Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity
Love After Life: Nobel-Winning Physicist Richard Feynman’s Extraordinary Letter to His Departed Wife
Few people have enchanted the popular imagination with science more powerfully and lastingly than physicist Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) — the “Great Explainer” with the uncommon gift for bridging the essence of science with the most human and humane dimensions of life.
Several months after Feynman’s death, while working on what would become Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman(public library) — the masterly biography plumbing the wellspring of Feynman’s genius — James Gleick discovered something of arresting strangeness and splendor.
“My heart stopped,” Gleick tells me. “I have never had an experience like that as a biographer, before or since.”
In a mass of unread papers sent to him by Feynman’s widow, Gweneth, Gleick found a letter that discomposed his most central understanding of Feynman’s character. A generation after computing pioneer Alan Turing tussled with the binary code of body and spirit in the wake of loss, Feynman — a scientist perhaps uncommonly romantic yet resolutely rational and unsentimental in his reverence for the indomitable laws of physics that tend toward decay — penned a remarkable letter to a physical nonentity that was, for the future Nobel-winning physicist, the locus of an irrepressible metaphysical reality.
In high school, the teenage Richard spent summers at the beach in his native Far Rockaway. There, he grew besotted with a striking girl named Arline — a girl he knew he would marry. Both complement and counterpoint to his own nature, Arline met Richard’s inclination for science with ardor for philosophy and art. (The art class he took just to be near her would lay the foundation for his little-known, lifelong passion for drawing.) By his junior year, Richard proposed. Arline accepted. With the eyes of young love, they peered into a shared future of infinite possibility for bliss.
But they were abruptly grounded when a mysterious malady began afflicting Arline with inexplicable symptoms — a lump would appear and disappear on her neck, fevers would roil over her with no apparent cause. Eventually, she was hospitalized for what was believed to be typhoid.
Feynman began to glimpse the special powerlessness that medical uncertainty can inflict on a scientific person. He had come to believe that the scientific way of thinking brought a measure of calmness and control in difficult situations — but not now.
Just as Feynman began bombarding the doctors with questions that steered them toward a closer approximation of the scientific method, Arline began to recover just as mysteriously and unpredictably as she had fallen ill. But the respite was only temporary. The symptoms returned, still shorn of a concrete explanation but now unambiguously pointing toward the terminal — a prognosis Arline’s doctors kept from her. Richard refused to go along with the deception — he and Arline had promised each other to face life with unremitting truthfulness — but he was forced to calibrate his commitment to circumstance.
His parents, Arline’s parents, and the doctors all urged him not to be so cruel as to tell a young woman she was dying. His sister, Joan, sobbing, told him he was stubborn and heartless. He broke down and bowed to tradition. In her room at Farmingdale Hospital, with her parents at her side, he confirmed that she had glandular fever. Meanwhile, he started carrying around a letter — a “goodbye love letter,” as he called it—that he planned to give her when she discovered the truth. He was sure she would never forgive the unforgivable lie.
He did not have long to wait. Soon after Arline returned home from the hospital she crept to the top of the stairs and overheard her mother weeping with a neighbor down in the kitchen. When she confronted Richard — his letter snug in his pocket — he told her the truth, handed her the letter, and asked her to marry him.
Marriage, however, proved to be a towering practical problem — Princeton, where Feynman was now pursuing a Ph.D., threatened to withdraw the fellowships funding his graduate studies if he were to wed, for the university considered the emotional and pragmatic responsibilities of marriage a grave threat to academic discipline.
Just as Feynman began considering leaving Princeton, a diagnosis detonated the situation — Arline had contracted a rare form of tuberculosis, most likely from unpasteurized milk.
At first, Feynman was relieved that the grim alternative options of Hodgkin’s disease and incurable cancers like lymphoma had been ruled out. But he was underestimating, or perhaps misunderstanding, the gravity of tuberculosis — the very disease which had taken the love of Alan Turing’s life and which, during its two-century heyday, had claimed more lives around the globe than any other malady and all wars combined. At the time of Arline’s diagnosis in 1941, immunology was in its infancy, the antibiotic treatment of bacterial infections practically nonexistent, and the first successful medical application of penicillin a year away. Tuberculosis was a death sentence, even if it was a slow death with intervals of remission — a fact Richard and Arline faced with an ambivalent mix of brave lucidity and hope against hope.
