Ryan Holiday Reflects on How to Handle Rejections

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Ryan Holiday. Via: (Wikimedia.org)

 

Any inception of a creative project is physically and mentally laborious. There is often a gap between the initial idea and the final product. This sometimes makes us vulnerable, but there is nothing that makes us more vulnerable than being criticized, rejected, and misunderstood for the projects that we have created, despite our best efforts. When our projects have reached the audience, they are no longer ours. Instead, they now belong to the public. They will be judged and acted on by other people.

We cannot control what people think about our projects, but we can control how we want to perceive their criticisms. This is exactly the hard-earned wisdom that Ryan Holidays offers in his, heavily-researched, self-help book titled “Ego is The Enemy,” (Public Library) especially in one of the essays, The Effort is Enough.

In our world, which is addicted to glorifying the concept of success, Holiday lends us his sobering perspectives on seeing success as merely a reward and criticisms as something that falls beyond our control. What he preaches in this book is his argument on how to detach ourselves from the notion of success and move towards the work that we are called to do with an immense sense of vitality. Simply, this means to work hard. Once the work that we do is “leaving” our hands, it is up to the public to praise or reject.

This essay started off with a story of Belisarius, a man which Holiday considers as “one of the greatest yet unknown military generals in all of history.” Belisarius was an extraordinary man because of his ability to save Rome after the barbarians had taken it. Some of his major accomplishments were winning the wars at Dara, Carthage, Naples, Sicily, and Constantinople. He usually did not have a lot of men behind him and he often had to go to war against a riotous crowd of tens of thousands. His persistence and military strategy were impeccable.

However, that’s not the most significant characteristic in Belisarius that impresses Holiday. What makes him stand apart from any other historical figure is the way he gracefully handled extreme criticisms and mistreatment from his public after all the victories that he brought. Not only was he not rewarded for the good that he did, but he was often punished for it. Belisarius realized that public criticisms did not matter much, as long as he did his job well. He focused on what he could control, his energy, and ignored what he could not control, public criticisms.

Holiday writes:

“He was not given public triumphs. Instead, he was repeatedly placed under suspicion by the paranoid emperor he served, Justinian. His victories and sacrifices were undone with foolish treaties and bad faith. His personal historian, Procopius, was corrupted by Justinian to tarnish the man’s image and legacy. Later, he was relieved of command. His only remaining title was the deliberately humiliating “Commander of the Royal Stable.” Oh, and at the end of his illustrious career, Belisarius was stripped of his wealth, and according to the legend, blinded, and forced to beg in the streets to survive.

[…]

The person we don’t hear complaining about any of this? Not at the time, not at the end of his life, not even in private letters: Belisarius himself.

[…]

In his eyes, he was just doing his job–one he believed was his sacred duty. He knew that he did it well. He knew he had done what was right. That was enough.”

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Belisarius Begging For Alms, 1781 – Jacques-Louis David. © Web Gallery of Art. Via: (Wikiart.org)

 

For Belisarius, doing his job was more than enough. This attitude is something that we need to cultivate. We need to focus on what matters, our effort and forget the public acclamation and criticisms.

Holiday goes on to write that our lives will be much enjoyable if we are not attached to outcomes. He writes:

“It’s far better when doing good work is sufficient. In other words, the less attached we are to outcomes the better. When fulfilling our own standards is what fills with pride and self-respect. When the effort–not the results, good or bad–is enough.

For some people, this art of practicing material non-attachment is not easy, especially for people whose ego always dictates their lives. The substance of this book is about how ego can ruin our paths of becoming who we want to be. Holiday sees the danger of ego:

“With ego, this is not nearly sufficient. No, we need to be recognized. We need to be compensated. Especially problematic is the fact that, often, we get that. We are praised, we are paid, and we start to assume that the two things always go together. The ‘expectation hangover’ inevitably ensues.”

Holiday, once again, admonishes us to not use external reinforcement to motivate us.

“Maybe your parents will never be impressed. Maybe your girlfriend won’t care. Maybe the investor won’t see the numbers. Maybe the audience won’t clap. But we have to be able to push through. We can’t let that be what motivates us.”

Drawing inspiration from the legendary basketball coach John Wooden and one of the greatest Roman Stoics Marcus Aurelius on this topic, Holiday writes:

“How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? John Wooden’s advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success. ‘Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.’ ‘Ambition,’ Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, ‘means trying your well-being to what other people say or do. . . Sanity means trying it to your own actions.'”

At the end of this essay, Holidays offers us one of the hardest reality truths that we need to embrace:

“The world is, after all, indifferent to what we humans ‘want.’ If we persist in wanting, in needing, we are simply setting ourselves up for resentment or worse.”

After everything that we have invested into our work–the countless nights of sleeplessness, vitality, love, thoughts–all we need to remind ourselves and each other is essentially coming back to this sentence, “Doing the work is enough.”

