Hope and Suffering

Walt Whitman grew up in a family of nine children. He ended his formal education when he was 11 in order to earn money for his family. He acquired printing skills. While he worked on various publishing and printing jobs, he had hopes of becoming a writer and poet.

In his 30’s, he became nervous about becoming a poet. He wanted to convert his hope into a reality. He paid for the publication of his first collection of poems entitled Leaves of Grass, but didn’t think it was worth reading. No title was on the book.

While Walt Whitman didn’t have much hope for his book of poems, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a great admirer. In spite of Emerson’s praise and the successful roles, Whitman needed to return to his printing skills to make a living. His hope to be a part was becoming fulfilled, but the reality was he still needed to earn a living.

When Whitman was 53, he suffered a severe stroke, which left him severely disabled. As he slowly healed, he began to reflect on his life and his contributions to society. He started reflecting on the meaning of life. He published Specimen Days as a way to think about what it means to be a thinking, feeling human being.

Whitman continued to add to revise Leaves of Grass after his stroke as well as completing other works. It was as if his paralyzed body gave him new hope and insight about living. He completed his final version of Leaves of Grass at the age of 71, one year before his death.

The story of Walt Whitman is a story of hope. It begins with a personal hope for producing poetry that others would find worthwhile. It’s also a story of how one person (Emerson) can foster the hope of another. And finally, it’s a story of continuing hope through a time of physical challenge to understand the meaning of life.

As we think of hopes for our own lives, it’s helpful to reflect on how fragile our physical being maybe be, but how resilient our hopes can remain. Walt Whitman spent half of his literary life as a paralyzed man, but that did not deter his hopes. In fact, it helped him understand his hopes and his life’s purpose.

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“Happiness, not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour.”  – Walt Whitman

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