To love where you pity

It is one of the best traits of good people that they love where they pity. And this is truer of women than of men. So they get themselves drawn into situations that are harmful to them. I have seen this happen many, many times. I have always had trouble finding a way to caution against it. Since it is, in a word, Christlike.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead


I have wondered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I’ve scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life. Night and light, silence and difficulty, it seemed to me always rigorous and good.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead


All the children play at war now. All of them make those sounds of airplanes and bombs and crashing and exploding. We did the same things, playing at cannon fire and bayonet charges.

There is certainly nothing in that fact to reassure.

Cataract that this world is, it is remarkable to consider what does abide in it.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

The summer is ended and still we are not saved

Jack brought gourds, a whole sack of them. Your mother sent him back with green tomatoes. Oh, these late, strange riches of the summer, these slab-sided pumpkins and preposterous zucchinis. Every wind brings a hail of acorns against the roof. Still, it is mild. For a while the spiders were building webs everywhere, and now those webs are all blown to shreds and tatters, so I suppose we can imagine well-fed spiders tucked up in the detritus of old leaves, drowsing away the very thought of toil.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead


Now, I may have been more than half asleep at this point, but a thought arose that abides with me. I wished I could sit at the feet of that eternal soul and learn. He did then seem to me the angel of himself, brooding over the mysteries his mortal life describes, the deep things of man. And of course that is exactly what he is. “For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him?” In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable — which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, nor or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Terrible pleasure

I might seem to be comparing something great and holy with a minor and ordinary thing, that is, love of God with mortal love. But I just don’t see them as separate things at all. If we can be divinely fed with a morsel and divinely blessed with a touch, then the terrible pleasure we find in a particular face can certainly instruct us in the nature of the very grandest love. I devoutly believe this to be true.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

This morning

This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven — one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning. My grandfather’s grave turned into the light, and the dew on his weedy little mortality patch was glorious.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Abrupt transformations

I had a dream once that Boughton and I were down at the river looking around in the shallows for something or other — when we were boys it would have been tadpoles — and my grandfather stalked out of the trees in that furious way he had, scooped his hat full of water, and threw it, so a sheet of water came sailing toward us, billowing in the air like a veil, and fell down over us. Then he put his hat back on his head and stalked off into the trees again and left us standing there in that glistening river, amazed at ourselves and shining like the apostles. I mention this because it seems to me transformations just that abrupt do occur in this life, and they occur unsought and unawaited, and they beggar your hopes and your deserving. This came to my mind as I was reflecting on the day I first saw your mother, that blessed, rainy Pentecost.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead


In the spring of 1997, I went skydiving for the first time, in Arizona. Skydiving is often discussed as a para-suicidal activity, and if I had in fact died while I was doing it, I imagine that it would have been tied in the imagination of my family and friends to my mood states. And yet — and I believe this is often the case for para-suicidal action — it felt not like a suicidal impulse but like a vital one. I did it because I felt so good that I was capable of it. At the same time, having entertained the idea of suicide, I had broken down certain barriers that had stood between me and self-obliteration. I did not want to die when I jumped out of an airplane, but I didn’t fear dying in the way I had feared it before my depression, and so I didn’t need so rigorously to avoid it. I’ve gone skydiving several times since then, and the pleasure I’ve had from my boldness, after so much time lived in reasonless fear, is incalculable. Every time at the door of the plane, I feel the adrenal rush of real fear, which, like grief, is precious to me for its simple authenticity. It reminds me what those emotions are actually about. Then comes the free fall, and the view over virgin country, and the overwhelming powerlessness and beauty and speed. And then the glorious discovery that the parachute is there after all. When the canopy opens, the updrafts in the wind suddenly reverse the fall, and I rise up and up away from the earth, as though an angel has suddenly come to my rescue to carry me to the sun. And then when I start to sink again, I do it so slowly and live in a world of silence in multiple dimensions. It is wonderful to discover that the fate you have trusted has warranted that trust. What joy it has been to find that the world can support my most rash experiments, to feel, even while falling, that I am held tightly by the world itself.

— Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon

Not wholly a failure

Suicide is, after all, the result of a choice. However impulsive the action and confused the motives, at the moment when a man finally decides to take his own life he achieves a certain temporary clarity. Suicide may be a declaration of bankruptcy which passes judgment on a life as one long history of failure. But it is a decision which, by its very finality, is not wholly a failure. There is, I believe, a whole class of suicides who take their own lives not in order to die but to escape confusion, to clear their heads. They deliberately use suicide to create an unencumbered reality for themselves or to break through the patterns of obsession and necessity which they have unwittingly imposed on their lives.

— Al Alvarez, The Savage God


I would say of suicide not that it is always a tragedy for the person who dies, but that it always comes too soon and too suddenly for those left behind. Those who condemn the right to die are committing a grave disservice. We all want more control over life than we have, and dictating the terms of other people’s lives makes us feel safe. That is no reason to forbid people their most primitive freedom. Nonetheless, I believe that those who, in supporting the right to die, distinguish some suicides absolutely from others are telling a lie to accomplish a political objective. It is up to each man to set limits to his own tortures. Fortunately, the limits most people set for themselves are high. Nietzsche once said that the thought of suicide keeps many men alive in the darkest part of the night, and I would say that the more fully one comes to terms with the idea of rational suicide, the safer one will be from irrational suicide. Knowing that if I get through this minute I could always kill myself in the next one makes it possible to get through this minute without being utterly overwhelmed. Suicidality may be a symptom of depression; it is also a mitigating factor. The thought of suicide makes it possible to get through depression. I expect that I’ll go on living so long as I can give or receive anything better than pain, but I do not promise that I will never kill myself. Nothing horrifies me more than the thought that I might at some stage lose the capacity for suicide.

— Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon