Learning is consolation for sorrow: What to do when the world gets you down

A Velocity of Being

© Cindy Derby
Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In his wonderful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, Yo-Yo Ma tells children about how books helped him survive his own childhood, listing King Arthur among his three great heroes; as a young boy born in France to Chinese parents, trying to find his mooring as an immigrant in America, he reaped great consolation and inspiration from the tales of the legendary medieval leader — stories of “adventure, heroism, human frailty and accidental destiny” that emboldened him to believe in the power of the quest for holy grails and improbable dreams — dreams as improbable as a small boy with no homeland growing up to be the world’s greatest cellist.

And, indeed, buried inside the adventure-thrill of these Arthurian tales are treasure troves of wisdom on fortitude, courage, and the art of honorable living, nowhere richer than in the novels by T.H. White (May 29, 1906-January 17, 1964), one particular passage in which offers a meta-testament to the potency of reading in the character-formation of King Arthur himself.

TH White, The Once and Future King

In White’s 1958 Arthurian classic The Once and Future King (public library) — one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s lifelong favorite books — the mystic-magician Merlyn, aware of the young not-yet-king Arthur’s destiny, endeavors to sculpt the boy’s moral fiber and to teach him what it means to be a strong, kindly leader through a series of lessons from the animal kingdom, transforming him by turns into a fish, a hawk, an ant, a goose, and a badger. One day, the young Arthur comes to Merlyn in his ordinary human incarnation, sulking with an ordinary human disappointment — that small, merciless mallet for our fragility. Merlyn offers his advice on the mightiest antidote to disappointment and sorrow:

The best thing for being sad… is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

In a sentiment evocative of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell’s observation that “we have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” Merlyn adds:

Look at what a lot of things there are to learn — pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a million lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics — why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit — a modern-day magician of storytelling — on how books solace, empower, and transform us, philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility, and poet Mary Oliver on the greatest antidote to sorrow, then revisit Bruce Lee’s philosophy of learning, Lewis Carroll’s four rules of learning, and Albert Einstein’s advice to his own young son on the secret to learning anything.