"And finally, insane for the light, you are the butterfly, and you are gone." -- Goethe
“And finally, insane for the light, you are the butterfly, and you are gone.” — Goethe

I went to post something on Facebook this morning, and realized it was yet another praise for pain and struggle. I do this a lot, I realized –post quotes from Dante and Rumi and all those guys who had a romance with acute pain and grief. It might seem masochistic of me or, worse, condescending and sadistic when someone else is going through it. But the most important thing I’ve learned in my life is that pain and grief can have magical potential – but only if you stay awake and open through them. I stumbled through most of my life clumsily batting away pain, swerving to avoid it, or trying desperately to sleep through it when it visited. So I never had to find what Victor Frankl calls “the Why” when he says, “He who has a Why can bear almost any How.”

My emotional tinder built up over  period of years, and finally combusted in a spectacular flameout, which burned away years of accumulated fear, depression and the obscuring clouds of self-disregard. So yes, I guess I do have a love affair with pain and struggle, and have become a deeply annoying evangelist for grief.

Goethe wrote about this in his poem, The Holy Longing:

“Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
because the mass man will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.

In the calm water of the love-nights,
where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
a strange feeling comes over you,
when you see the silent candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught in the obsession with darkness,
and a desire for higher love-making sweeps you upward.

Distance does not make you falter.
Now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.”

These days, I brazenly encourage friends to throw themselves into the fire when it appears. Sometimes I even harass them, poking at them repeatedly when they are trying to fall back asleep, as someone once did for me. It’s natural to want to make ourselves unconscious to pain, no matter how many times we might have experienced its liberating qualities. But when we are in a rut, more than likely we are still just swerving repeatedly. That doesn’t feel good, either, but it’s less acutely painful than swan diving right onto a field of spikes. So we keep on swerving.

Of course, the truth is that the spikes always find us anyway. When they do, stay awake. Dive right onto them. You won’t regret it.

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2 thoughts on ““What longs to be burned to death”: a love affair with pain and grief

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