I've started reading the diary of the incredible Anaïs Nin, and one relationship in it has really struck a chord. Not with Henry Miller, who provides a loving enigma and companion for her (and was one of my earliest profound writing influences) but his wife, June. Henry describes June like a sphinx, beautiful, brutal and unknowable, but in the friendship of Anaïs she transforms into something separate from Henry's understanding of her. There are more passionate and impressive passages regarding their emotional friendship, but one quote sticks in my mind.
"June sat filled with champagne. I have no need of it. She talked about the effects of hashish. I said, 'I have known such states without hashish. I do not need drugs. I carry all that in myself.' At this she was irritated. She does not realize that, being an artist, I want to be in those states of ecstasy or vision while keeping my awareness in tact. I am the poet and I must feel and see. I do not want to be anesthetized. I am drunk on June’s beauty, but I am also aware of it."
It is not that I relate wholeheartedly to Anaïs simply because she is the artist (as a younger, Henry Miller-loving me, might), but rather I relate to the exchange itself. I'm not a substance dependent person. Depriving me of drugs and alcohol wouldn't invoke anything close to despair. In fact, I'd probably look on it as an opportunity for a period of clearheadedness and natural momentum. And yet, the older I get, the more people I come in contact with, the more thoughts and fears and entropy I see in myself, the harder it is not to empathize with those I used to think of as "other." How can you not understand June's desire to be consumed by the moment, to drink, to smoke, to lie, to promise herself nothing, no financial stability, no foundation, nothing except to live utterly free. Inspirational quotes speak of an ideal that is undeniably June, and yet to see it writ like a grocery list, those on the diving board thinking of swan dives, might look over their shoulder. Anaïs herself, says it best a few pages later.
"What had I done? Nothing. Looked at her, felt in sympathy with her quest for the marvelous, her chaos which I did not seek to organize with a man’s mind, but which I accepted as I accepted her courage to descend into all experience. She has that courage. She has obeyed every impulse to drink, take drugs, to be a vagabond, to be free at the cost of poverty and humiliation."
Anaïs understands June in a way that Henry never can. She understands that it is not our job to figure other people out, but simply to enjoy them. How can you tell anyone how to live, much less someone who contains greatness within them? Not greatness in the sense of the gatherings at Mt. Olympus but those in the Marianas Trench. And people contain such unfathomable depths. From my centered seat in the middle of a comfy middle class home in the suburbs, the only thing I cannot relate to is a life without empathy. Or, even if I understand it, it fills me with sand.
We have three brains. Our two inner brains are firing 100 percent. They help us to feed ourselves, protect our young, find a mate and give us a healthy sense of fear that lets us thrive against predators and mighty mother nature. Of our third brain we are estimated to use around 20 percent. Some may call this the higher brain, but in reality it's purpose shouldn't be moralized (I guess it is technically above the other two, but I feel like we often hear it as more than a position). The neocortex is involved in planning and decisions. All of which can be accomplished with our mammalian and reptilian brains in order to survive. So what does that mean for the average human person? Our newest brain, developed perhaps because of our nutrient rich diet of cooked, easy-to-digest food and our ability to overwhelmingly protect ourselves from predators, is no longer used for any of those early man's greatest hits (simple tools, hunting and gathering, early agriculture, and so much more...!).
The average person does not build things, hardly cooks, doesn't fix his own car (one of my bucket list skills). The average person leverages the processing power of his wrinkly supercomputer in order to explain why they do the things their other brains have them do (mostly, why do we eat so much, why do we feel so much?). I posit that we are not as smart as we think we are, especially in terms of thinking about our own lives. In practice, our newest brain is not a rational brain so much as it is a rationalizing brain. We use it to tell ourselves why we are in or out of control, based on factors that we create, usually in an unknowing collaboration with our emotional brains. Hence core beliefs being described as something we "feel deep in [our] being," which seems a way of stating that I can organize actions that are to some degree beyond my control, and my proof is in my disapproval, distancing and organization of my supposedly simple, inner-brain life.
This isn't to say we shouldn't disapprove of things, I can perform a litany of battles worth crying for. We all can. But within ourselves, and when thinking about the people we interact with on a daily basis. Our happiness is in a large way tied into our ability to squelch the high brain chatter. In other words, we all have deep wells of empathy inside ourselves, we've just explained them away. Thought of them as childish, unintelligent. Perhaps, to care more and live a better life, we could try not to deny our mammalian and reptilian brains. After all, these brains are firing on all cylinders while the neocortex gives us the power to do puzzles, but also to make them. And make them unsolvable.
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