How Not to Flinch From Praise

Everyone knows that negative feedback is tough to take. A lesser-known fact: positive feedback can be just as painful. Take Vincent van Gogh’s reaction to his first (and last) glowing review:

when I read the article it made me almost sad as I thought: [I] should be like this and I feel so inferior. And pride intoxicates like drink, when one is praised and has drunk one becomes sad, or anyway I don’t know how to say how I feel it, but it seems to me that the best work one could do would be that carried out in the family home without self-praise.

Van Gogh isn’t alone. During one of my grad-school talks, I could tell that the audience was enjoying themselves. The Q&A was lively, and afterwards several people stopped me to tell me how much they liked the presentation. But when I got home, I couldn’t access any of their enthusiasm. Curled up in bed, the only thing I could remember was the sensation of everyone’s eyes fixed on my bare face.

My brain processes praise in a funny way. Like any utterance, a compliment is a packet of information – some good, some bad. I’d like to be able to view those side by side, but in my mind, the bad parts wrap around the good. It’s a little like a nut with a hard toxic shell.

Thankfully, I think I’ve discovered some nutcrackers. I’ll describe them later in this post – but first, let’s get clearer on what the nuts are made of.

When I flinch from praise, it often goes something like this.

You say: You look so nice in that dress!
I think: When tomorrow I wear sweatpants, you’ll judge me.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is like-2.png

What I hear is not that you’re positively evaluating me, but that you’re evaluating me at all. If I’m praised, then I’m seen; and if I’m seen, then tomorrow I might disappoint you. Today I might disappoint you. You might keep looking at the dress and notice that what seemed like beauty was only flashiness. You don’t like it after all, you might decide. If a judgment is yours, it’s yours to revise; to judge is to wield power.

Every judgment implies a scale. Every scale implies the possibility of plummeting down. (This is part of why social media sucks so much. Even if there’s no “dislike” button, the “like” button implies it.)

In this case, my nut looks something like this:

Here’s a second type of nut. Let’s say you compliment me on having good taste in clothes being a good writer despite wearing socks with sandals.

I’m likely to reject this praise for a different reason: identities are damaging!1 That is, if I accept your praise, I’ll think of myself as a Good Writer. If I proceed to experience an otherwise harmless day of writer’s block, I risk descending down a spiral of self-blame. I think van Gogh is right:

the best work one could do would be that carried out in the family home without self-praise.

Better to stay away from the praise altogether.

Given the damage identities can cause, you might wonder why people would give this sort of praise in the first place.

That question is precisely what helped me find my nutcracker. I simply started asking praise-givers for their intention. Mind you, it wasn’t like I asked them point-blank “What do you think you’re doing with that praise, young lady?!” Instead, I tried to get a handle on the experience that prompted the praise. I’d ask things like

  • What do you value about good writing?
  • Is there a particular essay of mine that you enjoyed?2 What was reading it like? What did you get out of it?

After several of these conversations, I started to notice a pattern. If the praise eventually resonated with me, it was almost always because the praise-giver expressed gratitude. They were praising me because I had given them something valuable (usually an experience).

When I discovered that, I started automatically translating praise to gratitude. For instance:

You look so nice in that dress!
Translation: Thank you for bringing me joy with what you’re wearing!

Rephrasing it that way goes a long way towards removing the pressure of possible judgment. It’s no longer a question of whether you’ll keep giving me a thumbs up in the future, but of whether I’ll keep choosing (or at least trying) to give you more gifts.

And for the second nut:

You’re such a good writer!
Translation: Thank you for often bringing me valuable reading experiences!

I don’t have to accept the identity of a Good Writer to feel happy that my writing touched you.

The translation method doesn’t always work. Sometimes I need to ask for more details to understand why you value the experience I’ve given you. (And if I don’t value that sort of experience, I might want to reject the compliment.)

Occasionally, the compliment doesn’t even come from a place of gratitude. Sometimes “you’re such a good writer” means “I could never be so good, so I’ll stop trying.” You say you admire me, but really you’re making excuses for yourself, putting yourself down, or just trying to create distance between us.

Even in such cases, though, exploring your intention is usually worthwhile. Maybe I can help you get over your hangups about writing. At the very least, I’ll see where you’re coming from.

So now we have a couple of nutcrackers: translating praise to gratitude (for the easy cases) and exploring the praise-giver’s intentions (for the hard ones).

There’s just one more step: remembering to actually enjoy the gratitude. And that step is surprisingly hard for me. Why? As a woman, I’ve been taught to value modesty. Pride doesn’t befit a demure lady, or something like that. And as a Pole, I learned that the appropriate response to praise and gratitude is “it’s nothing!” – essentially tossing your appreciation as fast as I can.

The cultural practice of rejecting compliments actually makes some sense. Like I said, identities can be toxic, so that part of praise should be discarded. But there’s a difference between pride in being a Good Writer and satisfaction at giving someone an enjoyable reading experience. The latter is what keeps me going, so I try to train myself away from my instinctual recoil.

In the face of praise, I intentionally pause for a moment, think about the gratitude I’m receiving and try to feel it in my body. It doesn’t always feel like anything. It can even be unpleasant – e.g. if I don’t value the sort of experience I’m being thanked for. That’s okay; I’m practicing. But when it does feel good, there is really nothing like it – nothing like basking in the warm glow of heartfelt gratitude.

[1] For more on the dangers of evaluation and overgrown identity, check out The Inner Game of Tennis and “Keep Your Identity Small.”
[2] This one’s a little tricky because it can sound like I’m fishing for more compliments. It helps if I make it clear that I’m just trying to understand what resonates with my readers.

Thanks to Lila, Rachel, Ann, and Mahaya from the Connection Institute for bringing up and discussing this topic. You rock! (Translation: Talking with you was an enriching experience which helped me write this.) And thanks to Ben for being the best (= e.g. finding gaps in the first draft of this post).

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Axiology, Transphobia, Spouse Selection: Poland’s Sex Ed Curriculum

In my last post, I sounded the alarm about a bill threatening Polish sexual education. Today, I’ll show you just how bad the current curriculum is.

What follows are curriculum fragments interspersed with my own memories from (Polish) Catholic middle school. The italicized paragraphs are my translations of the curriculum for “Preparation for Life in the Family ” put out by the Polish Ministry of Education in 2016 and recommended for 10 to 15-year-olds.

The student will refer to the right to life from conception to natural death.

“This is going to be difficult to watch,” the teacher apologizes. “But it’s important to know the truth. Unborn babies are murdered every day.”

The Silent Scream, she explains, shows footage of a fetus recoiling in terror at an impending abortion. It’s incontrovertible proof that the unborn child feels fear and pain, that it doesn’t want to die any more than we do.

I brace myself. She pops the tape in the VCR, and I see dark, indecipherable pixels an almost blank screen. The program’s host tries to point out the fetus’s body parts, but I can’t really see anything. I squint my eyes. I wait for the action. It’s only when my classmates erupt into tears that I know that the fault is mine, not the tape’s.

Afterwards, we go around the room sharing reasons why abortion is morally wrong.

Ever the budding philosopher, I up the ante. “It’s even worse than murdering an adult. After all, the adult has already had a chance to enjoy life, but the fetus has all of that ahead.”

The girl in black at the back of the room who is last to go has remained one of my dearest friends. At the time, her words run a confused jolt through me: “I think we should be allowed to give arguments for both sides. Just on principle.”

It’s worth covering the dangers connected with masturbation, e.g. pornophilia, sex addiction.

This is the one time the word “masturbation” occurs in the curriculum.

The student knows the differences between contraception and natural family planning.

Abortion was murder; contraception was playing at God. Besides, it didn’t work, and could turn to murder: one educational video claimed that when a condom got stuck inside the woman, the baby would be suffocated on birth by a “condom hood.”

In accordance with personalistic anthropology, humanistic psychology, pedagogy and developmental psychology, as well as familiology and axiology, and also the rules of the Polish language, [the teacher will] (…) highlight the value of marriage, distinguishing it from other relationships – in the legal, physical, psychological, spiritual, and social aspect.

Imagine taking that lesson as the child of single, divorced or unmarried parents!

And that physical aspect distinguishing marriage from other relationships?

The student can list biomedical, psychological, social and moral arguments for sexual initiation within marriage.

In another “educational” video, a leery boy is pestering his girlfriend. “Come on, babe, show me that you love me.” “I want to wait till marriage – that’s how much I love you.”

The guy was so antipathic that I assumed that anyone who wanted sex before marriage was practically a rapist. At the same time, a part of me was confused: was it always the man who was pestering? Did other girls not have unruly bodies like mine?

I made it to college thinking that waiting till marriage was the norm.

The child will know how to express gratitude to family members and what for. (…) He’ll learn to give Father’s, Mother’s, Grandparents’ Day wishes.

This one’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, I’m all in favor of teaching people how to be nice to each other. On the other, I’d appreciate an acknowledgement that some parents might not deserve thanks. Surely reading “honor your mother and your father” in their catechism is insult enough for abused children!

The school’s functions include (…) strengthening the process of identifying with one’s own sex. (…) It’s worth covering disorders of identification with one’s sex, such as transgender, transsexuality.

This new addition to the curriculum is appallingly harmful to trans kids – but not just them. I remember how once it was actually easier to be a tomboy in Poland than in the US. Now, I anticipate teacher-backed bullying at the slightest signs of gender nonconformity.

The student characterizes concepts connected with sexuality: masculinity, femininity, complementarity, love, value, marriage, parenthood, responsibility.

The glaring omission in “complementarity” is the only way in which homosexuality occurs in the curriculum.

I remember looking “gay” up in the dictionary. A classmate had asked me if I was gay, since I never talked about my crushes. (How could I talk about them if they gave me such evil feelings?) I remember hearing about gay parades as some exotically terrible event, where people talked about sex in public and dressed in revealing and bizarre ways. It never occurred to me that any of it might have something to do with love.

The teacher should cover the typology of relationships: e.g. monogamy, serial monogamy.

There is nothing past the period.

It’s not all doom and gloom; let’s end with a few more positive nuggets.

The school’s functions include (…) demonstrating the unity between sexual activity, love, and responsibility; discusses problems connected with sexual objectification.

That’s a beautiful, if quixotic, idealism: it’s not just that there should be a relationship between love and sex, but that there already is one.

