Insights in an instant
Insights in an instant
The right quotation can change your life. That compressed idea—expressed in just a few words, a sentence or two—can shift your thinking, trigger an epiphany, alter your way of seeing the world. The wisest, most experienced, and most thoughtful people in history have left us these little thought-bombs. And this book collects them: surprising, jolting, discomforting, and comforting insights into living a full, unbridled life, questioning authority and reality, relating to fellow humans, creating, risking, loving, living with uncertainty, and staying sane in an insane world.
Poets, philosophers, scientists, musicians, artists, presidents, mystics, activists, academics, and others rub shoulders, giving us the benefit of their hard-earned wisdom, breakthroughs, breakdowns, bad choices, sudden illuminations, and lightning wit. Sharing some of life's most important lessons are William Blake and Bruce Lee, Abraham Lincoln and Lorrie Moore, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Terence McKenna, René Magritte and St. Teresa of Avila, Zelda Fitzgerald and James Baldwin, and hundreds more.
Neatly arranged into topics we wonder about, and immaculately designed with one to three quotations per page, Flash Wisdom's rousing insights and challenging thoughts will appeal to anyone who is searching, anyone who doesn't fit in, anyone who questions the way things are...which is to say, all of us.
The first chapter begins by questioning the building blocks of everything else: reality, perception, illusion, delusion, hallucination, subjectivity, unknowability, memory, truth, fact, and other such notions. Just a few of the quotations you'll find:
We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.
Reality is frequently inaccurate.
Since the initial publication of the chart of the electromagnetic spectrum, humans have learned that what they can touch, smell, see, and hear is less than one-millionth of reality.
—R. Buckminster Fuller
It is inconceivable that anything should be existing.
We need to take dreams more literally, and waking life more symbolically.
What was once called the objective world is a sort of Rorschach ink blot, into which each culture, each type of personality, reads a meaning only remotely derived from the shape and color of the blot itself.
Fact explains nothing. On the contrary, it is fact that requires explanation.
Of course, sometimes it’s quite difficult to know if you’re hallucinating. You might hallucinate a silver pen on your desk right now and never suspect it’s not real—because its presence is plausible. It’s easy to spot a hallucination only when it’s bizarre. For all we know, we hallucinate all the time.
Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.
All our previous positions are now exposed as absurd. But people don’t draw the obvious conclusion: it must also mean then that our present situation is absurd.
Beware the stories you read or tell: subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.
A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.
—David Foster Wallace
Einstein’s space is no closer to reality than van Gogh’s sky. The glory of science is not in a truth more absolute than the truth of Bach or Tolstoy, but in the act of creation itself. The scientist’s discoveries impose his own order on chaos, as the composer or painter imposes his; an order that always refers to limited aspects of reality, and is based on the observer’s frame of reference, which differs from period to period as a Rembrandt nude differs from a nude by Manet.
When you sit in a chair, you are not actually sitting there, but levitating above it at a height of one angstrom (a hundred millionth of a centimeter), your electrons and its electrons implacably opposed to any closer intimacy.
I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.
It’s in our biology to trust what we see with our eyes. This makes living in a carefully edited, overproduced, and Photoshopped world very dangerous.
You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.
Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.
The longest, squishiest chapter in the book offers hundreds of thoughts on living from moment to moment and from cradle to grave, with clusters of quotes on failure and trying, acceptance, experience, carpe diem, happiness, work, aging, death, and more. Some of the quotes:
When I look back on my past and think how much time I wasted on nothing, how much time has been lost in futilities, errors, laziness, incapacity to live; how little I appreciated it, how many times I sinned against my heart and soul—then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute can be an eternity of happiness!
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, who wrote this hours after nearly being executed by a firing squad
The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.
—Henry David Thoreau
Life is made up of a series of judgments on insufficient data, and if we waited to run down all our doubts, it would flow past us.
Every day of our lives we are on the verge of making those changes that would make all the difference.
Everything in life is just for a while.
―Philip K. Dick
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.
All is pattern, all life, but we can’t always see the pattern when we’re part of it.
