Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Samuel Johnson and the Comfort of Wisdom

"He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good and evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful." Samuel Johnson, 1780.

Two and a half years ago, right before I began this blog, I read "The Life of Samuel Johnson" by James Boswell. Johnson was a brilliant though eccentric man, one of the great English writers, a lexicographer, and apparently one of the greatest conversationalists and wits to ever walk the earth. We know this because he was trailed by his biographer and sycophant James Boswell, a genius in his own right, who basically followed Johnson around and wrote down everything he said. It's a very long book, but one of the most wonderfully rewarding ones if one takes the time to read it and enjoy Johnson's wit and wisdom. It's a rare book that can both stick with one, and comfort one, and illuminate one's mind well after having read it, and I find this book to be one of those. Recent events in my life have caused me to remember the above quote by Samuel Johnson, which was written in a letter to a friend whose wife of many years had just passed away. The quote is about the loss of a spouse, and the experience of the resulting grief. And yet, I think it's also more generally applicable to the loss of any romantic partner you truly love, no matter what the means of separation.

I've been thinking a lot about lost love and heartbreak recently. I've never experienced the loss of a lover and companion through death, thankfully, but I certainly have in other ways. Losing a lover to death would seem so final…there’s no choice involved. But losing a love through a breakup…well, then choice is involved in many cases, which has the potential to add an element of regret. And regret can be a dismal feeling in its own right, in addition to the dreadful suspense that Johnson describes.

It’s called “heartbreak” for a reason, and that’s because one can feel it in one’s chest, right behind the sternum. It lingers there, pulsing and throbbing alongside the heart, reminding you continually of what once was. It reminds one that there’s an empty space inside now, where once resided the dreams one held inside the deepest recesses of one’s body, dreams that spread from the heart down into the bones. “The continuity of being is lacerated” indeed. What had seemed like a swift current into the future, full of rapids and waves and adventure, has suddenly stopped flowing, and one is left to aimlessly drift on a shallow and tepid sea gently seasoned with ones own tears, like bitters in a martini. It is a sad and lonely and dreadful place. And in a place like that, one of the few comforts available is to read things like this quote from Samuel Johnson, so wise and profoundly knowing, so that one realizes that others have been here as well, that others have sailed on these forlorn and gloomy seas and lived to tell the tale. Some have reached the shores after being “driven by external forces into a new channel”. Others, I think, find the shore after being driven by internal forces, because separation from a lover by breakup, unlike Johnson’s death of a spouse, allows the possibility of reflection and contemplation and a new course of action. Sometimes a period of separation is itself the external force that forces one to muse and meditate on the meaning of a relationship, and on the meaning and value of another’s love and their love for another. This can force one to discover truths within themselves that they weren’t aware of before, which causes a re-evaluation of all they presumed about a relationship. That is not an easy feat, but it can lead to the recovery of a love thought lost or diminished, to a rekindling of an ardor that had dampened from flames to embers. But whether the final course is a final separation, or a glorious reconciliation, the path is not an easy one, and the heartbreak will not be mitigated easily. As Johnson says “The time of suspense is dreadful”.

The amount of people that one truly loves and is loved by is not a large number when viewed in the full span of most people’s lives, and it’s hard to often remember that and keep that in perspective. It’s too easy to focus on the flaws of a relationship, or to unrealizingly get caught up in one’s own shortfalls and not see the big picture of exactly how truly precious love is. For love is rare, and life is short and brutal, and if one doesn’t do all they can to hold on to those who one loves and who loves them back, then what’s the point of doing anything at all? True and deep connections in life should be treasured and nurtured, because they hold back the dark. If you love someone, hold on to them and hold their love close. Do all you can to make it work, even if that means struggling with one's own flaws and assumptions and limitations. For the end result can be a bright and glorious love, a shot down the rapids into a radiant future with another’s hand in yours...a rewarding and magnificent and abiding joy, rather than Johnson’s dreadful suspense.

1 comment:

Sherri ~ daintytime said...

The last paragraph really speaks to me. I don't understand why we don't hold dear to the love that comes into our lives. It really is a rare gift and it's a hard reality when it is cast aside with the first difficulty, or for the cheap thrill of finding out what's around the corner.