I’m fascinated by thinkers who express deep trust in life. Lately, impelled by anxiety, I’ve wondered what they mean by this, another way of saying “faith.” For me, transformation has often begun this tiny: curiosity about one concept. Curiosity itself is a transformation, like roots growing from a seed. The more I water these roots, the sooner and stronger they blossom.
“You must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet)
You can find similar thoughts in Etty Hillesum’s diary and the On Being interview with David Steindl-Rast.
Does this “life” mean the soul’s capacity to use emotion to keep unfolding, with deepening blessings and love, no matter what happens around it? I think so, as I’ve experienced it myself. I haven’t absorbed all the lessons of this experience, though, because I’m still frightened by sadness and unease.
When I’m curious about something human, studying history helps change me by showing a lifetime arc. During Elul, I think of a man who wrote one of America’s first abolitionist tracts and supported education for Native Americans and women’s rights. Judge Samuel Sewall, an ancestor of Louisa May Alcott, was blessed by his sadness. Years earlier, he helped send twenty women to their deaths in the Salem Witch Trials. The only judge who publicly repented, he wrote an apology for his minister to read to their congregation, and he wore sackcloth under his clothes for the rest of his life while dedicating himself to the marginalized.
I hope my curiosity will blossom into trusting life so I’ll never write such a person off, tempted by our culture of opprobrium; never give in to fear; and never despair.