when, if not now?

Dear sister, Christa T. wrote, in summer 1953. When, if not now?

You know how it is: the time passes quickly, but it passes us by. This breathlessness, or this inability to draw a deep breath. As if whole areas of the lungs have been out of action for an eternity. When that is so, can one go on living?

What presumption: to think one could haul oneself up out of the swamp by one’s own bootstraps. Believe me, one doesn’t change; one remains everlastingly out of it, unfit for life. Intelligent, yes. Too soft; all the fruitless ponderings; a scrupulous petite bourgeoise . . .

You’ll certainly remember what we used to say when one of us was feeling forlorn: When, if not now? When should one live, if not in the time that’s given to one? It always helped. But nowif only I could tell you how it is . . . The whole world like a wall facing me. I fumble over the stones: no gaps. Why should I go on deluding myself: there’s no gaps for me to live in. It’s my own fault. It’s me, I’m simply not determined enough. Yet how simple and natural everything seemed when I first read about it in the books.

I don’t know what I’m living for. Can you see what that means? I know what’s wrong with me, but it’s still me, and I can’t wrench it out of myself! Yet I can: I know one way to be rid of the whole business once and for all . . . I can’t stop thinking about it.

Coldness in everything. It comes from a long way off; it gets into everything. One must get out of the way before it reaches the core. If it does that, one won’t feel even the coldness any more. Do you see what I mean?

People, yes. I’m not a recluse. You know me. But I won’t let anything force me; there has got to be something that makes me want to be with them. And then I also have to be alone, or I’m miserable. I want to work. You knowwith others, for others. But as far as I can see my only possible kind of activity is in writing; it’s not direct. I have to be able to grapple with things quietly, contemplating them . . . All of which makes no difference; the contradiction can’t be resolvednone of this makes any difference to my deep sense of concurring with these times of ours and of belonging to them.

But then the next blowif only you knew how little it takes for anything to be a blow to me!might fling me up on the beach. Then I won’t be able to find my way back on my own. I wouldn’t want to live among a lot of other stranded people; that’s the one thing I do know with any certainty. The other way is more honorable and more honest. And it shows more strength.

Anything rather than be a burden to the others, who’ll carry on, who are right, because they’re stronger, who can’t look back, because they haven’t got the time.

—Christa Wolf, The Quest for Christa T.

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