By MARIA POPOVA
From the abyss of WWII, an elevating reminder that we each contain a universe within that contributes to the universe without.
“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck wrote to a friend on the first day of 1941. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”
Across the country, as WWII was engulfing the world, a young aspiring writer and budding philosopher by the name of Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) was making sense of the terror and the tragedy in a kindred manner, striving to maintain what we most need yet most easily relinquish in dark times — the telescopic perspective.
Watts had left his native England for New York City at age twenty-three to begin Zen training — a decision he had made two years earlier, after meeting the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki in London. In New York, he toiled to publish his American debut — The Meaning of Happiness, a pathbreaking book bridging modern Western psychology and ancient Eastern philosophy — and set about establishing himself as a public speaker, giving talks about Zen to both adults and children at Riverside Church, Harlem’s mecca of spiritual inquiry. (The year Watts decided to move to New York, an inquisitive little girl from Riverside Church invited Albert Einstein’s wonderful answer to her question about whether scientists pray.) But just as Watts was finding his footing in America, Europe lost ground and plummeted into WWII, dragging the whole of humanity into an unprecedented moral and spiritual abyss.
In a beautiful letter from the spring of 1941, found in the altogether revelatory Collected Letters of Alan Watts (public library), the young philosopher considers the larger meaning of the meaningless terror of war. Addressing his parents as “Dear Mummy & Daddy,” the twenty-five-year-old Watts reflects on how an awareness of the reticulated nature of reality and the interconnectedness of all human experience casts any one experience — even the most terrifying — in a wider frame of reference that makes it somehow more bearable. Decades before he formulated his ideas on how learning not to think in terms of gain or loss enlarges life, Watts tells his parents:
I have faith that something good will come out of this in the end like the phoenix out of the fire. But in the meantime it’s almost impossible to know how to plan for the future. Things here are as good as can be expected, but under such strains you never know when people are going to go crazy! Sometimes I get the queerest feeling that things going on in the world around one, are in some odd way reflections of things happening in the depths of one’s own mind. It is almost as if the world gets calm as you keep calm yourself, and vice versa. Yet it would be absurd to imagine that one could actually control the course of events in that way because this would imply the belief that oneself alone is real and all else a figment of thought. But it convinces me more and more that there is a universe inside one, which contains Hitler and all forms of human madness as well as love and beauty.
Complement The Collected Letters of Alan Watts, lovingly edited by his daughters Joan and Anne, with Watts on how to live with presence, the antidote to loneliness, and what makes us who we are, then revisit Rebecca Solnit on our grounds for hope in the dark and Albert Camus on strength of character through difficult times.