrace all our experiences, and be totally open and honest with how we are feeling. If we don’t acknowledge our pain, it remains hidden and playing out in the background of our lives. For example we may have a challenge with a colleague at work that is causing us stress, if we ignore or deny it, it may be that it comes out sideways in that we take it out on our family or it slowly builds until one day we inappropriately explode with our colleague. Or perhaps it expresses itself physically in the form of illness or dis-ease.
By going to the heart of our pain and feeling it deeply, we enable it to shift and release. Openhand’s 9 Step Process can be really helpful in navigating our way through such experiences. It is also helpful to remain mindful of the breath to assist in keeping us centre and grounded. Be with what is in all it’s fullness, while remembering that it’s all okay exactly as it is. When you get to the depth of your pain, it can dissolve all by itself and soul can infuse through you. It’s not always easy or straightforward, so if it becomes too intense and/or prolonged, take some time out and find some joy and lightness again. It may be that there may be a overspill initially if you have stored emotions or trauma over a long period of time. Seek the support of a trusted friend or therapist if you need to or call on the benevolent guidance of the Universe. You will come out the other side lighter and freer, what else is there to do?
There is always something to learn from every experience, in fact perhaps the only “mistake” we can make is not learning from our experiences – “You live, You learn!”
I wish you the very best with the challenges you meet in your life, remember the only way out is through. It’s not easy, yet undoubtedly you can do it!
The former world No1 reflects on life after tennis married to another of the sport’s greats, Steffi Graf, and says: ‘If I went back in time I would probably retire sooner’
Eight years ago, in his raw and poignant autobiography, Open, Andre Agassi wrote: “My father yells everything twice, sometimes three times, sometimes 10. Harder, he says, harder. Hit earlier. Damn it Andre, hit earlier, Crowd the ball, crowd the ball. Now he’s crowding me. He’s yelling. It’s not enough to hit everything the dragon fires at me: my father wants me to hit harder and faster than the dragon. He wants me to beat the dragon.”
Andre was seven years old, in 1977, and the dragon was a ball machine his dad, Mike – a former Olympic boxer from Iran – turned into a beast. “Nothing sends my father into a rage like hitting a ball into the net. He foams at the mouth … My arm feels like it’s going to fall off. I want to ask: How much longer, Pops? But I don’t ask. I hit as hard as I can, then slightly harder.”
Forty years on an hour of conversation with Agassi is like little else in sport. The lost boy from Las Vegas is now a venerable educationalist whose eight grand slam titles and happy marriage to Steffi Graf dwarf his previous hatred of tennis and brief brush with crystal meth. But how did his dad, now 86 and described as “loyal” and “passionate” by Agassi, react to his depiction?
“When people didn’t have my nuanced take on him they just represented him as abusive. But my dad was clear. He said: ‘Andre, I know how I’ve lived and I know who I am and who I’m not. If I could do everything all over again I would change only one thing – I wouldn’t let you play tennis.’ I’d pulled the car over when he said: ‘I would only change one thing.’ I said, ‘Wow, why’s that Dad?’ He said: ‘Because I’d make you play baseball or golf so you can do it longer and make more money.’ I got back on the freeway with a chuckle.”
Agassi’s knowing laugh echoes his belief that “you can’t spread who you are without being broken first. Sometimes, when you’ve been broken into pieces, you come back and give much more to people. You can see my scars and they’re key to me making a difference in other lives now. You can’t have any wounds in this game that don’t leave scars. They never quite heal but they make you who you are.”
Agassi is so obviously intelligent it’s tempting to wonder what he might have done if his father had been obsessive about education rather than tennis. “Yeah, but my dad is the reason I’m in education now,” Agassi says. “My lack of education, a lack of choice, had a huge impact. The question always remains: what might you have done? But I don’t have any deep regrets.”
