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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