A timeless serenade to finding light amid the “Evenings of the Brain.”
By Maria Popova
How do we survive the unsurvivable? What is that inextinguishable flame that goes on flickering in the bleak, dark chamber of our being when something of vital importance has been lost? “All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched,” Seneca’s timeless insight into the key to resilience bellows from antiquity, echoed by the contemporary social science finding that psychological “grit” is the single most significant predictor of triumph over hardship and success in life. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” the Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön offered in exploring how to thrive when things fall apart.
Loss visits every human life. The degree of our acceptance and the grace with which we adapt to the sudden descent of darkness — that is, to borrow the splendid term William James borrowed from Margaret Fuller, “the manner of our acceptance of the universe” — may be the greatest measure of skillful living.
That is what Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) addresses in a stunning poem titled — like all of her poems, which the poet herself always left untitled — after the first line: “We grow accustomed to the Dark,” composed during a time of personal loss and immense transformation for Dickinson, while the Civil War rages about her. Included in the indispensable Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (public library), it comes to life in this lovely short film animated by Hannah Jacobs and produced by Massive Science founder Nadja Oertelt for Harvard’s eight-part series Poetry of Perception, exploring representations of sensation and perception through the literary and visual arts.
We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —
A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —
And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —
The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —
Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.
Complement with Dickinson, the poet laureate of finding light amid the darkness of being, on making sense of loss and her stunning forgotten herbarium — an elegy for light at the intersection of poetry and science — then revisit other enchanting animated adaptations of great poems: “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, “The Man with the Beautiful Eyes” by Charles Bukowski, and “A Noiseless Patient Spider” by Walt Whitman.