“…and when two people have loved each other see how it is like a scar between their bodies, stronger, darker, and proud…”
In the autumn of 1664, when the black plague shrouded the world in a deadly pandemic and universities sent their students home for a quarantine the end of which no one could foresee, a young man besotted with mathematics, motion, and light returned to his illiterate mother’s orchard, where he watched an apple fall. A revolution of understanding rose in its shadow — he fathomed the mechanics of a mystery that had enchanted humanity for epochs: how bodies can act on other bodies, attracting one another impalpably and invisibly across space and separation, as if by magic.
The religions called it grace. It was called gravity by science, led by the young Newton.
Since then, we have discovered three more fundamental, presently unreducible forces that wind the clockwork to reality. Gravity is the weakest among the four.38Times weaker than those who are strongest. Yet, they can be the most immediately accessed, most easily embodied and most intuitively graspable by the creaturely instincts. The unfathomed thing once explained as magic is now a commonplace of common sense, woven into our elemental understanding of the world and, in consequence, woven into our metaphors — those handles on the door of understanding.
It is on gravity’s metaphor we lean when we speak of the binding force of love — the attraction that draws ensouled bodies to one another, as if by magic. Even with all the advances science has made over the past eras, and throughout the history of humanity, where the brightest and the most brokenhearted have co-walked side by side, the binding force of love is still mystery to us.
This might always remain so — as the stardust-residue of ideas that was once Carl Sagan reminds us, “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.” A vast part of me hopes it does remain so — some things are more important felt than known: felt fully and unconditionally, for they can only ever be understood incompletely and conjecturally. Rachel Carson was a passionate believer in the poetry of science. But she knew it when she said that knowledge is only half as important as feeling. E.E. Cummings knew it when, in his impassioned case for the courage to be yourself, he observed that “whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself… the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”
There have been centuries after Newton, and many generations since Carson and Cummings. Jane Hirshfield — another philosopher-poet intimately attuned to the poetics of reality, an ordained Zen Buddhist who thinks deeply and writes splendidly about the living realities and lush metaphors of the natural world — addressed this in a poem that has saved me, and continues to save me, across many seasons of being. Originally published in her 1988 lifeline of a collection Of Gravity & Angels (public library) — a title evocative of the posthumous record of Simone Weil’s exquisite consciousness, Gravity and Grace — it is generously read here for us by the poet herself:
FOR WHAT BINDS US
We have names to describe what binds us.
For strong or weak forces
You can find them all around you.
The skin formed in half-empty cups.
The places where they meet are rusted by nails
Joints are influenced by their weight.
How things are so stable
wherever they’ve been set down —
According to scientists, gravity and gravity are weak.
See how your flesh changes!
You will find a way to cross a wound with great vehemence.
Rather than the untested, simple surface.
There’s a name for it on horses,
When it returns darker and more mature: the proud flesh
as all flesh,
Wears its scars proudly
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest —
When two people love each other,
You can see what it’s like to be there
They will have scars on their bodies.
Stronger, stronger and more proud
How the black cord creates a single fabric
You can’t tear it or make it right.
Complement with David Whyte’s sensitive meditation on what we place between ourselves and true love and Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love” — a classic hymn to living ourselves back to life after heartbreak — then revisit Jane Hirshfield’s timeless ode to resilience, “The Weighing.”
Giving = Being Loving
Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your own life better. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.
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