It’s no secret that John Adams is one of history’s brilliant minds. He was widely respected as a lawyer, a politician, a president, and as a husband, a father, and a friend. But for all this, he was often overwhelmed by anguish, despair, discontent, loneliness, doubt, fear, uncertainty, and the rest. “I can as easily still the fierce tempests or stop the rapid thunderbolt,” he once lamented in his journal, “as command the motions and operations of my own mind.”
Like many of us, Adams longed for stillness, for “tranquility of mind,” vowing to one day “wear out of my mind every mean and base affection.” But it was a long time coming—indeed, it nearly came too late.
In 1819, the year after the death of his treasured wife of fifty-four years, the devastated Adams turned to Cicero’s essay on growing old gracefully, De Senectute. It was an essay he had read “for seventy years, to the point of nearly knowing it by heart,” but somehow, now, in the quiet stillness, he found something new in it. As he wrote:
I never delighted much in contemplating commas and colons, or in spelling or measuring syllables; but now…if I attempt to look at these little objects, I find my imagination, in spite of all my exertions, roaming in the Milky Way, among the nebulae, those mighty orbs, and stupendous orbits of suns, planets, satellites, and comets, which compose the incomprehensible universe.
It was as if, now, having slowed down, having experienced so much, that he was seeing things differently. In short, he noticed what he had missed before—by reading and re-reading, he found something he had missed all those previous times. When Marcus Aurelius quoted Heraclitus—about how we can never step in the same river twice—this is what he was encouraging. We cannot content ourselves with first impressions or encounters, we must constantly revisit everything. Revisit the pages of books, revisit the sights we have overlooked, revisit the ordinary beauty of the world.
It might take a lifetime for us to finally “get” it—but the stillness and the understanding will be worth it.