It is rare for a thing to be described purely for what it is, undecorated by what we could easily confuse it to be while carrying on our distracted lives. Like looking through a window cleaned of dust and fog for the first time after many seasons, clarity in and of itself can be striking in a way that stays with you.
I recently came upon a letter by late physicist Richard Feynman to his wife, who passed away at an early age of 25. He wrote it not quite two years after her passing, and kept it until his own death.
The letter is beautiful and consuming and worth reading in its entirety. I was particularly taken by the way Feynman wrote of their love – laid bare, apart from desire or passion or dedication, only in its purity. The transparency with which he writes stuck with me.
I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead – but I still want to comfort and take care of you – and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you – I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together – or learn Chinese – or getting a movie projector. Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures.
When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true – you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else – but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.
I think our lives in retrospect become faint trails of memories and conversations punctuated by the few special moments that stay within us. Some of these moments are times of echoing grief. Many more of them, hopefully, are of resounding jubilation.
At each bout of love and awe and triumph, we give a little piece of ourselves to the moment. That dedication of our wholeness is the price we willingly pay to be consumed in the feeling. And when that moment leaves us in due time, that little piece of us leaves with it. When we miss, and when we grieve, we miss that part of us that’s now lost along with the lost moment. We miss that empty space, and that emptiness is the price of the dedication that earns us the right to love, to be held in awe, to stand in triumph.
Over time, we trade pieces of us for memories of moments, and eventually, those memories will fade, too.
But it’s not a losing battle.
If we gain anything in the process, I think it’s a sense of purpose. In the pieces of ourselves that we leave in our wake through life, the line that emerges when we look back is a silhouette of who we are, what we stand for, and what moves us. Held together, that is as good a place to look for purpose as any other I can think of.
The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human beings.
- George Orwell
In times of loss and defeat, we should hold ourselves gently in the moment, not to rise above it, but in remembrance of the fact that these are the prices we pay for purpose, and for becoming ourselves.
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