Mark Pickup


June 23, 2014

I keep a bust of Ludwig van Beethoven on the mantle above the fireplace in my home. It reminds me of the human capacity to overcome adversity to achieve great things. When I doubt myself in my own acquired disability of multiple sclerosis, I listen to Beethoven particularly his Ninth Symphony written in near-total deafness but at the peak of his creative power.

His Ninth Symphony exemplifies a triumph of human spirit over adversity, sustained by a spark of God's love in a silent world. Although Beethoven used Schiller's Ode to Joy, there is a spirituality or mystical quality to Beethoven's Ninth.

It carries a note of authentic life experience; it contains great energy, yet a peace and acceptance won by strife, and a wisdom only suffering can teach. It illustrates how our loving God can reach into the silent world of a deaf genius and touch us, even 190 years later.

Most people are aware Beethoven was deaf when he wrote the Ninth Symphony. But Beethoven was in fact going deaf when he wrote his First Symphony. Loss of hearing was detectable when he began composing it in 1798 and, when it was completed in 1800, Beethoven had become quite anxious about his malady.

By his own words, Beethoven had noticed his hearing loss beginning in 1796 at the age of 26. By 1801, his physicians began various therapies, but to no avail.

All nine symphonies were composed with some level of deafness. How could it be that the standard bearer of the Romantic era was a deaf composer?

Beethoven rose above his predicament to reach unequalled human achievement. His beloved Moonlight Sonata was composed in serious deafness. The same is true for his opera Fidelio and Creatures of Prometheus. It is doubtful he heard much of his Fifth Symphony, his concerto for violin and orchestra or his Masses.

Beethoven experienced inner and outer grief, disappointment with life, isolation and emptiness brought on by his disability. He addressed this isolation in a letter to his brother Karl in 1802.


"Forgive me when you see me draw back. . . . For me there is no relaxation with my fellow man, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished. . . . But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and, again, I heard nothing.

"Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life ⁷ it was only my art that held me back."

In that same letter, Beethoven prayed, "O Divine One, thou seest my inmost soul; thou knowest that therein dwells the love of mankind and a desire to do good." At the end of his letter, he wrote in his despair, "Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead."

These words were written during a crisis for Beethoven about his increasing disability. His crisis passed and the great man rose above his deafness to eventually write his Ninth Symphony.

Through more than 30 years with degenerative MS, I have observed and studied grief ⁷ both my own and others.

People grieve in various ways. They grieve visually, in sound and in abstract ways. Perhaps grief rises at the sight of a lake, a flower or a certain café that reminds the griever of happier days. A particular song may transport the griever to another time or place.


Grief is distinct in that it is focused on an object. Grief is often dynamic because it interacts with its surroundings and stimulus. Healthy grieving is expressive. Grief can express a multitude of emotions through music, writing, drama or even dance. This is good. It indicates grief is fluid and moving.

As long as grief is moving and expressive, the griever is likely to emerge spiritually matured. If it ceases to move, it may stagnate and settle into depression.

Grief comes to every life. Surrender your anguish to God's love as a vehicle for spiritual growth. The 17th-century Christian poet, John Donne, wrote: "No man hath affliction enough that is not matured, and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction."

Having said this, Donne also recognized that some people may suffer and their suffering is of no use to them.

Which will you be when your grief comes?