“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.”
By Maria Popova
“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh admonished in his terrific treatise on how to love — a sentiment profoundly discomfiting in the context of our cultural mythology, which continually casts love as something that happens to us passively and by chance, something we fall into, something that strikes us arrow-like, rather than a skill attained through the same deliberate practice as any other pursuit of human excellence. Our failure to recognize this skillfulness aspect is perhaps the primary reason why love is so intertwined with frustration.
That’s what the great German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and philosopher Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) examines in his 1956 masterwork The Art of Loving (public library) — a case for love as a skill to be honed the way artists apprentice themselves to the work on the way to mastery, demanding of its practitioner both knowledge and effort.
This book … wants to show that love is not a sentiment which can be easily indulged in by anyone, regardless of the level of maturity reached by him. It wants to convince the reader that all his attempts for love are bound to fail, unless he tries most actively to develop his total personality, so as to achieve a productive orientation; that satisfaction in individual love cannot be attained without the capacity to love one’s neighbor, without true humility, courage, faith and discipline. In a culture in which these qualities are rare, the attainment of the capacity to love must remain a rare achievement.
Fromm considers our warped perception of love’s necessary yin-yang:
Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love. Hence the problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable.
People think that to love is simple, but that to find the right object to love — or to be loved by — is difficult. This attitude has several reasons rooted in the development of modern society. One reason is the great change which occurred in the twentieth century with respect to the choice of a “love object.”
Our fixation on the choice of “love object,” Fromm argues, has seeded a kind of “confusion between the initial experience of ‘falling’ in love, and the permanent state of being in love, or as we might better say, of ‘standing’ in love” — something Stendhal addressed more than a century earlier in his theory of love’s “crystallization.” Fromm considers the peril of mistaking the spark for the substance:
If two people who have been strangers, as all of us are, suddenly let the wall between them break down, and feel close, feel one, this moment of oneness is one of the most exhilarating, most exciting experiences in life. It is all the more wonderful and miraculous for persons who have been shut off, isolated, without love. This miracle of sudden intimacy is often facilitated if it is combined with, or initiated by, sexual attraction and consummation. However, this type of love is by its very nature not lasting. The two persons become well acquainted, their intimacy loses more and more its miraculous character, until their antagonism, their disappointments, their mutual boredom kill whatever is left of the initial excitement. Yet, in the beginning they do not know all this: in fact, they take the intensity of the infatuation, this being “crazy” about each other, for proof of the intensity of their love, while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness.
There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.
The only way to abate this track record of failure, Fromm argues, is to examine the underlying reasons for the disconnect between our beliefs about love and its actual machinery — which must include a recognition of love as an informed practice rather than an unmerited grace. Fromm writes:
The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering. What are the necessary steps in learning any art? The process of learning an art can be divided conveniently into two parts: one, the mastery of the theory; the other, the mastery of the practice. If I want to learn the art of medicine, I must first know the facts about the human body, and about various diseases. When I have all this theoretical knowledge, I am by no means competent in the art of medicine. I shall become a master in this art only after a great deal of practice, until eventually the results of my theoretical knowledge and the results of my practice are blended into one — my intuition, the essence of the mastery of any art. But, aside from learning the theory and practice, there is a third factor necessary to becoming a master in any art — the mastery of the art must be a matter of ultimate concern; there must be nothing else in the world more important than the art. This holds true for music, for medicine, for carpentry — and for love. And, maybe, here lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn this art, in spite of their obvious failures: in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power — almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving.
In the remainder of the enduringly excellent The Art of Loving, Fromm goes on to explore the misconceptions and cultural falsehoods keeping us from mastering this supreme human skill, outlining both its theory and its practice with extraordinary insight into the complexities of the human heart. Complement it with French philosopher Alain Badiou on why we fall and stay in love and Mary Oliver on love’s necessary madnesses.
“A passion, like the torrent in the violence of its course, might perhaps too, like the torrent, leave ruin and desolation behind… My love for you… is deep and calm, more like the quiet river, which refreshes and beautifies where it flows.”
By Maria Popova
Like Alice James — the brilliant diarist who lived and wrote in the shadow of her brothers, Henry and William James — Jane Welsh Carlyle (January 14, 1801–April 21, 1866), unpublished and shadowed by her famous husband, was a literary genius whose private letters stand as masterpieces of prose in their own right. Virginia Woolf admired her as “so brilliant, so deeply versed in life and scornful of its humbugs… the most caustic, the most concrete, the most clear-sighted of women.” Charles Dickens considered her a greater storyteller, with a superior talent for observation and character development, than any of the published women novelists of her day. For a time, she was rumored to have authored the pseudonymously published Jane Eyre.
What lent her letters their shimmering intensity of insight was Jane’s uncommon openness to and insight into the complex, often confusing inner workings of the human heart and is maddening contradictions.