The student knows the criteria of spouse selection, the motives for entering into marriage, and the factors determining the longevity and success of marital and familial relationships.

Now that lesson I’d like to attend myself.

In the end, Poland’s “family values” offer an escape hatch out of sexual miseducation: attendance in Preparation for Life in the Family requires parental permission.

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Sex Ed Threatened in Poland

Poland, 2004. “Puberty,” I read in my middle-school biology textbook, “is a time of overwhelming and confusing sexual desires. To manage the impulses of this perilous life-stage, we recommend filling your schedule with as many extracurriculars as possible. That way, you’ll fall asleep as soon as your head touches the pillow, safe from temptation.”1

The textbook was mistaken; no number of extracurriculars was enough. Facedown on my bed in the dead of night, I was never too exhausted to feel my body. The more forbidden it was, the louder the call, and so I let myself believe my body’s fiction: that this was only pleasure, that what felt so good couldn’t be so wrong. That in the privacy of my bedroom, I could do whatever I pleased; no one would ever know, so no one would get hurt.  Against the evidence of every past experience, my body urged that this road was heading somewhere beautiful, towards bliss greater even than what I felt now.

I loved this imaginary world while it lasted, and so I stretched out the act until I could no longer hold it, until the final contraction brought me back to the real world, until with that final gasp I would realize: I had sinned again.

My body made promises it never kept; orgasm always meant shame.

Come Sunday, I’d page through the booklets preparing for confession. “Am I pure in thoughts, desires, acts?” Even the thought of dirty thoughts beckoned with a tempting finger.

I’d take a deep breath and resolve to confess my sins. Like any good Catholic, I believed that that if you honestly show contrition, confess to a sin, and do penance, all will be forgiven. Just reach out your hand, and receive the keys to heaven. Don’t, and hell beckons.

My dirty mind was too shameful to admit; my hand only ever reached in one direction.  Each week, I chose hell over confession. Each week, I desecrated the Holy Wafer with my sinner’s tongue.

When I lost my religion, I kept the shame. I couldn’t even bring myself to admit to masturbating on an anonymous survey.

The first person to help me unravel a few of the threads binding arousal to shame was my high school sex-ed teacher. She was funny, assertive, beloved by the students – and claimed the deadly sin which kept me up at night was perfectly normal.

Until I met this teacher, school and religion had been systematically garbling and undermining my body’s beautiful messages. I hope future generations of Poles won’t have to undergo such brainwashing.

Unhappily, things seem to be going in precisely the wrong direction.

In the proposed Polish “Stop Pedophilia” bill, “anyone who promotes or approves the undertaking by a minor of sexual intercourse or other sexual activity” would face a penalty of up to two years of jailtime. If the bill passes, the only teacher who ever eased my terror at my evil habit would risk imprisonment.

The petition proposing the bill is signed by 263 000 people and backed by the Polish Pro-Life Foundation. It was first put before the Polish parliament in October 2019 and sent to committee for further work this April.

What sort of people would support such regressive legislation? I turn to Google for answers. On sites promoting the bill,2 I read that in Germany, preschool-aged children are encouraged to regularly masturbate. (Parents are instructed not to intervene.) By the time they are teenagers, students are habituated to group anal sex. Poland is beginning to follow suit.

And who is behind this madness? Western corporations who want to addict future generations of Poles to sex, enslaving them to their own desires.

Oh, and don’t forget the pedophiles, who invented “progressive” sexual education in the first place. Take the legendary Kinsey: he apparently instructed pedophiles in rape, telling them how to measure children’s sexual responses using a stopwatch. Later, in Berlin, Helmut Kentler, who promoted the idea of “sexual diversity,” gave known pedophiles custody over orphans. Supported by Berlin authorities, the experiment went on from the 60s until 2003.3

51% of Polish voters recently re-elected the right-wing incumbent, whose party, in addition to being vehemently homophobic, supported the bill. How can so many people be so wrong?

Well, maybe their own sex ed was just as bad as mine. And that includes the progressive teachers. Remember how I said that my high-school teacher normalized masturbation? It wasn’t that simple.

Eyes glinting with mischievous amusement, she informed us that a student from another class had come to her to confess.

 “I masturbated,” he whispered. “How bad is that?”

“How many times?” she asked.


“My mind filled with dirty possibilities,” she confided in us. “Once per day? Once per hour? Half hour?”

Once, period.

We laugh – and that’s the end of the story. No Q&A, no further explanation.

I went away from that class understanding that to masturbate once was okay. Beyond that, I had no clue. Apparently, there was a number past which depravity lay. And were the rules different for girls? Weren’t boys supposed to have a higher sex drive? If there was a boy in the other class who masturbated only once, was something fundamentally wrong with me?

I ached to ask her, but knew I couldn’t – not without being turned into a hilarious anecdote for the other class.

How did my teacher exhibit such a profound failure of empathy? How did she not entertain the possibility that this class contained teenagers just as confused as that boy?

Possibly, she was reacting to the same taboo that the Stop Pedophilia bill is trying to pass into law. Perhaps she formulated her lesson entirely in humorous implicatures for the sake of plausible deniability. But my money’s on a different explanation: despite evidence to the contrary, she had simply assumed that all of us students were already little liberals. After all, good = liberal, and surely we were good.

For the conservative, the sex-ed teacher is a depraved pedophile in the pocket of Big Sex, who is absolutely not a member of your parish.  For the liberal, the conservative is a deprived bigot who, in collusion with pedophile priests, drinks the blood of women and sexual minorities and who is most certainly not a member of your sex-ed class. Stereotypes hurt everyone.

When a nun taught me sex ed, masturbation was cause for shame. When a liberal did, I was simply taught another type of shame: at having been ashamed in the first place.

No one wants to carry double shame. Perhaps the rise of political polarization has something to do with this fact.

The video opens with ominous, belligerent music. With his heavily lined face, cropped hair, and deep scowl, the leader of this prayer circle is not someone I’d care to meet in a dark alleyway.

“We’re here to pray. To pray in the intention of sexually used children. To pray in the intention of depraved children. Children who are depraved in order to be sexually used. But we’re also praying for the depravers. It’s a horrible thing, to damage the psyche and the life of children.”

So it is.

[1] Paraphrase based on memory.
[2] I don’t want to link to them, but they’re in the top five search results for “stop pedofilii.” The video mentioned in the last paragraph is on one of these.
[3] This last part is absolutely true!…

In Part II, I talk about how bad Poland’s current sex ed curriculum is.

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Inside Sliced Corpses, Holes of Hope

Why I love Hyman Bloom’s Paintings 

Hyman Bloom’s New York Times obituary opens with a fantastically backhanded compliment.

A mystical and reclusive painter who for a brief time in the 1940s and ’50s was regarded as a precursor to the Abstract Expressionists and one of the most significant American artists of the post-World War II era, died on Wednesday in Nashua, N.H.

How did Bloom turn from art-world darling to apostate? And did he really deserve such a snarky obituary?

If you’ve seen any of Bloom’s goriest paintings, you might be unsurprised, even relieved, to find his art buried in obscurity. “A Matter of Life and Death,” a recent exhibition of Bloom’s paintings at the Boston MFA, was filled with depictions of decaying corpses and bloody autopsies. The works might have reminded you, like one of my fellow visitors, of the gratuitous violence of the TV series Dexter. Turning your face away from the canvases, you too might have explained: “I don’t want to know a mind like that!” 

I’d like to show you some paintings which might lead you to reconsider, maybe even catch a glimpse of beauty behind the blood.

Seated Old Woman, c. 1972–73

In this exhibition full of cadavers, the painting which upsets me most shows a living woman. She’s old, very old, and completely naked, her body a heavy sagging. You can feel its weight, its emptying. It — she — is sitting in an equally bare landscape — a world sliced in half by a lumpy, menacingly near horizon.

Her body is an hourglass, bottom-heavy. You can almost see the sifting. The tips of her fingers are already dissolving into grains of sand.

She’s sitting below a blank sky, on the edge of a dark, earthy precipice. On the edge of her own grave. Soon, she will simply vanish downwards in a puff of dirt. For now, she looks away, her toothless mouth widening in a grimace.

This looking away is what upsets me most. The body goes where it must. It is obedient. The mind, chained to this inevitability, winces. It turns away — though there is no turning away.

There is no turning away: if you follow the woman’s gaze out into the next room, you’ll find that it leads straight to her inevitable future — to Female Corpse, Back View.

Female Corpse, Back View, 1947

The body is lying face-down, irrevocably pressed against this flat brown surface, this dead end. There is nothing but the hard cold earth.

And yet… we are viewing this from above — so there is an above, a hope.

Our bodies are parallel to this body. So it is standing up, in a gate of shroud, of bone, of paint. No one can stand on feet like these, but the body is a fish, swimming upwards.

We are viewing this from behind — standing in line to the gate to nowhere.

Why were these rich paintings forgotten? 

Antisemitism may have played a role. The critic Hilton Kramer compared Bloom’s paintings of rabbis, cantors, and the interiors of synagogues to “gefilte fish at a fashionable cocktail party.” Kramer didn’t exactly undo the damage by later explaining that his remark was just “one Jew against another.”

But that can’t have been the whole story. After all, we still remember Marc Chagall. A more surprising (considering the painter’s identity) prejudice played a role in the poor reception of one of Bloom’s paintings.

Female Corpse, Front View and Corpse of an Elderly Male are bloated, repellent jewels. The bodies decay into a shimmering mess of paint. It’s hard to look, impossible to look away.

These two paintings were shocking in their day — but not equally shocking. Reasoning that “the Woman is a much finer picture than the Man,1 Bloom’s gallery owner tucked away the latter — but not the former — in a back room, viewable only by special request. 

Why were the paintings treated so differently? As far as I can tell: sexism with a dash of homophobia. Strike one: the corpse was male. The viewer, who was presumed to be a man, could distance himself from the female corpse, see it as a mere object — but viewing the male cadaver meant staring his mortality in the face. Strike two: the corpse was nude. Male nudes have been censored throughout art history. After all, if the only sexual desires which count are those of straight men, why would you even want to paint a nude man?2

Today, the only difference between the male and female nudes is that one has a penis. Which of our aesthetic judgments will our descendants find equally laughable? 

Maybe you think both corpses should be tucked away in a back room. Fine. But why were Bloom’s other, gentler works forgotten?

Christmas Tree, 1939.

