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Becoming Wise: Krista Tippett on Love and Mastering the Art of Living

“If we are stretching to live wiser and not just smarter, we will aspire to learn what love means… what it looks like as a private good but also as a common good.”

Becoming Wise: Krista Tippett on Love and Mastering the Art of Living

“Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her beautiful meditation on the power and magic of real human conversation. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” Hardly anyone in our time has been a greater amplifier of spirits than longtime journalist, On Being host, and patron saint of nuance Krista Tippett — a modern-day Simone Weil who has been fusing spiritual life and secular culture with remarkable virtuosity through her conversations with physicists and poets, neuroscientists and novelists, biologists and Benedictine monks, united by the quality of heart and mind that Einstein so beautifully termed “spiritual genius.”

In her interviews with the great spiritual geniuses of our time, Tippett has cultivated a rare space for reflection and redemption amid our reactionary culture — a space framed by her generous questions exploring the life of meaning. In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (public library), Tippett distills more than a decade of these conversations across disciplines and denominations into a wellspring of wisdom on the most elemental questions of being human — questions about happiness, morality, justice, wellbeing, and love — reanimated with a fresh vitality of insight.

Krista Tippett
Krista Tippett

At the core of Tippett’s inquiry is the notion virtue — not in the limiting, prescriptive sense with which scripture has imbued it, but in the expansive, empowering sense of a psychological, emotional, and spiritual technology that allows us to first fully inhabit, then conscientiously close the gap between who we are and who we aspire to be.

She explores five primary fertilizers of virtue: words — the language we use to tell the stories we tell about who we are and how the world works; flesh — the body as the birthplace of every virtue, rooted in the idea that “how we inhabit our senses tests the mettle of our souls”; love — a word so overused that it has been emptied of meaning yet one that gives meaning to our existence, both in our most private selves and in the fabric of public life; faith — Tippett left a successful career as a political journalist in divided Berlin in the 1980s to study theology not in order to be ordained but in order to question power structures and examine the grounds of moral imagination through the spiritual wisdom of the ages; and hope — an orientation of the mind and spirit predicated not on the blinders of optimism but on a lucid lens on the possible furnished by an active, unflinching reach for it.

eucalyptus

Tippett, who has spent more than a decade cross-pollinating spirituality, science, and the human spirit and was awarded the National Humanities Medal for it, considers the raw material of her work — the power of questions “as social art and civic tools”:

If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking better questions.

No section of the book is more redemptive and life-giving than that exploring love — perhaps because Tippett, rather atypically, examines these universal questions through the vulnerable lens of her own ordinarily guarded personal experience. (I’m reminded of Cheryl Strayed: “When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”) She writes:

If we are stretching to live wiser and not just smarter, we will aspire to learn what love means, how it arises and deepens, how it withers and revives, what it looks like as a private good but also as a common good.

With an eye to Rilke’s immortal words — love, the poet wrote to his young friend, “is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation” — Tippett observes:

Because it is the best of which we are capable, loving is also supremely exacting, not always but again and again. Love is something we only master in moments. It crosses the chasms between us, and likewise brings them into relief.

It was in the heartbreak of her own marriage — a youthful fairy-tale romance that ended, many years and two children later, in deep mutual loneliness — that Tippett came to know the inescapable dualities of love, this “merger of pleasure and risk and sacrifice,” this “dance of alternating vulnerabilities.” She writes:

The nuclear family is a recent invention and a death blow to love — an unprecedented demand on a couple to be everything to each other, the family a tiny echo chamber: history one layer deep. None of the great virtues … is meant to be carried in isolation.

When my marriage ended, I walked into a parallel universe that had been there all along; I became one of the modern multitudes of walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love. Strangest of all, on this planet, is the way we continue to idealize romantic love and crave it for completion… After my divorce, I created a welcoming home and took great delight in my children. I cooked dinner for gatherings of friends old and new, invested in beautiful far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from webs of care through the work I do. Yet I told myself, for years, that I had a hole in my life where “love” should be.

