Uncommon Wisdom from a Forgotten Genius: Olga Jacoby’s Extraordinary Letters on Love, Life, Death, Moral Courage, and Spiritual Purpose Without Religion
“Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give.”
By Maria Popova
Half a century before Frida Kahlo made her impassioned case for atheism as a supreme form of freedom and moral courage, before Robinson Jeffers insisted that the greatest spiritual calling lies in contributing to the world’s store of moral beauty, before Simone de Beauvoir looked back on her life to observe that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly [while] the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself,” a German-Jewish Englishwoman by the name of Olga Jacoby (August 15, 1874–May 5, 1913) — the young mother of four adopted children — took up the subject of living and dying without religion, with moral courage, with kindness, with radiant receptivity to beauty, in stunning letters to her pious physician, who had just given her a terminal diagnosis. These are more than letters — they are symphonies of thought, miniature manifestos for reason and humanism, poetic odes to the glory of living and the dignity of dying in full assent to reality.
First published anonymously by her husband in 1919 and hurled out of print by wartime want, the letters were discovered a century after their composition by the scholar Trevor Moore, who was so taken with them that he set about identifying their author. Drawing on the family dynamics unfolding in the letters and poring over the British census, he eventually uncovered Jacoby’s identity, tracked down her descendants, and teamed up with her great-granddaughter, Jocelyn Catty, to publish these forgotten treasures of thought and feeling as Words in Pain: Letters on Life and Death (public library).
In 1909, at age thirty-five, Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness she never names in her letters. Perhaps she was never told — it was customary at the time, and would be for generations to come, for doctors to treat female patients as children and to withhold the reality of their own bodies from them. But she refers to it in her characteristic good-natured humor as a disease of having loved so hard as to have strained her heart.
With their extraordinary intellectual elegance and generosity of spirit, her letters constellate into a masterwork of reason argued with a literary artist’s splendor of expression. Early into the correspondence with her doctor, Jacoby lays out her existential credo:
We always fear the unknown. I am not a coward and do not fear death, which to me means nothing more than sleep, but I cannot become resigned to leave this beautiful world with all the treasures it holds for me and for everyone who knows how to understand and appreciate them… To leave a good example to those I love [is] my only understanding of immortality.
A year into her diagnosis, she magnifies the sentiment with feeling:
Whatever we cannot know let us simply and truthfully agree not to know, but no one must be expected to take for granted what reason refuses to admit. More and more to me this simplest of thoughts seems right: Live, live keenly, live fully; make ample use of every power that has been given us to use, to use for the good end. Blind yourself to nothing; look straight at sadness, loss, evil; but at the same time look with such intense delight at all that is good and noble that quite naturally the heart’s longing will be to help the glory to triumph, and that to have been a strong fighter in that cause will appear the only end worth achieving. The length of life does not depend on us, but as long as we can look back to no waste of time we can face the end with a clear conscience, with cheerful if somewhat tired eyes and ready for the deserved rest with no hope or anxiety for what may come. To me all the effort of man seems vain, and his ideal thrown ruthlessly to the ground by himself, when, after a life of free and joyful effort, he stoops to pick up a reward he does not deserve for having simply done his duty.
Emanating from her letters is evidence of how Jacoby lived her values — her reverence for beauty, her devotion to generosity — in the minutest details of her life. One day, perturbed by the fact that her doctor didn’t have his own volume of Shelley’s poems, she spent two hours hunting the West End of London for the perfect copy that “can be put in your pocket when you go on a lonely ramble amongst the mountains.” Triumphant, with the perfect edition in tow, she told her doctor: “I don’t think any man or woman who has once been happy can read some of his small pieces without feeling all aglow with the beauty of them.” A dying woman, fully alive by the braided life-strands of beauty, generosity, and poetry.
Without the forceful self-righteousness with which fundamentalists impose their views on others, she came to see the fear of death as “only a misunderstanding of Nature.” She writes:
Not to be afraid when you are all alone is the only true way of being not afraid. Where does your courage come in, when you cannot find it in your own self but always have to grasp God morally?
When her doctor insists that she must turn to “God” for salvation, Jacoby responds with an exquisite manifesto for what can best be described as the secular spirituality of humanism and the reverence of nature:
My Dear Doctor,
Like you I believe in a higher power, but, unlike yours, mine is not a kind fatherly one. It is Nature, who with all its forces, beauties and necessary evils, rules our destinies according to its own irrevocable laws. I can love that power for the beauty it has brought into the world, and admire it for the strength that makes us understand how futile and useless it would be to appeal to it in prayer. But towards a kind and fatherly God, who, being almighty, prefers to leave us in misery, when by his mere wish he could obtain the same end without so much suffering, I feel a great revolt and bitterness. Nature makes us know that it cannot take into individual consideration the atoms we are, and for her I have no blame; no more than I could think of blaming you for having during your walks stepped on and killed many a worm (it was a pity the worm happened to be under your foot); but if during these walks your eyes were resting on the beauties of skies and trees, or your mind was solving some difficult problem, was that not a nobler occupation than had you walked eyes downwards, intent only on not killing. I think that Nature is striving towards perfection and that each human being has the duty to help towards it by making his life a fit example for others and by awaking ideals which will be more nearly approached by coming generations. In this way life itself offers enough explanation for living; and believing our existence to finish with death, we naturally make the most of our opportunities… Unable to appeal to a God for help, we find ourselves dependent only on our own strong will — not to overcome misfortune, but to try to bear it as bravely as possible. Religion having for an end the more perfect and moral condition of humanity, I truly think that these ideas are as religious as any dogmatic ones.