Legendary Indonesian Educator and Feminist Kartini on Education, Religion, and Some of Her Forgotten Wisdom in Her Letters

 

 

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Kartini. ©Troopen Museum. Via: (Wikimedia)

 

Alice James, the sister of William James and Henry Jamesonce wrote in her diary dated from mid-June of 1889:

“I went out today, and behaved like a lunatic, “sobbed” … over a farmhouse, a meadow, some trees and cawing rooks. Nurse says that there are some people downstairs who drive everywhere and admire nothing. How grateful I am that I actually do see, to my own consciousness, the quarter of an inch that my eyes fall upon; truly, the subject is all that counts!”

Indeed, there are a lot of people “who drive everywhere and admire nothing”. We over glorify people who travel because we mistakenly think that traveling is the only way to gain understanding of our world. Meandering in one place, I believe, can be as stimulating as traveling around the world, if only one pays attention to what one sees, with one’s awakened mind. In other words, the great poet Jane Hirshfield once said: “To perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look… To form the intention of new awareness is already to transform and be transformed.

I know a young woman whose social life was extremely constrained because she was forced to follow the strict tradition of her society by her family. Behind her small world, her imaginations and ambitions were abundant. She trained her eyes and mind to be awake–faithfully awake to her cloistered world. This young woman was R.A Kartini (April 21st, 1879- September 17th, 1904). Born in the island of Java, Indonesia, in the late nineteenth century when Dutch colonization still heavily enveloped Indonesia, Kartini rose as one of the most prominent voices for women’s rights in Indonesia. She also grew restless with the practice of mysticism among Javanese people. Coming from a Javanese privileged family who was receptive to a western rational thinking, Kartini wanted to eradicate the mysticism, elevate the status of women through education, and plant a rational thinking as a new way of life in her society.

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Kartini, in the middle with her younge sister Kardinah and half sister Roekmini, 
in Semarang, Indonesia, 1900. ©KITLV. Via: (dereisnaarbatik)

 

One of the most compelling things about her life was, she did not voice those concerns orally out in front of public. She was a “silent” activist. She poured her lamentations, worries, and dreams through letters that she had written to her friends. Throughout her life, Kartini had written hundreds of letters mostly to her Dutch friends in Dutch. In a letter that she wrote to her Dutch friend, E.C Abendanon, Kartini explained the importance of the act of writing letters:

“Letters are truly important in my life; . . . if I did not have this exchange of letters, I would not have the courage to abandon our age-old traditional customs.”

Kartini turned to letters because that was the only form of communication that she was allowed to have by her father. Most importantly, it was a way to keep herself connected with her outside world when she was a “prisoner” in her house. When she was twelve and a half years old, she had to be withdrawn from her school in order to prepare her for early marriage (Back in the day in Java, a woman of nobility, especially a young unmarried girl, had to be secluded from outsiders other than her family until a man came to her family and decided to marry her). Her relentless exchanged letters with her Dutch friends also fed her curiosity on the world outside of hers. These letters had a huge role in shaping Kartini’s ideology on feminism, education, religion, and the power of critical thinking as a survival tool.

A few attempts had done to compile and translate her letters into a book. One of them is this old-forgotten book that I have read titled Letters of a Javanese Princess (Public Library), translated into English from Dutch by Agnes Louise Symmers. The letters in this book give honest pictures of Kartini’s struggles and aspirations as a young idealistic Javanese woman in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

As a Javanese, she despised the rigidness of its culture. She expressed it in a letter to her Dutch friend, Stella Zeehandelaar, on August 18, 1899. She wrote:

“I have always been an enemy of formality. I am happy only when I can throw the burden of Javanese etiquette from my shoulders. The ceremonies, the little rules, that are instilled into our people are an abomination to me. You could hardly imagine how heavily the burden of etiquette presses upon a Javanese aristocratic household. But in our household, we do not take all the formalities so literally.

[…]

Javanese etiquette is both silly and terrible.”

Her lamentations on her own culture were very clear throughout her letters. She thought that her Javanese tradition had fettered her energetic spirit that was always hungry for a new experience and knowledge. Kartini was the opposite of the ideal girl that the Javanese adored. She’s outspoken with her feelings, energetic, and liberally minded.

Written for her Dutch friend, Mevrouw (English: Miss) Abendanon Mandiri, Kartini illustrated an ideal Javanese girl:

“The ideal Javanese girl is silent and expressionless as a wooden doll, speaking only when it is necessary, and then with a little whispering voice which can hardly be heard by an ant; she must walk foot before foot and slowly like a snail, laugh silently without opening her lips; it is unseemly for the teeth to show, that is to be like a clown.”

