Why Is Life Filled with Suffering? Leo Tolstoy's Lessons on Failure, Identity, and Asking "Why?"
The big, unknowable questions in life are seductive, but without small, trivial questions as insulation, those large mysteries can consume us.
Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. Her novel, The Vagrants, won the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction, and was shortlisted for Dublin IMPAC Award. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, her second collection, was a finalist of Story Prize and shortlisted for Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Kinder Than Solitude, her latest novel, was published to critical acclaim. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages.
Yiyun Li has received numerous awards, including Whiting Award, Lannan Foundation Residency fellow, 2010 MacArthur Foundation fellow, 2014 Benjamin H. Danks Award from American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize, among others. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. She has served on the jury panel for Man Booker International Prize, National Book Award, PEN/Heminway Award, and other. She is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space.
She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their two sons, and teaches at University of California, Davis.
Yiyun Li: Here’s a writer I love -- actually, this is a man o’ war, and I borrowed words from my best friend Amy Leach, who is a beautiful nature writer. She wrote this line about the man o’ war: 'The man o’ war appears to be one individual, like Leo Tolstoy. But it’s actually many individuals living together as a colony, like Leo Tolstoy.'
So Tolstoy. He certainly had more big “whys" than anybody else in the world. So for years Tolstoy ended his journal each day with three letters: the initials for the Russian: "If I live". Every month he began with the note: “Nearer to death”.
So a few weeks ago I actually went to Russia and I visited Yasnaya Polyana, his estate outside Moscow, and there I learned that he had failed at many things in life. He failed as an educator. He failed at breeding horses. He failed at farming. And, of course, he also failed—you know, eventually—in his religious endeavor. Pretty much the only thing he didn’t fail at was to be a writer. And Isaac Babel, a Russian writer, one of my favorite writers, said, “If the world could write by itself it would write like Tolstoy.”
And I take that to mean: we know there are big whys and small whys in life. If the world wrote itself like Elizabeth Bowen or Portia [from 'Death of The Heart'], it would be all big whys. But with Tolstoy there’s the balance of big whys and small whys.
The big whys for many on a psychiatric ward, and to many people outside in the world, can be summarized as such: Why live? Why suffer? And why suffer on?
Not any one of us had an answer there, and I think particularly for those who have experienced mental illness there’s also another question we cannot answer: Why are you *you*? Why are you you? And there are many variations of the question: Why are you not happy? Why can’t you stay hopeful? Why can’t you see the bright side of the world? Why are you so selfish? Why can’t you just be like everyone else? Why can’t you be real? Why can’t you be rational?
The big whys are timeless questions. And in asking them, and in not being able to find answers, one puts oneself in a timeless trap. Anyone suffering a severe depression may have the experience of time coming to a stop. One day to the next, one minute to the next. Time, which is the most precious possession we have, becomes the most treacherous thing. Is time real? Is time rational? Is there a way for us to experience time in the real and rational manner? Time in the world of physics is probably one of the most democratic experiences. I would say Trump’s minute is as long as my minute. A dictator’s day is not one second longer than my day. But time experienced by each individual, as we all know, is so much less scientific and so much less reliable.
In life there are big whys and small whys. Easily we look around at our lives and come up with abundant small whys: Why do I agree to eat at this restaurant but not the one across the street which was where I really wanted to go? Why do I read the news first thing in the morning when I know I shouldn’t because that makes me burn my children’s toast? Why do I want to train for a marathon? And here is one of my favorite whys, not asked by me but by an older man when he listened to my public reading, and he said, “Why did I tell myself this morning that the piece of cake I ate was good for me?”
But we don’t live to answer all these small whys. We shouldn’t. Any exhausted parent of a small child can relate to that. “Why do I have to wear shoes? Why do I have to brush my teeth? Why can’t I sleep in the dog bed with the puppy?”
And then there are the big whys. The big whys are not always answerable. In fact, we may say that there are big whys because they can't be answered. One of the dangers of living is that inevitably we run into people who think that every why has an answer—and they demand us to answer for them. And when we can’t provide a satisfactory answer they will do that for us, often with a hasty and judgmental answer.
Big whys are life and death, war and peace. But small whys—when we can find answers, or when we don’t even have to find answers but just acknowledge them—insulate and sustain us.
Novelist and author Yiyun Li has looked into the face of life's biggest questions. For two years, she lived in and out of psychiatric hospitals as she underwent treatment for suicidal depression. In this time, it was her love of literature that kept her afloat. One of Li's favorite writers, Isaac Babel, said, "If the world could write by itself it would write like Tolstoy." Li reflected on this. As Tolstoy wrote on the biggest topics, like war and peace, but also on the smallest trifles, she took it to mean that life's small questions are meant to insulate us from the big, unknowable ones. Tolstoy wrote the world as it is: a perfect balance of big and small, of answers and mystery. Too much big searching, says Li, and you can put yourself in a timeless trap. Yiyun Li's newest book is Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Scientists regenerate damaged spinal cord nerve fibers with designer protein, helping paralyzed mice walk again.
- Researchers from Germany use a designer protein to treat spinal cord damage in mice.
- The procedure employs gene therapy to regenerate damaged nerve fibers that carry signals to and from the brain.
- The scientists aim to eventually apply the technique to humans.
What is a spinal cord injury?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="88b8d4e44e46b7d5fe49d1f3bca56078"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dKtBC2Sg_Bg?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The long-term lessons America learns from the coronavirus pandemic will spell life or death.
- As the US commences its early stages of COVID-19 vaccinations, Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, argues that now is not the time to relax. "There are lessons to be learned by systems like ours based upon our experience," says Dowling, adding that "we know what these lessons are, and we're working on them."
- The four major takeaways that Dowling has identified are that the United States was unprepared and slow to react, that we need a domestic supply chain so that we aren't relying on other countries, that there needs to be more domestic and international cooperation, and that leadership roles in public health must be filled by public health experts.
- If and when another pandemic hits (in the hopefully distant future), the country—and by extension the world—will be in a much better place to deal with it.
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.