The Quest to Understand

“We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable.”
― Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill


This is my second post in the quote series. It is several days late, not that my tardiness should surprise anyone at this point. I am the kind of person who shocks and worries my friends if I am on time. I thought I would take my favorite quote and turn it into a plug for my favorite book. Feel duped? Meh. I guess I am inconsiderate in more than one way.

So why Virginia Woolf, and why On Being Ill specifically? Woolf is one of those writers that so clearly understood what it means to be human, that every word she wrote is poignant and full of that ah-ha potential. My first introduction to her was in a power of lit course. During those three months, we examined the representation of mental illness in literature through the ages and how it correlated with cultural perceptions. Though On Being Ill is not written specifically about mental illness, it can be read in that vein.

The book is thin. It is actually a really long essay where Woolf waxes poetic about physical ailments, pain, loneliness, and how those things force us to better see and understand the world around us, “In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality.”

You could read this book in an afternoon, and your life would be better for it. Woolf’s writing on illness contains a mystic quality. Being that she spent a good portion of her life battling illnesses of all sorts, both mental and physical, we could all stand to learn something from her insights. Woolf calls illness the “great confessional, things are said, truths are blurted out which health conceals.” Throughout the essay, she is candid and open, and her confessions are breathtaking.

Pick up the book and become one of what she calls the deserters. While everyone else marches to battle, “We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky.” I promise your outlook and life will be altered for the better.

We need more Woolf’s, more people willing to talk candidly about their experiences and share their insights. Perhaps this book will inspire you. Maybe it will fill some need deep inside of you. In the least, it will make your world a little less dark. We need more words and language that allow us to breathe and say, “So it is not just me.” For now, we have this book, but perhaps this book will inspire you to contribute your own experiences to the world.

“The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.  There is nothing ready made for him.  He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out.  Probably it will be something laughable.”