A poignant perspective on “the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
To outlive one’s children is arguably the most unbearable of human miseries. Even the most empathic among us can never fully imagine the incomprehensible anguish of a parent who has survived the loss of a dear life that had only begun to blossom.
In February of 1950, a devastated and disconsolate New York father who had lost his eleven-year-old son to polio several months earlier turned to none other than Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) for pain-salving perspective. Their touching correspondence is included in Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library) — the slim, wonderful collection that gave us Einstein’s encouraging words on gender and science to a young girl who wanted to become a scientist.
The grief-stricken father writes:
Dear Dr. Einstein,
Last summer my eleven-year-old son died of polio. He was an unusual child, a lad of great promise who verily thirsted after knowledge so that he could prepare himself for a useful life in the community. His death has shattered the very structure of my existence, my very life has become an almost meaningless void — for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings. I have tried during the past months to find comfort for my anguished spirit, a measure of solace to help me bear the agony of losing one dearer than life itself — an innocent, dutiful, and gifted child who was the victim of such a cruel fate. I have sought comfort in the belief that man has a spirit which attains immortality — that somehow, somewhere my son lives on in a higher world.
With heart-rending and utterly disarming despair, the grieving father goes on to wonder whether some evidence of immortality may be found in the principle of energy conservation in science, then adds:
I write you all this because I have just read your volume The World as I See It. On page 5 of that book you stated: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension … such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.” And I inquire in a spirit of desperation, is there in your view no comfort, no consolation for what has happened? Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child … has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death? Is there nothing to assuage the pain of an unquenchable longing, an intense craving, an unceasing love for my darling son?
May I have a word from you? I need help badly.
Sixteen years after his sublime letter to the bereaved Queen of Belgium, which stands among history’s greatest letters of consolation, the physicist — himself the father of two boys — takes the time to respond to the grieving stranger. With great sensitivity to his pain, Einstein reminds the anguished father that science cannot provide the assurance of immortality he so longs for, at least not in a literal sense — such claims belong to the realm of religion. Unwilling to call on unreason and illusory comfort even from the depth of sympathy, Einstein instead offers a beautiful and benevolent perspective on the oneness of the universe, reminiscent of the Indian poet and philosopher Tagore’s ideas about the interdependence of existence. (Einstein and Tagore had bridged science and spirituality in their landmark conversation twenty year earlier.)
Fourteen years after answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray, Einstein writes on February 12, 1950:
Dear Mr. M.,
A human being is part of the whole world, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.
With my best wishes,
Complement the thoroughly wonderful Dear Professor Einstein with the legendary physicist on widening our circles of compassion, his timeless message to posterity, his answer to a woman who had lost sight of why we’re alive, and his letter of advice to his own son, then revisit Joan Didion on grief, a Zen master’s advice on navigating loss, and these uncommon children’s books that help kids mourn.