A possible outcome, if his dad had turned the classroom into his battleground, is Agassi would have ended up hating learning and buried himself now in middle-aged games of tennis. Instead he has made a substantial impact on education. He was only 24 years old, wearing a mullet and hot lava pink shorts, when he started his first education foundation for underprivileged children in Vegas. In 2001, he opened a school which became an educational model in Clark County.
“That school is still thriving and our endowment allows it to live in perpetuity,” Agassi says. “I then figured out a way to scale that mission across the country and in the last three and a half years I deployed over $650m nationally to build 79 new schools.”
How many kids has Agassi helped educate? “I’ve got 1,200 kids in my foundation school and they revolve annually. I now have 38,000 kids nationwide revolving. I can’t do the math but the numbers go up pretty quickly.”
He has also launched an online tennis coaching course with Udemy, which chimes with his philosophy that teaching should be available widely. The most interesting facets of the course focus on Agassi’s tennis psychology – and his attempts to help players of different levels understand that improvement cannot always be measured in victory or defeat.
Agassi knows more about winning and losing than most – and his fall from being the world No1 in 1996 contains a significant lesson. “The real tragedy in my decline was happening during my success – it was the disconnect I felt from the game. Despite being good at it I had a deep resentment and even hatred of tennis. That disconnect after getting to No1 was even worse because you believe being the best will fill the void. I felt nothing. Every day is Groundhog Day and what’s the point? I declined in different ways. In some cases it was lack of work. In others it was the self-inflicted damage of drugs. I found many ways to hurt myself.
“But I got to a point where I realised that just because I didn’t choose my life doesn’t mean I can’t take ownership of it. That was the epiphany. But epiphanies don’t change your life. It’s what you do with them that changes your life. That’s when I saw children whose lack of choice was far worse than mine. I found myself feeling pretty blessed but compelled to confront the unconscionable reality of these kids – which is that, without education, there’s no hope, no choice, no breaking the downward spiral. Once I started to focus on that, tennis became a vehicle for me. I started to appreciate it. I learned a lot when trying to get back to No1 as it’s much harder. I realised you had to plan your work and work your plan. That became my mantra.”
“I don’t think anyone who cares about tennis could have missed that match. I was as neutral as possible because they’ve both given so much and have great stories. Of course seeing Roger win at that age was special. He never ceases to impress me but he’s stopped amazing me. I expect it from him. And Nadal persevered through so much adversity and with people writing him off. I didn’t believe that with the amount of physicality he’s put into his career he’d ever get his game back to that level. He certainly proved me wrong. It was a beautiful match and one of those times you truly wish there wasn’t a loser.”
Did Agassi also wish he could be on court playing Federer or Nadal? “No. You can’t believe you once were at that level – and, even if I could do it, I think of my life now and ask: ‘Why do they do it?’ Steffi said: ‘Can you believe what these guys are still willing to put themselves through?’ It’s remarkable but if I went back in time I would probably retire sooner.”
Surely he misses the intensity? “I miss that the least. That was always the tough part for me. I enjoyed the work that went into making yourself the best you can be but I hated what the scoreboard doesn’t say. It just tells you if you won or lost. But the biggest issue for most athletes is you spend a third of your life not preparing for the next two-thirds. One day your entire way of life comes to an end. It’s a kind of death. You just have to go through it and figure it out. In her own quiet way Steffi feels stronger than me. She’s pretty linear in how she lives. I probably do a little more reminiscing than she does – which says a lot.”
So Graf did not mind Serena Williams overtaking her, after they had been locked on 22 slams, by winning the Australian Open? “It has no relevance in her world. The hardest part of Serena chasing down those numbers was respecting the game. Steffi doesn’t want people to feel she doesn’t care about tennis. She cares but she’s so disconnected. Every time she was asked she felt obligated to put importance on it for the sake of tennis and an incredible champion in Serena.”
After Djokovic won the French Open last year, his 12th slamtitle, it looked like the Serb might challenge Federer’s record. But he has since lost every major, relinquished his No1 ranking to Andy Murray and was defeated again last week by Nick Kyrgios in Indian Wells.