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Girl From Java. 1909. Perkins, Charlton B (Photographer). Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Despite her resentment on her culture, there’s a soft spot in her heart for the Javanese culture. It’s an interesting observation to see the contradictory feelings within her.

 Kartini wrote to Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri in a letter from August 1, 1901:

“We know that we are [Kartini’s family] impregnated with European ideas and feelings–but the blood, the Javanese blood that flows live and warm through our veins, can never die.

[…]

Still, there is much good in the Javanese people. We are so anxious for you to admire our people. When I see something fine, some trait of character, that is peculiarly Javanese, then I think ‘How glad I should be if Mevrouw A. were with us. She would be pleased at this thing, would appreciate it, she who has wide open eyes for everything that is noble'”.

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Kaart van het eiland Java, 1596 ( Map of the island of Java, 1596 ). ©Rijksmuseum Museum, Amsterdam. Via: (Artstor)

 

Among several letters compiled and translated in this book, there is one letter that has left a profound mark in my mind. In a letter that she wrote for her Dutch friend named Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri from August 1900, she recalled a life-altering conversation with her Dutch schoolmate named Letsy, a long time ago, when she was still a student at a local elementary school. This conversation shook her heart and made a deep impression upon her. Interestingly, in this letter, Kartini described herself as “the Javanese” or “a brown girl” or “a little girl”.

Kartini wrote:

“It was recreation hour at the European school at Jepara (a small town in the province of central Java, Indonesia). Under the yellow blossoming waru trees in the schoolyard, big and little girls were grouped in happy disorder. It was so warm that no one cared to play.

“Shut your book, Letsy. I have something to tell you,” pleaded a brown girl [Kartini], whose costume and headdress betrayed the Javanese. A great blonde girl, who leaned against the trunk of a tree reading eagerly in a book, turned around and said, “No, I have to study my French lesson.”

“You can do that at home, for it is not school work.”

“Yes, but if I do not learn my French lessons well, I shall not be allowed to go to Holland year after next; and I am so anxious to go there to study at the Normal School. When I come back later as a teacher, perhaps I shall be placed here; and then I shall sit on the platform before the class as our teacher does now. But tell me, Ni [Kartini], you have never yet said what you were going to be when you grew up.”

Two large eyes were turned toward the speaker in astonishment.

“Only tell me.”

The Javanese [Kartini] shook her head and said laconically, “I do not know.”

[…]

Kartini was truly haunted by Letsy’s simple question. To her, the question was not just a question, but it was more like a wake-up call. Kartini was ashamed of her own mediocrity for not knowing what she wanted to be when she grew up. At the same time, she was fascinated by her white friend’s ability to imagine her own personal future. This kind of thinking, the ability to construct one’s personal future, was considered a luxurious privilege and a foreign thinking in Java. Nobody had thought about this. Java was very underdeveloped–deep in mysticism and under harsh Dutch colonization.

Her mind continued to ponder that question, relentlessly. She truly did not know what she wanted to be when she grew up.

When her class ended, Kartini sprinted home carrying Letsy’s question. Then she turned to some of the most trusted people in her family to ask for help: her father and older brother. Her father didn’t take her question seriously. Then when her older brother named Kartono came home, he said that she would naturally be a Raden Ayu (a Javanese married woman of high rank).

At this time, she had more questions than answers.

She did not know what he meant by becoming a Raden Ayu. She grew restless and studied those who were regarded as Raden Ayu. What she learned about the lives of those women, those who were being called as Raden Ayu, awakened her opposition spirit in her heart. Feeling shaken about the fact that being a Raden Ayu would mean that she had to marry, must belong to a man, without her consent, Kartini prayed that she would never be the one.

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Javanese Women Preparing Rice. 1860s-70s. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Via: (ARTSTOR)

 

As I have told earlier, Kartini had to be secluded from the outside world when she was twelve and a half years old until her marriage to follow the Javanese tradition. In those stifling years, she had to stay at her parents’ house. This tradition devastated her so much as she had to leave her desk at her school, a place where she fertilized her curious mind with boundless knowledge. Through this letter, she described her experience of being a “prisoner” in her parents’ house.

Kartini wrote to her another close Dutch friend, Stella Zeehandelaar, from November 6, 1899:

“No, Stella, my prison was a large house, with grounds around it. But around those grounds, there was a high wall and that held me a prisoner. Never mind how splendid a house and garden may be if one may never go beyond them, it is stifling.”

In this very limited space, Kartini found her inner strength through books and writing letters. It was her father and her older brother named Kartono who relentlessly encouraged Kartini to educate herself through reading and writing once she was out of school. Her family had an immense access to books because of the strong receptivity of the family on knowledge, especially on western ideas. 