Echoing Edith Wharton’s notion of the “unassailable serenity” of being at home in ourselves, Tippett reflects on the self-defeating perception of that hole:

This is the opposite of a healing story — it’s a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance. I have love in my life, many forms of loving. As I settled into singleness, I grew saner, kinder, more generous, more loving in untheatrical everyday ways. I can’t name the day when I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.

loveme3

In a sentiment that calls to mind the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn’s insight that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” Tippett reflects on this newfound larger sense of love:

I come to understand that for most of my life, when I was looking for love, I was looking to be loved. In this, I am a prism of my world. I am a novice at love in all its fullness, a beginner.

The intention to walk through the world practicing love across relationships and encounters feels like a great frontier.

But this adventure of expanding the understanding and practice of love plays out as much in our private lives as it does in our public lives. The poet Elizabeth Alexander — one of Tippett’s most enchanting conversation partners on On Being — captured this perfectly in her reading at Barack Obama’s inauguration, where she became only the fourth poet in history to read at an American presidential inauguration: “What if love,” Alexander asked, “is the mightiest word?” Tippett writes:

A poet can’t carry this question alone, nor can a politician.

[…]

Love, muscular and resilient, does not always seem reasonable, much less doable, in our most damaged and charged civic spaces.

Half a century after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s increasingly timely clarion call for an “experiment in love,” Tippett winces at the modern media environment shaping our perception of reality by highlighting humanity at its most hateful. She writes:

Antiseptic language … puts our human dramas in political and economic boxes and holds us at arm’s length from the heart of the matter. Still, I feel more and more of us willingly seeing, choosing to care about the heart of the matter, holding the question of love … across all kinds of ingrained ideological, political, economic difference.

To grasp this heart of the matter, Tippett mines the wisdom of her vibrant and variedly insightful conversation partners over the years for metaphors that articulate the nature and nurture of love, both as a private experience and a public encounter. From an astrophysicist, she borrows dark matter as a metaphor — like the invisible cosmic stuff, love is a “force that permeates everything and yet remains essentially mysterious, something we have scarcely begun to understand and to mine.” A geophysicist studying plate tectonics reveals to her love’s necessary “capacity to accommodate fragility.” A moral philosopher points to the gestational period of love, for “change begins to happen in the human heart slowly, over time.”

Still, Tippett takes care to temper the romantic with the realistic. At the remarkably courageous intersection of her private experience and her public philosophy, she reflects on becoming estranged from her own father after a deeply traumatic relationship that stretched for decades, and writes:

It is a biological truth that safety is almost always a prerequisite for the best in us to emerge… Love doesn’t always work as we want it to, or look like something intimate and beautiful… Sometimes love, in public and in private, means stepping back.

We all live lives that are complicated and that at times, with infinite variation, feel overwhelming. But we know people in our immediate world who step beyond themselves, into care. If you know them up close, you know they are not saints or heroes — take note of that, and take comfort. Feel how when you extend a kindness, however simple, you are energized and not depleted. Scientists … are proving that acts of kindness and generosity are literally infectious, passing from stranger to stranger to stranger. Kindness is an everyday byproduct of all the great virtues, love most especially.

becomingwise

Becoming Wise is a tremendously vitalizing read in its totality — a wellspring of nuance and dimension amid our Flatland of artificial polarities, touching on every significant aspect of human life with great gentleness and a firm grasp of human goodness. Complement this particular dimension with Thich Nhat Hahn — whose conversation with Tippett is a pinnacle of spiritual genius — on how to love and the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving.

For more of Tippett’s own spiritual genius, including her remarkably courageous reflections on her struggle with depression, hear her magnificent Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman:

We’ve all been trained and raised as advocates, so we go in with a position. There’s a place for that. But we need to be able to set that aside, because we need places where that’s not all we’re doing… So one thing about listening — generous listening — one really simple characteristic of it is that the generous listener is ready to be surprised. You go into [a conversation] with an assumption that you don’t know everything or understand everything, and you’re truly curious — which means you’re open to having whatever assumptions you do bring unsettled, and you’re going to be graceful about that and kind of curious about that when that happens.

