Choosing Curiosity Over Fear With Elizabeth Gilbert

And all of that is a very strange way to see creativity and, I would say, a very new way. And by “new,” I mean post-Enlightenment, the last couple hundred years, and very Western — and, I would also say, very macho, in a way, very male, [laughs] because it comes with this grandiosity that’s on the individual, and this pressure to be great and to be a genius. And it’s strange.

One thing you’ve said is, the difference between passion and curiosity as something you’re following is that “curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity.”

.. this refrain that’s everywhere out there in our culture — to “follow your passion, follow your passion” — and that that, also, becomes a way that people feel themselves excluded, because they’re not sure what their artistic passion would be. Or again, if it’s their passion, can they really measure the value they’re creating?

And I love the language of “curiosity” you use, and I’d love for you to talk some more about that. One thing you’ve said is, the difference between passion and curiosity as something you’re following is that “curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity.” [laughs]

MS. GILBERT: [laughs] Oh, I love curiosity — our friend. I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes, not so available. And so, when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there’s a great deal of pressure around that. And I think if you don’t happen to have a passion that’s very clear, or if you have lost your passion, or if you’re in a change of life where your passions are shifting, or you’re not certain, and somebody says, “Well, it’s easy to solve your life. Just follow your passion,” [laughs] I do think that they have harmed you, because it just makes people feel more excluded and more exiled and, sometimes, like a failure.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, exactly.

MS. GILBERT: And it’s a little bit like — gosh, I mean, even the word, “passion,” has this sort of sexual connotation that you’re — I’m much more interested in intimacy [laughs] and in growing a relationship, than everything has to be setting your head on fire. And curiosity is an impulse that just taps you on the shoulder very lightly, and invites you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little closer at something that has intrigued you. And it may not set your head on fire; it may not change your life; it may not change the world; it may not even line up with previous things that you’ve done or been interested in. It may seem very random and make no sense. And I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they’re waiting for a bigger sign, and your curiosities, sometimes, are so mild and so strange [laughs] and so, almost, nothing — it’s a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you’re looking up at the mountaintop, waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God.

MS. TIPPETT: You said curiosity “gives you clues.” [laughs]

MS. GILBERT: It’s clues and…

MS. TIPPETT: Doesn’t necessarily give you a destination at all, right?

MS. GILBERT: [laughs] It doesn’t. And here’s the thing. Sometimes, following your curiosity will lead you to your passion. Sometimes it won’t; and then, guess what? That’s still totally fine.

You’ve lived a life following your curiosity. You’ve created a life that is a very interesting thing, different from anybody else’s. And your life itself then becomes the work of art — not so much contingent upon what you produced, but about a certain spirit of being that, I think, is a lot more interesting, and also, a lot more sustainable.

MS. TIPPETT: You use the language, “the virtue of inquisitiveness.” That’s great.

MS. GILBERT: I think a definition of an interesting person is an interested person. I’ve never met an interesting person who’s not also an interested person.

.. He doesn’t pretend — I know the first line of that poem is, “Suffering everywhere.” It’s the first line, “Suffering everywhere.” Look. It’s everywhere. There’s no denial of that, and yet, something in us, something in the universe — there’s some sort of spirit that also wants to be glad, and also, wants to be amazed, and also, wants to be engaged.

And we can’t lose that, because then, we’ve lost everything. He has another line in there, which I don’t know if I know by heart, but it’s something about — “To only give your attention to darkness and suffering is to worship the devil,” or, “to give your power to the devil.” And you know, you have to be careful about this, especially when you have an impulse to be a good person — a “good person,” and your definition of a good person is somebody who gives everything to others. It’s a beautiful impulse, but if it’s done from a place of only giving darkness and suffering your attention, then you become somebody who’s very difficult to be around. [laughs] There’s a lovely line that this British columnist said, one time, that “You can always tell people who live for others by the anguished expressions on the faces of the others.” [laughs] There’s some heaviness in there that just spreads out of you and makes everyone feel heavy, and even makes the people that you’re serving feel heavy, because they feel like they’re a burden and a responsibility. And so, if you can find the gladness and the lightness, I think your service becomes better, and I think your art becomes better, and I think your worship becomes better and lighter.

.. the false choice that people are given are these two ideas. One is that it’s all coming from me: Nothing funny is going on here; there is no spirit moving across the face of the earth. I’m just a pile of DNA, my cerebral cortex is firing off, and that is why my creativity exists, right? It’s all me; it’s only me — which is great, except then, how do you explain the mysterious part that you can’t explain, about why one day you were in flow, and it did feel like something was coming through you, not from you, and you brushed up against a sense of great mystery and communion. And then the next day, Wednesday morning, it was gone.

