2020 Wrap Up: Timeless Wisdom from Poetry and Literature

As with many, the pandemic has forced me to spend more time alone in solitude. It has demanded from all of us that we slow down, and perhaps even question the sanity of our 24\7 always on the go lifestyles.

No more rushed morning commutes to get to work on time or packed weekend festivities filled with gatherings of families and friends.

Depending on one’s character, this forced solitude has either been a blessing or a curse – a blissful awakening or a dark and lonesome period we desperately try to forget.

While I of course miss the face-to-face social interactions with colleagues at my workplace or with extended family and friends, 2020 has afforded me the opportunity to spend more time reading some of the great works of literature and poetry.

 As I was shutoff from the external world, these authors invited me in to dive in to the emotional depths and tender intimacy of their brilliant prose. They invited me to come join them in exploring the inner realms of their vivid imaginations.

Literature offers us portals into different realities providing us with fresh perspectives, ideas and opportunities. It allows us to view our life, and the world around us from a different lens. These authors, who may well be dead and gone, come alive as we become immersed in the text finding solace and comfort through their timeliness wisdom.

They remind us that we are not alone in navigating the difficulties and complexities in life. Our struggles are indeed the struggles faced by many.

In this post I want to look at some of my favourite passages from texts that I read this year. After going through the endless sticky notes and scribbles in my books, here are the quotes and pieces that stood out the most for me.

  1. Leo Tolstoy – The Death of Ivan Ilyich

It sounds cliché, but life is something we often take for granted.

If anything, perhaps 2020 has made us more acutely aware of our own mortality. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy looks at a character who succumbs to the demands and pressures of societal expectations only to realize the emptiness of such pursuits on his death bed. Although Ivan Ilyich achieves status and fortune, he sacrifices authenticity and self-fulfillment along the way.

Tolstoy’s sobering novella forces us to ask, was this bargain worth it?

While material possessions may give us temporary pleasure and status, it is spiritual needs and genuine human connection which ultimately give life meaning and purpose.

In public opinion I was going uphill, and exactly to that extent life was slipping away from under me…And now that’s it

“Maybe I did not live as I should have?” would suddenly come into his head. “But how not, if I did everything one ought to do?”

The most tormenting thing for Ivan Ilyich was that no one pitied him as he wanted to be pitied: there were moments after prolonged suffering when Ivan Ilyich wanted most of all, however embarrassed he would have been to admit it, to be pitied by someone like a sick child……. He knew that he was an important judge, that he had a graying beard, and therefore it was impossible; but he wanted it all the same.

2. John Steinbeck- East of Eden

Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a multi-generational epic tale, which is modeled on the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. It is about the struggle between two forces which are at the core of the human spirit – good and evil. While our circumstances may shape the opportunities that present themselves to us, Steinbeck argues that we always have a choice in the path forward. To reject temptation, overcome evil and start anew.

Humans are caught–in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too–in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence …. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well–or ill

Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win

3. Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters to a Young Poet

A short but profound collection of letters between the poet Rilke and an aspiring young writer Franz Kappus. In his letters, Rilke invites us to rejuvenate in solitude and to accept everything life brings us – the beauty as well as the terrors.  

We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them

Always the wish that you may find patience enough in yourself to endure, and simplicity enough to believe; that you may acquire more and more confidence in that which is difficult, and in your solitude among others. And for the rest, let life happen to you

4. Mary Oliver – Upstream

In her eloquent prose, the poet Mary Oliver has the unique gift of allowing us to uncover the sublime in the ordinary. In a series of essays in her book Upstream, she contemplates the ecstatic beauty of the world, exploring how her time in nature has inspired and transformed her creative life.

Upstream offers us a temporary respite from technology, and the perpetual busyness and constant stimulation of the contemporary world. Oliver reminds us that don’t have to travel to exotic destinations to experience the sacred, it is often present in the mundane, right in front of our very eyes – if we have the patience to wait for it to emerge.

Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity

For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water. Most of the adult world spoke of such things as opportunities, and materials. To the young these materials are still celestial.

Through these woods I have walked thousands of times. For many years I felt more at home here than anywhere else, including our own house. Stepping out into the world, into the grass, onto the path, was always a kind of relief. I was not escaping anything. I was returning to the arena of delight


Book cover images sourced from Amazon.com

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The Realm of Becoming

An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming. As long as you can stay in that realm, you’ll sort of be alright.

Bob Dylan

This poem was inspired by the above quote by Bob Dylan.