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Nature and the Serious Business of Joy

“There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.”

Nature and the Serious Business of Joy

“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Rachel Carson wrote in reflecting on our spiritual bond with nature shortly before she awakened the modern environmental conscience.

The rewards and redemptions of that elemental yet endangered response is what British naturalist and environmental writer Michael McCarthy, a modern-day Carson, explores in The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (public library) — part memoir and part manifesto, a work of philosophy rooted in environmental science and buoyed by a soaring poetic imagination.

McCarthy writes:

The natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.

[…]

There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.

“Roots” by Maria Popova

In a sentiment that calls to mind Theodore Roosevelt’s assertion that “the poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” McCarthy weighs the particular necessity and particular precariousness of joy in our cynicism-crippled world:

Referring to it as joy may not facilitate its immediate comprehension either, not least because joy is not a concept, nor indeed a word, that we are entirely comfortable with, in the present age. The idea seems out of step with a time whose characteristic notes are mordant and mocking, and whose preferred emotion is irony. Joy hints at an unrestrained enthusiasm which may be thought uncool… It reeks of the Romantic movement. Yet it is there. Being unfashionable has no effect on its existence… What it denotes is a happiness with an overtone of something more, which we might term an elevated or, indeed, a spiritual quality.

A century and a half after Thoreau extolled nature as a form of prayer and an antidote to the smallening of spirit amid the ego-maelstrom we call society — “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” he lamented in his journal — McCarthy considers the role of the transcendent feelings nature can stir in us in a secular world:

They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constantly reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

Earthrise (December 24, 1968)
Earthrise (December 24, 1968)

In consonance with Carl Sagan’s beautiful humanist meditation on the Pale Blue Dot photograph captured by the Voyager spacecraft, McCarthy turns to the first iconic cosmic view of our planet — Earthrise, captured by Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. Echoing Sagan’s own insight that Earthrise seeded in us a new kind of dual awareness — “the sense of our planet as one in a vast number and the sense of our planet as a place whose destiny depends upon us” — McCarthy writes:

At this moment, for the first time, we saw ourselves from a distance, and the earth in its surrounding dark emptiness not only seemed impossibly beautiful but also impossibly fragile. Most of all, we could see clearly that it was finite. This does not appear to us on the earth’s surface; the land or the sea stretches to the horizon, but there is always something beyond. However many horizons we cross, there’s always another one waiting. Yet on glimpsing the planet from deep space, we saw not only the true wonder of its shimmering blue beauty, but also the true nature of its limits.

In a passage that calls to mind Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that “to use the world well, to be able to stop wasting it and our time in it, we need to relearn our being in it,” McCarthy places the vital relationship between responsibility and joy at the heart of our relearning of being:

It is time for a different, formal defence of nature. We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.

Illustration from Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon

I have long found the word environment disquieting. Embedded in it is residual Ptolemism that places us at the center of nature and casts the rest of the natural world as something that surrounds us and implicitly revolves around us. The notion of “natural resources” furthers this hubris by framing trees and rivers and meadows as entities and economic assets existing for the satisfaction of our human needs. McCarthy speaks to this civilizational hubris and how it bereaves us of the far greater “resource” which nature can offer us, and has long offered us, not as an exploitable asset but as an unbidden gift:

We can generalise or, indeed, monetise the value of nature’s services in satisfying our corporeal needs, since we all have broadly the same continuous requirement for food and shelter; but we have infinitely different longings for solace and understanding and delight. Their value is modulated, not through economic assessment, but through the personal experiences of individuals. So we cannot say — alas that we cannot — that birdsong, like coral reefs, is worth 375 billion dollars a year in economic terms, but we can say, each of us, that at this moment and at this place it was worth everything to me. Shelley did so with his skylark, and Keats with his nightingale, and Thomas Hardy with the skylark of Shelley, and Edward Thomas with his unknown bird, and Philip Larkin with his song thrush in a chilly spring garden, but we need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to do it ourselves — proclaim these worths through our own experiences in the coming century of destruction, and proclaim them loudly, as the reason why nature must not go down.

