Einstein on Grief, Time, Eternity, and the Privilege of Old Age: His Beautiful Letter to the Bereaved Queen of Belgium
By Maria Popova
Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) is celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius.” But surely there is something more expansive than his undeniable scientific brilliance to warrant such high reverence — something that transcends the practical value of his intellectual contributions and opens into a larger enrichment of the human experience.
In addition to his groundbreaking discoveries in physics, which changed our understanding of time and fostered a common language of science, he was also a man of enormous wisdom, empathy, and emotional intelligence, which he channeled in his voluminous correspondence with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers — he wrote breathtaking love letters, counseled his young son on the secret to learning anything, assured a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared her gender would hold her back, shared the secret to his genius with an inquisitive colleague, and corresponded with Freud on violence, peace, and human nature.
But one of his most poignant and humane letters was addressed to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, with whom he had cultivated a warm friendship. After the sudden death of her husband, King Albert, followed closely by the death of her daughter-in-law, Einstein reached out to offer thoughtful and tender solace to his bereaved friend. Penned in 1934 and cited in Krista Tippett’s wonderful book Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library) — which also gave us cosmologist Janna Levin on mathematics, truth, and free will — the letter is at once a gift of warm consolation for the Queen’s grief and a timeless meditation on time, eternity, and the privilege of old age.
Shortly before his 55th birthday, Einstein writes:
Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you.
And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.
Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.
Einstein’s God, it bears repeating, is a magnificent read in its totality. Complement it with Einstein’s letter to a young woman who had lost faith in humanity and the childhood epiphany that shaped his life, then revisit Oliver Sacks on the gift of growing old.
Published January 22, 2016