Her father was a servant of the Dutch who made him a “Regent” or governor of a town in the province of central Java called Jepara. This close contact with the Dutch and his welcoming personality made him easy to be around western culture that he later transferred to Kartini. Meanwhile, her older brother, Kartono, was the embodiment of the live of the mind. Graduated with honors from a colonial Dutch high school in Indonesia and educated abroad in Holland and Vienna, studying literature and languages, he was a central intellectual figure in Kartini’s life besides her father.

In page 77 of the book, written to Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri, dated August 1900, Kartini wrote about her passion of reading. She called books as her “quiet and silent friends”.

She wrote:

“She had always been fond of reading, but now her love for reading became a passion; as soon as she had time, when all her little duties were done, she would seize a book or a paper. She read everything that came into her hands; she greedily devoured both the green and the ripe. Once she threw a book away which was full of horrors. She did not have to look into books when she wished to know of loathsome, nauseating things; real life was full of them; it was to escape from them that she buried her soul in realms which the genius of man has fashioned out of the spirit of fantasy.”

Not only was she a voracious reader but she was also a passionate learner in everything. She wrote to Mevrouw Abendanon Madiri in a letter, dated June 10, 1902:

“Dutch has always been my favorite study, and many people say that I am thoroughly at home in it. But heavens! fondness for a language is a very long way from knowledge of it. Next to languages I like geology. I also enjoy mathematics, but I am still struggling with the groundwork of history. Not that I do not like history; I think it is interesting and very instructive, but the manner in which it is set down in schoolbooks has little charm for me. I should like to have a teacher who knew how to make the dry parts interesting. What I do think delightful is ancient history; it is a pity that so little of it has come my way. I should love to study the history of the Egyptians, and of the old Greeks and Romans.”

Something interesting happened in her life when she was sixteen. For the first time, her father allowed her to taste the fresh air of the outside world. She went traveling outside of her town to see a cultural festival in a nearby town. Of course, she rejoiced this moment as she finally breathed the sweet odor of freedom. However, for Kartini, the word “freedom” meant so much more than just being able to travel outside of her house. She wanted the freedom of the mind and spirit.

In a letter to Stella Zeehandelaar, dated May 25, 1899, she said:

“But I’m far from satisfied. I would still go further, always further. I do not desire to go out to feasts, and little frivolous amusements. That has never been the cause of my longing for freedom. I long to be free, to be able to stand alone, to study, not to be subject to any one, and above all, never, never to be obliged to marry.”

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Javanese Street Scene. Douwes Dekker, N.A. March 27, 1949. © Cornell University Library. Via: (ARTSTOR)

 

Kartini was determined to be a spinster for the rest of her life in order to keep her individuality and autonomy. This was a daring statement coming from a woman of nobility in Java that was expected to marry to a man in an arrangement wedding. Her deep aversion of marriage came from the prevalent practice of polygamy among Javanese royal men. Kartini’s deep-seated resentment on polygamy can be found in her letter to Stella Zeehandelaar on November 6th, 1899:

“I shall never, never fall in love. To love, there must first be respect, according to my thinking; and I can have no respect for the Javanese young man. How can I respect one who is married and a father, and who, when he has had enough of the mother of his children, brings another woman into his house, and is, according to to the Moslem law, legally married to her? And who does not do this? And why not? It is no sin, and still less a scandal. The Moslem law allows a man to have four wives at the same time. And though it be a thousand times over no sin according to the Moslem law and doctrine, I shall forever call it a sin. I call all things sin which bring misery to a fellow creature. Sin is to cause pain to another, whether man or beast. And can you imagine what hell pain a woman must suffer when her husband comes home with another–a rival–whom she must recognize as his legal wife? He can torture her to death, mistreat her as he will;  if he does not choose to give her back her freedom, then she can whistle to the moon for her rights. Everything for the man, and nothing for the woman, is our law and custom.”

The practice of polygamy in Java and the lack of access to education for her people, especially for the women, drove Kartini’s ambition to elevate the status of women. She believed that when women were educated, their future generations could reap the immense benefits of it. For Kartini, education was the critical key for a society to be truly civilized, and it had to be started from educating women.

She wrote a letter to Mevrouw M. C. E. Ovink Soer in 1900:

“But is an intellectual education everything? To be truly civilized, intellectual and moral education must go hand in hand. And who can do most for the elevation of the moral standard of mankind? The woman, the mother; it is at the breast of woman that man receives his earliest nourishment. The child learns there first, to feel, to think, and to speak. And the earliest education of all foreshadows the whole after life.”

In the same letter to Ovink Soer, Kartini continued to explain the root cause of the poor condition of her society. She and her sisters had an enormous ambition to go to Holland to study. Once they came back, they wanted to erect a school in order to lift the status of native women out of their age-long misery.

Kartini wrote:

“The most serious fault of our people is idleness. It is a great drawback to the prosperity of Java. So many latent powers lie undeveloped through indolence.

