C.S. Lewis on longing; relationship rupture, the limbic system, what happens in your body when you experience abandonment, and what to do about it

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The Marginalian

Welcome Hello Reader! This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown's little-known poems for the tragic love of her life, and their little-known love-story — you can catch up right here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for sixteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive (as have I) thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: I appreciate you more than you know.

The Thing Itself: C.S. Lewis on What We Long for in Our Existential Longing

Nothing kidnaps our capacity for presence more cruelly than longing. And yet longing is also the most powerful creative force we know: Out of our longing for meaning came all of art; out of our longing for truth all of science; out of our longing for love the very fact of life. We may give this undertone of being different names — Susan Cain calls it “the bittersweet” and Portuguese has the lovely word saudade: the vague, constant longing for something or someone beyond the horizon of reality — but we recognize it in our marrow, in the strata of the soul beyond the reach of words.

No one has explored the paradoxical nature of longing more sensitively than the philosopher, storyteller, beloved Narnia creator, and modern mystic C.S. Lewis (November 29, 1898–November 22, 1963) in a sermon he delivered on June 8, 1941, which later lent its title to his 1949 collection of addresses The Weight of Glory (public library).

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Lewis — who thought deeply about the significance of suffering and the secret of happiness — writes:

This desire for our own far off country [is] the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering.

As Lewis considers the illusory nature of these shorthands for our longing, we are left with the radiant intimation that “the thing itself” is not something we reach for, something beyond us, but something we are:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.

For Lewis, who was religious, this notion of “the thing itself” — the ultimate object of longing — was anchored in his understanding of God. For me, it calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s exquisite epiphany about the meaning of art and life, found while strolling through her flower-garden:

Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.

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Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For sixteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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The Everlasting Wonder of Being: How a Cold Cosmos Kindles the Glow of Consciousness

In his poetic ode to the wonder of life, the physicist Richard Feynman gasped at our improbable inheritance as “atoms with consciousness” — a lovely phrase that in so few words intimates the immense superstructure of matter and meaning, the way in which the austere realities of the physical universe undergird the warm loveliness of all that makes us human: love, art, wonder, beauty, Bach. There can be no genuine appreciation of consciousness — the mystery of it, the intimate fact of it — without a passionate appreciation of the abstract, remote realities of cosmic forces and subatomic particles.

That is what the Irish evolutionary psychologist Victor S. Johnston explores in a passage from his altogether revelatory book Why We Feel: The Science of Human Emotions (public library).

Art by Daniel Bruson for The Universe in Verse: My God, It’s Full of Stars.

With an eye to how our feelings, our thoughts, our sensations, our entire conscious experience and all the properties of our minds “are firmly tied to the physical structure and chemistry of our brain,” in turn inseparable from the physical reality of the universe, Johnson composes a splendid homily on this everlasting astonishment:

Consider a world without consciousness. The darkness is a bubbling cauldron of energy and vibrating matter, locked in the dance of thermal agitation. Through shared electrons, or the strange attraction of unlike charges, quivering molecules, not free to roam, absorb and emit their characteristic quanta packages of energy with the surrounding fog. Free gas molecules, almost oblivious to gravity but buffeted in all directions by their neighbors, form swirling turbulent flows or march in zones of compression and expansion, according to the dictates of oscillating substrates. A massive solar flux and cosmic radiation from events long past crisscross space with their radiant energy and silently mix with the thermal glow of living creatures, whose hungry metabolic systems pour their infrared waste into the chaotic milieu. But within the warmth of their sticky protein bodies, the dim glow of consciousness is emerging to impose its own brand of organization on this turbulent mix of energy/matter. The active filter of consciousness illuminates the darkness, discards all irrelevant radiation, and in a grand transmutation converts and amplifies the relevant. Dead molecules erupt into flavors of bitterness or sweetness, electromagnetic frequencies burst with color, hapless air pressure waves become the laughter of children, and the impact of a passing molecule fills a conscious mind with the aroma of roses on a warm summer afternoon.

Art by Ashleigh Corrin from Layla’s Happiness by poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

Complement with the fascinating entwined history of light and consciousness, then revisit quantum pioneer Erwin Schrödinger on the ongoing mystery of consciousness.

