Starting Point

Wisdom for the Everyday

Practical guidance from the frontlines of life — from birth to death, through love and loss.

Illustration by Andrea Ucini.

What if the first question we asked on a date were, “How are you crazy? I’m crazy like this”? Philosopher and writer Alain de Botton’s essay “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” was, amazingly, the most-read article in The New York Times in the news-drenched year of 2016. As people and as a culture, he says, we would be much saner and happier if we reexamined our very view of love. How might our relationships be different — and better — if we understood that the real work of love is not in the falling, but in what comes after?

You could say of the present that we are suddenly in a world of “ambiguous loss.” Family therapist and clinical psychologist Pauline Boss coined this term, and invented a new field within psychology, to name the reality that every loss does not  hold a promise of anything like resolution. There are “complicated griefs” that shift the world on its axis from one day to the next, with no going back to the world of before and no time to set things in order. This conversation is full of practical intelligence for shedding assumptions about how we should be feeling and acting that deepen stress precisely in a moment like this. It offers wisdom and concrete tools for becoming more meaningfully present to what is actually going on inside ourselves and for others.

“What does a good day look like?” That question — when asked of both terminally-ill and healthy people — has transformed Atul Gawande’s practice of medicine. A citizen physician and writer, Gawande is on the frontiers of human agency and meaning in light of what modern medicine makes possible. For the millions of people who have read his book Being Mortal, he’s also opened new conversations about the ancient human question of death and what it might have to do with life.

Sylvia Boorstein says spirituality doesn’t have to look like sitting down and meditating. A Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, Boorstein says spirituality can be as simple as “folding the towels in a sweet way and talking kindly to the people in [your] family even though you’ve had a long day.” And she insists that nurturing our inner lives in this way is not a luxury but something we can do in the service of others — from our children to strangers in the checkout line at the grocery store.

The emerging science of implicit bias is one of the most promising fields for animating the human change that makes social change possible. The social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji is one of its primary architects. She understands the mind as a “difference-seeking machine” that helps us order and navigate the overwhelming complexity of reality. But this gift also creates blind spots and biases, as we fill in what we don’t know with the limits of what we do know. This is science that takes our grappling with difference out of the realm of guilt, and into the realm of transformative good.