[…]

Our people are not rich in ideals, but an example which speaks, would impress them. They would be impelled to follow it. My sisters and I wish to go before and lighten the way; for that reason we want more than anything else to go to Holland to study. It will be well with us if we can go. Little Mother, help us!

When we come back to Java, we shall open a school for girls of the nobility; if we cannot get the means through our Government, then we will work for it in some other way, ask our friends to subscribe, start a lottery or something.

[…]

Besides believing that education was the key to form the future of her society,  she wholeheartedly believed that education was also a form of spiritual survival. In a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri dated January 21, 1901, Kartini beautifully captured:

“Education means the forming of the mind and of the soul. I feel that with the education of the mind the task of the teacher is not complete. The duty of forming the character is his; it is not included in the letter of the law, but it is a moral duty. I ask myself if I am able to do this? I who am still so uneducated myself.

I often hear it asserted that when the mind is cultivated, the spirit grows of itself.

[…]

Great care has been taken in the cultivation of the understanding, but in the cultivation of the character, none!

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Javanese Landscape, with Tigers Listening to the Sound of a Traveling Group. 1849. Painter: Raden Saleh. Via: (WIKIART)

 

Kartini’s ambitions were bigger than herself. Her ambitions to build a school for native women and going abroad to Netherlands to receive a western education were uncommon and peculiar for a young Javanese woman living in the early twentieth century of Indonesia. She had faced a relentless criticism, even from her family, especially her mother who was uncertain with the practicality of her wild ambitions.

In a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri, dated October 7, 1900, Kartini recalled that conversation with her mom. Her response to her mother’s questions truly illustrated her character as an idealist young woman.

A little while ago in talking to Mama, about something of interest to women, I told her what I had said so many times before, that nothing attracted me more, that nothing was more longed for by me than to be able to fly alone upon my own wings. Mama said, “But there is no one now, not among us, who does that!”

“Then it is time that someone should do it.” [Kartini’s response]

“But you know very well that every beginning is difficult. That fate of every innovator is hard. That misunderstanding, disappointment on top of disappointment, ridicule, all await you; do you realize that?”

[…]

“I know that the way I wish to go is difficult, full of thorns, thistles, pitfalls; it is stormy, rough, slippery and it is–free! And even though I shall not be happy after I have reached my goal, though I may give way before it is half reached, I shall die gladly, for the path will then have been broken, and I shall have helped to clear the way which leads to freedom and independence for the native woman.”

Kartini’s letters were not only brimming with her immense ambitions to elevate women in her society, but also the topic of religion appeared quite frequently in which she spoke beautifully that religion, at its core, was a gift to humanity, if only we could approach it with open-minded and openhearted.

“Religion is designed as a blessing, it should form a bond between all the creatures of God, white or brown, of every station, sex, and belief, for all are children of One Father, of One God.”

In a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri dated December 12, 1902, she, again, touched on the topic of religion:

“We were turned away for a long time from all religion because we saw so much un-charitableness under its mantle. We learned, at first slowly, that is not religion that is uncharitable, but man who has made what was originally Godlike and beautiful, bad and ugly.”

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Java -Traditional crafts. A group of female handpainters (batiksters). Holt, Claire (Collector). Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Her dream of owning a school finally came to fruition. Kartini expressed her happiness and the condition of her school in a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri, dated July 4, 1903. She wrote:

“We started with one pupil, quickly the number jumped to five, tomorrow morning eight will come to the kabupaten (English: regency), and soon there will be ten. We are so pleased when we look at our little children. They are such a fresh unspoiled little band; they always come exquisitely neat, and they get along so amiably together.

[…]

The children come here four days in the week, from eight to half past twelve. They study writing, reading, handiwork, and cooking. We teachers do not give lessons in art unless the pupils show a special aptitude for it.

Our school must not have the air of a school, nor we that of schoolmistresses. It must be like a great household of which we are the mothers. We will try and teach them love as we understand it, by word and deed.

Not too long after she started her school, in November eight of 1903, Kartini tied a knot with a man in which she described as, “a lovable good man who has a noble heart and a clever head as well.” That man was a regent of Rembang named Raden Adipati Djojo Adiningrat. Of course, this was an arranged marriage that her father had prepared for her. Even though it was an arranged marriage, the man that her father chose for her was not an ordinary man. He was very political, cultured, and educated. It’s an interesting investigation given that she had given up her youthful dream of studying abroad in Netherlands and had chosen to be somebody else’s wife-a choice that she initially resented.  Having read the way her letters were written, especially those that she wrote after her marriage, it seems like she was truly happy letting him into her life.

