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 Myths That Shape Our World

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Every day, every hour and every second, we are exposed to a sea of information from the world around us. How is it that we choose which pieces of information we prioritize?

What becomes salient to us, and which data points are discarded in the mental models that we develop of the external world? 

It is simply an impossible task to account for the infinite number of facts that we encounter over our life time.

Thus, we need intermediary and interpretive structures which allow us to sort all this information to make sense of our day to day experience.

Stories and myths don’t just make for entertaining tales we tell around the campfire but play a role in contextualizing and filtering our experiences into digestible narratives that we can comprehend. They help us understand our place in the world, where we stand in relation to others, and to nature.

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The Realm of the Storytelling

Derek J Fiedler in his article The Symbolism of Story provides some useful examples that help drive this point home.

Imagine you are tasked with writing an obituary for the passing of a dear friend. You must take on the job of sorting through the historical information of their life to prioritize what to include in your speech. Fitting a lifetime’s worth of data into a 10-minute speech can be very difficult to say the least.

So, what makes the cut? Including random incoherent moments of your friend’s life would be absurd and seemingly inappropriate.

Rather it is values esteemed by a particular society and the meaning we give to events which helps us discern what is important. The ideal obituary is one that uses qualitative judgement to pick events and stories which capture the essence of your friend’s character.

We look for meaning, and select for quality over quantity.

When told well, a story leaves out countless details. And yet, nothing seems to be missing.

Derek J Fiedler

Get to the Point

We’ve all suffered through a boring lecture or class where the teacher expects us to memorize a countless number of facts to score well on the test. We sigh in disarray and frustration as we can barely remember the first thing about the topic.

Compare this to how we are able to so easily absorb the contents and message of a well told story. It is memorable because it resonates with us on an emotional and visceral level. It can get the message across far better than any intellectual argument or essay ever can.

We don’t just remember the contents of the story, but recall how it made us feel.

The story speaks to you at the level of the unconscious, and communicates knowledge and wisdom in an effective and efficient means. This is why so many of the great religious and spiritual teachers communicated messages on wisdom, ethics and meaning in life in story or parables. 

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Higher Truths

Human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.

Karen Armstrong: Myths and the Modern World

As I mentioned in earlier posts, the goal of myths to point to higher fundamental truths about the human condition. Truths that are beyond the limited capacity of language, reason and the intellect. 

Myths provide us with a north star, an ideal to aspire to, a horizon of possibilities that inspires you to venture out into the unknown. They enable us to rise above the mundane of everyday existence – to contemplate the mystery of the cosmos.

We are not perfect, in many ways far from it, but if we immerse our self in the great myths at least we have a path laid out for us.  As the great fantasy writer J.R.R Tolkien reminds us,

Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of evil.

J.R.R Tolkien

Admittingly, this is a complex philosophical topic and this article just touches the surface of the issue. An interesting debate that gets at the heart of this issue I am trying to outline here is the debate between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. Peterson articulates for the mythopoetic viewpoint that I am trying to get across in the article.


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The Hero Within

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Why is it that hero stories continue to capture the human imagination?

While we have no shortage of action-packed Marvel films, the archetypal hero myth is manifested is different cultures throughout history.

If you pay close attention, you’ll start to realize similarities in structure and pattern across different stories and mythology. Achilles in the Homer’s Iliad, to Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films and Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings are all connected in their journeys of adventure and personal transformation.

For the mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell, the ubiquity of these stories reveals some fundamental truth about the human experience. He calls this framework commonly found in our literature, stories and films the hero’s journey.

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The Framework

In the Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell lays out the 17 steps of the hero’s journey which can be summarized in three key stages:

  1.  The Departure

The story begins with the hero in the ordinary world when they receive a call to adventure. The hero is hesitant at first due to the great risk and danger that the journey entails.

However, with the aid and persuasion of a mentor, they accept the task that they are called to do. The hero embarks on the journey leaving behind the comforts of the everyday life to enter the unknown world.

Venturing from the ordinary to the un-ordinary, offers the opportunity for personal and spiritual transformation.

2. The Initiation Act

Throughout the journey the hero is continually faced with trials and tribulations that must be overcome. Further, they are presented temptations that attempt to distract and derail them on their quest.

Using the skills and wisdom learned thus far, the hero is able to conquer their greatest fears to   overcome adversity to complete their task.

Their final struggle usually represents the climax of the plot. Think of Frodo destroying the ring or when Harry Potter defeats his enemy Lord Voldemort.  

The hero reigns over the villain, good defeats evil, chaos is tamed and order is restored.

After successful completion of the journey, they are rewarded in some capacity for their work. This gift, commonly gold or a treasure, represents the hero’s personal triumph, spiritual transformation and enrichment.

3.  The Return Act

After the victory, the hero returns to the ordinary world transformed by their adventure.  They impart their wisdom and knowledge to the next generation.

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Can we be Hero’s Too?

While the hero’s journey can give us insights into the narrative structure so commonly found in mythology, what morals or lessons can it teach us about how we ought to live our own lives?

Campbell argues that we all go through our personal hero’s journey as we transition from childhood to taking on the responsibilities of being an adult,

To get out of that posture of dependency, psychological dependency, into one of psychological self-responsibility, requires a death and resurrection, and that is the basic motif of the hero’s journey. Leaving one condition, finding the source of life to bring you forth in a richer or more mature or other condition.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Throughout our lives, we are called to leave behind the familiarity of the status-quo and move towards the unknown in hopes of evolving into more capable, responsible and mature human beings.

The hero’s journey inspires us to overcome our fears to pursue something meaningful – something greater than ourselves. It provides a roadmap enabling go rid ourselves of self-doubt, and actualize our full potential. Further, and most importantly, to face our inner demons head on.

In the midst of the craziness and uncertainty of 2020, perhaps we are all forced to take the path of the hero. Our sense of normal has evaporated. We no longer stand on stable ground.

However, every crisis represents an opportunity. We can either throw our hands up in resignation or willingly plunge into the depths of our fears – into the great unknown.

It may seem daunting at first, and we may tremble with trepidation. However, if we look within, we can find the courage, bravery and resilience we never knew we had.

You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh

So maybe we don’t have any superpowers or wear any costumes, but we all can be hero’s even if it’s ‘just for one day’.

 Now cue that David Bowie song.

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