This is the Brain Pickings midweek pick-me-up: Once a week, I plunge into my fourteen-year archive and choose something worth resurfacing and resavoring as timeless nourishment for heart, mind, and spirit. (If you don’t yet subscribe to the standard Sunday newsletter of new pieces published each week, you can sign up here — it’s free.) If you missed last week’s edition — a brilliant forgotten philosopher on the hidden source of music’s supreme power — you can catch up right here. And if you find any solace, joy, and value in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – over these fourteen years, I have spent tens of thousands of hours and tremendous resources on Brain Pickings, and every little bit of support helps keep it – keep me – going. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
FROM THE ARCHIVE | Walt Whitman on Democracy and Optimism as a Mighty Form of Resistance
“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her spectacular essay on optimism and despair. The illusion of permanent progress inflicts a particularly damning strain of despair as we witness the disillusioning undoing of triumphs of democracy and justice generations in the making — despair preventable only by taking a wider view of history in order to remember that democracy advances in fits and starts, in leaps and backward steps, but advances nonetheless, on timelines exceeding any individual lifetime. Amid our current atmosphere of presentism bias and extreme narrowing of perspective, it is not merely difficult but downright countercultural to resist the ahistorical panic by taking such a telescopic view — lucid optimism that may be our most unassailable form of resistance to the corruptions and malfunctions of democracy.
That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) insisted on again and again in Specimen Days (public library) — the splendid collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries that gave us his wisdom on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art enhances life, and what makes life worth living.
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)
Shortly before his sixtieth birthday and a decade after issuing his immensely prescient admonition that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” exhorting his compatriots to “always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote,” Whitman writs under the heading “DEMOCRACY IN THE NEW WORLD”:
I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.
Having lived and saved lives through the Civil War, having seen the swell of “vast crops of poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, miserably-waged populations,” having witnessed the corrosion of idealism and the collapse of democratic values into corruption and complacency, Whitman still faces a dispiriting landscape with a defiant and irrepressible optimism — our mightiest and most countercultural act of courage, then and now and always:
Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.
Zooming out of the narrow focus of his cultural moment — as we would be well advised to do with ours — Whitman takes a telescopic perspective of time, progress, and social change, and considers what it really takes to win the future:
The advent of America, the history of the past century, has been the first general aperture and opening-up to the average human commonalty, on the broadest scale, of the eligibilities to wealth and worldly success and eminence, and has been fully taken advantage of; and the example has spread hence, in ripples, to all nations. To these eligibilities — to this limitless aperture, the race has tended, en-masse, roaring and rushing and crude, and fiercely, turbidly hastening — and we have seen the first stages, and are now in the midst of the result of it all, so far. But there will certainly ensue other stages, and entirely different ones. In nothing is there more evolution than the American mind. Soon, it will be fully realized that ostensible wealth and money-making, show, luxury, &c., imperatively necessitate something beyond — namely, the sane, eternal moral and spiritual-esthetic attributes, elements… Soon, it will be understood clearly, that the State cannot flourish, (nay, cannot exist,) without those elements. They will gradually enter into the chyle of sociology and literature. They will finally make the blood and brawn of the best American individualities of both sexes.
Three years later, and ten presidencies before a ruthless government began assaulting and exploiting nature as a resource for commercial and political gain, Whitman revisits the subject under the heading “NATURE AND DEMOCRACY—MORTALITY”:
American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices — through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life — must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.
Specimen Days remains one of the most timelessly insightful books I have ever encountered. Complement this particular portion with Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy, Rebecca Solnit on lucid optimism in dark times, and Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman’s animated tribute to Leonard Cohen’s anthem to democracy, then revisit Whitman on the essence of happiness and his advice on the building blocks of character.
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The Body Politic Electric: Walt Whitman on Women’s Centrality to Democracy
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Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders
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Hannah Arendt on Loneliness as the Common Ground for Terror and How Tyrannical Regimes Use Isolation as a Weapon of Oppression
Would They Miss You If You Were Gone?
A simple definition for doing work that matters
Four years ago, after six months of hard work, I finally did it: My email list reached 10,000 subscribers. I was ecstatic.
10,000 people. That’s a small stadium. Imagine a sold out arena, waiting for you — just for you — to share your latest work. This would be my big break. I was sure of it. With 10,000 people marching behind me, nothing I make would ever fall flat again.