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Dances, Surakarta (Solo) style. Female dancer, Solo. Holt, Claire (Collector). Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

A year after her marriage, Kartini conceived her first child. This was a precious moment for her and her husband. Just like any other anxious and soon-to-be mother, she wondered what would happen if the child was a girl. She expressed her dream of raising a daughter in a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri dated June 28, 1904:

“If the child that I carry under my heart is a girl, what shall I wish for her? I shall wish that she may live a rich full life, and that she may complete the work that her mother has begun. She shall never be compelled to do anything abhorrent to her deepest feelings. What she does must be of her own free will. She shall have a mother who will watch over the welfare of her inmost being, and a father who will never force her in anything. It will make no difference to him if his daughter remains unmarried her whole life long; what will count with him will be that she shall always keep her esteem and affection for us.”

Her little “treasure” finally came to her world. It was a boy, not a girl that she had dreamed of. Four days after her son was born, Kartini died unexpectedly, being just twenty five-years old.

She may not live too long to see all the changes that she had hoped to see in her own society, but at least, she had planted ideas that had inspired many of Indonesian women to refine themselves to be a better woman. In fact, every 21st of April, we, Indonesians, especially the women, celebrate her birthday as an occasion to reflect her life, and also it’s a reminder that we have come so far from where she initially stood at.

I should make a necessary note here: there are so many of her teachings that I did not include on this blog. In fact, there are still many of her untranslated letters that remain in Netherlands. The things that I picked above were the things that I thought not only reflected her deepest ambitions and intellectual spirit, but also her timeless and timely wisdom for us, people who live in the twentieth century. Moreover, my personal taste of selecting her letters played an immense role as well. I highly encourage people to get a copy of this book regardless of what we experience in life because we could always find something valuable in her letters.

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My Left hand holding the book “Letters of a Javanese Princess”

 

Alfred Kazin on How the Kitchen Shapes His Life and the Loneliness of His Mother

 

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Kazin as a young man, City College picture. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Not too long ago, I befriended a vivacious young woman with a strong jaw and eccentric glasses from Zimbabwe. We met because we were coworkers, working as banquet servers at a local hotel. We had a million laughs together and we often found ourselves complaining about the same things everyday–our long demanding shifts and unforgiving costumers. She was one of the hardest workers that I knew. Even when she had already had too many shifts on her schedule, she would gladly pick up shifts from other coworkers.

Just a whim, I asked her one Friday evening as she washed an air pot of coffee, “Why did you take so many shifts lately?”

She said casually, “If I’m not working, I’m lonely.”

Her truthful response shocked me. On the other hand, it was strangely a warm and sublime thing to hear from her because at least she could articulate what she felt. That short sentence, “If I’m not working, I’m lonely” kept echoing in my ears even after she quit the job in the summer of 2017. Her story is reminding me of one of the stories told in Alfred Kazin’s autobiography titled A Walker in the City (Public Library) (Amazon). Through this emotionally arrested book, Kazin unpacks his juicy childhood memories of absorbing the sounds, the smells, the sights, and the sensations of Brownsville, east of NYC–a neighborhood then inhabited by Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. His early life was shaped by poverty, tenement houses of Brownsville, and the daily lives of his hardworking parents who tried to maintain the vitality of the family. His father was a house painter who would come home at six in the afternoon with a copy of newspaper the New York World. Meanwhile, his mother was a dress maker–a woman whose immense talent of making dresses according to the latest fashions was loved by the local women. Kazin’s Brownsville in the 1920s was a place brimming with hopes, despairs, loneliness, ambitions, and humans’ stories.

In one of the chapters of the book titled, “The Kitchen”, Kazin illustrated the significant value of the kitchen in his tenement house. This was the place when he did his homework and first writing at the kitchen table, and even he used the three chairs near the stove to place his bed to sleep. Most importantly, the kitchen was also his mother’s little world.

He writes:

“In Brownsville tenements the kitchen is always the largest room and the center of the household. As a child I felt that we lived in a kitchen to which four other rooms were annexed. My mother, a “home” dressmaker, had her workshop in the kitchen. She told me once that she had begun dressmaking in Poland at thirteen; as far back as I can remember, she was always making dresses for the local women. She had an innate sense of design, a quick eye for all the subtleties in the latest fashions, even when she despised them, and great boldness. For three or four dollars she would study the fashion magazines with a customer, go with the customer to the remnants store on Belmont Avenue to pick out the material, argue the owner down–all remnants store, for some reason, were supposed to be shady, as if the owners dealt in stolen goods–and then for days would patiently fit and baste and sew and fit again. Our apartment was always full of women in their housedresses sitting around the kitchen table waiting for a fitting. My little bedroom next to the kitchen was the fitting room. The sewing machine, an old nut-brown Singer with golden scrolls painted along the black arm and engraved along the two tiers of little drawers massed with needles and thread on each side of the treadle, stood next to the window and the great coal black stove which up to my last year in college was our source of heat. By December the two outer bedrooms were closed off, and used to chill bottles of milk and cream, cold borscht and jellied calves’ feet.”

