A prison is perhaps the easiest place to see the power of bad incentives. And yet in many walks of life, we find otherwise normal men and women caught in the same trap and busily making the world much less good than it could be. Elected officials ignore long-term problems because they must pander to the short-term interests of voters. People working for insurance companies rely on technicalities to deny desperately ill patients the care they need. CEOs and investment bankers run extraordinary risks—both for their businesses and for the economy as a whole—because they reap the rewards of success without suffering the penalties of failure. District attorneys continue to prosecute people they know to be innocent because their careers depend on winning cases. Our government fights a war on drugs that creates the very problem of black-market profits and violence that it pretends to solve. We need systems that are wiser than we are. We need institutions and cultural norms that make us more honest and ethical than we tend to be. The project of building them is distinct from—and, in my view, even more important than—an individual’s refining his personal ethical code.
You should regard your home life as a golden opportunity to experience nowness, by taking an interest in all the details of your life. Interest is simply applying awareness to what goes on in your everyday life—awareness while your cooking, while you’re driving, while you’re changing diapers, even awareness while you’re arguing. Such awareness can help to free you from speed, chaos, neurosis and resentment. It can free you from the obstacles to nowness, so that you can cheer up on the spot, all of the time.
Pushkin grew with the years. Every other writer claimed descent from him. Inexplicably, the whole of Russian literature proceeded from his genius. Poetry, novels, short stories, history, theater, criticism-he had opened up the whole gamut of literary endeavor to his countrymen. He was first in time, and first in quality. He was the source. Neither Gogol nor Tolstoy could have existed without him, for he made the Russian language; he prepared the ground for the growth of every genre.
Henri Troyat wrote a stream of biographies of Russian luminaries: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander II, Nicholas II, Rasputin, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, and Boris Pasternak.
From Alain de Botton’s novel, The Course of Love:
Love reaches a pitch at those moments when our beloved turns out to understand, more clearly than others have been able to, and perhaps even better than we do ourselves, the chaotic, embarrassing, and shameful parts of us. That someone else gets who we are and both sympathizes with us and forgives us for what they see underpins our whole capacity to trust and to give. Love is a dividend of gratitude for our lovers’ insight into our own confused and troubled psyche.
Rather than some notional idea or perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the right person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.