Meanwhile, Richard’s parents met the prospect of his marriage with bristling dread. His mother, who believed he was marrying Arline out of pity rather than love, admonished him that he would be putting his health and his very life in danger, and coldly worried about how the stigma attached to tuberculosis would impact her brilliant young son’s reputation. “I was surprised to learn such a marriage is not unlawful,” she scoffed unfeelingly. “It ought to be.”
But Richard was buoyed by love — a love so large and luminous that he found himself singing aloud one day as he was arranging Arline’s transfer to a sanatorium. Determined to go through with the wedding, he wrote to his beloved:
I guess maybe it is like rolling off of a log — my heart is filled again & I’m choked with emotions — and love is so good & powerful — it’s worth preserving — I know nothing can separate us — we’ve stood the tests of time and our love is as glorious now as the day it was born — dearest riches have never made people great but love does it every day — we’re not little people — we’re giants … I know we both have a future ahead of us — with a world of happiness — now & forever.
On June 29, 1942, they promised each other eternity.
He borrowed a station wagon from a Princeton friend, outfitted it with mattresses for the journey, and picked up Arline in Cedarhurst. She walked down her father’s hand-poured concrete driveway wearing a white dress. They crossed New York Harbor on the Staten Island ferry — their honeymoon ship. They married in a city office on Staten Island, in the presence of neither family nor friends, their only witnesses two strangers called in from the next room. Fearful of contagion, Richard did not kiss her on the lips. After the ceremony he helped her slowly down the stairs, and onward they drove to Arline’s new home, a charity hospital in Browns Mills, New Jersey.
Meanwhile, WWII was reaching its crescendo of destruction, dragging America into the belly of death with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now one of the nation’s most promising physicists, Feynman was recruited to work on what would become the Manhattan Project and soon joined the secret laboratory in Los Alamos.
Arline entered the nearby Albuquerque sanatorium, from where she wrote him letters in code — for the sheer fun of it, because she knew how he cherished puzzles, but the correspondence alarmed the military censors at the laboratory’s Intelligence Office. Tasked with abating any breaches to the secrecy of the operation, they cautioned Feynman that coded messages were against the rules and demanded that his wife include a key in each letter to help them decipher it. This only amplified Arline’s sense of fun — she began cutting holes into her letters, covering passages with ink, and even mail-ordered a jigsaw puzzle kit with which to cut up the pages and completely confound the agents.
But the levity masked the underlying darkness which Richard and Arline tried so desperately to evade — Arline was dying. As her body failed, he steadied himself to her spirit:
You are a strong and beautiful woman. You are not always as strong as other times but it rises & falls like the flow of a mountain stream. I feel I am a reservoir for your strength — without you I would be empty and weak… I find it much harder these days to write these things to you.
In every single letter, he told her that he loved her. “I have a serious affliction: loving you forever,” he wrote.
In early 1945, two and a half years into their marriage, Richard and Arline made love for the first time. He had been too afraid of harming her frail health somehow, she too afraid of infecting him with the deadly bacterium consuming her. But Arline insisted that this pent up desire could no longer be contained and assured Richard that this would only bring them closer — to each other, and to the life they had so lovingly dreamt up for themselves:
I’ll always be your sweetheart & first love — besides a devoted wife — we’ll be proud parents too… I am proud of you always Richard –[you are] a good husband, and lover, & well, coach, I’ll show you what I mean Sunday.
But heightened as their hopes were by this new dimension of shared experience, Arline’s health continued to plummet. Her weight dropped to eighty-four pounds. Exasperated by the helplessness of medicine, which Feynman had come to see not as a manifestation but as a mutilation of the scientific method, he invested all hope in an experimental drug made of mold growths. “Keep hanging on,” he exhorted Arline. “Nothing is certain. We lead a charmed life.” She began spitting blood.
At twenty-seven, on the precipice of a brilliant scientific career, he was terminally in love.
On June 16, 1945, while working at the computing room at Los Alamos, Feynman received a call from the sanatorium that Arline was dying. He borrowed a colleague’s car and sped to the hospital, where he found her immobile, her eyes barely tracing his movement. Early in his scientific career, he had been animated by the nature of time. Now, hours stretched and contracted as he sat at her deathbed, until one last small breath tolled the end at 9:21PM.
The wake of loss has a way of tranquilizing grief with the pressing demands of practical arrangements — a tranquilizer we take willingly, almost gratefully. The following morning, Feynman arranged for his beloved’s cremation, methodically collected her personal belongings, and on the final page of the small spiral notebook in which she recorded her symptoms he wrote with scientific remove: “June 16 — Death.”
And so we arrive at Gleick’s improbable discovery in that box of letters — improbable because of the extreme rationality with which Feynman hedged against even the slightest intimation of metaphysical conjectures untestable by science and unprovable by reason. During his courtship of Arline, he had been vexed by her enthusiasm for Descartes, whose “proof” of God’s perfection he found intellectually lazy and unbefitting of Descartes’s reputation as a champion of reason. He had impishly countered Arline’s insistence that there are two sides to everything by cutting a piece of paper and half-twisting it into a Möbius strip, the ends pasted together to render a surface with just one side.
Everything that appeared mystical, Feynman believed, was simply an insufficiently explained mystery with a physical answer not yet found. Even Arline’s dying hour had offered testing ground for conviction. Puzzlingly, the clock in the room had stopped at exactly 9:21PM — the time of death. Aware of how this bizarre occurrence could foment the mystical imagination in unscientific minds, Feynman reasoned for an explanation. Remembering that he had repaired the clock multiple times over the course of Arline’s stay at the sanatorium, he realized that the instrument’s unwieldy mechanism must have choked when the nurse picked it up in the low evening light to see and record the time.
How astonishing and how touchingly human, then, that Feynman penned the letter Gleick found in the box forty-two years later — a letter he wrote to Arline in October of 1946, 488 days after her death:
I adore you, sweetheart.
I know how much you like to hear that — but I don’t only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.
It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing.
But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.
I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector. Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures.
When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.
I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.
My darling wife, I do adore you.
I love my wife. My wife is dead.
And then, with the sole defibrillator for heartache we have — humor — Feynman adds:
PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.
Complement this particular portion of the altogether magnificent Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman with Rachel Carson’s stunning deathbed farewell to her beloved and Seneca on resilience in the face of loss, then revisit Feynman on science and religion and the meaning of life.
We have discussed the highly sensitive person, or empath, many times before, but if you have never heard of them before, read below for a quick summary.
Before the 1990s, heightened sensitivity in humans was not widely talked about, but in 1991, a psychologist named Dr. Elaine Aron began to study this trait more closely. Surprisingly, she discovered that 15-20% of the population carries the trait that classifies them as highly sensitive, which means they respond to external stimuli more noticeably than non-HSP’s. They simply have a different way of processing sensory information due to parts of their brain that regulate emotions being more responsive than the brains of their less sensitive counterparts.
Highly sensitive people respond deeply to their environment, and can easily pick up on people that are not genuine. They need honest, deep, meaningful relationships with others, and usually feel on edge around fake people.
HERE’S WHY EMPATHS FREEZE AROUND FAKE PEOPLE:
Being an empath in a largely desensitized world comes with a lot of challenges, one of them being dealing with disingenuous people. When an empath meets someone who they perceive as fake, they tend to either stay totally silent or stumble over their words. Empaths can see right through a fake persona, and this sends them into a state of alarm. They start to experience physical and mental symptoms that wouldn’t make sense to those who don’t identify as an empath – sweaty hands, fast heartrate, feelings of dread, and exhaustion, among others.
Empaths feel the pain that people sweep under the rug and try to hide behind a fake persona. Empaths know that these “fake” people don’t necessarily mean any harm, but they just have a lot of healing left to do here on Earth.
These common situations you will encounter as an empath can easily leave you feeling drained:
- Someone who acts like a pushover in order to get accepted by everyone they meet.
- A person who conceals their hatred or anger but comes across as nice and friendly.
- Someone who had a bad upbringing and feels vulnerable and insecure, yet tries to act unshaken and tough.