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Mrs. Palontona and 13 year old daughter, working on pillow-lace in dirty kitchen of their tenement home. They were both very illiterate. Mother is making fancy lace and girl sold me the lace she worked on. New York City. © NARA. Via: (Wikimedia)

 

Kazin’s mother spent her majority of waking hours working at the kitchen. Then on another page, Kazin goes on describing his mother’s relationship with the kitchen:

“The kitchen gave a special character to our lives; my mother’s character. All my memories of that kitchen are dominated by the nearness of my mother sitting all day long at her sewing machine, by the clacking of the treadle against the linoleum floor, by the patient twist of her right shoulder as she automatically pushed at the wheel with one hand or lifted the foot to free the needle where it had got stuck in a thick piece of material. The kitchen was her life. Year by year, as I began to take in her fantastic capacity for labor and her anxious zeal, I realized it was ourselves she kept stitched together. I can never remember a time when she was not working. She worked because the law of her life was work, work and anxiety; she worked because she would have found life meaningless without work. She read almost no English; she could read the Yiddhish paper, but never felt she had time to. We were always talking of a time when I would teach her how to read, but somehow there was never time. When I awoke in the morning she was already at her machine, or in the great morning crowd of housewives at the grocery getting fresh rolls for breakfast. When I returned from school she was at her machine, or conferring over McCall’s with some neighborhood woman who had come in pointing hopefully to an illustration–“Mrs. Kazin! Mrs. Kazin! Make me a dress like it shows here in the picture!” When my father came home from work she had somehow mysteriously interrupted herself to make supper for us, and the dishes cleared and washed, was back at her machine. When I went to bed at night, often she was still there, pounding away at the treadle, hunched over the wheel, her hands steering a piece of gauze under the needle with a finesse that always contrasted sharply with her swollen hands and broken nails.”

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Kazin’s mother. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

This is perhaps one of the most incisive descriptions of loneliness I have ever encountered. Kazin was acutely aware of the poor condition of his family, yet deeper than the poverty, Kazin understood one peculiar thing about his family, especially the way his mother concealed herself through her work. His mother tirelessly worked not because she was driven by the poverty of the family, but because she was lonely if she disengaged herself from her work. Her loneliness was her motivation.

He writes thoughtfully:

“Poor as we were, it was not poverty that drove my mother so hard; it was loneliness–some endless bitter brooding over all those left behind, dead or dying or soon to die; a loneliness locked up in her kitchen that dwelt every day on the hazardousness of life and the nearness of death, but still kept struggling in the lock, trying to get us through by endless labor.”

I do believe that a great writer is a writer who bravely unpacks his “truth”, no matter the pains that he might feel at the end. His truth is his intimate voice. The author of Wild, Cheryl Strayed, once said, “When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.” The way Kazin describes the loneliness of his mother registers easily into my consciousness and makes me think of loneliness as a universal emotion that is experienced by a lot of us.

“It was always at dusk that my mother’s loneliness came home most to me. Painfully alert to every shift in the light at her window, she would suddenly confess her fatigue by removing her pince-nez, and then wearily pushing aside the great mound of fabrics on her machine, would stare at the streets as if to warm herself in the last of the sun. “How sad it is!” I once heard her say. “It grips me! It grips me!” Twilight was the bottommost part of the day, the chillest and loneliest time for her. Always so near to her moods, I knew she was fighting some deep inner dread, struggling against the returning tide of darkness along the streets that invariably assailed her heart with the same foreboding–Where? Where now? Where is the day taking us now?

Behind his mother’s inner loneliness, Kazin also knew the most shimmering part of her life. He writes:

“Yet one good look at the street would revive her. I see her now, perched against the windowsill, with her face against the glass, her eyes almost asleep in enjoyment, just as she starts up with the guilty cry–“What foolishness is this in me!”–and goes to the stove to prepare supper for us: a moment, only a moment, watching, the evening crowd of women gathering at the grocery for fresh bread and milk. But between my mother’s pent-up face at the window and the winter sun dying in the fabrics–“Alfred, see how beautiful!”–she has drawn for me one single line of sentience. “

 

May Sarton–Choosing Art over Success

 

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May Sarton. Photograph acquired from (The Paris Review)

 

In the same journal entry in which Sarton wrote about her struggles with depression and visiting her dying friend, I came upon this beautiful short paragraph of her, admonishing aspiring artists to forget “instant success” and asking them to hone their skills instead.

“In the mail a letter from a twelve-year old child, enclosing poems, her mother having pushed her to ask my opinion. This child does really look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think. But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft. Instant success is the order of the day; “I want it now!” I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines. Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start at the first try. So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value.”

Pulled from Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton (Public Library).