Take Christmas Tree. Everything I love about Bloom’s oeuvre is present in this early painting. Made of light and hope, it feels sacred. The tawdry ornaments turn me into a toddler on Christmas Day.

In crucial places, where the painting ought to be convex, it almost seems concave — like a gaping hole at the heart of a mystery. In fact, the tree is a gaping hole: the painting is more red than green, a tower of ornaments piled over a smattering of branches.

This is one of Bloom’s signature paradoxes. His paintings lie at the meeting-place of flatness and depth, interior and exterior. They urge us to go beyond the surface, to excavate and to dissect — and yet they themselves are only surfaces.

There’s one more thing I love about this work: the paint in Christmas Tree forms an unbroken swirl. I imagine removing a single brushstroke, and it’s like pulling a plug in a bathtub; everything would drain away.

You could call this unity “beautifully balanced design” or perhaps an abstract “allover.” But when I look at Bloom’s paintings, I experience the impossible unity of his works not as an aesthetic ideal, but as a spiritual truth. The works are one because the world is one — and I am one with it.

Whether they represent Christmas trees or cadavers, all of Bloom’s paintings take me to that same place of wholeness.

That may be because they all come from the same place: they all have their roots in a single transformative experience. One night in the fall of 1939 (soon before painting Christmas Tree), Bloom, alone in his studio, “felt himself transformed into a boundless being, caught up in an ecstasy of color.” He “had a conviction of immortality, of being part of something permanent and ever changing, of metamorphosis as the nature of being. Everything was intensely beautiful.”

He would be painting that experience for the next 70 years of his life.

Well, that plus its exact opposite:a time of irreparable horror. Earlier that fall, Bloom had had to identify the body of his close friend Elizabeth Chase in the morgue. She had committed suicide.

Death and wholeness. Wholeness and death. From now on, he would grasp these twin experiences, pieces of the human puzzle — one in each hand — every time he began a painting.

The Harpies, 1947.

In The Harpies, eerie monsters are tearing apart a body. Elaine de Kooning singled out the painting for praise, approvingly quipping that “composition, progressing toward total abstraction, seems to devour the subject.”

But while individual works such as The Harpies leaned toward abstraction, Bloom’s oeuvre as a whole was headed in a completely different direction. Just as the art world embraced Abstract Expressionism as the only “progressive” style, he moved further from the mannerism he had helped to create. As he explained,

the Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock, for example, hurled themselves at the paintings with a destructiveness that was a form of nihilism, destroying everything because the world was not to their liking. (…) What I was trying to create was a complex picture in the classical sense; a work with depth and subject matter that was readable and over which I had exerted control. I thought of art as elevating, and I didn’t think Jackson Pollock even had a foot on the ladder.

Bloom painted bodies sliced open; Pollock splashed paint onto canvas. And then Bloom had the gumption to call Pollock’s work “destructive!”

He was right.

The Harpies represent (among other things) the cycle of life and death, the beauty and terror of the bacteria which will devour our bodies after our demise. The painting hovers on the edge of chaos, yes — but only because the world does. It may be “progressing toward total abstraction,” but it will never get there. To get there would be to give up the animating tension, the redemptive kernel which is the whole point of Bloom’s work.

The way I see it, Bloom’s paintings are mandalas. They are maps to the universe and keys to spiritual experiences akin to the ones which started Bloom’s career. (One of the paintings, Treasure Map, is a literal map.) They weave together shattered objects into dense, unbroken tapestries.

 Each painting is a step on a quixotic quest: capturing the universe in a single canvas.

Disappointed at the reception of his cadaver paintings, Bloom exclaimed “I thought they would thank me!” Hardly the words of someone wanting to shock… (He had no intention of shocking when he continued: “the human body is beautiful, inside and out,” either — though admittedly those are just the words a murderer like Dexter would have used.)

What are we supposed to thank Bloom for? What did he think he was giving us?

The Anatomist, 1953

I see an answer in The Anatomist — a self-portrait of sorts. Like the anatomist, Bloom opens up the body again and again, not gratuitously, but to learn something. Like doubting Thomas, he places his finger in the wound so that he might believe. In what? At times: in the resurrection. At other times: in his own mortality. 

I remember what I felt in front of Seated Old Woman: nothing is more heartbreaking than turning away from death until it’s too late. Bloom didn’t want to end up like her.

I think this is why he oriented The Anatomist vertically. If he had rotated the painting by 90 degrees, he would have shown the anatomist’s — his own — perspective. Instead, he gives us three hands (two living, one dead) made of the same stuff, species of the same genus. He gives us a mirror. 

Or maybe we’re hovering above, beyond, the body. Either way, the painting occupies an eternal, multi-temporal viewpoint which includes life as well as death. 

Its orientation is towards final matters. 

Cadaver on a Table, 1953

You can neatly slice the Cadaver on a Table into an upper and a lower half. One half is sinking; the other soars skywards. One hand points to the ground; the other opens to the heavens. In a perfectly balanced tension — or a perfectly tense balance — the two gestures almost send the whole thing spinning.

The cadaver is rudely thrown onto a wooden table. This turns the body into a slab of meat, a mere thing. At the same time, the table’s edges form a triangle, offering the flesh-flaming body up to the heavens. At the apex of the triangle — the cavity in the cadaver’s chest.

That gaping hole — that tunnel — is the spiritual center of the painting — and of all these paintings of dissection. Their subject is precisely what isn’t there: the departed.

The Medium, 1951.

Bloom, who believed in an afterlife, studied astrology, theosophy, and occultism. He searched for spiritual truth in unusual places, taking LSD as part of a psychological study on creativity and attending (and painting) seances. These facts make it easy to dismiss the spiritual themes in his work — and, honestly, make me feel embarrassed to defend them. But when I look at his paintings of the deceased, I viscerally feel the beauty of his faith. It’s a faith I don’t share, but I’m grateful to be able to try it on through these works. They help me look more kindly on people I’d otherwise label “foolish.”  

Even without the promise of an afterlife, I find hope in nearly all of Bloom’s paintings — hope in the very emptiness of the bodies. At times, it lies simply in honoring the departed, in the contrast of what was there a moment ago with what is not. Other times, it’s just the opposite: the works uncover an emptiness, something that had been missing long before death. Concavity instead of convexity. As if the thing I’m most terrified of losing was never there to begin with. 

Somehow, that makes it okay. 

If Bloom’s paintings had merely been shocking, he wouldn’t have been forgotten. Just think of the work of his contemporary Francis Bacon (who once had a joint exhibition with Bloom), whose paintings were made of blood and hopelessness. Or think of Duchamp’s urinal. In the art world, shock value is a feature, not a bug.

Bloom’s work benefited from this for a while. In fact, Severed Leg, one of his least redemptive paintings, hung the dining room of MoMA curator Monroe Wheeler. Imagine sipping cocktails below it!

Severed Leg, 1945

Painted against the hopelessness of a blank wall, the Severed Leg is achingly disconnected from the rest of the world. Bloom’s other dissection paintings aren’t like this. In front of these paintings, which ought to have shocked me most, I lose even the qualified, mesmerized sort of repulsion I experienced in front of the male and female corpses.

The Hull, 1952. I swear it was gentler in person!

It’s hard to explain my immunity to these works’ ostensible violence. They’re so much gentler in person than in reproduction — as if their aura could take me in its arms and shield me from their horror.

In photographs, these are unambiguously paintings of flesh; the red is undoubtedly blood. In person, the flesh is fully flesh, but also the most mesmerizing, caressing paint. The red is blood, yes, but also fire, and light, and soul.

When Kramer compared Bloom’s work to “gefilte fish at a fashionable cocktail party,” he was right that Bloom’s work didn’t fit in with the fashion of his day. Bloom painted representational work just as influential critics like Clement Greenberg proclaimed that the future of painting lay with abstraction.

But Bloom was worse than unfashionable. He didn’t just paint in the wrong style; he didn’t even have a style. His work ranges from the anatomical accuracy of Michelangelo, through the exquisite chiaroscuro of the Baroque, to Pollock’s splattered abstraction. He didn’t have a brand. How, then, was he to make a splash at any of the art world’s fashionable parties?

Instead of a brand, Bloom’s works are tied by a series of spiritual, conceptual threads. His work is animated by paradoxes, pairs of opposing properties. Surface and depth. Emptiness and fullness. Unity and dissection. Life and death. Standing in front of any one of his paintings, I feel these words rub against each other, flint to the flame of spiritual truth.

Such paradoxes were central in Baroque art, and if I had to lump Bloom in with any art-historical movement, it would be the Baroque rather than any twentieth-century current. But Bloom was a Baroque artist only in the sense in which Rembrandt was one. Both artists were fundamentally interested in the human condition. Both reveled in paint — not as mere paint, but as skin, and light, and life. Both had something so much more important than style: soul.

The paradoxes which for a Rubens might only be a technical exercise were, for Bloom, achingly alive. A matter of life and death.

The popularity of the Abstract Expressionists depended on the myth of a linear progression in art. According to this way of thinking, each era comes with one and only one revolutionary style; everything else is reactionary. In her incisive book Hyman Bloom: the Sources of his Imagery, Dorothy Abbott Thompson sketches the history of this myth.

In the 1950s, a new class of wealthy Americans was making its fortunes. Old ways of displaying wealth were falling out of fashion, and

art collecting (…) provided an alternative amusement for the wealthy. (…) An important collection was a testament to the taste, discernment and adventurous nature of the collector (…) Collectors aspired to be both daring and correct — in the lead, and yet sanctioned by the art world.

This aspiration enabled the rise of influential critics such as Clement Greenberg.

Greenberg’s position was that “avant garde,” “modernist,” or “high art” (terms used interchangeably) was difficult and could only be appreciated by those who understood and adhered to the precepts of formalist theory. 

The very destructiveness and nihilism of Abstract Expressionism which appalled Bloom ensured the style’s popularity. The paintings were shocking on the outside: collectors could use them to display their discernment and adventurousness. And they were empty on the inside: ready to be filled with fashionable theory that would vindicate the collector’s judgment. 

The wide acceptance of Greenberg’s art criticism

among wealthy collectors (many of whom were also museum trustees), museum directors, critics and art historians helped create an interlocking and mutually dependent group that, without being intentionally conspiratorial, determined what sort of art would be treated seriously.

Bloom was one of the unlucky.