.. the very hippie-trippy idea of “I’m just a vessel. I’m just a vessel; channel — it just comes through me.” Then why am I so tired? [laughs] Because I’ve been working hard. So there’s some sort of a — there’s some third way. And I think the third way is, it’s a collaboration between a human being’s labors and the mysteries of inspiration. And that’s the most interesting dance that I think you can be involved in, but you are very much an agent in that story. You’re not just a passive receptacle. And also, it’s not entirely in your hands. And standing comfortably within that contradiction is, I think, where you find sanity in the creative process — if you can find it.

.. Terrified people make terrible decisions. Terror and fear make you irresponsible. They make you not think very clearly, and they make you willing to do almost anything to get rid of that awful feeling. And we’ve seen people do that on the individual level, and we’ve seen cultures do that. And we’ve seen politicians who find ways to exploit terror and fear in order to get short-term power — or, sometimes, long-term power, because if you can figure out how to hold the reins of other people’s fear, then you can control them for a while.

.. And so one of the very most powerful ways to not end up being controlled by that is to remain more curious than you are afraid. I think, any time in the community that there’s anybody who’s keeping their head, I think it’s a benefit to everyone around them. I think everything is contagious. Our fear is contagious, but our courage also is. And our courage makes other people be able to be more brave and come out of their houses and come out of their shells and out of their fear.

.. “<strong>I want to live in a world full of explorers and generous souls, rather than people who have voluntarily become prisoners of their own fortresses.</strong> I want to live in a world full of people who look into each other’s faces along the path of life and ask, ‘Who are you, my friend, and how can we serve each other?’”

.. I had a very dumb idea, it turned out, that what I really needed was to just be alone and as far away from everyone in the world as I could get. And I went to this island off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia and rented a thatched cottage on the beach for ten dollars a day. And I decided, for ten days, I wasn’t going to speak. I don’t advise that if you’re in the state that I was in. [laughs] What I probably really needed was to be around community and, maybe, some therapists. Putting a magnifying lens on yourself when you’re in distress like that can be very hard. And I ended up getting sick.

.. She had been keeping an eye on me, and I didn’t keep my schedule. I usually walked around the island at dawn and at dusk, and when she didn’t see me, she came and found me. And when she saw how sick I was, she brought me food. And I think — I’ve never forgotten this woman.

And what I think I learned from her was: Pay attention to what’s happening in your community. That’s what it means to be deeply engaged with the place where you live, such that you will see when someone is in trouble. And there’s ways that you can reach toward people, rather than away from them. And you can do that. I know we talk often, in this society, about how terrible social media and the Internet is. But used properly, that too can become a tool of outreach, a way of knocking on someone’s door.

.. it’s because the universe is looking for collaborators, because creation’s not finished. It’s not something that happened in seven days and ended. It’s an ongoing story that we’re part of. And it’s a much more interesting way to be part of that story, to work in collaboration and in partnership and in friendly curiosity with it, than to be terrified of it.

.. I didn’t really understand how much <strong>you had really written a lot about men and for men</strong>, and been a journalist and been — I don’t know, what is it? You once said you were the only girl in the room a lot. [laughs]

And so that’s not really the trajectory of, I think, what people would expect of this person who eventually writes Eat Pray Love. And, ironically — that is such a phenomenally successful project, but you said once, it had not escaped your attention that <strong>when you wrote about a man’s emotional journey, they gave you the National Book Award nomination, but when you wrote about a woman’s emotional journey, they “shunted” you “into the ‘chick-lit’ dungeon.”</strong> And I sense that you’ve — this has been part of your growth and reflection out of this, is — and I wrestle with this too, with my work — pushing back against the idea that there’s something unserious about talking about these things.

.. the Dalai Lama that — when he first came to the West. And somebody in the audience raised their hand and said, “What do you think about self-hatred?”

The whole conference ended for a while, while he had to have a couple of translators sit there and try to explain to him how a human being could be taught to hate himself. And he was so — he just said — there’s this transcript of this conversation and that moment of him saying, “This is very concerning.” [laughs] And I see self-loathing everywhere I look, in so many different forms, and it’s so — it breaks my heart. And I also know self-loathing, because I have been in it. Anybody who’s been in depression knows what self-hatred is. In many ways, <strong>depression is — the best definition of it is anger turned inward</strong>, so there’s this battle that’s going on within you where you become a rival of yourself and an enemy of yourself.

.. “The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.” And I’ll just say, even as somebody who feels like I’ve done a lot of work on befriending myself, but that’s still a hard statement to claim, for me, and, I think, for a lot of people. It’s an aspiration, to be able to feel that way, to trust that.

.. when it’s not coming, and it’s not working, and it’s not being good, and I’m stuck in a problem around the creativity, it’s a very important shift in my life over the years to not think that I’m being punished or that I’m failing, but to think that this thing, this mystery that wants communion with me is trying to help me. And it hasn’t abandoned me. It’s nearby. And it wants — it came to me for a reason.

