The Passages That Guide Your Life

Virginia Woolf in a room of her own at Monk's House, her home in Rodmell, East Sussex, England. (Wikimedia)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, we published a series of formative passages that have prompted readers to confront deep existential questions. This week, more readers look to literature for answers and guidance—and sometimes a challenge. Jenny Bhatt writes:

I first came across a worn-down copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own at age 18 in a tiny “raddiwala” (used paper/scrap collector) shack in Bombay, India. Reading it all the way through that evening, I went alternately hot and cold at various passages. Like the Girton College women [to whom Woolf addressed the essay], I was trying to decide what to do next with my life, as the options for someone of my gender, class, and caste in India then were limited and all led to a lifetime of housewifery. I had wanted be a journalist, a writer, and had been told it was not a respectable profession. I had heard the ridicule Woolf had described: “The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?”

At the time, this was a major revelation (she elaborated it beautifully and compellingly over several pages, of course):

Intellectual freedom depends on material things. Poetry depends on intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.

And this part was as if she was talking directly to me:

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream. For I am by no mean confining you to fiction. If you would please me—and there are thousands like me—you would write books of history and biography, and criticism and philosophy and science. …     

Young women, you are, in my opinion, disgracefully ignorant. You have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. You have never shaken an empire or led an army into battle. The plays of Shakespeare are not by you, and you have never introduced a barbarous race to the blessings of civilization. What is your excuse?

Even now, I have a visceral reaction to this challenge. Before I finished reading, I knew I had to do what she had exhorted those Girton women to do: get “500 a year, and a room of one’s own.”

It’s been a tough, long road of not-writing to get to where I am able to live off my own “500 a year” and, yes, write. So, I’m a late-starter, but I’m doing it on my own terms. I would never have taken those first steps to defy convention, get over my own mental roadblocks, and make my way in the world if it hadn’t been for this book and this author. I return to both often and with a love and gratitude I cannot even put into appropriate words.

This next reader, Andrea, sends two excerpts from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet that resonate with her “as someone trying to live some important questions right now”:

This is somewhat akin to Nietzsche’s aphorism “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” but it’s far lovelier:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

More from that same book but less well known:

Penguin Random House

Almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralyzing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living. Because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered into our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more—is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered. …

The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us, so much the better do we make it ours, so much the more will it be our destiny, and when on some later day it “happens” (that is, steps forth out of us to others), we shall feel in our inmost selves akin and near to it. And that is necessary. It is necessary—and toward this our development will move gradually—that nothing strange should befall us, but only that which has long belonged to us. …

That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.

Lynn shares a different kind of guiding passage:

This is what’s on my fridge most prominently at the moment (it is from Muriel Burberry’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which was not my favorite read by a long shot, but I have loved this idea):

Europa Editions

There’s so much humanity in a love of trees, so much nostalgia for our first sense of wonder, so much power in just feeling our own insignificance when we are surrounded by nature … yes, that’s it:  just thinking about trees and their indifferent majesty and our love for them teaches us how ridiculous we are—vile parasites squirming on the surface of the earth—and at the same time how deserving of life we can be, when we can honor this beauty that owes us nothing.

It feels powerful and affirming to me, because I struggle with the knowledge that we are destroying our surroundings, but that we, too, are creatures of the earth and have a right to take joy in it. Will we ever be able to find a way to live with the earth instead of against it?

Lastly, Lucille:

Europa Editions

I retired 10 years ago and soon came across a quote in a book by British author Jane Gardam, Old Filth (acronym for “failed in London, try Hong Kong”). One of the characters, Isobel Ingoldsby, is referred to in this short line:

She was unfailingly delighted by the surprise of each new day.

I want it to define the days in the years still available to me.

If you’ve got a passage that defines your days, please share it with us.