Bloom was a mystical and reclusive painter who for a brief time was regarded as a precursor to the Abstract Expressionists. But if the judgment that his work was a precursor to the Abstract Expressionists is a mistake, then — well, so much the worse for the Abstract Expressionists.

Bloom’s mysticism and reclusiveness perfectly explain why he was forgotten. In fact, being reclusive is enough. The real question isn’t why Bloom was forgotten, but why anyone is remembered. Bloom never lived in New York, and eventually moved from Boston to the more provincial Nashua, New Hampshire. How could you be remembered if you stop showing your work?

But even if Bloom had continued to exhibit, his “mysticism” would have ensured failure in the art world. His paintings were religious icons; each brushstroke was a prayer, with no gaps that might be filled with fashion. 

What shocked collectors about Bloom’s cadavers weren’t the holes in their center. It was the hope that filled these holes. 

When Kramer called Bloom’s paintings “gefilte fish at a fashionable cocktail party,” he wasn’t wrong about the dish Bloom was serving. What he was fundamentally, depressingly confused about was the sort of event Bloom was hosting.

It was never a fashionable party; it was an ecumenical Sabbath.

 [1] All quotes from Hyman Bloom: the Sources of his Imagery by Dorothy Abbott Thompson.
[2] One book claims that in the 40s it was illegal to exhibit frontal male nudity, but I haven’t been able to back up the claim elsewhere.

Want more essays about underappreciated painters? Try the one I wrote about Rik Wouters. And if you’d like to receive future essays in your inbox, join my mailing list below.

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Hedgehog-Burrito Boundaries

I’m taking a four-week course on boundaries. When our instructor tells us that despite not minding even hour-long video calls, she caps her calls at 30 minutes, I feel some resistance. She explains that she intentionally leaves a 30-minute buffer so that she won’t end up resentful if the conversation goes a little over her stated boundary.

In general:

  • my limit = it starts hurting (physically or emotionally) when you do that
  • my boundary = don’t do that
  • my buffer = the space between my limit and my boundary.

So we’re instructed to have a buffer. I’m still uncomfortable with this idea. Isn’t it selfish? Isn’t it deceptive?  I imagine myself as a hedgehog, who translates:

  • My limit = I don’t want you to do that
  • My boundary = where I pretend my limit is
  • My buffer = a layer of fake quills, like so:
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is hedgehog-4.1.jpg

The next morning, life proves me so very, very wrong.

I want to meditate in our bedroom. The problem: Ben is sitting, sockless, on the living-room couch. And so I remind him, just like I have every morning for the past month, to take his socks out of the closet before I block his way. He needs a moment. My morning routine slips through my fingers; I twiddle my thumbs indignantly.

Thankfully, I remember that I’m taking a course on boundaries. 

“From now on, can you get your socks from the bedroom without reminders?” I proudly request.

“Okay,” he says. I didn’t expect him to sound this taken aback.

As I turn towards the bedroom, a bolt from the blue: “Thank you?”

He wants me to apologize? Hadn’t I just spent a month tending to the warmth of his feet, putting an extra todo in my morning routine and getting only grumbles in return? He knows that I meditate every morning – why would it be such a big deal to just take the socks out the as soon as we get up? 

This is all news to Ben. “If reminding me was so hard, why did you keep doing it?”

“For you! What did you think?”

“That you really hate being interrupted while you meditate!”

“No, I just I imagined that you wouldn’t want to interrupt me, and so you’d sit huddled on the couch with your poor cold feet!”

We start giggling as soon as the words come out of my mouth. The only person in this household who gets cold feet (in both senses) is, of course, me. Projection, projection, projection. Ben’s socklessness would have caused him no grief – and if it had, he would have just stridden into the bedroom without a second thought.

I did the “selfless” thing – then both of us got hurt. 

Then it sinks in: the buffer isn’t a false set of spikes. It’s a fluffy blanket around my hedgehog. It’s there for both of us.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-1.png

A lot of other experiences click into place once I realize that. The time I take my guests on sightseeing trip after sightseeing trip… until I’m so exhausted that I basically kick them out of the house to organize their own damned excursion. The times when I agree to dinner delays in 15-minute increments, none of which are a big deal until I’m drowning in a pool of hangry tears and someone has to make me a sandwich, NOW.

Every time I fail to have a buffer, I end up like that proverbial frog: boiled degree by degree, until it’s too late to escape. Too late for both of us: what is boiling is my own blood, scalding everyone in the room.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-2.png

As homework for the first week of the course, I’m  supposed to say “no” to a request every day.

“No one ever asks me for anything,” I complain to Ben.

30 seconds later, he commands: “Could you help me install the AC?”

Of course I say “yes.”

My final realization: confusing requests with demands and boundaries with limits are two sides of the same coin.

When I fail to create a buffer, when my boundaries are limits – then my requests are actually demands. (A request-maker would be happy to say “thank you!”) What I present as a harmless blanket is actually a layer of sharp quills.

And since almost all my requests are like this, I assume others’ are too. When Ben asks me to help with the AC, I presume that he’d been sitting in the corner, hemming and hawing until he was sure that he couldn’t do it alone.

Projection, projection, projection.

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What Tom & Jerry Taught Me About Empathy

The cinematic moment which has haunted me the longest and hardest is a scene from a Tom & Jerry episode. Jerry - cheeks puffy with effort, eyes brimming with despair - is clasping his hands in supplication in front of Spike the Bulldog. Spike examines him for a moment and cheerfully trots away, with a parting “If you need me, just whistle!”

The episode is called “The Bodyguard” and its plot is simple. Jerry rescues Spike from the pound. To repay his debt, Spike promises to always protect the mouse from his tormentor Tom. “Just whistle,” Spike promises, “and I’ll come to your rescue.” All’s well for the little mouse, until Tom tricks him into chewing a piece of glue-covered gum which renders him unable to whistle. As he tries to flee the cat’s tortures, he bumps into Spike - and you already know what happens next.

How many times have I been Jerry? “Just whistle!” “Just ask!” “Just speak louder!” “Just call me up!” How many people told me to “just whistle,” blind to the glue sticking my lips together?

In my mind, Jerry’s glue-covered gum stands for every time I have found myself painfully, embarrassingly, unaccountably mute. The times teachers called on me and I could feel my knowledge evaporating. The parties spent hiding behind the host’s dog, baby, or glass of water. The high-school year when I lived in the library and could count the number of times I spoke to my classmates on one hand.

Some things in Tom & Jerry weren’t to be taken seriously. When Jerry placed Tom’s tail in a waffle maker, I knew to accept that the tail would expand to the size and shape of a real waffle without wondering about the precise mechanics. When Tom shrieked in pain, I knew to laugh rather than sympathize. Tom’s pain wasn’t real pain.

But I couldn’t, simply couldn’t believe that when Jerry fell to his knees and begged Spike for help, his pain was also unreal.

And if even I, who could watch Jerry hit over the head with an anvil without flinching, couldn’t ignore his pain here, how could Spike be oblivious to it? Weren’t Jerry’s pleading gestures as clear as the sound of a whistle? Wasn’t his anguished gaze just as piercing? Spike must have been either exceedingly stupid or willfully neglectful to act as he did.

In all of Tom & Jerry, this was the one scene that really strained credulity: Spike’s cheerful, cruel “Just whistle!” to a mouse in visibly acute pain.

At least Jerry knew what had happened: the cat literally got his tongue. I lacked even the consolation of a clear narrative. What was the glue which held my mouth shut? What did I swallow to stop me from whistling? I never did find out.

In my life, I met Spike after Spike after Spike. When I did, I experienced the same indignation as I’d felt on Jerry’s behalf. How could these people not see that I was suffering? “Just call me?” Don’t they know that phones are instruments of torture? Can’t they see the terror in my eyes? The indignations would pile up, fester, turn to grudges. Eventually, even mute Jerry would boil over and lash out at unsuspecting Spike.

What I was lashing out against was Spike’s lack of empathy. It’s only now, after spitting out most of my own sticky gum, that I started to be able to see his side of the story.

When I watched Jerry mime his distress to Spike, I had just been following his plight. Thirty seconds earlier, I’d seen him swallow the telltale gum. His distress is plain for me to see. But if I were Spike - if I had never seen anyone swallow glue-coated bubble gum, let alone choked on the stuff myself - would Jerry’s anguish have been so visible to me? If your lips had never stuck together, if in your world nothing is easier than whistling, then Jerry’s despair really might look like pantomime.

When Jerry and I accuse Spike of a lack of empathy, we’re manifesting this very lack. We are assuming that his life experience has been so similar to ours that the hypothesis “Jerry can’t whistle” is as reasonable for him as it is for us. Spike thinks whistling is easy for Jerry; Jerry thinks reading facial expressions is easy for Spike. They’re both jumping to conclusions.

Empathy isn’t one thing. I may be more empathetic than average in one sense: noticing the emotions behind nonverbal cues.  But that doesn’t mean I know anything about the past experiences and stories behind these emotions. In that sense, I empathize with Jerry but not with Spike. I’ve been there; I know what his distress means.

Or maybe I don’t even know that much.  In his daily life, Jerry is a gregarious, fearless fellow. The glue-covered gum is an exogenous factor. And so he doesn’t hold a grudge against Spike. He’s frustrated that he can’t communicate, but not angry. He isn’t like me at all.

I hope I can learn that from him.

When Spike said “Just whistle,” he wasn’t wrong. It might not have been as easy as he supposed, but what enabled Jerry to whistle again was continuing to try – to try so hard that he turned red in the face and spat out the sticky gum. Even if “just” feels like an insult, the solution to social anxiety is doing the the thing you’re afraid of.

In one place or another, we’re all covered with glue. What is easy for you is hard for me – and vice versa. Whether you’re Spike or Jerry, I hope you’ll remember that.

I watch “The Bodyguard” again today. For the first time in my life, I notice Spike’s consternation in the face of Jerry’s bizarre series of gestures. For the first time, I see the tenderness in his eyes as he pats Jerry on the head and quips: “Baby talk! Ain’t he cute?”

For the first time, I laugh.

Of all of Tom & Jerry’s lessons, the most profound is this: it’s just a funny story.

An Angel Against Her Will: Zuzanna Ginczanka’s “Non Omnis Moriar”

Zuzanna Ginczanka.jpg
Zuzanna Ginczanka

Zuzanna Ginczanka (born in 1917 as Zuzanna Gincburg) wrote her first poems at the age of 4. By 14, she had found her mature voice. At 19, she was a rising star in Warsaw’s avant garde.