“If it was a physical thing it would be obvious,” Agassi says of Djokovic. “You don’t lose it quickly unless you’re dealing with a significant injury. So there’s got to be something emotional, mental, behind the curtain that only he and his team know. But he’s way too good to not find the solution. He’s also going to find perspective given his history. After clearing the courts of bomb shrapnel to practice I’m sure he understands how cruel and tough life can be.”
Murray also lost early in Indian Wells and, like Djokovic, will miss Miami this week with an injured elbow. “Andy has skills that are rarely outmatched. I was never the best athlete and had to think strategically. But he has so much athleticism he has a tendency to rely on that and make matches harder than they need to be. If you brought down his speed, matches might get easier because he’d have more conviction to go after [opponents]. He’s getting more assertive and that will help because long-term wear and tear is a factor. But Andy would be terribly disappointed if he didn’t win another slam or two. There’s no question he can win more.”
Who would Agassi like to coach if he returned to tennis? “I can point to people that would be fun and interesting. To me there’s a gap between what [John] Isner, [Gaël] Monfils and Kyrgios do and what I think they could do. That’s interesting and exciting but if they don’t want to be coached it would be short-lived and painful. I would pay to watch all of those guys play but it’s impossible to say whether I could coach them.”
The idea of Agassi working with Kyrgios is fascinating. Could it be a short-term option? “I would not have any room now with my kids, who are 15 and 13. So the answer is no. I wouldn’t be able to do it because I couldn’t do it the way I would need to do it.”
Has Agassi learned to like tennis? “There’s a deep appreciation for the sport. That’s the best way to put it.”
Agassi pauses when asked if he and his wife sometimes hit a few balls in Vegas – for old time’s sake? “No. It sounds a nice idea but as soon as you hit the first couple of balls you remember you can do this but you’re also reminded of what you can’t do. I just thank God I played the game long enough to enjoy lots of good moments. It gave a lot and it took a lot. I think me and tennis are about even now.”
You don’t get rid of mental illness through communication. You don’t get rid of it at all.
When I was 26 years old, I almost killed myself. It was at once both impulsive and entirely thought out — a decision that, if I’m being honest, had been a long time in the making. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 23, right after I got married, but looking back, I can see signs that extend back to my teens. In my mind, killing myself was a tidy solution to a never-ending sadness. It seemed like a way to help Matt, my husband, who was mired in a marriage in which he’d once spent Valentine’s Day trying desperately to help me off the couch and out of an interminable crying jag.
Thanks to some lingering last-minute doubts and a mercifully quick-thinking friend who figured out that I wasn’t OK, I ended up in a psychiatric ward, and I stayed there for a week. I know now that being there saved my life. But while finally getting real help felt beyond relieving, it didn’t quite feel that way for Matt. That’s because, in an attempt to protect him, I’d kept my suicidal thoughts a secret. Until I was hospitalized, he’d had no idea.
THE TRUTH IS THAT YOU DON’T GET RID OF MENTAL ILLNESS AT ALL.
When I left the hospital, still alive and equipped with a new regimen of antidepressants and regular appointments with my therapist, Matt and I decided that our only choice was to start over. We moved to a new house in a new town and practiced saying all the things we’d learned to say, like, “I’m feeling really anxious” and “Don’t worry, I’m here for you”. We high-fived each other over our newfound relationship awesomeness and felt like we’d dodged all the bullets. But the truth is that you don’t get rid of mental illness through communication skills and extra high-fives. The truth is that you don’t get rid of mental illness at all. It stays with you like a third person in your marriage, and you both have to agree to cater to its needs.
When winter came that year, I began longing for my bed. Bed has always been my depression gateway drug, sucking me in so that the sadness can take hold. It wasn’t long before I found myself pulling the covers over my head each morning as Matt dressed for work, no longer bothering to pretend like I wasn’t fully intending on going straight back to bed as soon as he left. I was desperate to hide from the feelings of numbness and dread I had to contend with whenever I was awake. I toyed with the idea of admitting what was happening just like I promised I would, but I didn’t. Once again, it started to feel easier just to keep it to myself.
