The meaning I picked, the one that changed my life: Overcome fear, behold wonder.
Before becoming a beloved writer of the 1970s, Richard Bach had a considerable career as a pilot. He first experienced the wonder of flying at age 14, and went on to serve as an aviator in the military as well as film shoots and flying circuses. These experiences influenced his 1970 novel “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” a story of a gull who flies for enjoyment rather than survival. Bach prioritized that sense of wonder throughout his life, and his philosophy invites us not to let fear stand in the way of seeking new experiences. In fact, it’s often when we push past that initial resistance that we stumble upon something truly wondrous.
Only by not forgetting the past can we be the master of the future.
The work of prolific Chinese writer Ba Jin often took the form of social commentary. His most famous novel, “Jia,” criticized the traditional Chinese family system. His work labeled him a counterrevolutionary during the country’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and he was ostracized from society. In the early 2000s, Ba Jin called for the creation of an official Cultural Revolution museum to document the impact of the era, believing this would prevent China from repeating past mistakes. (Though a museum did open in 2005, it was covered up by the Chinese authorities less than a decade later.) With this quote, Ba Jin points out that no experience exists in a vacuum. By reflecting on where we’ve been, we can chart the course ahead to steer us in a better direction.
Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance.
Dance is one of the most natural expressions of emotion that we have as humans, and to try to grade it in terms of “good” or “bad” is to undermine the whole point. Modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham was one of the most talented and famous dancers of the 20th century, and even she knew it didn’t matter if you could dance well — just let go of your inhibition and experience the joy of moving to the music. It’s a lesson that can be applied to all areas of life: Fear of imperfection should never cause us to miss out on life’s wonders.
It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.
In 1940, “New Yorker” veteran James Thurber published a children’s book — “Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated” — in which each story ends with a crisp moral. The above quote is the moral of “The Scotty Who Knew Too Much,” a parable about a presumptuous Scottish terrier who instigates hapless run-ins with a skunk, a porcupine, and a farm dog. No one has all the answers, and Thurber posits that pretending otherwise will get you into trouble. He encourages all generations to remember that curiosity is a sign of respect, and indicates a willingness to learn, and grow, from the presence of outside perspectives.
Musical virtuoso Miles Davis assembled some of history’s most venerable jazz ensembles. Unbeknownst to audiences, he could also mentor his fellow musicians midway through a world-famous trumpet solo. Pianist Herbie Hancock — a member of Davis’ Second Great Quintet — fondly recalled one such instance. During a 1960s concert in Stuttgart, Germany, Hancock played what he judged as a very pronounced wrong chord. Covering his ears, he feared he had “reduced that great night to rubble.” An innate improviser, Davis responded with a series of notes that made Hancock’s chord sound intentional. “He did what any jazz musician should always try to do, and that is to make anything that happens into something of value,” Hancock said. It reminds us that so-called missteps are often just what we need to blaze a new trail.
Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive.
In a beautiful meditation on the power of friendship, French diarist and essayist Anaïs Nin wrote in 1937 that each person we meet and befriend invites us to explore more of ourselves and discover new insights. Our interests, personalities, dreams, hopes, and thoughts are made richer and brighter when shared with someone else, and sometimes it takes the arrival of a new friend to awaken our truest identities.
The chief danger in life is that you may take too many precautions.
Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler was among the early pioneers of family and group counseling. One reason for his 1911 break with compatriot Sigmund Freud was that Adler believed external factors, such as adult relationships and employment, should be accounted for when treating patients (whereas Freud thought behavior was largely fueled by biology and childhood events). While listening to people reflect on their place in society, Adler heard lots of trepidation. This motivated him to help individuals grow comfortable with risks, because adventures and unforeseen joys await those who say yes.
The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.
With her daily life embroiled in the political turmoil of 20th-century South Africa, Nobel Prize-winning writer and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer knew a thing or two about truth. In a 1963 essay for “London Magazine,” titled “A Bolter and the Invincible Summer,” Gordimer asserted that though there are innumerous ugly realities in the world, there is also beauty in humankind’s devotion to finding truth and justice.
Success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures.
Vincent van Gogh
With his spectacular paintings hanging in such venerable institutions as the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it is hard to imagine that Vincent van Gogh ever experienced failure. But in reality, the Dutch post-impressionist artist went through overwhelming hardship in his life, both personally and professionally, and only found global fame and success after his death in 1890. If Van Gogh could see the silver lining of life’s dark storm clouds, then so can we.
If you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror.
Canadian poet, author, and performer Shane Koyczan offered this clever perspective on self-acceptance in a line from his poem “To This Day.” The anti-bullying work, which went viral in 2013, urges us to make it a practice to doggedly seek out and appreciate our best qualities. Self-love is a radical act, and we can only benefit from being kind to ourselves.
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