On Mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, no;

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Those lines begin a poem by John Donne called “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” (You can read the whole poem here.) Donne wrote this poem to his wife while on a journey that took him away from her, and in it, he gives several reasons why their separation should not be a cause for mourning.

It’s a beautiful poem, and maybe someday I’ll write about the whole thing. But today, I’m only thinking about these opening stanzas. Donne’s first reason not to mourn is simple and straightforward: mourning is, in general, a public act—and their love is too great for publicity.

“…trepidation of the spheres…”

The biggest, most important events often happen so quietly they pass unnoticed.

This is the way “virtuous men” often die, Donne suggests in the first stanza. Their passing is so peaceful, so subtle, that their friends, gathered around their bedside, are never sure when exactly the moment occurred.

In films, death is usually portrayed dramatically. We’d like to think that there’s something about the end of life that’s so remarkable, so significant, that we can’t fail to notice it. The truth of the matter goes against what we might instinctually want to believe: death is, in reality, often surprisingly uneventful for an event of such importance.

The same principle holds true in the natural world, Donne continues. In 1611, when Donne wrote this poem, people believed that the universe consisted of spheres nestled inside each other. Different planets and other heavenly bodies were located inside different spheres and rotated at different speeds, thus accounting for their different trajectories across the heavens. When a planet or a star or some other heavenly body moved in an unexpected way, astronomers believed it was because the celestial spheres had trembled, throwing the universe off course.

Obviously, we no longer believe that the universe is made up of “celestial spheres.” But imagine if we did. Imagine a trembling somewhere in space so great that it throws the entire universe off-balance, changes the path of giant planets and stars and solar systems.

Yet this great trembling is relatively unnoticed on earth. Maybe a few astronomers realize that things aren’t where they’re supposed to be—but how many of us know enough about the night sky to even notice what’s going on, much less whether it’s following any kind of pattern?

Now compare this to the “moving of th’ earth”. When an event like an earthquake happens, everyone talks about it. We look at the damage it has caused, and it awakens all our fears of what a natural disaster could mean. I’ve been in a few earthquakes, and even when they’re not huge disasters (none of the ones I’ve been in have been very large), everyone makes a fuss about them for a day or two.

Compared to the “trepidation of the spheres,” though, an earthquake is nothing. It’s like comparing a drop of water to a tidal wave. Although a trembling in the celestial spheres is great enough to knock the universe off-course, greater by far than any little disturbance we might observe on the earth, it’s not something we notice, not something that we make a big deal about.

That, Donne argues, is what his love with his wife is like: something so great and so significant that it shouldn’t be public.

“…profanation of our joys…”

We live in an age of publicity. We are encouraged by our social-media-obsessed society to make every detail of our lives public. Every event, every emotion, every relationship, even every meal we eat is broadcast to the world at large. Somehow, we’ve absorbed this idea that if something means something to us, if something is of any importance to us, we should share it.

Should we really, though?

Donne believes it would cheapen their love to make it—or the sorrow they feel at being apart—public knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of transparency, of being yourself and not being afraid to talk about the hard stuff. But there comes a point when something is too personal, too precious to be on display.

It’s hard to find that balance between vulnerability and privacy. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure where that line is. It’s something I’ve struggled with since leaving Nicaragua. On one hand, I want to be honest about how hard it has been for me to leave home so suddenly. I want people to get to know me, and right now a huge part of me is grieving the life I used to have and the people I had to leave behind.

But on the other hand, Donne might have a point. My feelings about Nicaragua right now—the love, the grief, the longing—are big feelings, complex emotions that resist definition. When I do try to describe what I’m going through, I often feel that I’ve cheapened the intensity of my experience by trying to share something so deeply personal with someone who can’t fully enter in to that experience with me.

The space between the lines

I don’t want to imply that we shouldn’t seek support from our communities—we absolutely should. What I would like to do is give you—and myself—permission not to share the things that are closest to our hearts.

When I first moved here, I felt that it would be dishonest to not be completely open about what I’m feeling. 

I struggled to reconcile the seemingly opposing ideas of transparency and privacy. It seemed like if I didn’t tell people I was having a hard time with everything that was going on, that I was denying something that was—and still is—a huge part of my life.

But what if the opposite is true?

Donne challenges me to consider that I’ve been thinking about this completely backwards. Maybe it is sharing something personal that denies its importance. Maybe it is in making my heartache public knowledge that I cheapen it. Maybe it’s okay to leave space between the lines, to leave things unsaid, to grieve silently, privately, away from the public eye.

I’m not saying you should never share things that matter to you. I write a blog about things that matter to me very much (and I fully recognize the irony of that while writing this post!). And I’m most definitely not telling you how you should or should not grieve. In fact, I’m not saying you *should* do or not do anything.

But if you’re anything like me and you feel the obligation to share E V E R Y T H I N G that’s going through your mind in the name of honesty and transparency, let me (and John Donne) suggest an alternative:

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

I’m curious to hear your perspective. When have you found sharing to be helpful, and when does it cheapen the intensity of your feelings? Please let me know what you think in the comments!


    • Amy said:

      I’m glad you found the post helpful, Eulalia! Thanks for stopping by!

      March 4, 2019
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