All security is false security

All that can be known is the unknown


Attempts to grasp onto the static, the stable, are short-lived


Echoing the words of Heraclitus, “you cannot step in the same river twice”

One’s life is always in a constant state of change, of flux


Terrified of this uncertainty, many of us desperately try to restrict our freedom

We turn to the world of ‘isms’ and ideologies

Narrowing our identity down to a role

We put on a mask and set fixed boundaries


Longing for this illusive hope of security, we cling to the past

Hold onto the ordinary


But the artist, the great innovators and heroes of the past, live in the realm of becoming

Nothing is set in stone

They embrace uncertainty, and leave the world of the known for the unknown 


Through this risk, they transcend their past selves, and strive towards a new path

For them, life is not a predefined set of rules

Rather it’s a blank canvas awaiting to be explored with one’s vivid imagination


Living on the edge of existence, these architects of the world pave the way forward  

They leave an open invitation awaiting all of us

A portal from the finite and into the infinite

A blank page


Like a river our existence is always in a state of change
Photo by Marta Wave on Pexels.com

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The Empty Promises of Consumerism

With Black Friday in recent memory and Christmas shopping right around the corner, what better time to look at the issues of consumerism in our society.

Modern advertising is rather peculiar. If you pay close attention, you’ll realize that many of the commercials you come across don’t actually tell you much about the product that is being sold. The advertisement doesn’t present reasons or rational arguments as to why you should buy the product. Rather it appeals to our deep-seated emotions and desires.

It speaks to our universal longings to be loved, to have close and genuine connections, to be acknowledged, respected and to be authentic.

Let’s take a minute to look at this perfume commercial for Coeur Battant by Louis Vuitton.

Notice how the commercial doesn’t tell you much about the product being sold. What does it smell like? What is the price point? How does it compare to similar brands on the market?

Nonetheless, what the advertisement is conveying to the consumer is a certain image. An image of beauty, attractiveness and desirability from others – namely from other good looking men. With this perfume, and only with this perfume, one can surely achieve the confidence, recognition and status we’ve all desired. Right?

According to recent data, 46% of parents with children under 18 and 48% of those with existing credit card debt are willing to take on more debt in the 2020 Christmas holiday season.  What can explain our irrational behaviour as we wait in long lines to buy the newest products on the market or spend far beyond our means on stuff we cannot afford? Why are we never content with what we own?

 What is actually being sold to us?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

To understand the intentions and messages behind modern advertising, we need to look at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are our basic physiological needs such as food, shelter, clothing and at the top lies self-actualization. One must first satisfy their lower level needs before they begin working up the pyramid.

Maslow’s theory was that once we meet our basic we naturally aspire towards higher developmental needs such as: meaning, purpose, love, friendship etc. The crucial point made by Maslow was that there needs to be a healthy balance between our material, psychological and self-fulfillment needs. 

The famous Biblical passage suggesting that we “cannot live on bread alone” speaks exactly to this idea. Humans require more than just physiological nourishment and material things to truly thrive.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The issue is that marketers are selling the idea that buying a product such as luxury clothing or fashion brands (ie. clothing\psychological needs) can fulfill our longing for another higher-level need such as love and belonging or esteem needs.  Philosopher Alain De Botton explains this confusion clearly.

Nearly every advert one now cares to consider is selling us one thing while, beneath the surface, hinting at the appeasement of another higher need. It may look like one is buying a bag or a pair of shoes, a stay in a hotel or a kind of drink – but really what is tickling us unconsciously is a secret promise of spiritual goods we ache for a great deal more than we ever do for material possessions: a need for love and meaning, connection and calm, understanding and freedom

Alain De Botton, The Purpose of Advertising

Character Develops Through Repeated Action

Now this is not to say we can not or should not enjoy the pleasures that luxury products bring us. It is rather noting that we should not be deluded into thinking that consuming an item can necessarily satisfy our deep yearnings for psychological wellbeing.

It is easy to get trapped into thinking our issues stem from not having things rather from our own flaws in character and disposition. We can not become mature or become a more admirable or respectable person by purchasing fancy sports cars.

Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

What are we really hinting at when we purchase a luxury sports car – perhaps it is our wish for status, admiration and recognition?

Nothing worthwhile comes easy, and virtue or character can not be bought. As Aristotle claimed, character traits can only be acquired through repeated action and habit. One becomes courageous by performing courageous acts just as someone is considered honest when they consistently act honestly in all circumstances.

Yes, we can enjoy material things and consumer products, but there is a whole other world of possibilities outside of mindless consumerism. These are the ideals written about by the great writers, poets and religions – of transcendence, love, community and meaning.

Whatever we consume ultimately perishes, but who we become, who we are, can last forever.  

So, as we get flooded with commercials and advertisements over the holiday season, we can all be a little more skeptical about what is actually being sold.  

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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