- A person who tries too hard to act a certain way, which goes against their natural personality.
- Someone dishing out fake compliments in order to feel accepted.
- A person who embellishes in order to get people to like them.
And, the empath will usually react like this:
- Avoiding them, not necessarily because they did something wrong, but just because you don’t get good vibes around them
- You can’t form logical sentences, and speech becomes difficult. You will also forget important details of your life if they ask about them
- Getting an overwhelming feeling of dread and discomfort that only dissipates when you are no longer in their company
- Literally feeling sick after spending extended periods of time with them
- Feelings of confusion and guilt for not being able to spend time with this person, especially if you actually like them
- Wanting to run as far away from them as possible
For an empath, coming across a fake person simply drains their energy, but they don’t wish these people any harm. Empaths try to love everyone and show compassion as much as possible, so they might send them a wish of healing or love after seeing them in person. The empath does not want to act “holier than thou” by not being able to tolerate certain people – they simply have a heightened sensitivity to the world, and literally can’t handle certain situations or people without feeling physically and mentally sick.
If you’re an empath, here are a few things you can do to retain composure and avoid feeling drained around fake people:
DON’T BE AFRAID TO SAY NO
Many times, empaths feel they can’t maintain their sensitivity while also speaking up for themselves and possibly letting others down. Remember, though, when you say no to someone’s request, this doesn’t make you a bad person. It simply means you have a lot on your plate, and can’t possibly make everyone happy. In life, we have a limited amount of time each day, and can’t always get everything done that we’d like to. However, prioritizing things can help you knock off the important tasks on your list, and saying no further aids you in managing your time wisely.
If someone gets hurt because you said no, remember that they have the responsibility to choose how they want to feel, and your response shouldn’t dictate their emotions.
ALWAYS FOLLOW YOUR HEART
Empaths can often get swept up in the idea that they have to do what others want because they have a duty here to heal the planet and everyone on it. Empaths, in a way, have the qualities of a superhero, but often don’t take time to look after themselves properly. Never sacrifice your dreams just to please others; this won’t lead to fulfillment in the long term.
Following your heart means bravely stepping into the path of your dreams, and not letting anyone stand in the way. Just focus on improving your own life and doing things that feel good to you, and this will help you become more assertive.
DON’T BE A PEOPLE PLEASER
People pleasing might seem harmless, but in reality, it can quickly become dangerous and self-destructive. When you try to bend over backwards to please everyone, you push your needs to the back burner, and doing this too much can make you feel exhausted. If you have high self-esteem, you’ll realize that you need to meet your own needs first before you can possibly take care of everyone else.
For those of us who feel like surviving is more our goal than thriving.
The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
As if far gardens in the skies were dying;
They fall, and never seem to be denying.
And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,
Into a starless solitude must fall.
We all are falling.
My own hand no less
Than all things else; behold, it is in all.
Yet there is One who, utter gentleness,
Holds all this falling in
His hands to bless.
Below is the original German text for those of you who can understand it, and for those of you (like me) who can’t, but who would like to read it to catch a glimmer of Rilke’s original music.
Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.
Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere
Erde aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir allen fallen.
Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist einer, welcher dieses
Fallen undendlich sanft
in seinen Händen hält.
This poem is full of such beautiful, melancholic and autumnal images. I particularly love the line in the first verse, “As if far gardens in the skies were dying”. This image strikes me as so uniquely brilliant, and makes me eager to read more of Rilke’s work.
Autumn, uses the notion of “falling” throughout, mirroring, of course, the falling of the leaves and the dying of the year. The season of Autumn is often attached to a state or tone of melancholy, as it inevitably reminds us of the the seasons of our own lives winding down. This notion is expressed in a line so memorable here that I am sure I will be unable to forget it: “And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,/ Into a starless solitude must fall.” The idea of the earth being a heavy ball promotes the feeling that none of us are immune to the melancholy of the passing of time, and the “starless solitude” is just a perfect coupling to create a vision of the bleakness of the state of mind being described.
In his final lines, Rilke introduces hope to the poem – religious hope: “Yet there is One who… holds all this falling in his hands to bless.”
In this together,