At 27, she was murdered by the Nazis.

Two years before her death, she narrowly escaped capture by the German police, or “Schupo.” She processed her experience in this remarkable poem.1

Non omnis moriar – my noble estate,
My fields of tablecloth and expansive sheets,
My steadfast wardrobe bastions, still replete
With pastel-colored dresses will outlive me yet.
I left no successor to inherit these
Jewish things. May your hand then reach,
Mrs. Chomin of Lvov, brave wife of a snitch,
A Volksdeutcher’s2 mother, for them if you please.
May they serve you and yours. For why should it be
Outsiders? Neighbors, you – that’s more than empty name.
I still remember you, and when the Schupo came,
You remembered me. Reminded them of me.
May friends of mine sit down and raise their jugs
To drink away my death, toast the things they’ll own:
The platters and candles, tapestries and rugs.
May they drink all night, and at the break of dawn
May they search for gold and for precious stone
In mattresses, couches, and duvets in turn.
Their work will go so fast, it will almost burn,
While billowed horsehair, seagrass, eiderdown,
And clouds from gutted pillows will drift gently
Down to their arms. And then my blood will cling
To fiber and to fluff and form the wings
Turning those in seventh heaven into angels.

 It’s one thing for Horace, who lived to 56, to claim “non omnis moriar” (“not all of me will die”)-another for a 25-year-old Jew hiding in Nazi hell. The poetry Horace left behind offered comfort; Ginczanka’s material possessions are only a threat. If Mrs. Chomin hadn’t hoped to pillage Ginczanka’s “Jewish things” after her death, if jealousy towards her neighbor’s relative wealth hadn’t turned to spite, Ginczanka wouldn’t have needed solace in the first place.

I’m haunted by those pastel-colored dresses. I wonder if Ginczanka remembered, when writing that line, how she had used the image of the dress in “Virginity.” In this poem, we, women,

in cubes of peach-tinted wallpaper,
as hermetically sealed
as a steel thermos,
ensnared to our necks in dresses,
carry out

The dresses symbolize her innocence and youth, but also the curse of her notorious beauty. Before the war, this meant unwanted male attention and female jealousy. Now, she carried the burden of an unforgettable face, the utter impossibility of passing for an “Aryan.”

Nothing is as worthy of jealousy as it seems; jealousy itself, morphed to malice, ensures that.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace
The Winged Victory of Samothrace. (Source.)

Knowing that doesn’t stop the jealousy. Even I feel it: jealousy for Ginczanka’s talent, beauty, heroism. Even for her martyrdom.

I want to be a hero too. Instead, I’m beset by uncertainty, flitting from one pursuit to the next, always wondering whether I could make a bigger difference, devote myself to something more important. Ginczanka had no such choice; hiding away from the Nazis, all she could do was the thing she loved most: write – and that was enough to turn her into an angel.

The bitter sarcasm of her poetry brings me to my senses: I, and only I, am the enviable one.

More than half of the population of Ginczanka’s hometown of Równe (now Rivne, Ukraine) was Jewish. Still, Christmas was the holiday for which her grandmother would decorate the family storefront. Each year, she would dress up her beautiful granddaughter, attach wings to her, and place the angel behind the glass display. Local children would stand on the other side of the glass, rooted in place by the spell of Zuzanna’s beauty.3

And so her childhood prefigured her death: transformed into an angel against her will, locked inside a small room on the other side of reality, hoping for invisibility behind a glass wall.

Did she return to this memory when writing “Non Omnis Moriar”? Was she using her blood as a final act of defiance, sticking her wings onto her tormentors? “Here, you be the angel, see how much you like it!”

Słowacki, by James Hopwood
Juliusz Słowacki

Ginczanka’s poem includes several references to Juliusz Słowacki’s “My Last Will.” One of Poland’s great Romantic bards, Słowacki wrote at a time when Poland was absent from world maps, partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The poet, who suffered from tuberculosis, “leaves no successor,” so he bequeaths his writing to the Polish people. He hopes it will inspire them to keep the flame of Polish culture alive and to, if necessary, fight and perish for the sake of independence “like stones cast by God onto the barricade.”

It’s a powerful and bittersweet thing to see Ginczanka claiming this Romantic lineage. Though she had called Poland her home for almost her entire life and inhabited the Polish language as comfortably as anyone, she may have never held a Polish passport.4

Fleeing pogroms, her parents had brought her to Poland during the first few years of her life. At home, she spoke Russian, but inspired by the rich poetic culture of inter-war Poland, she chose Polish as her written language. In “Non Omnis Moriar,” she is, like Słowacki, taking it upon herself to pass on the torch of Polish culture; the republic is, once again, erased from the map. But she’s doing something else too: sketching a new map, a map of a country that would claim her as its own. A country of culture, of compassion, of tolerance.

When Ginczanka asks “For why should it be outsiders?” she’s surely paraphrasing something Mrs. Chomin would have said. Of course, for the snitch it is the Jews who are outsiders – but Ginczanka willfully misunderstands her neighbor. If Poland is the only place she ever called home, how could she be an outsider?

A better Christian than Mrs. Chomin, she models loving your neighbor like yourself. A better Pole, she knows the country’s literary canon by heart (I doubt there’s space in her hideaway for volumes of Słowacki!).

Of course, none of that makes any difference.

The image of the angel is also borrowed from Słowacki, who closes his poem by prophesying that that the force of his poetry will turn “bread eaters” – complacent Poles unfazed by the country’s partition – into angels.

Ginczanka’s angels are much more enigmatic. Her death turns her snitches into what passes for angels in the topsy-turvy world of Nazi-occupied territories: obedient subjects. Appealing to Mrs. Chomin’s withered conscience, Ginczanka reminds her that it is her own blood that makes this illusory honor possible.

If Mrs. Chomin is an angel, she is an angel of death.

The righting of the topsy-turvy world came too late for Ginczanka. But just as she prophesied, her poem lived on.

In 1948, Zofja Chomin was sentenced to four years in prison for collaborating with the Nazis. The evidence? Among others, “Non Omnis Moriar” – one of the only poems ever used as testimony in court.

Ginczanka’s early poem, “Grammar,” features an unforgettable simile:

And pronouns are as confidential as flowers
as the minuscule, minuscule roomlets
in which you live in secret evasion.

The “roomlets” hold a pair of lovers, hidden in the anonymity of “you” and “me,” but they’re also the shelter Ginczanka would find in language – the only place that would hold her.

“Non Omnis Moriar” is a tour de force of poetic control. Ginczanka twists Mrs. Chomin’s words “why should it be outsiders?” for her own purpose and returns the wings which her oppressors forced on her.

It is, of course, control only on paper – the only type of control she knew in her short life. The plot is made by the powerful; all she can do is choose the words in which she tells her story. The words make a difference, yes – but by then all of her is dead.

In the “Grammar” of Ginczanka, a woman and a Jew, there are no verbs.

[1] All translations are mine.
[2] The Volksdeutche were subjects of Nazi-occupied territories who claimed (or were pressured to claim) German heritage and received special treatment as a result.
[3] Anecdote taken from Izolda Kiec’s biography Ginczanka. Nie Upilnuje mnie nikt.
[4] Izolda Kiec cites an acquaintance of Ginczanka’s on this point, but also expresses some scepticism, since Ginczanka’s own mother did posses a Polish passport.

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The Solution to Shyness? Kindness and Curiosity.

“There are two kinds of person. Two ways to be. Either you turn towards others — or you turn inwards, digging yourself deeper and deeper into the lonely pit of your mind. It’s like directions on a screw. See what I mean?”

I think I do. The ways of turning the screw are perfect opposites. One direction undoes the other, and only one of them is worth anything.

“I can tell that you’re the kind who turns towards others.”

This is the first time in my life I have shared a coffeeshop table with a stranger. Just a week earlier, I was living entirely in my head, weighed down by overwhelming shyness. My screw had been turning the wrong way.

But just at this moment, this stranger whom I met maybe 10 minutes before is right. It’s like a screw; once you know which way it needs to go, nothing is easier than switching direction.

This is the story of how I ended up in that café. If you struggle with social anxiety, I hope it helps you make your way to equally exhilarating places.

Image source.

It all began 18 months before, when I decided to do something about my shyness. Following an approach borrowed from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), I made a list of intimidating social tasks and ranked their scariness on a 10-point scale. Some examples:

4. Saying things to myself out loud in an empty room
6 Terminating a conversation with a friend
7 Going to a party where I know almost no one (in US)
9 Taking a taxi on my own in Dakar (note that at the time I was living in Senegal and spoke almost no French)
9 Making a phone call to a stranger

Slowly, I made my way up the scale, choosing activities from the level just outside my comfort zone until that became the new comfort.

Nine months in, I’d made some impressive progress. As you can see from the list, I had a pretty severe phone phobia. I knew that if I just kept picking up the phone, I could get over the fear — but what was shocking was just how fast this happened. After each call, the scariness of the next one plummeted, and after a grand total of five calls I started preferring picking up the phone to sending an email for e.g. customer support issues.

But despite the early success, eventually I exhausted this approach. Structured interactions like ordering coffee, phoning my bank, even giving a talk became a piece of cake. What I was stuck on was conversations. I still found talking to strangers terrifying. Somehow, ranked lists didn’t help with that.

The scariness ranking was the first step on my path out of shyness. The second step was having my partner almost break up with me.

A mere week before that coffeeshop conversation, I was vacationing back in Senegal, where my partner Ben’s company is based. I’d been spending my time thinking, or trying to think, about my future, an activity which Ben and I call “staring into the abyss.”

I would be getting my PhD soon, and I needed to make some sort of post-graduation plan. I knew I didn’t want to work in academia. What I did want was anybody’s guess. I loved painting and writing, but imagining those things stretched before me for decades felt vertiginous, empty, lonely. Instead, I mostly looked away, drowning the days in mindless video games, promising myself that tomorrow I’d be brave enough.

And then I finally do feel brave. Ben has suggested that I start by thinking about my values; I open a career guide which might help. It instructs me to imagine an ideal day at work, so I visualize us sitting in our plant-filled apartment, Ben and I at desks on opposite sides of the living room. I’m polishing words, or threading a dozen ideas together until I get to the bottom of some experience. Or I’m in my studio, following my feelings until they find their most intense, most unified expression.

When Ben gets back from work, I proudly announce that I’m ready to talk about the abyss.

“Great, what are your values?”

“Expressing my experiences as vividly as possible. You know, getting to the bottom of my feelings, doing research if necessary, writing or painting about it.”

I regret the words as soon as they come out of my mouth. I think of Ben’s own core value: making the world a better place. Of how this guided his job choice, how his face lights up when he talks about the difference he’s making. How must I sound to him?

His expression is unbearably blank. My terror writes the worst across that blankness: distance, disappointment, disdain. He is, he remains, silent: stubbornly, terrifyingly silent.

I can’t take it anymore. “You seem disappointed,” I hazard.

“Yeah… Our values are… so different.”

The way he says it, the way I feel it, is the deepest abyss I’ve ever faced. It’s the feeling of standing naked in the darkness, alone.

It’s the feeling of being unloved.

He confirms my worst fears: “It’s very important to me that I date someone whose values I respect.”

I’m right at the edge of the abyss. It’s every insecurity I’d ever felt in this relationship at once. It’s wondering why he would date me in the first place. It’s looking in the mirror and finding my worst fears: selfishness, greed, self-importance. Worthlessness.

As if hearing my thoughts, Ben softens. “Look, I admire a lot about you. Your writing and your painting are amazing. You’re bold and ambitious. You never stop pushing yourself.”

“Pushing myself up the wrong tree,” I think bitterly. “Ambitious, yes; about something which is at best pointless, at worst selfish.”

I want to roll time back, swallow all my words. I want to press undo. It’s too late; I’m in freefall.

A second passes, an eternity. I survive.

At the bottom of the abyss, I hit my values.

Helping others. Connecting. Making the world a better place. It really is that simple. “Expressing my experiences?” That’s just a pale tremor, a ghost. Something I enjoy doing, nothing more. What I feel tugging at my heart with unmistakable insistence is only this: morality. The weightiest thing; the thing that binds us all.

Of course, “I want to make the world a better place” is just what I’d say to stop Ben from breaking up with me, whether or not I actually believed it. And since I haven’t actually been trying to improve anybody’s life, I have basically no credibility. Still, I try to explain.

“I just realized that I actually want to help other people, much more than I want to create things… It’s just that I’m introverted. I like people in theory; in practice they overwhelm me. I’m hopeless at group interaction. How can I help anyone other than indirectly, through writing or painting?”

Ben thinks for a moment, then asks: “Remember that caterpillar you saw at the meditation retreat?”

I do. Letting go of my disgust, which turned to overwhelming awe. The giant mandible, the legs, the dew-strewn, fuzzy back — all beautiful, all miraculous.

“What would it take for you to see people the way you saw that caterpillar?”

I had done that before. On my best days, a smile shared with a stranger brings me face to face with the precious particularity of a life no less worthy than my own. But how would I let such experiences guide my life?

“I don’t know… I’m shy. I’m introverted,” I repeat.

For the first time in this conversation, Ben meets my eyes. “I want to grab you and shake you and tell you: you can be so much more awesome than you think.”

The way he says it, I know we’ll be okay.

The next day, I meditate for four hours (almost) straight. Day after that, I go to a café.

The thought: “How can I make this barista’s day better?” pops into my head. I test out the intention. I look in his eyes. I smile. I speak up.

As I sit down, it occurs to me that during that entire interaction, I hadn’t experienced a single moment of self-consciousness. I spoke French without thinking about it, without worrying about my accent or grammar. I made eye contact without feeling exposed.

I think I understand: It’s literally impossible to be self-conscious while focusing fully on another person. My attention can only be in one place at a time.

This might be obvious to you. In fact, you might have heard this fact trotted out as a neat trick for eradicating shyness: focus on helping your interlocutor and watch your anxiety fall away.

Sounds great in theory, but in practice I found this advice completely unfollowable. A typical conversation would go something like this:

Acquaintance: I’m feeling down today…
Me (thinking): Here it is! A chance to focus attention outwards! A chance to vanquish self-consciousness! This time won’t be like last week… No awkward silence at all… Last week… Gah, that really sucked… Nonono, stop, stop, STOP! Quick! Ask a question!
Acquaintance: Blah blah blah blah…
Me (thinking): @#$%!

When I realized that my fundamental goal wasn’t to vanquish shyness, but simply to help, my conversations started sounding more like this:

Acquaintance: I’m feeling down today…
Me: Want to talk about it?

It’s that easy.

Baba Ly in his studio.

A few days later, a friend and I are at Village des Arts, an artists’ colony in Dakar. Baba Ly is telling us about using abstract art to express his emotions. His gaze drifts upwards, towards a vast utopia seemingly hanging from the ceiling. He speaks of inner riches, of going beyond the surface. This is the art for which he stays up at night. 

During the day, he makes paintings of stylized women in colorful robes, with children on their backs and baskets on their heads — the “African art” that pays the bills. At night, he pours out his soul.

I hang on to his every word. I ask follow-ups. 18 months before, I spoke maybe 50 words of French. I had nightmares about having to direct a taxi driver. Now, the questions pour out of me with no sense of linguistic mediation.

Later, I realize I made some dreadful grammatical mistakes. As in, “I knowed”-level dreadful. Not too long ago, they would have mortified me, but this time, that doesn’t matter at all. I only want to know Baba Ly’s story, and my bungled grammar is perfectly adequate to that task.

I know two things about my values now: I want to help people, and I want to learn their stories, catch glimpses of their intricate interiors. Bear witness to their humanity.

That’s why I read so many biographies, interviews, novels, poems. That’s why I look at art, feel compelled to translate, in writing, that art to human experience.

For years, I thought that was the end of it. I was doomed to mediated experiences. As an introvert, I was horrible at getting strangers to open up. At best, I could learn the stories of long-time friends. Most people — especially extraverts — were bad about talking about their feelings, anyway. Better to turn to the poets. Better to turn to my own inner life.

Now, three minutes after meeting Baba Ly, the artists’ village is a vast utopia, made up of inner worlds I can’t wait to visit.

Simply realizing that I want to help others and learn about their stories cured me of 80% of my social anxiety. You may be thinking: that’s all fine and dandy. But what if I don’t want to help others? What if I just want to be less shy so that people like me?

If so, I commend you! Just realizing what you do and don’t want takes you 80% of the way there. And if what you want is selfish, it’s especially hard to be honest with yourself!

In fact, figuring out that I, too, want people to like me was an important part of my journey. I used to be convinced that I didn’t give a damn what most people thought of me, didn’t stoop so low as a need to be liked. (So why was I shy? New people were just… intrinsically scary!)

Last October, I went on a ten-day meditation retreat. Walking silently around the grounds of the meditation center among the other participants, I noticed something shocking. I had the thought “What are they thinking about me?” literally every time I passed by another person. So if you already know that you care about others’ opinions — good job! You’re further along than I was 6 months ago.

But also: I want to grab you and shake you and tell you “You can be so much more awesome than you think!” You do want to help others. Somewhere at the core of your being is a deep well of love. If only you knew how powerful it is! How powerful you are.

Your desire to be liked is a boulder blocking that well. You found the boulder — hooray! Now it’s time to push it aside.

But how do you do that? For me, meditation has been key. The traditional kind where you focus on your breath, mere calmness and concentration, was enough to help me catch glimmers of my better self.

Beyond that, loving-kindness meditation has been invaluable. In this practice, you make a series of wishes. (What follows is going to sound cheesy, but bear with me! Cheesy or not, it’s made a dramatic difference to my life.) Those can take many forms, but the one I use is: “May I be free from suffering. May I be free from ill will. May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be truly happy.” With each wish, I conjure corresponding experiences. Hiking through flower-filled meadows. The endless benevolence of a baby’s smile. I search for memories until they are so vivid that my desire for them becomes palpable. Then I direct the wishes towards other people, taking loved ones, acquaintances, strangers, groups of people, and difficult people in turn. Once again, I make sure to generate memories which recreate these feelings, and stay with one wish until it rings true.

That last part is harder than it sounds. More often than not, I conjure up bliss washing across an acquaintance’s face only to feel a pang of dislike. I sit with the feeling until something – usually a memory – bubbles up from underneath it. Once, I found myself swept back to a moment from middle school. “You’ll never get married if you don’t wear makeup,” my friend (frienemy?) had told me. It all came flooding back: anger, then defiance, then the resolve to prove her wrong. Years of wearing my unpainted face as a badge of honor. Bingo. I was trying to wish happiness onto someone who wore makeup – but a part of me believed such people didn’t even deserve joy!

This happens again and again. To my horror, I struggle to generate honest wishes for minorities, for older people, for those who superficially remind me of childhood bullies… Those are upsetting truths to discover about myself — but each time, simply bringing my biases into consciousness is enough to (at least temporarily) turn the truth to falsehood.

With every day of practice, I’m better able to see other people’s humanity — and I become more and more confident that seeing and honoring that humanity is something I deeply desire.

I know you do too.

Back in Boston, I decided that joining a CBT-based social-anxiety support group would help me on my quest towards gregariousness. Instead, the sessions made me feel anxious… about not having any recent shy behaviors to report.

But before I accepted that I had already cured my own shyness and quit, I gained some insight into why CBT had been a dead end for me. The therapist kept trying to convince us that it would be in our own interest to work on our anxiety. When the participants described avoiding parties or sitting dejectedly in a corner, he’d chime in: “Wouldn’t it be great if you could join in the fun and have conversations? You’re missing out, aren’t you?”

Thinking about what I’m missing out on only makes me feel worse. Like that time I went out dancing, fell out of step during the first dance, watched the second with tear-filled eyes, and ran out at the third. But when I think about what the other people at the party are missing out on, think about how I might help them have fun, I start feeling the desire to join in. 

The therapist’s question was misplaced in another way too: a part of me didn’t think it was missing out on anything.

In the days when I was theoretically aiming to be more sociable but wasn’t really doing anything about it, I would state that aim in the voice of a popular middle-school kid. “You really should be more social, Eve.” But I wasn’t exactly an admirer of those kids! On some level, I thought it was important to be sociable. On another level, I believed that that way madness, nightclubbing, and sororityhood lies. Becoming more outgoing would be the first step down the slippery slope towards a life of binge-drinking.