Many people today believe that cynicism requires courage. Actually, cynicism is the height of cowardice. It is innocence and open-heartedness that requires the true courage—however often we are hurt as a result of it.
The great art of life is sensation; to feel that we exist, even in pain.
wanderer, there is no path,
the path is made by walking.
If you don’t become the ocean you’ll be seasick every day.
I should be suspicious of what I want.
It is never too late to be what you might have been.
The best way out is always through.
Study nothing except in the knowledge that you already knew it. Worship nothing except in adoration of your true self. And fear nothing except in the certainty that you are your enemy’s begetter and its only hope of healing.
It is human nature to think wisely and to act in an absurd fashion.
All our final decisions are made in a state of mind that is not going to last.
I think I don’t regret a single excess of my responsive youth—I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.
You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.
Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.
My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. What do I care about knowledge? All I want is to answer to my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of mind, or moral, or what-not.
About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.
Between two evils, I generally like to pick the one I never tried before.
Each small task of everyday life is part of the total harmony of the universe.
—Saint Thérèse de Lisieux
You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.
Don't fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.
I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.
I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.
Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.
You live out the confusions until they become clear.
Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.
Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
I’m no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know that the answer is “Yes.”
I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself.
Build your own dreams, or someone else will hire you to build theirs.
Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.
Don’t be afraid of death so much as an inadequate life.
It is sad to grow old but nice to ripen.
We are born in simplicity but die of complications.
Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.
You can do anything in this world if you are prepared to take the consequences.
—W. Somerset Maugham
A multitude of small delights constitutes happiness.
If only we’d stop trying to be happy we’d have a pretty good time.
Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.
There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.
Waste no more time arguing about what a good person should be. Be one.
Evil is boring. Cynicism is pointless. Fear is a bad habit. Despair is lazy. Hopelessness is self-indulgent. On the other hand: Joy is fascinating. Love is an act of heroic genius. Pleasure is our birthright. Chronic ecstasy is a learnable skill.
What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.
In this overlapping companion to the sections “Living” and “Self,” the quotes on well-being tend to focus on physical, mental, and financial health. There are tips and thoughts on eating, drinking, crying, suffering, simplifying and slowing down, and handling money (or the lack thereof). There are some random bits of advice in the mix, as well as thoughts on advice itself. A small sampling of the quotes:
Our bodies are apt to be our autobiographies.
The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike, and rejoice at what bring you nothing but misfortune.
The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.
There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.
In wine, there is the truth.
—Pliny the Elder
Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.
Drunkenness is temporary suicide.
Are you aware that rushing toward a goal is a sublimated death wish? It’s no coincidence we call them “deadlines.”
Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.
You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.
I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.
―Edna St. Vincent Millay
Considering how dangerous everything is nothing is really very frightening.
Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.
We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it in full.
There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.
The things you own end up owning you.
Poverty is no disgrace to a man, but it is confoundedly inconvenient.
There are two ways to be rich: One is by acquiring much, and the other is by desiring little.
—Jackie French Koller
The thought-bombs in this chapter aim to get at the nature of the self, including our reactions to the world, such as anger, expectations, self-pity, belief, (non)conformity, and so on. Other clusters look at responsibility, maturity, and the body. A sampling of the quotes:
The mind is everything. What you think, you become.
At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.
The only tyrant I accept in this world is the still voice within.
Imagine awaking from a torpor having forgotten how your friends and family see you. Perhaps, unchained from everyone’s expectations for how you ought to behave, you could be whoever you liked.
Living things tend to change unrecognizably as they grow. Who would deduce the dragonfly from the larva, the iris from the bud, the lawyer from the infant? Flora or fauna, we are all shape-shifters and magical reinventors. Life is really a plural noun, a caravan of selves.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Our firmest convictions are apt to be the most suspect; they mark our limitations and our bounds.
—José Ortega y Gasset
I am never upset for the reason I think.
People in a temper often say a lot of silly, terrible things they mean.
Anybody can become angry—that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
Anxiety is fear of one’s self.
I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.
Would you like you if you met you?
—Tegan and Sara
People focus on role models; it is more effective to find anti-models—people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up.