Illustration by Matthew Forsythe from The Gold Leaf

That most unquantifiable, most precious value of nature to human life, McCarthy insists, is the gift nestled in the responsibility — the gift of joy. He writes:

Joy has a component, if not of morality, then at least of seriousness. It signifies a happiness which is a serious business. And it seems to me the wholly appropriate name for the sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us, which may well be the most serious business of all.

Echoing Denise Levertov’s stirring poem about our ambivalent relationship to nature — “We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too.” — McCarthy extends a promissory vision for reclaiming our joyous belonging to the natural world:

The natural world is not separate from us, it is part of us. It is as much a part of us as our capacity for language; we are bonded to it still, however hard it may be to perceive the union in the tumult of modern urban life. Yet the union can be found, the union of ourselves and nature, in the joy which nature can spark and fire in us.

A mighty kindling for that fire is what McCarthy offers in the remainder The Moth Snowstorm — a beautiful and catalytic read in its entirety. Complement it with evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis on the interconnectedness of nature and Loren Eiseley — one of the most elegant thinkers and underappreciated geniuses of the past century — on how nature can help us reclaim our sense of the miraculous in a mechanical age, then savor Krista Tippett’s beautiful On Being conversation with McCarthy:

BP

Working Together: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Beautiful Ode to Our Mutuality with the World

“We shape our self to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.”

Working Together: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Beautiful Ode to Our Mutuality with the World

“Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,” wrote the great Indian poet and philosopher Tagore — the first non-European awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature — in his 1930 meditation on human nature and the interdependence of existence. Nearly a century later, the English poet, philosopher, and redeemer of meaning David Whyte gave shape to that relational inextricability of our lives in his beautiful poem “Working Together,” found in his collection River Flow: New & Selected Poems (public library).

In this recording from Krista Tippett’s altogether sublime On Being interview with Whyte, he reads this simple, transcendently wakeful poem of supreme relevance to our divided world:

WORKING TOGETHER

We shape our self to fit this world
and by the world are shaped again.
The visible and the invisible working
together in common cause,
to produce the miraculous.
I am thinking of the way the intangible
air passed at speed round a shaped wing
easily holds our weight.
So may we, in this life trust
to those elements we have yet to see or imagine,
and look for the true shape of our own self,
by forming it well to the great
intangibles about us.

Complement with Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means, friendship, love, and heartbreak, how we enlarge ourselves by surrendering to the uncontrollable, and when it’s time to end a relationship, then other splendid recordings of poets reading their own work: Adrienne Rich reads “What Kind of Times Are These”; Elizabeth Alexander reads “Praise Song for the Day”; Sylvia Plath reads “Spinster”; Mark Strand reads “The End”; Langston Hughes reads “We Are the American Heartbreak.”

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Living and Loving Through Loss: Beautiful Letters of Consolation from Great Artists, Writers, and Scientists

Words of comfort and compassion from Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Rachel Carson, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, Johannes Brahms, and Charles Dickens.

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote in her classic memoir of loss. But however uncertain its guise may be, its arrival is one of the central certainties of existence — no human life is unplundered by loss, in one form or another, at one time or another. And when grief does come, when its tidal force anneals us to the rawest axis of our being, it seems like nothing at all can unmoor us from its all-consuming gravity. Consolation of the bereaved is therefore an immensely difficult art and one of the most generous human gestures, perhaps even the most acutely life-saving.

Gathered here are several such masterworks of consolation, beautiful and heartbreaking and aglow with the resilience that is the hallmark of life, from some of humanity’s greatest minds and largest spirits.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

In addition to his groundbreaking discoveries in physics, which changed our understanding of time and fostered a common language of science, Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) was also a man of enormous wisdom, empathy, and emotional intelligence, which he channeled in his voluminous correspondence with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers — he wrote breathtaking love letters, counseled his young son on the secret to learning anything, assured a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared her gender would hold her back, shared the secret to his genius with an inquisitive colleague, and corresponded with Freud on violence, peace, and human nature.

