My Literary Life-Verse

Growing up in a conservative Christian culture (my parents weren’t as conservative, but their friends were), I frequently encountered the concept of a “life verse.” Whether it was something you chose or something that god put upon your heart (to use the lingo), this was supposed to be a verse that shaped and defined your life.

Some people chose trust/love god verses, others chose more active ones, and some people satirized the whole thing by picking verses like 2 Chronicles 3.15 “In front of the house he made two pillars thirty-five cubits high, with a capital of five cubits on the top of each.”

Anyway, I never got into the concept, but when thinking recently about if I’d ever want to tattoo a literary phrase & what phrases were meaningful enough that I’d want to keep them forever, I remembered the final paragraph of Middlemarch:

Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

It’s far too long for a tattoo, but it’s my favorite literary quote of all time. I’ve struggled with depression, I’ve struggled with worrying if anything I do will have any lasting meaning. My goal right now is to trend toward the good and hope that helps. I reread Middlemarch for a class in college when I was very depressed and this quote helped me feel like things might be ok even if I wasn’t a rocket scientist or a Mother Teresa. In particular:

…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life…

For me, that’s a hopeful & inspiring thought. I have no desire to be in the history books. I like knowing people & being known by people, but don’t want to be famous. I just hope that in the end my life trends strongly toward the good and that my unhistoric acts might make other people’s lives a bit brighter and happier.

Do you have any quotes like that from your favorite books?


  1. Terry says:

    Interesting timing. I just started the 30 book meme over at LJ and one of the later ones is about picking a favorite quote and so far I’m clueless.

  2. Ruth says:

    I think it’s really hard for voracious readers to pick a favorite. There are so many turns of phrase that I’ve loved…but this is the one that really stuck with me. I’d love to hear yours if/when you figure it out!

  3. Terry says:

    At this point I think I’d go with, “You say you have found out you are just a human like other humans. Human, Allen, is an adjective, and its use as a noun is in itself regrettable.” — William S. Burroughs, The Letters of William S. Burroughs, Vol. 1: 1945-1959.

  4. January says:

    Hmmmm…If I were a computer, and thank goodness I’m not, my hourglass or color wheel would be spinning, spinning, spinning. Must process so much data! Also, I tend to hold on to images from the books I’ve read rather than quotes, which is kind of odd now that I think about it.
    Your chosen quote is lovely.

  5. 8-bit Emma says:

    Thanks for sharing this. This post is actually very timely for me right now.

    I have a lot of books with underlining in them from favorite passages or quotes and also have a quote from the Bible that I really treasure “As sorrowful yet always rejoicing”.


  6. Lisa says:

    I have a life verse (Biblical) and a literary one. The literary one is from Hugh Prather “Happiness is a present attitude, not a future condition.” And the biblical one is “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-19.

  7. Norelief says:

    When I read Middlemarch, and got to this quote, I cried tears of hope and gratitude. This is the best paragraph I have ever read, as relating to a woman like me. I identified very strongly with Dorothea, who is a lot like me. “George” really gets it.
    I also sacrificed my identity and poured myself into obscure and uncompensated work, including caregiving for elders and homeschooling children, and working for NGOs, zealously caring, volunteering, and spending myself. People often tell me to “get a job” or that I am “wasting myself” or that I am “a housewife” and it feels like a slap in the face. I guess I would be more valuable if I worked as a corporate raider? All my “socially aware” friends don’t seem to respect someone who actually helps people and does not make money. Thank you, “George” I love you!

  8. Bobby says:

    Oh my goodness, so much I want to say here. Part of my depression stems from something similar, a feeling of worthlessness, that what I do doesn’t matter. Many times I feel like I’m walking through life as a fraud, and that any minute someone will call me on it.
    Yet I find it amazing how a line from a book, a verse from a song, or just a random thought someone puts out on the internet can break that feeling apart. Those moments usually come out of the blue, when I’m least expecting it, and it’s hard not to have an emotional overflow right then and there.
    I also have difficulty letting go of my own past mistakes. There are a number of things I’ve done – things held hidden in my heart & head – that I dwell on, and refuse to share for the (likely unwarranted) fear that coming clean will cause my life to shatter. There is a song by the band Pearl Jam that, every time I hear it, makes me feel as though Eddie Vedder is singing to me personally, like he got inside my head and knows what I’ve done and how I feel about it. And he’s telling me that it will be okay, if I can let go:

    “You can spend your time alone, redigesting past regrets. Or you can come to terms and realize you’re the only one who cannot forgive yourself. It makes much more sense to live in the present tense.”

    I still haven’t let go of some of those things, and think some may go to my grave with me, but if I ever do share, I’ll think of this, and you, and know it will be ok.

    *You* are an inspiration Ruth. I hope you know that.

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