Letter from Henry James on Pain

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I have had this letter on my computer for decades. I sit with it and let it wash over me when needed. James wrote this months after the passing of his own parents in July of 1883 to his friend Grace Morton regarding her own recent loss.

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I don’t know why we live—the gift of life comes to us from I don’t know what source or for what purpose; but I believe we can go on living for the reason that (always of course up to a certain point) life is the most valuable thing we know anything about, and it is therefore presumptively a great mistake to surrender it while there is any yet left in the cup. In other words, consciousness is an illimitable power, and though at times it may seem to be all consciousness of misery, yet in the way it propagates itself from wave to wave, so that we never cease to feel, though at moments we appear to, try to, pray to, there is something that holds one in one’s place, makes it a standpoint in the universe which it is probably not good to forsake.

We all live together, and those of us who love and know, live so most. We help each other—even unconsciously, each in our own effort, we lighten the effort of others, we contribute to the sum of success, make it possible for others to live.

Sorrow comes in great waves…but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us, it leaves us on the spot, and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we, after a manner, see.

Henry James in a letter to Grace Norton, July 28, 1883

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