Shortly after her twentieth birthday, Jane Welsh met Thomas Carlyle — the essayist, mathematician, historian, and philosopher, who was then a struggling young writer of lower social stature, with no stable income and no intellectual achievement to his name, but would later become Scotland’s most esteemed polymath. At first, she spurned his courtship with the adamant insistence — perhaps out of self-knowledge, perhaps out of self-protection and fear — that she is constitutionally incapable of romantic love, uninterested in marriage at the expense of her intellectual ambitions, and would only hurt him if she consented to a relationship. In a letter from early 1823, found in the devastatingly titled I Too Am Here: Selections from the Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle (public library), she pushes him away with equal parts magnanimity toward his needs and uncompromising clarity about hers:
To cause unhappiness to others, above all to those I esteem, and would do anything within my duties and abilities to serve, is the cruelest pain I know — but positively I can not fall in love — and to sacrifice myself out of pity is a degree of generosity of which I am not capable — besides matrimony under any circumstances would interfere shockingly with my plans.
Carlyle, conflicted in his own right at the prospect of getting hurt but besotted nonetheless, plays into this game of push and pull, charging that it is “useless and dangerous” for him to love her and that she has made his “happiness wrecked” by letting him fall in love with her and then rejecting him. Jane responds by insisting that her love for him is true, but not the kind he yearns for. In the last week of summer, she grows even more resolute in her dual pledge that she will never leave him as a friend but will never be with him as a romantic partner:
My Friend I love you — I repeat it tho’ the expression a rash one — all the best feelings of my nature are concerned in loving you — But were you my Brother I would love you the same, were I married to another I would love you the same — and is this sentiment so calm, so delightful — but so unimpassioned enough to recompense the freedom of my heart, enough to reconcile me to the existence of a married woman the hopes and wishes and ambitions of which are all different from mine, the cares and occupations of which are my disgust — Oh no! Your Friend I will be, your truest most devoted friend, while I breathe the breath of life; but your wife! never never!
But then, having issued this most vehement of self-protective disclaimers, she adds:
Write to me and reassure me — for God’s sake reassure me if you can! Your Friendship at this time is almost necessary to my existence. Yet I will resign it cost what it may — will, will resign it if it can only be enjoyed at the risk of your future peace — …
They continued this conflicted dance for more than a year, until it became clear they had to make a choice. In a letter penned in the first days of 1825, a week before Jane’s twenty-fourth birthday, she confronts the abiding question of how you know whether you are in love, as opposed to merely infatuated:
I love you — I have told you so a hundred times; and I should be the most ungrateful, and injudicious of mortals if I did not — but I am not in love with you — that is to say — my love for you is not a passion which overclouds my judgement; and absorbs all my regards for myself and others — it is a simple, honest, serene affection, made up of admiration and sympathy, and better perhaps, to found domestic enjoyment on than any other — In short it is a love which influences, does not make the destiny of a life.
Jane had two primary reservations about marrying Carlyle: that their differences — of class, of means, of ambitions — were too vast, and that a life of domesticity would keep her from actualizing herself as a writer. Asserting that “the idea of a sacrifice should have no place in a voluntary union,” she suggests that marrying him would be a self-sacrifice — a form of settling for a life smaller than the life she wants. And yet she also acknowledges that her choice is not between marrying him and marrying someone else, but between marrying him and not marrying at all. She writes:
I should have goodsense enough to abate something of my romantic ideal, and to content myself with stopping short on this side idolatry — At all events I will marry no one else — This is all the promise I can or will make. A positive engagement to marry a certain person at a certain time, at all haps and hazards, I have always considered the most ridiculous thing on earth: it is either altogether useless or altogether miserable; if the parties continue faithfully attached to each other it is a mere ceremony — if otherwise it comes a galling fetter riveting them to wretchedness and only to be broken with disgrace.
She presents him with her take-it-or-leave-it proposition: If their love is to endure, it must not be rushed into marriage but allowed to grow organically, its rightness and resilience tested in the garden of time:
Such is the result of my deliberations on this very serious subject. You may approve of it or not; but you cannot either persuade me or convince me out of it — My decisions — when I do decide — are unalterable as the laws of the Medes & Persians — Write instantly and tell me that you are content to leave the event to time and destiny and in the meanwhile to continue my Friend and Guardian which you have so long and so faithfully been — and nothing more —
Jane struggles with the choice between her heart’s desire, with its conflicted factions of deep love and vibrating doubt, and what she believes is best for her beloved. Unwilling to err on the side of selfishness, she fears that in asking him to go on with their relationship while she wades through her own uncertainties would keep him from pursuing a relationship with someone else better suited for him and would thus stand between him and his happiness. She articulates her ambivalence with exquisite self-awareness:
It would be more agreeable to etiquette, and perhaps also to prudence, that I should adopt no middle course in an affair such as this — that I should not for another instant encourage an affection I may never reward and a hope I may never fulfill; but cast your heart away from me at once since I cannot embrace the resolution which would give me a right to it for ever. This I would assuredly do if youwere like the generality of lovers, or if it were still in my power to be happy independent of your affection but as it [is] neither etiquette nor prudence can obtain this for me.