—Nassim N. Taleb
Maturity is reached the day we don’t need to be lied to about anything.
People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.
—George Bernard Shaw
I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions.
—Robert Anton Wilson
A wise man once said, Convention is like the shell to the chick, a protection till he is strong enough to break it through.
Even the best of us are at least part-time bastards.
What a strange machine man is! You fill him with bread, wine, fish, and radishes, and out comes sighs, laughter, and dreams.
I am human; nothing human is alien to me.
Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve.
The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics.
―Lawrence M. Krauss
Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am.
A bunch of pretty smart people throughout history think that we are our relationships with other people. Any person as an individual is meaningless, perhaps nonexistent is some senses. We are who we are only in combination with others: lovers, spouses, exes, blood family, in-laws, friends, enemies, neighbors, coworkers, bosses, acquaintances, your dentist, your mechanic, the cashier who rang you up at the grocery store, the guy who flipped you off at the stoplight. We’re inherently as formless as water, and all of our relationships comprise the glass that gives us shape. The quotes here examine this situation in general, as well as looking at apologizing, forgiving, listening, hating, enemies, friends, animals, children, parents, etc. A smattering of these quotes is below:
Man is a knot, a web, a mesh into which relationships are tied. Only those relationships matter.
—Antoine de Saint Exupéry
Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.
We are born for cooperation, as are the feet, the hands, the eyelids, and the upper and lower jaws.
When you are in love with humanity, you are satisfied with yourself.
If you want to change the way people respond to you, change the way you respond to people.
He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself, for every man hath need to be forgiven.
—Edward Herbert, First Baron Herbert of Cherbury
If you had never condemned, you would not need to forgive.
—Anthony de Mello
Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.
Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
I permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.
―Booker T. Washington
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
When you know how to listen, everyone is the guru.
What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?
We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn't. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.
The man who is brutally honest enjoys the brutality quite as much as the honesty. Possibly more.
Try to say nothing negative about anybody for three days, for forty-five days, for three months. See what happens to your life.
The longer we live, the more we find we are like other persons.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
To be good we must needs have suffered; but perhaps it is necessary to have caused suffering before we can become better.
Pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes.
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?
It’s the friends that you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.
Friendship has splendors that love knows not.
Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.
The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.
He that has no fools, knaves, or beggars in his family was begot by a flash of lightning.
If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.
Family life! The United Nations is child’s play compared to the tugs and splits and need to understand and forgive in any family.
Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children and no theories.
―John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy.
Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.
All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.
The fundamental defect of fathers is that they want their children to be a credit to them.
The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.
All of us are consumers and enjoyers of creative works - the written word, visual arts, the performing arts - while many are also creators of these things. In this chapter, poets, painters, musicians, and others probe the meaning and appeal of these works, plus the process that results in their creation. Here is a peppering of them:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
A painting is a symbol for the universe. Inside it, each piece relates to the other. Each piece is only answerable to the rest of that little world. So, probably in the total universe, there is that kind of total harmony, but we get only little tastes of it. That's why people listen to music or look at paintings. To get in touch with that wholeness.
Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics. It is they and they alone who found religions and create great works of art. The world will never realize how much it owes to them, and what they have suffered in order to bestow their gifts on it.
Of all that is written, I love only what a person hath written with his blood.
You don’t have to write a book in order to reflect reality. You can also write a book to create reality.
The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.
Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.
I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.
Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.
If you hear a voice within you say, “You cannot paint,”
then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
—Vincent van Gogh
Audience member at a lecture: How do you become a prophet?
Allen Ginsberg: Tell your secrets.
The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art.
—George Bernard Shaw
Many say that life entered the human body by the help of music, but the truth is that life itself is music.
You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.
Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.
We consider the artist a special sort of person. It is more likely that each of us is a special sort of artist.
Some of history's finest, bravest minds have called out government, the legal system, school, organized religion, the media, corporations, and various economic concerns for their roles in keeping the boot on our neck. Among those quoted in Flash Wisdom:
No man has any natural authority over his fellow men.
Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul.
I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.
Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle.... If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
It is honorable to be accused by those who deserve to be accused.