But one of his most poignant and humane letters was addressed to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, with whom he had cultivated a warm friendship. After the sudden death of her husband, King Albert, followed closely by the death of her daughter-in-law, Einstein offered thoughtful and tender solace to his bereaved friend. Penned in 1934 and cited in Krista Tippett’s wonderful book Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library), the letter is at once a gift of warm consolation for the Queen’s grief and a timeless meditation on time, eternity, and the privilege of old age.

Albert Einstein by Yousuf Karsh

Shortly before his fifty-fifth birthday, Einstein writes:

Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you.

And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.

Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.

RACHEL CARSON

Undoubtedly the most unusual and the hardest kind of consolation is that whose subject is one’s own imminent death and whose object is a loved one about to be left bereaved, for it requires one to simultaneously face the anguish of one’s own looming nonexistence and to rise above it in order to soften the loved one’s impending loss. To grieve one’s own death while consoling from the grave-to-be is therefore a supreme act of generosity and self-transcendence.

That is precisely what trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) did as she lay dying from breast cancer shortly after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her courageous refusal to keep silent about the government’s assault on nature. Even as she faced her own death, Carson was most concerned about her best friend and beloved, Dorothy Freeman.

Rachel Carson

In September of 1963, several months before her death and shortly after her testimony before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee became instrumental in the first regulatory policies on pesticides, Carson sent Freeman a contemplation of her own mortality so profound, so poignant, so tenderhearted and transcendent that it could only be articulated to the person who knew her heart most intimately. She writes in a letter found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library):

Dear One,

This is a postscript to our morning at Newagen, something I think I can write better than say. For me it was one of the loveliest of the summer’s hours, and all the details will remain in my memory: that blue September sky, the sounds of the wind in the spruces and surf on the rocks, the gulls busy with their foraging, alighting with deliberate grace, the distant views of Griffiths Head and Todd Point, today so clearly etched, though once half seen in swirling fog. But most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.

But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.

For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.

That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you. Thank you for this morning.

Rachel

In her final letter, written as Freeman was en route to a deathbed visit but only delivered two weeks after Carson’s death, she writes:

My darling,

You are starting on your way to me in the morning, but I have such a strange feeling that I may not be here when you come — so this is just an extra little note of farewell, should that happen. There have been many pains (heart) in the past few days, and I’m weary in every bone. And tonight there is something strange about my vision, which may mean nothing. But of course I thought, what if I can’t write — can’t see to write — tomorrow? So, a word before I turn out the light.

[…]

Darling — if the heart does take me off suddenly, just know how much easier it would be for me that way. But I do grieve to leave my dear ones. As for me, however, it is quite all right. Not long ago I sat late in my study and played Beethoven, and achieved a feeling of real peace and even happiness.

Never forget, dear one, how deeply I have loved you all these years.

Rachel

ALAN TURING

In addition to pioneering modern computing, Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) remains the greatest code-breaker of all time. His decryption of Nazi communication code is estimated to have saved anywhere between 14 and 21 million lives in shortening WWII by two to four years. But despite his humanitarian heroism, Turing was driven to suicide after being chemically castrated by the U.K. government for being homosexual. More than half a century after his disquieting death, Queen Elizabeth II issued royal pardon — a formal posthumous apology that somehow only amplifies the tragedy of Turing’s life and death.

Tragedy had been with Turing from a young age. At fifteen, while attending the Sherborne School, he fell deeply in love with a classmate named Christopher Morcom. For the awkward and ostracized young Alan, who was bullied so severely that a group of boys once trapped him under the floorboards of a dorm dayroom and kept him there until he nearly suffocated, Christopher was everything he was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, and aglow with winsome charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics.

When Christopher died of bovine tuberculosis in 1930 — a disease he had contracted from infected milk, for which there was no common vaccine until after WWII — Alan fell to pieces. He was able to collect himself only through work, by burrowing so deep into the underbelly of mathematics that he emerged almost on the other side, where science and metaphysics meet. Sorrow had taken him on a crusade to make sense of reality, of this senseless ruin, and he spared no modality of thought. Most of all, he wanted to understand how he could remain so attached to someone who no longer existed materially but who felt so overwhelmingly alive in his spirit.

