May Sarton on How to Live Openheartedly in a Harsh World
By Maria Popova
This world is radiant with beauty. This world is also capable of bone-chilling brutality and the small, corrosive daily cruelties that salt our days with sorrow. For a sensitive person to live with the duality, to keep the light aflame without turning away from the darkness that needs illumination, may be the most difficult thing in life — and the most rewarding.
What it takes, and how it rewards us, is what the great poet and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores in a journal entry from her altogether dazzling 1977 book The House by the Sea (public library).
With an eye to the daily reality of teenagers killing with firearms — a reality that, in the decades since, has been magnified from interpersonal violence to mass shootings — she considers the long roots of desensitization, fanged into the body of the world with every war:
What have we done to our children that such indifference is possible? A total disconnection between the act and the human terror and despair involved?
In a passage of stunning prescience and relevance to our own epoch, she answers:
We are in a period where torture is taken for granted almost everywhere, and where the so-called civilized peoples must go on eating candy and drinking whiskey while millions die of hunger. So one has to extrapolate the morally indifferent boys to the whole ethos in which they live. And at the root of it all is the lack of imagination. If we had imagined what we were doing in Vietnam it would have had to be stopped. But the images of old women holding shattered babies or of babies screaming ended by passing before our eyes but never penetrating to consciousness where they could be experienced. Are we paying for Vietnam now by seeing our children become monsters?
Sarton offers a cure for this deadly indifference — a cure that honeys this twenty-first-century soul with its poignancy and its potency:
I am more and more convinced that in the life of civilizations as in the lives of individuals too much matter that cannot be digested, too much experience that has not been imagined and probed and understood, ends in total rejection of everything — ends in anomie. The structures break down and there is nothing to “hold onto.” It is understandable that at such times religious fanatics arise and the fundamentalists rise up in fury. Hatred rather than love dominates. How does one handle it? The greatest danger, as I see it in myself, is the danger of withdrawal into private worlds. We have to keep the channels in ourselves open to pain. At the same time it is essential that true joys be experienced, that the sunrise not leave us unmoved, for civilization depends on the true joys, all those that have nothing to do with money or affluence — nature, the arts, human love. Maybe that is why the pandas in the London Zoo brought me back to poetry for the first time in two years.
Complement this fragment of the wholly ravishing The House by the Sea with Sarton on the cure for despair, then revisit Walt Whitman, writing shortly after his paralytic stroke, on what makes life worth living and Mary Oliver on the measure of a life well lived.
Published January 1, 2023