Relationship Rupture and the Limbic System: The Physiology of Abandonment and Separation

“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” Adrienne Rich wrote in framing her superb definition of honorable human relationships. It is a cruelty of life that, along the way, people who once appeared fitted to the task crumble in character when the going gets hard in that natural way hardship has of visiting all human lives.

When relationships collapse under the weight of life, the crash is not merely psychological but physiological — something less and less surprising as we learn more and more about consciousness as a full-body phenomenon beyond the brain. A quarter century ago, the pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg began demonstrating how relationships affect our immune system. But there is no system they impact more profoundly than the limbic: our neurophysiological command center of emotion — something psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explore throughout their revelatory book A General Theory of Love (public library), which also gave us their insight into music, the neural harmonics of emotion, and how love recomposes the brain.

Art by Maurice Sendak from a vintage children’s book by Janice May Urdy.

The profound disruption of relationship rupture, they observe, is related to our earliest attachments and the way our system processes separation from our primary caregivers — a primal response not singular to the human animal:

Take a puppy away from his mother, place him alone in a wicker pen, and you will witness the universal mammalian reaction to the rupture of an attachment bond — a reflection of the limbic architecture mammals share. Short separations provoke an acute response known as protest, while prolonged separations yield the physiologic state of despair.

A lone puppy first enters the protest phase. He paces tirelessly, scanning his surroundings from all vantage points, barking, scratching vainly at the floor. He makes energetic and abortive attempts at scaling the walls of his prison, tumbling into a heap with each failure. He lets out a piteous whine, high-pitched and grating. Every aspect of his behavior broadcasts his distress, the same discomfort that all social mammals show when deprived of those to whom they are attached. Even young rats evidence protest: when their mother is absent they emit nonstop ultrasonic cries, a plaintive chorus inaudible to our dull ape ears.

Behaviorally and psychologically, the despair phase begins when fretfulness, which can manifest as anxiety in humans, collapses into lethargy — a condition that often accompanies depression. But abrupt and prolonged separation produces something much more than psychological havoc — it unleashes a full-system somatic shock. Various studies have demonstrated that cardiovascular function, hormone levels, and immune response are all disrupted. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon capture the result unambiguously:

Relationship rupture is a severe bodily strain… Prolonged separation affects more than feelings. A number of somatic parameters go haywire in despair. Because separation deranges the body, losing relationships can cause physical illness.

But harrowing as this reality of intimacy and its ruptures may be, it also intimates something wonderfully assuring in its mirror-image — just like painful relationships can so dysregulate us, healthy relationships can regulate us and recalibrate our limbic system, forged in our earliest attachments.

The solution to the eternal riddle of trust emerges as both banal and profound — simply the practice of continually refining our discernment about character and cultivating intimate relationships of the kind life’s hard edges cannot rupture, with people who are the human equivalent not of poison but of medicine, and endeavoring to become such people ourselves for the emotional ecosystems of those we love.

Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon write:

A relationship is a physiologic process, as real and as potent as any pill or surgical procedure.

[…]

Total self-sufficiency turns out to be a daydream whose bubble is burst by the sharp edge of the limbic brain. Stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying near them.

This might sound simple, almost simplistic, but it is one of the most difficult and redemptive arts of living — for, lest we forget, “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.”

Complement with Alain de Botton on the psychological Möbius strip that keeps us in unhealthy relationships (and how to break it) and David Whyte on the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak, then revisit Hannah Arendt on what forgiveness really means.

donating=loving

Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For sixteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.
 

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.
Start NowGive Now

Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7

Need to cancel an existing donation? (It's okay — life changes course. I treasure your kindness and appreciate your support for as long as it lasted.) You can do so on this page.

A LONGTIME LABOR OF LOVE:

The Universe in Verse: A Poetic Animated Celebration of Science and the Wonder of Reality

A SMALL, DELIGHTFUL SIDE PROJECT:

Uncommon Presents from the Past: Gifts for the Science-Lover and Nature-Ecstatic in Your Life, Benefitting the Nature Conservancy

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