“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” Virginia Woolf wrote in one of her characteristic asides of immense insight as she considered the dying art of letter writing. This may be the most elemental paradox of existence: We yearn for permanence and stability despite a universe of constant change as a way of hedging against the inescapable fact of our mortality, our own individual impermanence. And yet this faulty coping mechanism results not in immortality but in complacency, stagnation, a living death. Emerson captured this paradox with sundering precision as he weighed the key to personal growth: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
That is what Emerson’s contemporary and collaborator, the great education reformer Elizabeth Peabody (May 16, 1804–January 3, 1894), explores in an 1838 letter to her friend Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sister, included in Figuring. (Peabody’s own sister, Sophia, would eventually marry Hawthorne, living through his conflicted romantic attachment to Herman Melville.)
As a child, Peabody had taught herself Latin and Greek in order to access the world’s wisdom and cut off her curls in revolt against her culture’s preoccupation with young women’s appearance rather than their minds. She learned astronomy and geography in an era when higher education was not available to women and become the first woman allowed into Boston’s only lending library. (The exception only lasted a month, during which she borrowed twenty-one books.) In her ninety years, Peabody founded the first English-language kindergarten in America, translated the first American edition of Buddhist scripture, launched the country’s first foreign-language bookstore and circulating library, coined the term Transcendentalism to define the philosophical current sweeping New England, and introduced the king and queen of Transcendentalism. The epitome of intellectual restlessness and creative self-reinvention, she never married — she lived a life her younger sister described as one of “high thinking and plain living.”
Quoting advice a friend had once given her, Peabody writes:
The perilous time for the most highly gifted is not youth. The holy sensibilities of genius — for all the sensibilities of genius are holy — keep their possessor essentially unhurt as long as animal spirits and the idea of being young last; but the perilous season is middle age, when a false wisdom tempts them to doubt the divine origin of the dreams of their youth; when the world comes to them, not with the song of the siren, against which all books warn us, but as a wise old man counselling acquiescence in what is below them.
Peabody ends with the admonition that the path to complacency is paved with complacent companions:
No being of a social nature can be entirely beyond the tendency to fall to the level of his associates.
The antidote to stagnation, therefore, lies in surrounding oneself with people of creative vitality. The pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell — a contemporary of Peabody’s and a key figure in Figuring — would articulate this beautifully two decades later in contemplating how we co-create one another and recreate ourselves through friendship: “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware.”
Complement with the pioneering social scientist John Gardner on the art of self-renewal and legendary cellist Pablo Casals, at age 93, on creative vitality and how working with love prolongs your life.