Updated: Jan 24
“What are heavy? Sea-sand and sorrow/ What are brief? Today and tomorrow/ What are frail? Spring blossoms and youth/ What are deep? The ocean and truth.” i
Profound thoughts, simply put. So I was surprised and pleased to hear them coming from my seven-year-old granddaughter’s mouth. Of course, I hasten to add, she was quoting Christina Rossetti. But the fact that she was quoting these thoughts made me think: she must be a profound little girl. (But then, she would be profound, being my granddaughter!)
Gently prompted by her parents one evening at the dinner table, she unhesitatingly rehearsed the poem.
I asked her to write it down in my journal.
I have read much of Christina Rossetti, but I had never heard this one. Though expressed in a deceptively simple way, on further examination the thoughts are compelling, giving much to ponder. What is heavier than sorrow? Briefer than tomorrow? —since tomorrow actually never comes—or deeper than an ocean of truth?
Most likely, my granddaughter has yet to experience heavy sorrow—though some seven-year-olds certainly do—nor has she thought much about the frailty of youth, herself being a child, not yet in the category we term “youth.” She can understand, though, the frailty of the blossoms she picks for her mother or of toys that break or lose their charm.
From my vantage point, all of life—in varying ways and at various times—has its heaviness, its brevity, its frailty, its depth.
Curious, and hopeful of some profound thoughts, I scrolled through a few internet sites looking for quotes on the brevity of life. I was advised not to waste my brief life worrying, regretting, being bored, or spending time with boring or draining people—among other ideas of dubious value. While it’s true that “worry is like a rocking chair/it gives you something to do/ but doesn’t get you anywhere,” ii or that regret does not undo the thing regretted, I find these types of advice superfluous: I have worries. I have regrets. No Pollyanna attitude that I can try to work up will be successful in eradicating or softening them.
As for boring or draining people, there is an ocean of depth to every person that—sometimes with difficulty—awaits discovery. Rather, it’s the boring person who is not willing to patiently draw out the depths that are there. Why do I believe there are depths? Because we are told at the beginning of biblical history that our Creator made every person in His “image”—like Him—as sentient, thinking, willful beings. I have missed many opportunities to exercise the patience it often requires to plumb those depths. That is a regret.
One of those regrets comes immediately to mind: I was in seventh grade, and a boy in my class whom I considered—with all my seventh-grade exceptional discernment— “boring” had a crush on me. Without letting him know directly that I did not want his attentions, I secretly put a tack on his chair. He sat on it. He cried. At that moment I was keenly aware of my meanness. I was also aware that I had hurt this person, more than just the pain in the seat of his pants. He was someone worth knowing—though I never admitted my mean act or asked his forgiveness or tried to get to know him. Hopefully, I’ve grown beyond seventh grade. Hopefully, he has, too, despite the cruelty I inflicted.
When I looked for wisdom on “sorrow,” I did find profound thoughts, because my search led me to C.S. Lewis’ book A Grief Observed, iii in which he writes of acute, protracted, heavier-than-sea-sand sorrow on losing the wife of his brief marriage. Here is no cheery promise that things will get better (“just believe!”), or advice to “go do something fun,” or “treat yourself, you deserve it!” It is rock bottom, wrenching, ponderous grief. Though his sorrow did not lead him to give up on his faith in God, it was also not quickly assuaged, even by God. Indeed, it was like “an amputation,” which would always leave him incomplete, even if he learned how to live without one leg. And that seems to convey the crippling nature of the sorrow of loss (of any kind), unless or until it is truly assuaged.
My search for “truth” yielded some worthwhile thoughts as well as some half-truths. For instance, the well-known statement “The truth shall set you free,” was truncated and its source not cited. The author of the quote is Jesus, who said, “If you abide in my word… you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” iv He indicates that knowing the truth (with a capital “T”) is conditional; thus, the freedom He promises is also conditional. But it’s possible, for those who take the plunge into its depths. (Free from what? Jesus explains that in the longer context of his statement. See below.)
I did not need to research the concept of the frailty of youth. I have memory—my own, my children’s. Further reflection on my seventh-grade behavior has me wondering: was my merciless act one more insult and injury in that boy’s experience to send him into despondence about his worth? Youth is frail—indeed, it is fragile.
With the (profound) Christina Rossetti poem going through my head, I was inspired to try to come up with some (not nearly so profound) couplets of my own: “What are hidden? Secrets and souls/ What are treacherous? Hatred and shoals/What are unsure? Broken threads and caprice/ What are sublime? Warm bread and peace.” v
They may result in another essay, just for fun.
It could be an interesting exercise to try around your dinner table some evening with family or friends. You never know what a seven-year-old—or a 70-something—may come up with.
i Christina Rossetti, 1830-1894
ii Attributed to Erma Bombeck, 1927-1996
iii Published in 1961 under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk and in 1963 under his own name.
iv The gospel of John 8:31, 32 (See whole chapter for context.)
v Vivian Hyatt, 2023