 

Afraid? Weak? Egotistical? Attack!

Trump doesn’t want a free press; he wants free propaganda.

.. It is simply not healthy for the country to have a president stuck perpetually in attack mode, fighting enemies real and imagined, pushing a toxic agenda that mixes the exaltation of grievance and the grinding of axes.

The president’s recent rallies have come to resemble orgies for Donald Trump’s ego, spaces in which he can receive endless, unmeasured adulation and in which the crowds can gather for a revival of an anger that registers as near-religious. They can experience a communal affirmation that they are not alone in their intolerance, outrage and regression.

At these moments, the preacher and the pious share a spiritual moment of darkness.

.. They believe that America was founded as a white, Christian nation and should be governed as one. They pine over lost culture and lost heritage. They rage against blossoming minority groups and immigrants.

.. He does none of this because he is brave and strong, but rather precisely because he isn’t. His attacks are a compensatory disguise for his own fear and insecurity.

Trump is weak. Very weak. Unbelievably weak. But he knows now that his weakness is bolstered by the incredible power of the presidency and the overwhelming economic and military power of the country.

How to Destroy Democracy, the Trump-Putin Way

All around the world, strongmen are seizing power and subverting liberal norms.

fascism came out of particular historical circumstances that do not obtain today—

  • a devastating world war,
  • drastic economic upheaval, the
  • fear of Bolshevism.

.. When Naomi Wolf and others insisted that George W. Bush was taking us down the path of 1930s Germany, I thought they were being histrionic. The essence of fascism after all was the obliteration of democracy. Did anyone seriously believe that Bush would cancel elections and refuse to exit the White House?

.. So maybe fascism isn’t the right term for where we are heading. Fascism, after all, was all about big government—grandiose public works, jobs jobs jobs, state benefits of all kinds, government control of every area of life. It wasn’t just about looting the state on behalf of yourself and your cronies, although there was plenty of that too. Seeing Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the press conference following their private meeting in Helsinki, though, I think maybe I’ve been a bit pedantic. Watching those two thuggish, immensely wealthy, corrupt bullies, I felt as if I was glimpsing a new world order—not even at its birth but already in its toddler phase. The two men are different versions of an increasingly common type of leader:

  • elected strongmen ‘who exploit weak spots in procedural democracy to come to power, and
  • once ensconced do everything they can to weaken democracy further,
  • while inflaming powerful popular currents of
    • authoritarianism,
    • racism,
    • nationalism,
    • reactionary religion,
    • misogyny,
    • homophobia, and
    • resentments of all kinds.

.. At the press conference Putin said that associates of the billionaire businessman Bill Browder gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign $400 million, a claim Politifact rates “pants on fire” and about which The New York Times’ Kenneth Vogel tweeted, “it was so completely without evidence that there were no pants to light on fire, so I hereby deem it ‘WITHOUT PANTS.’”

.. A Freudian might say that his obsession with the imaginary sins of Clinton suggests he’s hiding something. Why else, almost two years later, is he still trying to prove he deserved to win? At no point in the press conference did he say or do anything incompatible with the popular theory that he is Putin’s tool and fool.

.. These pantsless overlords are not alone. All over the world, antidemocratic forces are winning elections—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—and then using their power to subvert democratic procedures.

There’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—remember how when he first took office, back in 2014, he was seen as a harmless moderate, his Justice and Development Party the Muslim equivalent of Germany’s Christian Democrats? Now he’s shackling the press, imprisoning his opponents, trashing the universities, and trying to take away women’s rights and push them into having at least three, and possibly even five, kids because there just aren’t enough Turks.

.. Then there’s Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe these elected authoritarian regimes, now busily shaping the government to his own xenophobic ends, and

.. Poland’s Andrzej Duda, doing much the same—packing the courts, banning abortion, promoting the interests of the Catholic church.

Before World War II Poland was a multiethnic country, with large minorities of Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, and other peoples. Now it boasts of its (fictional) ethnic purity and, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, bars the door to Muslim refugees in the name of Christian nationalism.

One could mention

  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,
  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,
  • Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and
  • India’s Narendra Modi as well.

Pushed by anti-immigrant feeling, which is promoted by

  • unemployment and
  • austerity,

right-wing “populist” parties are surging in

  • Italy,
  • Greece,
  • the Netherlands,
  • France,
  • Germany,
  • Austria, and even
  • Sweden and
  • Denmark.

And don’t forget Brexit—boosted by pie-in-the-sky lies about the bounty that would flow from leaving the European Union but emotionally fueled by racism, nativism, and sheer stupidity.

.. At home, Donald Trump energizes similarly antidemocratic and nativist forces. Last year, outright neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, and Trump called them “very fine people.” This year, Nazis and Holocaust deniers are running in elections as Republicans, and far-right misogynist hate groups like the Proud Boys are meeting in ordinary bars and cafés.

.. The worst of it is that once the leaders get into power, they create their own reality, just as Karl Rove said they would:

  • They control the media,
  • pack the courts
  • .. lay waste to regulatory agencies,
  • “reform” education,
  • abolish long-standing precedents, and
  • use outright cruelty—of which the family separations on the border are just one example—to create fear.

While everybody was fixated on the spectacle in Helsinki, Trump’s IRS announced new rules that let dark-money groups like the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity keep their donors secret. 

.. American democracy might not be in its death throes yet, but every week brings a thousand paper cuts.

.. There’s nothing inevitable about liberal democracy, religious pluralism, acceptance of ethnic diversity, gender and racial equality, and the other elements of what we think of as contemporary progress.

.. He has consolidated a bloc of voters united in their grievances and their fantasies of redress. The

  • fundamentalist stay-home moms, the
  • MAGA-hat wearing toughs, the
  • Fox-addicted retirees, the
  • hedge-fund multimillionaires and the
  • gun nuts have found one another.

.. Why would they retreat and go their separate ways just because they lost an election or even two? Around the world it may be the same story: Democracy is easy to destroy and hard to repair, even if people want to do so, and it’s not so clear that enough of them do.

Putin’s Medieval Dreams

As much of the world makes amends for social and political injustices of the past, Russia is lionizing its despots, raising statues to the worst of them. Behind this phenomenon is an ultra-nationalist brand of conservatism that seeks to take Russian politics back to the Middle Ages.

While much of the world is busy dismantling monuments to oppressors, Russians are moving in the opposite direction, erecting statues to medieval warlords who were famous for their despotism. Understanding this revival can shed light on the direction of Russia’s politics.

In October 2016, with the endorsement of Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, the country’s first-ever monument to Ivan the Terrible was unveiled in the city of Orel. A month later, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, called for Lenin Avenue in Moscow to be renamed Ivan the Terrible Highway. And in July of this year, President Vladimir Putin christened Moscow’s own tribute to the tyrant, declaring, erroneously, that “most likely, Ivan the Terrible never killed anyone, not even his son.”

Most historians agree that Ivan lived up to his name; not only did he kill his son and other relatives, he also ordered the oprichnina, the state-led purges that terrorized Russia from 1565 to 1572. He also presided over Russia’s defeat in the Livonian War, and his misrule contributed to the Time of Troubles and the state’s devastating depopulation.

.. Joseph Stalin initiated the modern cult of Ivan the Terrible. But, since the mid-2000s, Russia’s Eurasia Party – a political movement led by the pro-fascist mystic Alexander Dugin – has moved to position Ivan as the best incarnation of an “authentic” Russian tradition: authoritarian monarchy.

Dugin’s brand of “Eurasianism” advocates the embrace of a “new Middle Ages,” where what little remains of Russian democracy is replaced by an absolute autocrat. In Dugin’s ideal future, a medieval social order would return, the empire would be restored, and the Orthodox church would assume control over culture and education.

.. Eurasianism, which was marginal in the 1990s, has gained considerable popularity in recent years by contributing to the formation of the so-called Izborsky Club, which unites the Russian far right.

.. Putin has referred to Eurasianism as an important part of Russian ideology

.. members of the Eurasia Party, who consider political terror the most effective tool of governance and call for a “new oprichnina” – a staunchly anti-Western Eurasian conservative revolution. According to Mikhail Yuriev, a member of the political council of the Eurasia Party and author of the utopian novel The Third Empire, the oprichniks should be the only political class, and they should rule by fear.

.. Cultural vocabulary is also reverting. For example, the word kholop, which means “serf,” is returning to the vernacular, a linguistic devolution that parallels a troubling rise in Russia’s modern slavery. Data from the Global Slavery Index show that more than one million Russians are currently enslaved in the construction industry, the military, agriculture, and the sex trade. Moreover, serf “owners” are also happily identifying themselves as modern-day barins.

.. Nostalgia for serfdom compliments the desire for a return to autocracy.

.. Putin’s tacit support for the Eurasian vision of a neo-medieval Russia invokes the historical memory of Stalinism. According to Dugin, “Stalin created the Soviet Empire,” and, like Ivan the Terrible, expresses “the spirit of the Soviet society and the Soviet people.” No wonder, then, that monuments to Stalin, too, are multiplying in Russian cities.

.. Neo-medievalism is rooted in nostalgia for a social order based on inequality, caste, and clan, enforced by terror.

The lionization of historical despots reflects the contemporary embrace of such pre-modern, radically anti-democratic and unjust values. For Ivan’s contemporary champions, the past is prologue.