Emily Dickinson once said: “We never know how high we are / Till we are called to rise; / And then, if we are true to plan, / Our statures touch the skies.” This careful attention to one’s inner life and outer world is one of the many reasons this mid-nineteenth century poet keeps on inspiring modern women to this day. Though many remember Dickinson for her reclusive nature (she hardly ever left her hometown throughout her life), this poet inspires me to slow down and see the world in a new light, and to recognize that those things we pass by every day are infused with a beauty all their own.
Amid all the pressures and stresses of life, her careful words take on a whole new meaning.
01. No matter what, we can make a difference in the lives of others.
Emily’s life is marked by its seclusion, and by today’s standards, living with your parents for most of your life sounds less than ideal. But for Emily it was the quiet of her own room in her family house that provided her with the necessary environment for reading and writing. Emily reminds me that beauty is often right in front of us; we don’t have to go far to find it.
One of Dickinson’s famous poems begins with the line, “Forever—is composed of Nows—.” As a millennial who is constantly on the go, I find these words striking. Dickinson’s reference to the minute-to-minute reality reminds me that the differences I am trying to make—whether in my life, in my job, and in the world—are not for a distant future, but are born in the little actions of each day. I may not be in my dream job yet, I may not be living in that lovely little cottage I’ve always dreamed of, but the ability to discover the beauty in the place I am is key to contentment.
02. In the constant rush of life, we can still enjoy our moments.
Dickinson’s body of work, while often recognized for its engagement with painful and melancholy topics, is also sprinkled with poems that whimsically employ images from nature. In one of her poems she describes hope as a bird: “‘Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops / at all.”
Emily Dickinson seems to have savored life—both the painful and the contemplative. I like to think that her poetry allowed her to really be with her thoughts; to take them in, and really encounter them.
So often in my own life, I forget to give thanks for those little things that subtly sweeten life: a letter from a friend, a smile from a stranger, a beautiful day. This doesn’t mean that I don’t experience dark moments and rough patches, but noticing the good helps me acknowledge that both the good and the bad can coexist—that both are part of the reality of life.
03. Life is not limited by what we experience now.
Emily knew this just as well as anyone. She faced challenges about faith and also her relative anonymity as a poet during her lifetime. But Emily had an interesting way of looking at the world. On the one hand, she drew very close to her subject matter, so much so that a fly could embody grief, and a snake slithering through the grass could be the subject of a whole poem. On the other hand, she saw that she could comprehend only pieces of the world. She says in one of her poems that there is more to life than what we understand at this moment: “This World is Not Conclusion.” In another poem she recommends to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant-” because “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.”
These ideas inspire me because they are encouragement to keep about me a sense of wonder in my approach to life. I’m never going to understand everything, and sometimes I will only come to understand things in retrospect—why I didn’t get a job I wanted, why a relationship ended, why I went through a period of deep sadness. To know that there are more to these moments than feelings of pain, failure, or heartache is to embrace the spirit of Dickinson’s work.
Dickinson’s life is a testament to me as a twentysomething who sometimes wonders: What am I supposed to do with my life? How am I supposed to serve others? Dickinson reminds us that we can contribute to the world in myriad ways. She did so in a hidden way—she wrote words that first meant something to her, and that ended up making her famous after her death. Her short poems—packed full with the trials and joys of living—invite us to savor the richness of life in even the littlest things.
Photo Credit: Shay Ryan