Startled by Life
Emily Dickinson said, "To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else," and if she, who spent most of her adult life in her bedroom, could feel that way, then think how it must be for the rest of us.
-- Garrison Keillor
Unlike Emily Dickinson, the rest of us are rarely startled by life. Quite the contrary, we are mostly beset by its opposite, boredom – a chronic affliction in a world where too many people have too much time on their hands. Medieval theologians identified boredom (accidie) as one of the seven deadly sins, not so much because boredom itself is so bad but because of what it might lead to. Boredom causes us to crave sensation for its own sake, resulting in a perpetual state of distraction as we seek to relieve our condition. We demand to be entertained rather than enlightened.
Boredom does not appear to have been Emily Dickinson’s problem, even though she rarely ventured beyond the confines of her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. She grew up in a family that prized education for both sexes, but she lasted only a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in nearby South Hadley. She returned home to her family and stayed there for the rest of her life, occupying herself with domestic chores, gardening and her poems. Her social life consisted of family members and a wider circle of people she knew mostly through her correspondence with them. Face-to-face meetings were rare, and she sometimes entertained her few visitors through the door of her bedroom.
Dickinson’s poems were brief, almost telegraphic, employing unconventional rhyme and meter. The few published in her lifetime were heavily edited to conform to the literary standards of her day. Mostly she copied them out by hand onto good stationery and sewed them together into little booklets that she never showed to anyone. Her sister found this cache after her death and arranged for their publication. Once again, the poems were extensively reworked. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that they were restored to their original form and Dickinson secured her reputation as one of the great American poets.
Eccentric and reclusive, Dickinson may have been what has lately come to be called a “highly sensitive person.” A highly sensitive person suffers from more or less permanent sensory overload, recoiling from bright lights and loud noises, acutely affected by the moods of others and easily overwhelmed by the world’s demands. Such people crave solitude the way others seek company and are often deeply spiritual. They may seem unfit for a world that is too much with us, as Wordsworth once put it. But their seeming incapacities give them singular insight into the world as God made it. Although she never embraced conventional religious pieties, Dickinson understood, as her church-going peers did not, that the distance between heaven and earth is easily bridged by those with eyes to see what is right in front of them.
Heaven is so far of the Mind
That were the Mind dissolved—
The Site—of it—by Architect
Could not again be proved—
'Tis vast—as our Capacity—
As fair—as our idea—
To Him of adequate desire
No further 'tis, than Here—