The Art of Choosing Love Over Not-Love: Rumi’s Antidote to Our Human Tragedy

“You’ll long for me when I’m gone… You’ll kiss the headstone of my grave… Kiss my face instead!”

The Art of Choosing Love Over Not-Love: Rumi’s Antidote to Our Human Tragedy

“What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” Lisel Mueller wrote in her short, stunning poem about what gives meaning to our mortal lives.

To become precious — that is the work of love, the task of love, the great reward of love. Death’s recompense. It is the human miracle which makes life’s transience bearable.

It is heartbreaking enough that we do lose everything that exists, everything and everyone we love, until we lose life itself — for we are a function of a universe in which it cannot be otherwise. But it is our singular human-made heartbreak that we often cope with our terror of loss — that deepest awareness of our own mortality — by losing sight of just how precious we are to each other, squandering in less-than-love the chance-miracle of our time alive together, only to recover our vision when entropy has taken its toll, when it is too late. We write poems and pop songs about our self-made tragedy — “The art of losing isn’t hard to master“; “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” — and we go on living it.

Mueller died eight centuries ago. A short poem of another poet with rare contact to the most profound strata of truth gave life and spirit an indignation. Rumi (September 30, 1207–December 17, 1273), who believed that you must “gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being.” Rumi, ancient and eternal. His eloquent dedication and soulful intelligence were magnetic. Majestic in his whirling silk robe and his defiant disdain for his culture’s worship of status. Poets mixed with volcanic.

Rumi (detail from a 16th-century Persian illuminated manuscript, Morgan Library & Museum)

Rumi made nearly sixty-six million verses over his sixty-six-year-old years. He was driven by an exuberant devotion to loving and living fully. Having mastered the mathematical musicality of the quatrain, he became a virtuoso of the ghazal with its series of couplets, each invoking a different poetic image, each crowned with the same refrain — a kind of kinetic sculpture of surprise, rapturous with rhythm.

His poetry is featured in Gold (public Library), a stunning selection that has been translated and inspirited in a new translation by Haleh Gafori, poet and musician.

Insisting upon the artistic challenge of converting the poetic truths from one culture and epoch into another, she wrote:

English and Farsi are different languages in terms of their poetic habits and resources. In English, it is impossible to reproduce the rich interplay of sound and rhyme (internal as well as terminal) and the wordplay that characterize and even drive Rumi’s poems. The tropes and abstractions of Persian poetry are contrasted with the simplicity and concreteness that English poetry, particularly in modern traditions, displays. I have sought to honor the demands of contemporary American poetry and conjure its music while, I hope, carrying over the whirling movement and leaping progression of thought and imagery in Rumi’s poetry… I have chosen poems that seem to me beautiful, meaningful, and central to Rumi’s vision, poems that I felt I could successfully translate and that speak to our times.

Haleh Liza Gafori

What emerges is a testament to the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s lovely of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original.”

Here is Haleh Liza Gafori reading for us her translation of Rumi’s lens-clearing invitation to step beyond our self-made tragedy and into the deepest, perhaps the only, truth of life:

Rumi, translated by Haleh Liza Gaffi

Let’s love each other,
let’s cherish each other, my friend,
Before we lose one another.

You’ll long for me when I’m gone.
You’ll make a truce with me.
So why put me on trial while I’m alive?

Do you love the dead, but hate the living?

You’ll kiss the headstone of my grave.
Look, I’m lying here still as a corpse,
Dead as a stone You can kiss me instead.

Complement this fragment of Gold with James Baldwin on how separation illuminates the power of love and Thich Nhat Hanh on the art of deep listening — a practice also central to Rumi’s life — as the root of loving relationship, then revisit poet Jane Hirshfield’s timeless hymn to love and loss.

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Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.

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