 

Some Timeless Wisdom from Samuel Johnson on Reading, Curiosity, and Knowledge

 

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Samuel Johnson. Painted by William Doughty. 1779. Via: (Artstor)

 

 

We all know that if someone is being featured on Google Doodle, there is something extraordinary about that person. In September 18th, 2017, Google Doodle celebrated what would have been the 308th birthday of Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 – 13 December 1784). A prodigious British writer and thinker, Johnson had produced some of the most captivating writings that were widely read during the Enlightenment such as The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia (1759) (Amazon). If there’s one more work that catapulted him into fame, it’s his Dictionary of the English Language –a final product of nine year of rigorous work, and now is considered as one of the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language.

Johnson might have been dead for more than three hundred years, but his words have the uncanny power to outlive his own life. Even he is often considered as the second most quoted Englishmen, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. A classic book titled Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson (Public Domain) (Public Library) is a record of some of Johnson’s famous sayings, organized neatly by George Birkbeck Norman Hill.

Here are some of my favorites of his sayings, touching on the topics such as reading, curiosity, and knowledge.

On reading:

‘He said that, for general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to; though to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance. He added, “what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.” He told us he read Fielding’s Amelia through without stopping. He said, “If a man begins to read in the middle of a book and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it to go to the beginning. He may perhaps not feel again the inclination.” ‘

On Knowledge:

“Of whatever we see we always wish to know; always congratulate ourselves when we know that of which we perceive another to be ignorant. Take therefore all opportunities of learning that offer themselves, however remote the matter may be from common life or common conversation. Look in Herschel’s telescope; go into a chemist’s laboratory; if you see a manufacturer at work, remark his operations. By this activity of attention you will find in every place diversion and improvement.”

On Curiosity:

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last; and perhaps always predominates in proportion to the strength of the contemplative faculties.”

On Dialogue and Action:

“It is indeed much more easy to form dialogues than to contrive adventures. Every position makes way for an argument, and every objections dictates an answer. When two disputants are engaged upon a complicated and extensive question, the difficulty is not to continue, but to end the controversy. But whether it be that we comprehend but few of the possibilities of life, or that life itself affords little variety, every man who has tried knows how much labor it will cost to form such a combination of circumstances as shall have at once the grace of novelty and credibility, and delight fancy without violence to reason.”

 

The Danger of Stereotyping by Greek Philosopher Seneca

 

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Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens. Via: (Artstor)

 

If there is a book that I treat like a sacred text, it is Letters from a Stoic (Public Library)–a collection of letters originally penned by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC – 65AD), one of the most towering figures in the ancient Greek school of philosophy, Stoicism. Every once in a while when I find myself mortified over trivial things such as a WiFi outage and when a cyclist overtakes me on the road, I think of Seneca and this book. This book, which I revisit frequently, will always bring me solace in the midst of chaos and some new teachings that are extremely practical. Although Seneca was penning all the letters between 4 BC and 65 AD for his own private reflection and for the people that he loved, they surprisingly have survived two millennia later against all odd and have helped modern people to comprehend the notion of what it means to live a meaningful life.

In one of those letters in the book, I came upon a letter titled Letter CXXIII that addresses the problem that is so common in our modern world. It is our chronic habit to be seduced by stereotypes. Stereotyping someone is not only a pathway to racism, but according to Seneca, once we plant the seed of it in our lives, “the evil would follow us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future”. The letter is not only advising us to avoid the act of stereotyping but also to avoid the people who spread this harmful and misleading association.

Writing the letter to his friend, Lucilius, after a long exhausted journey that he had, Seneca wrote:

[…]

“With all such people you should avoid associating. These are the people who pass on vices, transmitting them from one character to another. One used to think that the type of person who spreads tales was as bad as any: but there are persons who spread vices. And association with them does a lot of damage. For even if its success is not immediate, it leaves a seed in the mind, and even after we’ve said goodbye to them, the evil follows us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future. In the same way as people who’ve been to a concert carry about with them the melody and haunting quality of pieces they’ve just heard, interfering with their thinking and preventing them from concentrating on anything serious, so the talk of snobs and parasites sticks in our ears long after we’ve heard it. And it’s far from easy to eradicate these haunting notes from the memory; they stay with us, lasting on and on, coming back to us every so often. This is why we must shut our ears against mischievous talk, and as soon as it starts, too; once such talk has made its entry and been allowed inside, it becomes a good deal bolder. Eventually it reaches the stage where it says that ‘virtue and philosophy and justice are just a lot of clap-trap’.”

[…]

 

More on Seneca and Stoicism:

  • School of Life, one of my favorite intellectual channels on YouTube discussed this school of philosophy, Stoicism, in a very catchy visual and understandable language:

 

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Tomb of Seneca by Charles Le Brun. Via: (Artstor)

 

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Sokrates and Seneca. This sculpture is owned by Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Germany). Via: (Artstor)