And then there I was, my head mushy with alcohol, my words slurred and loud. It was past my bedtime, too. I was loving it.

I was out at a bar with a group of graduate students from my department, commiserating about the frustrations of grad life. For the first time, I was opening up about feeling like I didn’t belong. For the first time, I felt like I belonged. I felt connected.

Ironically, it was when I gave up aiming for connection that I found it. When I first stated my values to Ben, “connection” was on the list. By now, my conversational goal had shifted from “connecting” to “learning others’ stories.” This had two positive effects. First, I didn’t set my sights too high, didn’t conclude that an interaction was failed simply because we didn’t become best friends. Second, I was open to interactions with a much larger pool of people.

I had assumed that connection meant finding your twin in a crowded room. Armed with a detailed checklist of everything you know about your soul, you tick the boxes that others have on their lists. Soulmates are the ones with lists most similar to yours.

What if I know nothing about my soul? What if my checklist is a series of questions? What if connection is adding to each other’s lists — union, not intersection?

At the bar that night, we needed the humor and honesty that alcohol can bring. Look, my “drunk” is one beer and my bedtime is 9:30 PM. I wasn’t headed down any slippery slopes. But it was a big shift. As long as I was trying to be sociable, without asking why I wanted that in the first place, I remained torn. I paid lip service to gregariousness, but in my inner narrative the quiet nerd was the hero occupying the moral high ground, and I would balk at any activities that bore even superficial resemblance to the behavior of a sorority girl. It was only once I realized when and why sociability was valuable that I could reach for it even when it wore a cloak of sororityhood.

Shifting my focus to helping others has dramatically improved my experience of large-group interactions. I used to be filled with dread during conversations I found uninteresting. I was uninterested, so I had nothing interesting to contribute; I was bored, therefore I was boring. I didn’t belong.

Now, If I’m bored but everyone else is engaged, they don’t need my help! Since my primary aim is helping others have fun, I can simply sit back and enjoy everyone else’s enjoyment.

In the past, once I got bored, I was done. I would spend so much mental energy ruminating about my lack of belonging that I would lose the thread completely and never get back in. This only confirmed my suspicion: I was really boring. 

When I cut out the rumination, I realized that boring conversations almost always return to interesting topics — and when they do, I’m refreshed and ready to jump back in.

At another department event, I’m joined by a friend I chatted to the previous week. Our conversation is nice enough, but I see new people on the other side of the room and I’m aching to meet them.

This is an entirely novel experience. In the past, during social events I’d corner an old acquaintance and hope they wouldn’t abandon me. (If there were no acquaintances, I’d go for the shyest looking person in the room.) In those days, “I’m gonna go mingle” were the words I most dreaded hearing. 

Now, I felt the urge to utter them myself.

Remembering the old feeling of abandonment, I don’t do that. What if my interlocutor is like my past self? What if they’ll feel rejected and uninteresting? I stick to this conversation.

Later, I hatch a plan for next time. Instead of “I’m gonna go mingle,” I’ll say “I’m curious about those people over there. Want to come meet them with me?”

That’s one of the great things about overcoming shyness: there will always be a next time. But it cuts both ways: realizing that there will be a next time — “abundance mindset” — decreases shyness.

There are 4.6 million people in the Boston area, where I live. Even if only ten percent of those people are kinder than me, or smarter, or more interesting, or just worthwhile friends, that’s almost half a million people. Even if I were the world’s biggest snob and only wanted to make friends with Harvard professors and graduate students, that’s still a pool of 16 thousand people! If I screw up a social interaction, it doesn’t matter. I won’t be left friendless; I’ll learn something and apply it to the next person I meet.

Everyone knows this in theory, but it’s hard to put into practice. It helps to really viscerally feel the enormity of your city’s population. Once again, meditation is an asset; during my retreat, I had a profoundly beautiful sense of my insignificance in the face of the world’s 7.5 billion people. If you don’t have time for a ten-day retreat, just pushing yourself into a lot of interactions (using the ordered list of scary things I mentioned above) can help you gain this visceral understanding. You screw up, screw up, screw up… but, miraculously, there are always new people to meet.

Of course, feeling your own insignificance can be scary. There’s a degree of selflessness required to fully grasp the world’s — or your neighborhood’s — populousness. It can be even scarier when you’re counting the neighbors who are wiser, kinder, smarter, more knowledgeable, more skilled — all the people you most want to meet and impress. There are so many of those that being disliked by any one of them still doesn’t matter.

It’s scary, but think of the payoff! Now that I know how many awesome people there are, I can keep meeting new ones without worrying what they think about me. Eventually, I’ll get good enough at social interaction that I’ll make friends with some of them.

Okay, I cheated a bit. Sometimes individual interactions do matter. You might live in a tiny town. You might have a precarious job or an interview for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. (You might be in middle school. If so, I’m sorry; it will get so much better than this!) But there are almost always other venues for meeting people where an abundance mindset is appropriate — if not in person, then online.¹ And if you practice putting yourself out there in those contexts, abundance mindset will become second nature even in contexts of scarcity.

The standard story about social anxiety is that it arises out of low self-esteem together with a desire to be liked. If that theory is right, then there are two cures for shyness: increasing confidence or decreasing the need to be liked. How come most advice focuses on the first cure?

“No need to be shy; you’re awesome!” People used to tell me that all the time. It made me want to scream. “You don’t understand: I know I’m awesome!” Low self-confidence was never my problem.

Well, actually, I did have low confidence about one thing: the impression I made on people. I was constantly terrified that others wouldn’t see the specialness glowing inside. But trying to increase my self-confidence in that domain would have been a huge mistake; I would never have full control over what others thought of me, and some people would never like me. That’s just what it means to be separate human beings; everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

My solution to shyness wasn’t increasing self-confidence. If anything, it was decreasing it. I had to face the fact that I wasn’t all that special, that in my town alone, there were probably hundreds of thousands of people who were much more interesting than me.

I dealt with my social anxiety not by increasing my self-confidence, but by tackling my need to be liked. (First, I had to realize that I even had that need! That was the insight from my meditation retreat.) I didn’t try to eradicate it. Instead, I let my other needs drive my actions: the need to help and to learn about others.

In the end, maybe it is about confidence. Not confidence that you’re already where you need to be — but that you’re capable of getting there. Not that you’re better than others — but that rankings are beside the point. Not that you’re special — but that there is beauty in your insignificance.

Not that you are awesome, but that you could be so much more awesome than you are.

So how do you cure your shyness? That’s the wrong question. There are so many how-to books, but the crux of the matter isn’t “how to?” but “why to?” That’s the hard part. Once you find the why — really feel it in your gut, dig it up from under piles of internalized expectations, you’re 80% of the way to the how. At least, that’s been my experience.

The “why” takes you 80% of the way there, but the 20% can be a struggle too. The scenes I sketched in this essay are al set at the start of this year. Since then, I’ve had my ups and downs. It’s hard to undo decades worth of habit, and some days – just this weekend, in fact! – I find myself wrapped in fear again. But it’s enough to know how much I’m capable of, to remember the days when my head bobbed above the waters of ego-building, to start making my way back to that beautiful place. When I notice myself thinking “what are they thinking about me?”, I don’t try to eradicate the self-consciousness. I simply take it as a cue: time to turn on the kindness. Time to twist the screw.

I recently found a document with notes I took from Aziz Gazipura’s book The Solution to Social Anxiety. I jotted down:

Before social interactions, check in about purposes, asking e.g. “How can I help this person feel at ease? What does this person really need right now? How can I give and receive even more love now?”

Something about that idea spoke to me already then, but it took another 18 months for that advice to make any real difference to my behavior. 18 months, 3 weeks of excruciating abyss-avoidance, and one terrifying conversation.

Finding your “why” is a life’s journey. I hope this essay helps you on your way.

I really mean that. Writing, it turns out, isn’t as selfish as I once feared.

Myung-suk² and I are in the same painting class. Within two sentences of our first conversation, she tells me about her parents’ disappointment at her marriage (he wasn’t a Korean), her near-death during childbirth (due to malpractice), the difficult feelings that feed her art.

How did I get her to say these things? Merely by having the intention to learn others’ stories. As soon as I knew what I wanted, I only needed to reach out my hand.

The next week, Myung-suk tells me that she’s found the perfect career for me.

“With your personality, you should be a therapist. It’s so rare for a young person to be this interested in other people’s stories!”

“I’m not sure I believe in personality,” I chuckle.

But you, my reader, who beneath a layer of fear possesses a soft but unshakable confidence: I believe in you.

Thanks to Ben – for holding drafts of this post to the same high standards as he holds me.

[1] I’ve grown a lot through the practice of circling. (I’m a member of this online circling community for wannabe circling facilitators, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it.) A friend also recommends Skip the Small Talk events, though I haven’t been to any yet.
[2] Not her actual name.

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The Shell Island of Fadiouth

The first thing I see on the Senegalese island of Fadiouth are the wading pigs. The first thing I remember seeing. Only the camera has recorded the woman who wades beside the swine.

“God willing, you’ll return here for your wedding,” our guide, Jean-Paul, tells Ben and me as we cross the bridge leading to the island. Ben’s dad looks on without comment.

In my memory, Jean-Paul is wearing a Senegalese outfit quilted from thin, multicolored stripes of patterned fabric. In reality, he sports a polo shirt above his quilted pants, and a woolly red hat and headphones above that. The large cross around his neck proclaims that he’s as Catholic as his namesake pope; he appears keen to share a religion with us. He already shares it with 90% of the inhabitants of Fadiouth – an island of Christianity in a predominantly Muslim nation.

Christianity explains Fadiouth’s substitution of pigs for Senegal’s omnipresent goats. Clams explain the pigs’ partial submersion: the animals are digging for food. The local pork, Jean-Paul reveals, is naturally salty.

In fact, clams explain the entre island, built over centuries from discarded shells. For a moment, I’m skeptical: where did the first clam-eater stand before there was an island? All I can see of the ground is scalloped whiteness, yes, but what if this is only the outer layer – the shell, if you will – above a pile of ordinary dirt?

Then, I remember the tide. My skepticism washes away; we walk on. The detritus of history crunches underfoot.

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At first glance, the corrugated-metal church is the least interesting building on the island. I change my mind when I enter: birds perch on the rafters, singing angelically. I imagine my childhood priest regarding these feathered desecrators with horror; then, I visualize St Francis rubbing his hands with glee.

