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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Water may be far more abundant on the lunar surface than previously thought.
- Scientists have long thought that water exists on the lunar surface, but it wasn't until 2018 that ice was first discovered on the moon.
- A study published Monday used NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy to confirm the presence of molecular water..
- A second study suggests that shadowy regions on the lunar surface may also contain more ice than previously thought.
Credits: NASA/Daniel Rutter<p>Still, it's not as if the moon is dripping wet. The observations suggest that a cubic meter of the lunar surface (in the Clavius crater site, at least) contains water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million. That's roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water. In comparison, the same plot of land in the Sahara desert contains about 100 times more water.</p><p>But a second study suggests other parts of the lunar surface also contain water — and potentially lots of it. Also publishing their findings in <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-020-1198-9#_blank" target="_blank">Nature Astronomy</a> on Monday, the researchers used the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to study "cold traps" near the moon's polar regions. These areas of the lunar surface are permanently covered in shadows. In fact, about 0.15 percent of the lunar surface is permanently shadowed, and it's here that water could remain frozen for millions of years.</p><p>Some of these permanently shadowed regions are huge, extending more than a kilometer wide. But others span just 1 cm. These smaller "micro cold traps" are much more abundant than previously thought, and they're spread out across more regions of the lunar surface, according to the new research.</p>
Credit: dottedyeti via AdobeStock<p>Still, the second study didn't confirm that ice is embedded in micro cold traps. But if there is, it would mean that water would be much more accessible to astronauts, considering they wouldn't have to travel into deep, shadowy craters to extract water.</p><p>Greater accessibility to water would not only make it easier for astronauts to get drinking water, but could also enable them to generate rocket fuel and power.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Water is a valuable resource, for both scientific purposes and for use by our explorers," said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist in the advanced exploration systems division for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, in a statement. "If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries."</p>
A study finds 1.8 billion trees and shrubs in the Sahara desert.
- AI analysis of satellite images sees trees and shrubs where human eyes can't.
- At the western edge of the Sahara is more significant vegetation than previously suspected.
- Machine learning trained to recognize trees completed the detailed study in hours.
Why this matters<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTkyODg5NX0.O3S2DRTyAxh-JZqxGKj9KkC6ndZAloEh4hKhpcyeFDQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="3770d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3c27b79d4c0600fb6ebb82e650cabec0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Area in which trees were located
Credit: University of Copenhagen<p>As important as trees are in fighting climate change, scientists need to know what trees there are, and where, and the study's finding represents a significant addition to the global tree inventory.</p><p>The vegetation Brandt and his colleagues have identified is in the Western Sahara, a region of about 1.3 million square kilometers that includes the desert, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahel" target="_blank">the Sahel</a>, and the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/subhumid-zones" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sub-humid zones</a> of West Africa.</p><p>These trees and shrubs have been left out of previous tabulations of carbon-processing worldwide forests. Says Brandt, "Trees outside of forested areas are usually not included in climate models, and we know very little about their carbon stocks. They are basically a white spot on maps and an unknown component in the global carbon cycle."</p><p>In addition to being valuable climate-change information, the research can help facilitate strategic development of the region in which the vegetation grows due to a greater understanding of local ecosystems.</p>
Trained for trees<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTk5NTI3NH0.fR-n1I2DHBIRPLvXv4g0PVM8ciZwSLWorBUUw2wc-Vk/img.jpg?width=980" id="e02c0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="79955b13661dca8b6e19007935129af1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Martin Brandt/University of Copenhagen<p>There's been an assumption that there's hardly enough vegetation outside of forested areas to be worth counting in areas such as this one. As a result the study represents the first time a significant number of trees — likely in the hundreds of millions when shrubs are subtracted from the overall figure — have been catalogued in the drylands region.</p><p>Members of the university's Department of Computer Science trained a machine-learning module to recognize trees by feeding it thousands of pictures of them. This training left the AI be capable of spotting trees in the tiny details of satellite images supplied by NASA. The task took the AI just hours — it would take a human years to perform an equivalent analysis.</p><p>"This technology has enormous potential when it comes to documenting changes on a global scale and ultimately, in contributing towards global climate goals," says co-author Christian Igel. "It is a motivation for us to develop this type of beneficial artificial intelligence."</p><p>"Indeed," says Brandt says, "I think it marks the beginning of a new scientific era."</p>
Looking ahead and beyond<p>The researchers hope to further refine their AI to provide a more detailed accounting of the trees it identifies in satellite photos.</p><p>The study's senior author, Rasmus Fensholt, says, "we are also interested in using satellites to determine tree species, as tree types are significant in relation to their value to local populations who use wood resources as part of their livelihoods. Trees and their fruit are consumed by both livestock and humans, and when preserved in the fields, trees have a positive effect on crop yields because they improve the balance of water and nutrients."</p><p>Ahead is an expansion of the team's tree hunt to a larger area of Africa, with the long-term goal being the creation of a more comprehensive and accurate global database of trees that grow beyond the boundaries of forests.</p>
Tea and coffee have known health benefits, but now we know they can work together.
Credit: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels
- A new study finds drinking large amounts of coffee and tea lowers the risk of death in some adults by nearly two thirds.
- This is the first study to suggest the known benefits of these drinks are additive.
- The findings are great, but only directly apply to certain people.