Unsure whether she can give him the kind of love and kind of life he wants, Jane places the difficult decision — the choice of whether to part ways or carry forth toward an alluring but uncertain future — into her beloved’s hands. After “a sleepless night, with an aching head, and an aching anxious heart,” she writes:
If there is any change to be made in the terms on which we have so long lived with one another; it must be made by you not me — I cannot make any.
When a hurt and angry Carlyle, no doubt himself sundered by the intensity of love and the fear of its loss, accuses her of insensitively causing him unhappiness by framing the choice before them as so binary, she defends its validity as rooted in the respective realities of their two hearts:
I have refused my immediate, positive assent to your wishes; because our mutual happiness seemed to require that I should refuse it; but for the rest I have not slighted your wishes, on the contrary, I have expressed my willingness to fulfill them, at the expense of every thing but what I deem to be essential to our happiness: and so far from undervaluing you, I have shown you, in declaring I would marry no one else, not only that I esteem you above all the men I have ever seen; but also that I am persuaded I should esteem you above all the men I may ever see — What, then, have you to be hurt or angry at?
Returning to the fear that in choosing to be together, either of them might be settling for a lesser life than their ideal, Jane elects to be a realist rather than a romantic in steering love’s course:
My heart is capable (I feel it is) o fa love to which no deprivation would be a sacrifice — a love which would… carry every thought and feeling of my being along with it — But the all-perfect Mortal, who could inspire me with a love so extravagant, is nowhere to be found — exists nowhere but in the Romance of my own imagination! Perhaps it is better for me as it is — A passion, like the torrent in the violence of its course, might perhaps too, like the torrent, leave ruin and desolation behind. In the mean time, I should be very mad, were I to act as if from the influence of such a passion, while my affections are in a state of perfect tranquility. I have already explained to you the nature of my love for you; that it is deep and calm, more like the quiet river, which refreshes and beautifies where it flows, than the torrent which bears down and destroys.
Two years into their relationship, she reminds him how much her feelings have evolved from the initial insistence that she is too closed down to love — strong evidence, though not a perfect guarantee, that they might evolve further still. She writes:
From the change which my sentiments towards you have already undergone, during the period our acquaintance; I have little doubt but, that, in time, I shall be perfectly satisfied with them. One loves you…. in proportion to the ideas and sentiments which are in oneself; according[ly,] as my mind enlarges, and my heart improves, I become capable of comprehending the goodness and greatness which are in you, and my affection for you increases. Not many months ago, I would have said it was impossible that I should ever be your wife; at present I consider this the most probable destiny for me; and in a year or so, perhaps, I shall consider it the only one. “Die Zeit ist noch nicht da!” [“The time is not yet here!”]
With an eye to these sentiments, she maps out the only responsible course forward — they must each endeavor to heal, grow, and refine their separate selves before they can unite their lives:
From what I have said, it is plain (to me, at least), what ought to be the line of our future conduct. Do you what you can to better you external circumstances; always, however, subordinately to your own principles, which I do not ask you to give up, which I should despise you for giving up, whether I approved them or no — While I on the other hand do what I can, subordinately to nothing, to better myself which I am persuaded is the surest way of bringing my wishes to accord with yours. (And let us leave the rest to Fate, satisfied that we have both of us done what lies with [us] for our mutual happiness.)
Jane takes issue with one particular passage of Carlyle’s accusatory letter, in which he narrowed the choices before them as marrying immediately or parting for good. Recognizing in it an insincere and defensive ultimatum based not on his true wishes but on fear and a desire for control in the face of uncertainty, she challenges him:
I will not believe that you have seriously thought of parting from me, of throwing off a heart, which you have taught to lean upon you, till it is no longer sufficient for itself! You could never be so ungenerous! you, who for years have shown and professed for me the most [selfless], most noble affection! How could I part from the only living soul that understands me? I would marry you tomorrow rather! but then,– our parting would indeed need to be brought about by death or some dispensation of uncontrollable Providence — were you to will it, to part would no longer be bitter, the bitterness would be in thinking you unworthy.