None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
―Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When one has been threatened with a great injustice, one accepts a smaller as a favour.
These laws of yours are no different from spiders’ webs. They’ll restrain anyone weak and insignificant who gets caught in them, but they’ll be torn to shreds by people with power and wealth.
Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.... Distrust all those who talk much of their justice.
Mendoza: I am a brigand: I live by robbing the rich.
Tanner: I am a gentleman: I live by robbing the poor.
—George Bernard Shaw
In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.
When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.
—Archbishop Hélder Câmara
In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.
Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.
Why is the decision by a woman to sleep with a man she has just met in a bar a private one, and the decision to sleep with the same man for $100 subject to criminal penalties?
If the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” don’t include the right to experiment with your own consciousness, then the Declaration of Independence isn’t worth the hemp it was written on.
Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
Every government is run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed.
Nobody gives you an education. If you want one, you have to take it.
—John Taylor Gatto
If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.
All the time you are in school, you learn through experience how to live in a dictatorship.
Religions get lost as people do.
Such religion as there can be in modern life, every individual will have to salvage from the churches for himself.
The language of religion is divisive partly because it tries to state what cannot be stated.
Finally, a tiny chapter for the odds and ends that didn't fit elsewhere... but then I realized there is a theme... the big picture. A few of the quotes:
All the political, social, and economic improvements, all the technical progress cannot have any regenerating significance, so long as our inner life remains as it is at present. The more the intelligence unveils and violates the secrets of Nature, the more the danger increases and the heart shrinks.
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
All really great things are happening in slow and inconspicuous ways.
My work is loving the world.
Probably my favorite chapter in the book offers keen insights into love from viewpoints that are romantic, realistic, sad, and occasionally cynical. There are clusters of quotes that focus on marriage, sex, and all-encompassing love. A small selection:
For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.
I don’t want to live—I want to love first and live incidentally.
—Zelda Fitzgerald, to F. Scott Fitzgerald
Not the artful postures of love, but love that overthrows life. Unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart, and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture.
—Shakespeare in Love (writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard)
One hour of right-down love is worth an age of dully living on.
Measured with magnetic field meters, the electromagnetic field that the heart produces is some 5,000 times more powerful than that created by the brain.
—Stephen Harrod Buhner
Do you want me to tell you something really subversive? Love is everything it’s cracked up to be…. It really is worth fighting for, being brave for, risking everything for. And the trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.
Love is the flower of life, and blossoms unexpectedly and without law, and must be plucked where it is found, and enjoyed for the brief hour of its duration.
Perhaps the feelings that we experience when we are in love represent a normal state. Being in love shows a person who he should be.
The hardest-learned lesson: that people have only their kind of love to give, not our kind.
We waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love.
Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.
―Ursula K. Le Guin
The greatest happiness love can offer is the first pressure of hands between you and your beloved.
Kisses are a better fate than wisdom.
When so many are lonely as seem to be lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.
Suffering for love is how I have learned practically everything I know, love of grandmother up and on.
Oh, love isn't there to make us happy. I believe it exists to show us how much we can endure.
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all of the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
The best cure for unrequited love: get to know them better.
—Alain de Botton
We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.
—W. Somerset Maugham
In every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find, and continue to find, grounds for marriage.
One advantage of marriage is that, when you fall out of love with him or he falls out of love with you, it keeps you together until you fall in again.
You don’t marry one person; you marry three: the person you think they are, the person they are, and the person they are going to become as the result of being married to you.
A happy marriage is the union of two forgivers.
—Ruth Bell Graham
Is sex dirty? Only if it’s done right.
All parts of the body are erotogenic.
Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior, the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex.
After all, what is a kiss? A vow made at closer range, a more precise promise, a confession that contains its own proof, a seal placed on a pact that has already been signed; it’s a secret told to the mouth rather than to the ear.
I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.
My own belief is that there is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror.
—W. Somerset Maugham
Of all the sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest.
Love ain’t nothing but sex misspelled.
The important thing is not to think much, but to love much, and so to do what best awakens us to love.
—Saint Teresa of Ávila