Young Alan Turing

All the while, young Turing remained in touch with Christopher’s mother, who had taken a sympathetic liking to her son’s awkward friend. After Christopher’s death, he visited the Morcoms at their country home, Clock House, and corresponded with Mrs. Morcom about the grief they shared, about the perplexity of how a nonentity — for Christopher had ceased to exist in physical terms — could color each of their worlds so completely. That sorrowful puzzlement is what Turing explored in a series of letters to Christopher’s mother, originally included in his first serious biography and brought to new life in astrophysicist Janna Levin’s exquisite novel A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library).

Turing writes to Christopher’s mother in a letter from April 20, 1933:

My dear Mrs. Morcom,

I was so pleased to be at the Clockhouse for Easter. I always like to think of it specially in connection with Chris. It reminds us that Chris is in some way alive now. One is perhaps too inclined to think only of him alive at some future time when we shall meet him again; but it is really so much more helpful to think of him as just separated from us for the present.

Turing visited Clock House again in July, for what would have been Christopher’s twenty-second birthday. Seeking to reconcile the irrepressible spiritual aliveness felt in grief with the undeniable definitiveness of physical death, as much for himself as for Christopher’s mother, he wrote in another letter to her under the heading “Nature of Spirit”:

It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. This idea was really due to the great success of astronomical prediction. More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves. The conception then of being able to know the exact state of the universe then really must break down on the small scale. This means then that the theory which held that as eclipses etc. are pre-destined so were all our actions breaks down too. We have a will which is able to determine the action of the atoms probably in a small portion of the brain, or possibly all over it.

[…]

Then as regards the actual connection between spirit and body I consider that the body by reason of being a living body can “attract” and hold on to a “spirit” whilst the body is alive and awake and the two are firmly connected. When the body is asleep I cannot guess what happens but when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body, holding the spirit, is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later perhaps immediately.

As regards the question of why we have bodies at all; why we do not or cannot live free as spirits and communicate as such, we probably could do so but there would be nothing whatever to do. The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

One of the noblest leaders in Western civilization, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) led a difficult life punctuated by tragedy — his mother’s death when he was only nine, the death of two sons in his lifetime, and his own assassination at the dawn of his second term as president, slain by a Confederate fundamentalist shortly after a speech announcing Lincoln’s intention to advance African Americans’ right to vote.

In February of 1862, just as Lincoln was making major progress on the abolition of slavery, his beloved eleven-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever — a plague-like bacterial infection the vaccine for which was still decades away. Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave then employed as chief designer for Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe and close to the family, would later recall watching the president stand “in silent, awe-stricken wonder” at the foot of the enormous rosewood bed where the boy lay lifeless, Lincoln’s “genius and greatness weeping over love’s idol lost.”

That December, just after the Emancipation Proclamation for which Lincoln had fought so hard was finally issued, loss struck again when one of his dearest friends, William McCullough, was killed during a night charge in Mississippi. A vital characteristic of a great spiritual, civic, or political leader is the ability — or is it the unrelenting willingness? — to rise from the depths of his or her personal pain in the service of another’s welfare. That’s precisely what Lincoln did for his country, and what he did in his magnificent letter of consolation to Fanny McCullough, William’s daughter, later included in the altogether indispensable Library of America anthology Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (public library).

abrahamlincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Drawing on his own lifelong dance with love and loss, 53-year-old Lincoln writes to the bereaved young woman on December 23, 1862:

Dear Fanny

It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend
A. Lincoln

CHARLES DICKENS

Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) was a man of multitudes, brilliant and flawed, but among the strongest and most unambivalent animating forces of his life was the love he had for his younger sister, Letitia.

In 1862, Letitia lost her husband of twenty-five years, the architect and artist Henry Austin. In a letter from early October of that year, found in The Letters of Charles Dickens (public library | free ebook), Dickens envelops his sister in equal parts compassionate consolation and a call to psychoemotional arms.

