Yesterday we took a break from opening boxes to go to the movies. We saw “A Quiet Passion.” It’s not a film for everyone. The pace is slow. Not much happens. There’s no sex or special effects. Instead it’s a story about Emily Dickinson—about her illness, her deep connection to family, her genius for poetry, and the gift and curse of isolation. Two things struck me.
First, the strength of her core identity. Dickinson knew what she thought, what she liked, and what she was called to do with her life and she seldom wavered. Isaiah Berlin once said there are two kinds of people: hedgehogs and foxes. Foxes know a little about a lot of things but hedgehogs know a lot about one thing. Emily Dickinson was the quintessential hedgehog. Her scope was narrow but very deep.
The film gave the impression that her being a recluse was in large part because she had bright’s disease, but also because she was such an interior person.
I thought about our culture’s addiction to stimulation and our inability to be still and explore our thoughts and imagination. Dickinson got up at 3:00 am. It was just her and the blank page waiting to see what would happen. Our culture too often forgets how important it is to cultivate our interior life: letters, journals, poems, essays. We tend to comment on others’ ideas and miss the opportunity to discover our own.
There’s a scene early in the film when the teacher of her school asks the students to step to the sides of the room to signal their conviction of faith. Emily stands alone in the center. The teacher says to her, “You are alone in your rebellion.” I wonder at this kind of strength and certainty.
Then the family. She lived with her parents and her brother was next door. In the 19th Century you were your family. Now we are our job. Perhaps this is why Benedict in his Rule established the vow of stability. You grow with a place as it grows with you. I think of my many moves and the people in our address book I haven’t seen for decades and I wonder if slower might be better in the long run.
I don’t want to duplicate Emily Dickinson’s life by any means. However, I do want to incorporate some pieces of it and incorporate them into this life in this tumultuous century. I want to “be still and know that God is God” more often. I want to make more space for my imagination—maybe not at 3:00 in the morning but early in the day. Finally, I want to pay attention to the roots I have with both friends and family. I want to be more of a hedgehog than a fox because going faster will not make me wiser or happier or holier. It will just keep me distracted from the life God wants me to live.