With a parent- or teacher-like magnanimity, Jacoby extends extraordinary patience to her doctor. To his self-righteous and patronizing remark that he pities her children on account of her atheism, she responds with a humble, generous reflection on how she hopes her nonreligious morality and spirituality would sculpt her children’s character:
I always feel that we, who are better off, are responsible for having let the poor get so low, and that it is duty, not charity, to help. Charles [her young son], the farmer that is to be, has promised always to keep a cow, to call it by my name, and let the milk of that cow go to the poor around his farm. Should he choose another profession, he will find that the idea of the cow can be worked differently. I hope he will follow my lead in living happy and dying content.
Jacoby takes particular issue with the idea of original sin, with which young minds are so ruthlessly branded and scarred under Christian dogma:
Why start an infant’s life with ideas of fear and sin? Let love be their only religion — a love they can understand and handle. With so many people hungering for love, why give so great a part up to Deity? Acknowledge, Doctor, if you had not had your good share of human love, a mother’s, a wife’s, and your children’s, you would not so well understand the other. A child, I think, is taught untruthfulness when you make him say that he loves God.
Have you ever come across a baby whose eyes were not all innocence and inquiry? And from the first you crush that innocence with those terrible biblical words. Mind you, they are words only. A sincere man will never agree to them when it comes to his own children, and a generous heart must repel them as strongly when they apply to others.
She turns to another damaging aspect of religious dogma — its stunting of children’s natural curiosity about how the world works by keeping certain scientific truths from them or deliberately displacing those truths with mythic fictions:
As to children’s inquiries, they are often wrongly answered, and the higher the subject, the more you think yourself justified in lying to them. From these same children you expect in return truly felt love, good acts, truthfulness and a desire to learn… You absolutely cripple a child by not allowing him to think clearly on all subjects — and no dogmatic religion will stand thinking.
Jacoby proceeds to offer a lucid and luminous vision for what our moral and spiritual life could look like without religious delusion:
My idea is not a life without religion; it is a nobler religion I want. Of course, very good men have lived and are living, to whom your religion has been a help, but science is progressing daily, and in harmony with it our moral standard should be higher — high enough to do right simply because it is right. A religion that has helped mankind to get somewhat better should be resigned to let a still better one take its place. Like a growing child, humanity must outgrow its infancy, must stand alone one day and be able to stand straight without support.
In a sentiment our modern spiritual elder Parker Palmer would echo a century later in his lovely insistence that “wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life,” she adds:
To me a good man with his failings seems a better ideal than a perfect God. We feel nearer to him and nearer to the possibility of attaining his standard. This kind of ideal actually helps people to improve, and is therefore of more value to the world.
I do believe strongly in universal good, but not in individual good. As I ask for no help from God, I ask for no explanation from him of my sufferings. I just try to suffer the least possible, and still get a fair part of my aim in life — happiness. You see, I am not ashamed to say that to be happy seems to me a reason for living — as long as you don’t make others unhappy.
When her doctor condemns and insults her credo as a weakness, she responds with a passionate defense of what the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell termed our native “hunger of the mind,” which is the supreme strength of our species:
It is knowledge we want, the better and better understanding of magnificent Nature with its powerful laws that forces our soul to love, admire and submit. That is religion! My religion! How can you call it a weak and godless one?
Science is turning on the light, but at every step forward dogmatic religion attempts to turn it out, and as it cannot succeed it puts blinkers on its followers, and tries to make them believe that to remove them would be sin. This is the only way in which I can understand their continual warning against knowledge.
Four years after her terminal diagnosis, as two world wars staked on religious ideology lay in wait for her children, after four savaging surgeries and a heart attack had left her in constant acute pain, the 38-year-old Olga Jacoby died by self-induced euthanasia, intent to “go to sleep with a good conscience,” a pioneer of what we today call the right-to-die movement — another fundamental human right stymied only by the legal residue of religiosity. Inscribed into her letters is the beautiful source-code of a moral and spiritual alternative to religion — a courageous case for the right to live by truth, beauty, and altruism rather than by dogma and delusion, the heart of which beats in a passage from a letter she penned in the dead of winter two years into her diagnosis:
Charles may have to suffer from too tender a heart, but the world will be the richer for it, and because of that for his life.
Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give. Once given out love is set rolling for ever to amass more, resembling an avalanche by the irresistible force with which it sweeps aside all obstacles, but utterly unlike in its effect, for it brings happiness wherever it passes and lands destruction nowhere.
Complement the thoroughly inspiriting Words in Pain with Jacoby’s contemporary Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant younger sister — on how to live fully while dying, then revisit Tolstoy and Gandhi’s forgotten correspondence from the same era about love as humanity’s only real spiritual foundation.
Published September 18, 2019