As we stop by the holy water, Jean-Paul asks if we’re Christian. We all shake our heads; I’m not feel like bringing up my Catholic heritage. “Can I give you a blessing?” he asks. We nod and are besprinkled; his prayer goes on forever. I want to get going, learn things I don’t already know.

“God willing, you’ll come back here for your wedding,” Jean-Paul. repeats as he takes our picture at the front of the church. “God willing,” Ben’s dad nods, deadpan.

And then: “Today was a big day for you: the day of your baptism.”

I imagine my godlessness flowing out of me and into the body of the pig, still submerged in its unholy waters.

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On the cemetery island (connected to Fadiouth by a bridge), crosses, shells, and baobabs combine into austere perfection against a glistening, watery backdrop. I wouldn’t mind resting here myself. In one area, little plaques substitute for crosses; Jean-Paul proudly explains that Muslims lie beside Christians in this cemetery.

At the exit, he lifts up what appears to be a little pouch which had been hanging on the gate. His circumcision charm, he explains. “I am a Christian; I am from the Serere tribe. I keep both customs, but they don’t mix. I leave the tribal here; what is non-Christian stays off Fadiouth.”

I don’t see any other charms in the cemetery, and for a moment, I’m skeptical again. What if Jean-Paul is performing his Serere traditions the way his ancestors performed Christianity: to appease the white foreigners?

No, Jean-Paul, I believe you. I know so little about you, but I do know this: your polo shirt and your rainbow pants, your charm and your cross – all are yours.

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If you enjoyed this story, you might like Three Boys and a Suitcase (a small meditation on walks through Dakar), or Between Scam and Symbol: Gorée Island’s House of Slaves (which partly explains my skepticism towards tour guides.) And if you’d like to receive future essays in your inbox, sign up for my mailing list below.

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My Lungs Are Full: It’s Wonderful

Pandemic Advice from a 1976 Polish poem

Since March, I’ve been reading and re-reading a 50-year-old Polish poem. Written by Edward Stachura — a troubled bard recovering from a painful divorce — it appears as the final track of “Birthday,” his 1976 album.¹ Here’s my translation.

Song for the Quarantined

It’s wonderful:
My lungs are full!
I have two hands,
I have two feet!

Loaf on! There’s bread
And cheese to spread,
For drinking — rain.

The night descends,
With it, a chill;
I have two hands,
I’ll hug myself.

I’ll hide myself
And nestle in
My bristled fur.

Daybreak is far,
Can’t see a thing;
I have two feet;
We’ll make it there.

There’s barking mutts!
There’s flying mists!
Keep sleeping, miss!

My lungs are full:
It’s wonderful!

I don’t think I need to explain why this poem in particular has been on my mind over the past few months.² Instead, let me tell you about my shifting interpretations, and how they led me to a kind of hope. Perhaps you might find your way there too.

First, a confession. In Polish, the poem’s title is more like “Song for the Infected (with a contagious disease).” I’ve taken some liberties with the translation so that I could dedicate it to all of us, including those locked down not by a diagnosis, but only its possibility.

It’s a hopeless title to translate, anyway. “Zapowietrzony” — “infected” — literally means “aired up” or “over-aired.” The word has its roots in the old-fashioned belief that infectious diseases spread through bad air, or miasmic vapors.

Just the song for us, potential victims of an airborne pulmonary disease.

Edward Stachura

The first time I read the poem, I thought it was an exuberant song, a pared down hymn to asceticism. Stachura finds joy in the (seemingly) smallest things: air, bread, a healthy body, the sound of words. He may be cut off from his fellow humans, but he reframes his loneliness as an opportunity for self-reliance.

If this version of Stachura were alive today, he might say: it’s wonderful: our lungs are full! How sweet the air tastes when you don’t have a pulmonary infection… or a policeman kneeling on your neck! How wonderful to bake your own bread, to taste all the pleasures of solitude! How grand, at the end of a Zoom call, to still have two hands for hugging yourself!³

Can you read this with a straight face? I don’t think I can, and I’m not sure Stachura could, either. The poem has a knife-edge quality: one foot in grateful exuberance, the other in irony. “Thanks for the air,” it says, forever hovering between “thanks for everything” and “thanks for nothing.”

The second time through, I listen to Stachura sing — or whimper — his poem, and the positive interpretation evaporates. All joy abandons me at “I have two hands,/I’ll hug myself.” Has there ever been a sadder couplet? These are the words of the tantrum-throwing child who thinks he can make it without his parents.

Between the verses, a chilling refrain: “Yoohoo!” It sounds like a wolf howling, choosing solitude to mask his loneliness.

In the song immediately preceding “Song of the Quarantined” in the album, air “sticks, bonelike,” in Stachura’s throat. This Polish idiom suggests that air is an annoyance or irritation; after his painful divorce, the poet doesn’t want to go on living. 

Howl it angstily enough, and “My lungs are full/it’s wonderful” will communicate the same thing.

“Quarantine Jungle.” Oil on canvas, 16″x12″

For the first few months of the pandemic, my own moods swung between gratitude and despair as wildly as my poetic interpretations. One day, I’d go on a baking spree. I’d make art. I’d feel almost a moral obligation to be happy; after all, I was young and healthy and could work from home. The next day, I’d read every news article I could get my hands on. I’d watch the death count rise and the minutes trickle away in a haze of dread. I’d feel almost a moral obligation to be unhappy. After all, people were dying, the economy was collapsing. I had no right to be the one untouched by this.

A person swinging between emotional extremes is an unhappy sight. Not necessarily so for a poem. It’s as if “Song for the Quarantined” can hold anything, emotionally. It taught me to do so too.

The lesson began with this couplet:

I have two feet;
We’ll make it there.

Who is this unexpected “we”? This isn’t the first time I’ve tripped over a Stachura pronoun. In “Time Passes and Kills Wounds,” he addresses a couple of “unknown friends,” would-be suicides, urging them to delay their act. The poem ends with the heart-wrenching

For it would be such a,
such a, such a loss –
to lose us!

The “unknown friends” vanish into thin air. Stachura has invented them. He is the one who must be dissuaded from suicide. They are simply conduits for his self-talk, arm extensions so that he may better hug himself. So too in “Song for the Quarantined” — we’ll make it there because how else do you cheer yourself on, if not through a division of the self? It’s a song for the quarantined, not of him.

Or maybe not. The friends may be unknown, but they do exist. Stachura offers his poems up to all the abandoned, all the would-be suicides. To those readers, finding an “us” at the end of a poem really can make the difference between life and death. Stachura leans on them, but he’s only able to do so because he knows they can lean on him.

During the pandemic, I turned to almost-praying for solace. Loving-kindness meditation isn’t addressed at a higher power, so it’s not quite prayer — but it’s close enough. I simply sit down and think about various people: “May you be free from suffering. May you be happy.” I do this not so that God or the universe might hear my wishes, but that I might hear them myself. As long as I can access the part of myself which aches for others’ well-being, I will be okay. Then, I can help you be okay too.

Shutterstock photo by Cynthia Kidwell.

We all need something greater than ourselves to take refuge in, to nestle in. “Greater” doesn’t need to mean “grandiose.” It can be as simple as the set of all people — united by shared suffering, fear, loneliness. Or merely — by humanity.

Like any “lone wolf,” Stachura howls to establish a new pack: a pack of the lonely. Which, right now, is just about all of us.

That’s why we dance over Zoom, sing from our balconies, write poems.

We. That single word anchors the otherwise desperate poem in hope. The second anchor comes in the final couplet: “My lungs are full:/ it’s wonderful,” symmetric bookend to the opening “It’s wonderful:/ my lungs are full.”

The reversal might be driven by poetic structure, but to me, it represents a powerful transformation.

The first lines move from wonder to full lungs. It must be wonderful, I can’t allow myself dark thoughts — so let me find something, anything, to attach my wonder to. I must be happy, so let me list 200 wholesome activities I can engage in during lockdown.

This sort of inference is inherently unstable. It can tip into irony at the slightest breeze: it must be “wonderful,” so let me add every small personal sorrow to the global grief of a pandemic.

“My lungs are full: it’s wonderful.” The wonder follows the air. Hope follows realism. Exuberance flows from neutrality. When Stachura inhales, he doesn’t assume it will be a miracle, doesn’t compare himself to those who can’t breathe. He simply experiences it; the miracle follows.

The third time through, the poem is exuberant. Some of the most profound moments of my life have been moments of simply breathing the air. During a ten-day meditation retreat, the ground beneath my feet felt as profound as a bike ride through Dutch tulip fields. During walks around the block in lockdown, the twitch of a rabbit’s nose or the flutter of a sparrow’s wing can be all the bliss I need. 

If the pandemic helps us access such moments — power to us. But such experiences can be faked. No one but me can tell whether I’m really astonished by a rabbit, whether it’s my wonder that comes first or my full lungs. And if I fake it, I’m doing myself a horrible disservice, substituted the outward trappings of joy for the real thing.

At the suggestion of a meditation teacher, I have added another clause to my loving-kindness mantra: “may I rest in not knowing.” Only if I rest in my uncertainty, risk the air not being enough, can I discover its glorious neutrality.

Since the start of the lockdown, I’ve been baking bread, gardening, organizing a Zoom poetry night. After an evening of poetry, we extend our arms, then hug ourselves. It’s wonderful.

It might not sound like it, but wolves do howl for joy.

Daybreak is far, who knows how far. How do we stop swinging from chirpy optimism to unfounded despair? Stachura’s verse suggests a way towards honest hope.

Daybreak is far,
Can’t see a thing;
I have two feet;
We’ll make it there.

Look squarely at the darkness. Admit how little you know. Then, turn to what you have, to what is, for the moment, still up to you. As long as there are feet. As long as there is air.

Tragically, we won’t all make it there. The hope which is truly honest would cut the verse down:

Daybreak is far,
Can’t see a thing;
I have two feet;

Darkness, two feet, and an “us.” Maybe only the possibility of an “us.” I have that much hope. It is, for the moment, enough.


[1] Since Stachura was a poet who put great care into the lyrics of his songs, I think it’s fair to call these lyrics “poems.”

[2] I drafted most of this essay before the murder of George Floyd. Of course, that tragedy gives the poem another chilling dimension.

[3] Should I, or Stachura, have said “arms?” We Poles can be cavalier about appendages; our word for soccer literally means “legball.”