You can see where this is going. I’m about to swallow a bitter pill here.
Later that year, I heard Seth Godin define permission marketing:
If that email you were going to send to 10,000 people tomorrow — if it didn’t go out — how many of the 10,000 people would say: “Where is the email?!” If the answer is none, then you don’t have permission. You’re just being tolerated.
Convinced that my dedicated subscribers loved me, I decided to run an experiment: That week, I didn’t send out my newsletter. No announcement. No warning. I just skipped one email. What would happen? Who would ask for it? How many people? Would they be concerned? What would they say?
I woke up the next morning to a sobering realization: No one had emailed me. No one had asked for the newsletter. I waited. One day. Two. Three. Nothing. Crickets. No one missed me when I was gone. Ouch.
The all-important question in marketing, art, and doing great work is this: “What does it mean to matter?” According to Seth, there is a simple answer:
Would they miss you if you were gone? I don’t know who they are, I don’t know what gone means, but those people that you’re seeking to have an impact on, would they miss you if you didn’t show up tomorrow?
In my case, people didn’t. Maybe, they thought my newsletter was nice. Maybe, they enjoyed an article or two of mine. Clearly, however, none of my readers considered my work essential. They could easily do without it.
It hurts to find out that the tribe you’ve assembled with your blood, sweat, and tears will disband the second you stop talking to them, but the message it sends is clear: You never formed a real tribe in the first place. You just talked enough people into following along. You convinced them to take the flyer, to try the free sample, to sign up for the trial subscription — but you didn’t do the hard work of building a loyal relationship.
You just did “the hustle dance,” as Seth calls it:
Would they miss you if this new product, this new project didn’t come to the world? Or do you have to do that whole hustle dance, “Look at me, look at me,” jump up and down, offer for a limited time, bla bla bla… To game it so they’ll actually transact with you. That work doesn’t feel like it matters to me.
It’s easy to think you’re doing work that matters. That, somehow, your marketing is different. You have good intentions. You really want your audience to succeed. But you might still cut corners. We all succumb to the temptation sometimes.
Clickbait is still clickbait, even if you deliver on your promise. Selling is still selfish if your main goal is to make money. Giving gifts is not generous if it comes with expectations. In many ways, reciprocity has been corrupted.
If what you’re doing feels like playing a game, chances are, not many will miss you when you’re gone. You’re just another player who dropped out. Fine. Less competition. Less hassle. Less clutter in my inbox.
Here’s another question: Where is the sacrifice? How much are you really sweating? If we can’t see your effort in what you make for us, how can we know you mean what you say?
The only way to show people you have their best interest at heart is to actually do. You can’t fake it. You either do something selfless, or you don’t. It’s one of the few things in life that are surprisingly black and white and, most of the time, plain to see — at least on a long enough timeline.
When I didn’t hear back from my fans, when no one missed me when I was gone, I was devastated. I questioned everything I was doing. I changed things. I tried to do better.
Last year, I started another newsletter. I put in hard work. Real work. It grew fast. It was free. I sent it every day. I came up with themes. I wanted to help so badly. I really tried.
To this day, it’s not as big as my first one. It has about 5,000 subscribers. But, often, when I missed a day or didn’t share something in a while, a few people checked in. “Hey, Nik, are you okay?” “Hey Nik, where are the emails?”
It’s great to see you’re moving in the right direction. It feels good to be missed when you’re gone.
It’s okay. You’re not perfect. Take your time. Learn to stop dancing. Start making. Take your ego out of the equation. Not for a while. Not for this one thing. Completely.
Watch what happens. Watch how, slowly, the magic unfolds. Watch them start to miss you when you’re gone.
Write like a pro,
PS: Want to take your writing game to the next level? Check out Write Like A Pro.
Rumi > Quotes
Rumi quotes Showing 1-30 of 2,076
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”
Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation.
Vanish, And He’ll make you shine like the sun
Fall, And He’ll raise you to the heavens
Become nothing, And He’ll turn you into everything.”
When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.
Praise God for those two insomnias!
And the difference between them.”
Know your voice.
Recognize you when you
first come ’round the corner.
Sense your scent when I come
into a room you’ve just left.
Know the lift of your heel,
the glide of your foot.
Become familiar with the way
you purse your lips
then let them part,
just the slightest bit,
when I lean in to your space
and kiss you.
I want to know the joy
of how you whisper
all else is poor translation.”