But while I was quickly sliding back into my old habits, Matt had somehow found a better way to shake my fog. On one particularly rough day, I had spent hours hiding out in our bedroom, binge-reading a blog I’d found about an American expat in Finland. The more I read, the more my depressed mind began thinking that life seemed so much better there. And by the time Matt got home that night, I’d convinced myself that my misery wasn’t actually about depression at all. It was just that we didn’t live in a magical place like Finland where everyone was happier than we were.
“You need to get up,” Matt said, after he walked into our room and saw me in the same pajamas I’d been wearing when he left that morning. His face was tense with worry and frustration. “You can’t stay in bed like this. It’s not good for you.”
“We should move to Finland,” I blurted out. Of all the things he may have expected me to say in reply, I’m sure that certainly wasn’t one of them.
I tried to simultaneously explain myself and sell him on the idea. “I mean, I just think we live in the wrong place. We’re doing all the stuff you’re supposed to do, we’re trying so hard, and we’re still miserable. Let’s move to Finland. It would be an adventure.”
My abrupt suggestion hung in the air for a moment, before he sighed, exasperated. “Alana, we’re not going to sell our house and move to Finland. We have a life here. We can’t just throw that away.”
I didn’t expect him to take my request seriously, yet I could feel my irrational, inner depression voice bubbling up to the surface. He doesn’t get it, the voice said. If he cared about your happiness, he’d say yes. Tears quickly welled in my eyes.
“Why don’t you understand that living here is killing me?” I fired back. I could see his face tightening, wanting to scream at me while also trying to be there for me.
The sight of his frustration unnerved me, because in the past I knew Matt would have immediately surrendered. He would have seen that I was depressed and overreacting, and would have opted to give up quickly and wait for it to blow over. Fighting my irrational thinking didn’t seem worthwhile to his logic-driven mind. But this time he understood that what he actually needed to do was stand up for us.
“You’re struggling. I get that,” he said, slowly. “I know you’re getting worse and I want to help you, but when you talk like this I don’t even know what to say.”
It surprised me to hear him admit it. Most often, we had let my illness be the elephant in the room, neither of us wanting to speak about it. But this time, he kept talking.
“I hate that this is a thing that happens to you. I hate that your brain makes you want to hide in bed all day. I hate that you don’t want to tell me when it happens, and I hate that you think you wouldn’t still feel this way if we moved to Finland. But this isn’t you. This is just the stuff you say when you’re depressed. The things your brain says are not true. You need to realize that.”
MY STAY IN THE PSYCH WARD FORCED ME TO LET HIM IN, BUT I HADN’T YET LET HIM STAND BY MY SIDE.
My first instinct was to scoff at his completely sane response. I didn’t want to hear him confirm my worst fears about what was happening: that once again I was really not OK.
Thankfully though, the real meaning of his words hit me next. I saw that he wasn’t trying to say that I was a burden. He was actually saying that depression was the burden — and more importantly that it was our burden. I let my illness tell me that my marriage couldn’t hold under the weight of my struggles. But just as my depression is not who I am, it’s also not my responsibility to fix single-handedly. The deal we’d made was that we’d face life together. And while my stay in the psych ward may have forced me to let him in, I still had yet to give him the opportunity to stand by my side.
Matt and I saw my doctor together again, and after having my medication adjusted, I began in time to feel the haze lifting. We both breathed a sigh of relief as our lives began to resemble something that felt normal, yet we also knew this wouldn’t be the end.
We don’t have it even close to all figured out (who does?), but what we do have is the knowledge that we’re in it together. We’ve kept depression from dividing us, even though that’s an active, constant struggle. Ours might not be the marriage I dreamed of pre-diagnosis, but it’s somehow more glorious, more beautiful, more frustrating, and so much more alive than I ever imagined. And that’s not at all depressing.