Charles Dickens

Dickens writes:

I do not preach consolation because I am unwilling to preach at any time, and know my own weakness too well. But in this world there is no stay but the hope of a better, and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through those two harbours of a shipwrecked heart, I fully believe that you will, in time, find a peaceful resting-place even on this careworn earth. Heaven speed the time, and do you try hard to help it on! It is impossible to say but that our prolonged grief for the beloved dead may grieve them in their unknown abiding-place, and give them trouble. The one influencing consideration in all you do as to your disposition of yourself (coupled, of course, with a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit) is, that you think and feel you can do… I rather hope it is likely that through such restlessness you will come to a far quieter frame of mind. The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.

But nothing is to be attained without striving. In a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.

JOHANNES BRAHMS

The beautiful and unclassifiable relationship between the virtuosic pianist Clara Schumann (September 13, 1819–May 20, 1896) and the composer Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833–April 3, 1897) blessed both with a lifetime of love, but it began with the heartache of death. When the composer Robert Schumann — Clara’s beloved husband and Johannes’s revered mentor — succumbed to mental illness and died in the asylum where he was committed, Clara was left to raise their three sons and four daughters as a single mother and a working artist who provided for them through her musical talent, performing and touring tirelessly to put them through school. Johannes, fourteen years her junior, became her closest confidante, her most steadfast source of affection, and her sturdiest pillar of support through the grief.

In a letter from the autumn of 1857, Brahms sets out to remind her of the wider, longer view of life, which grief so swiftly narrows and blunts. While such perspective may not be the most helpful in the immediate aftermath of loss, and may in fact compound the pain of the bereaved by making him or her feel rushed through the process of grief, here Brahms is offering it after more than a year of bereavement, as a gentle and loving invitation to reawaken to life’s fullness against the backdrop of somnolent hollowness that grief casts.

Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, 1853

He writes:

My dear Clara, you really must try hard to keep your melancholy within bounds and see that it does not last too long. Life is precious and such moods as the one you are in consume us body and soul. Do not imagine that life has little more in store for you. It is not true… The more you endeavor to go through times of sorrow calmly and accustom yourself to do so, the more you will enjoy the happier times that are sure to follow. Why do you suppose that man was given the divine gift of hope? And you do not even need to be anxious in your hope, for you know perfectly well that pleasant months will follow your present unpleasant ones, just as they do every period of unhappiness.

CHARLES DARWIN

After he weighed the pros and cons of marriage, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) decided in favor of matrimony and was wedded to his beloved, Emma Wedgwood. They went on to have a long and loving marriage, made all the stronger by their devotion to the ten children they had together. Darwin’s letters reveal that while he loved all of his children intensely, he especially cherished his eldest daughter, Annie — a sensitive and unselfconsciously awkward girl, kindhearted and voraciously curious about the world, in whom he saw much of himself.

In 1850, Annie fell ill with what was most likely a type of tuberculosis. Despite the Darwins’ frantic efforts in every direction of a cure, she died on April 23, 1851, at the Malvern spa where she’d been taken for treatment. She was ten. Her father was at her dying bedside and her mother home at Down House, caring for the other nine children.

Charles Darwin

Although the loss plunged Darwin into a depth of misery from which he never fully surfaced, his first priority was to console his bereaved beloved. In a letter included in Adam Gopnik’s magnificent Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (public library), Darwin writes to Emma the day of Annie’s death:

My dear dearest Emma

I pray God Fanny’s note may have prepared you. She went to her final sleep most tranquilly, most sweetly at 12 oclock today. Our poor dear dear child has had a very short life but I trust happy, & God only knows what miseries might have been in store for her. She expired without a sigh. How desolate it makes one to think of her frank cordial manners. I am so thankful for the daguerreotype. I cannot remember ever seeing the dear child naughty. God bless her. We must be more & more to each other my dear wife — Do what you can to bear up & think how invariably kind & tender you have been to her… My own poor dear dear wife.

C. Darwin

Daguerrotype of Annie Darwin, 1849

Complement with Meghan O’Rourke on learning to live with loss, a great Zen teacher’s advice on navigating grief, and these uncommon children’s books that guide kids through the messiness of mourning.

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