If Carlyle were to break things off with her because she stands in the way of his happiness, Jane concedes with “the weight of a millstone” at her heart that she could never begrudge his decision. But she reminds him that he had entered into this courtship willingly, in full awareness of her initial reservations, which she had transparently and repeatedly offered. And so if he has found himself hurt and unhappy, it is on account of unprocessed pain that predates her. In an astute sentiment which the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would echo nearly two centuries later in his assertion that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” Jane writes:
If indeed your happiness was to suffer from your intercourse with me in our present relation, I would not blame you for discontinuing it; tho’ I should blame you, perhaps, for not examining yourself better before you entered into it — But how can that be? Your present situation is miserable; it must be altered; but is it with reference to me that it must be altered? Is it I who have made it miserable? No! you were as unhappy before we met as ever you have been since: the cause of your unhappiness then must lie in other circumstances of your destiny, which I have no connection with — no real connection, however much I may seem to have, from being frequently associated with them in your mind. It is an alteration in these circumstances which your duty and happiness require from you; and not an alteration in your relation with me.
Jane and Thomas did not part ways. Having voiced, faced, and surmounted their respective fears and reservations, they moved closer and closer toward each other in the coming months. They told each other difficult truths. Jane confesses that she had been minimizing her feelings for another man — her engaged former tutor, with whom she knew she could never be but whom she had indeed loved, “once passionately,” even. Imploring Carlyle for forgiveness, she writes:
Woe to me then if your reason be my judge! … Never were you so dear as at this moment when I am in danger of losing your affection or what is still more precious to me your respect.
Jane finds herself “the forlornest, most dispirited of creatures” as she awaits his response. Awash in gladness and relief when an assuring letter from Carlyle finally arrives, she exults:
What is love if it can not make all rough places smooth!
Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle were married on October 17, 1826. Only four people attended the wedding — three of her family and one of his. Although shortly after the ceremony she wrote to a relative that her new husband possessed all the qualities she deemed essential in a mate — “a warm true heart to love me, a towering intellect to command me, and a spirit of fire to be the guiding star-light of my life” — the romantic fantasy soon gave way to the reality of their contrasting natures. For the remaining forty years of Jane’s life — she died considering herself an unrealized woman — they proceeded to have a tortured relationship that syphoned her creative aspiration and relegated her increasingly to the role of her husband’s helpmate. They had no children. Carlyle’s official biographer argued that the relationship was never consummated. Both Thomas and Jane went on to have romantic, though by all evidence not sexual, entanglements with other people — most notably, Jane’s intense relationship with the novelist Geraldine Jewsbury. Jane met Geraldine, as Virginia Woolf would write a century later, with “that uneasy sense that old relationships had shifted and that new ones were forming themselves,” and she became her most significant intimate attachment for the last quarter century of her life.
Words of comfort and compassion from Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Rachel Carson, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, Johannes Brahms, and Charles Dickens.
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
Drawing on his own lifelong dance with love and loss, 53-year-old Lincoln writes to the bereaved young woman on December 23, 1862:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More than half a century earlier, the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (October 8, 1892–August 31, 1941) explored the paradoxical psychological machinery of that resistance in one of the eight beautiful pieces in her collection of essays on art and writing, Art in the Light of Conscience (public library) — a discovery embodying my longtime saying that literature is the original internet, for I found a “link” to the book in a footnote in Tsvetaeva’s exquisite correspondence with Pasternak and Rilke, which was in turn “linked” to in Marina Abramović moving memoir.
In a sentiment of equal cultural and political perceptiveness, Tsvetaeva writes:
Not to like a work is, in the first and most important place, not to recognize it: not to find the pre-cognized in it. The first cause of not accepting a work is not being prepared for it… A physical turning away of the head: I see nothing in this picture, therefore I don’t wish to look at it. — But, in order to see, one needs to look; in order to really see, one needs to look really closely. Disappointment of an eye that is used to seeing at first glance, which means used to seeing along its old track, that of others’ eyes… [an eye] used to not an act of cognition, but recognition.
Tsvetaeva considers the only position from which we have the right — intellectual, creative, moral — to reject an idea or a work of art:
The only case worthy of respect, the only legitimate non-acceptance of a work, is non-acceptance of it in full knowledge… No one is obliged to love, but every non-loving person is obliged to know — first, what it is he doesn’t love, and second, why he doesn’t love it.
Although our instinctual reaction to that which we do not understand is to reject it, Tsvetaeva reminds us that such rejection is maladaptive and to the detriment of our evolution — be it in art or in politics or in our private lives. She writes:
Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene.
What we reject most often is that which rebels against and challenges the status quo, but such rejection, Tsvetaeva admonishes, is antithetical to the creative force that propels us forward. Once again, what is true of poetry is true of life itself:
There is no poet who would reject any elemental force, consequently any rebellion.
What doesn’t accept (rejects, even ejects) is the human being: will, reason, conscience.
In this realm the poet can have only one prayer: not to understand the unacceptable — let me not understand, so that I may not be seduced. The sole prayer of the poet is not to hear the voices: let me not hear, so that I may not answer. For to hear, for the poet, is already to answer, and to answer is already to affirm, if only by the passionateness of his denial. The poet’s only prayer is a prayer for deafness.