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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On Solitude

If I could I would spend the better part of my time in solitude. Preferably it would be surrounded by the beauty of nature.

The splendour of the trees and flow of the sparkling rivers drown out the noisy sounds of the busy city streets. For what is nature itself but a grand cathedral.

It is in solitude where one can rest in a state of contemplation, and be at peace with oneself.

Blinded by the trivialities of day to day life, we forget to admire the beauty that is close to home – that which is right in front of us. 

In a culture that tends to place a great emphasis on extroversion, perhaps we have long forgotten the wisdom bestowed to us by the great religious and spiritual leaders.  From the likes of Moses to Jesus and the Buddha, all these spiritual teachers sought to temporarily detach themselves from society in pursuit of the self-transcendence available to us through introspection.  

For how can one truly know thyself, and be free from the pressures and demands of modern society without an embrace of stillness.

I can continue to ramble on about the importance of cultivating solitude, but it would ultimately pale in comparison to the exquisite words of the great writers and poets.

So here are three of my favourite quotes and reflections, each exploring a different aspect of the topic.

Photo by Elizaveta Dushechkina on Pexels.com

Rainer Maria Rilke

But your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths

Letters to a Young Poet

The esteemed poet Rilke reflects on the necessity of solitude for personal and spiritual growth. Rilke acknowledges that time alone will come with discomfort as your mind unravels the fears and emotions hidden in the unconscious. However, only through stillness can one learn to accept and surrender these parts of themselves in order to transcend them.

We can escape from the demands of conformity placed on us by society, and relish in the peace and bliss that comes with cultivating our inner selves.  

Herman Hesse

True action, good and radiant action, my friends, does not spring from activity, from busy bustling, it does not spring from industrious hammering. It grows in the solitude of the mountains, it grows on the summits where silence and danger dwell. It grows out of the suffering which you have not yet learned to suffer

If the War Goes On: Reflections on War and Politics

Many of us spend our day to day lives stuck in the trance of busyness. We feel like we always ought to be doing something to feel important, to validate our self worth.

How little do we often spend time though on reflecting on the value and consequences of this ‘busyness’?

What can we genuinely achieve without modest self-reflection?

Photo by Cameron Casey on Pexels.com

Hesse comments that on the other side of suffering that our aloneness may bring, comes the bliss of solitude, peace and beauty.    

It is only when an individual voluntarily chooses and embraces seclusion can one reap its benefits. That is, one who spends time alone must be able to regulate their emotions and rejoin or re-enter social groups at their own will.

Once these preconditions are met, and one is able to ‘let go’ and accept their condition of solitude, it can provide us with the rejuvenation and insight we need.

Anthony Storr

It is widely believed that interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness. Yet the lives of creative individuals often seem to run counter to this assumption. For example, many of the world’s greatest thinkers have not reared families or formed close personal ties. This is true of Descartes, Newton, Locke, Pascale, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein

Solitude: A Return to the Self

Contrary to popular belief, it is not being in the physical presence of others that can subdue feelings of isolation. What matters is the connection or bond one has to others, themselves or their natural surroundings.

We can feel emotions of bitter loneliness while sitting in a packed room while embracing the benefits of solitude when we are alone with ourselves.

This is not to disregard the importance of intimate interpersonal relationships, rather it is to note that there are different alternatives and ways of life available to us. There is no one template one must follow to attain contentment in life.    

However, with all the anxieties we face in the modern world, it is good to still know we can always retreat into stillness – into solitude.

Photo by Kaique Rocha on Pexels.com

The sources I pulled from were mainly from the excellent blogs Brain Pickings and Academy of Ideas which are great resources for philosophy and literature.

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An Inner Voyage: Reflections on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

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People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside by the seashore, in the hills, and you too have made it your habit to long for that above all else. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul—

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book 4


Amidst the chaos and uncertain times we are living in during this global pandemic, I wanted to reflect on some wisdom from Marcus Aurelius that can help us reframe events and shift perspectives.

In this quote Marcus reflects on the notion that despite our external circumstances we can always find solace within.

Many of us seek to escape our day-to-day realities through retreat or travel. Travel can provide us with an opportunity to explore new landscapes, ideas, histories and cultures. Moreover, it offers us a temporary distraction from the ‘rat race’ and daily routines, in which we often operate in auto-pilot mode for.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the world is directed to reside inside, refrain from travel and remain in isolation to stop the spread of the virus. Nonetheless, I think we can use this time as an opportunity to cultivate solitude, and become more acquainted with our inner selves.

Rather than finding peace or tranquility though retreat, Marcus urges us to find it within ourselves. This can be done through living in the present moment, self reflection and contemplation. We can become aware of beauty and intricacies of life that we often ignore because we are too busy to do so. In the horrors of the Holocaust, Anne Frank was able to relish in the simple pleasures that life had to offer at that time. A glance at nature to recharge, find stillness and take a glimpse at the sublime.  In her diary she writes,

“As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?”

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
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Once we learn to find contentment within ourselves, in the mundane, we can find it anywhere.

Stay safe, and remain resilient.