“It fills me with a peculiar kind of satisfaction that now I myself have to taste some of the pain that I brought upon the dear girl through my thoughtlessness and ignorance of her delicate nature. Strenuous intellectual work and looking at God’s nature are the reconciling, fortifying yet relentlessly strict angels that shall lead me through all of life’s troubles. If only I were able to give some of this to the good child.
And yet, what a peculiar way this is to weather the storms of life—in many a lucid moment I appear to myself as an ostrich who buries his head in the desert sand so as not to perceive the danger. One creates a small little world for oneself, and as lamentably insignificant as it may be in comparison with the perpetually changing size of real existence, one feels miraculously great and important, just like a mole in his self-dug hole. — But why denigrate oneself, others take care of that when necessary, therefore let’s stop.”
A section of a letter written by Albert Einstein to the mother of his then- (and soon to be ex-) girlfriend.
In this letter, an 18-year-old Einstein is writing to Pauline Winteler (who he addresses as “Momma”), the mother of his first girlfriend, Marie Winteler, who has invited him to stay at the family’s country house. Einstein declines, citing that he would not want to lead on young Marie (who’s become, as they say, clingy) any more than he already has. It is a remarkably discerning and introspective letter, which illustrates not only the emotional and social maturity of Einstein, but also his becoming self-aware that physics is not merely something he wants to do — it is something he must do.
I first read this letter in Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe. And as Isaacson continually notes, it is oft-forgotten that unlike the scientist-stereotype, Einstein loved women, and they reciprocated. In descriptions of him as a young man, he is characterized as darkly handsome, with an insouciance towards all things establishment that cast him as a rebel — two traits which the girls whom he pursued never failed to notice with endearment.
In his text, Isaacson bookends his quoting of this letter with the following analysis:
Einstein’s new bohemian life and old self-absorbed nature made it unlikely that he would continue his relationship with Marie Winteler, the sweet and somewhat flighty daughter of the family he had boarded with in Aarau. At first, he still sent her, via the mail, baskets of his laundry, which she would wash and then return. Sometimes there was not even a note attached, but she would cheerfully try to please him. In one letter she wrote of ‘crossing the woods in the pouring rain’ to the post office to send back his clean clothes. ‘In vain did I strain my eyes for a little note, but the mere sight of your dear handwriting in the address was enough to make me happy.’…
But he wanted to break off the relationship. In one of his first letters after arriving at the Zurich Polytechnic, he suggested that they refrain from writing each other. ‘My love, I do not quite understand a passage in your letter,’ she replied. ‘You write that you do not want to correspond with me any longer, but why not, sweetheart? … You must be quite annoyed with me if you can write so rudely.’ Then she tried to laugh off the problem: ‘But wait, you’ll get some proper scolding when I get home.’…
Einstein’s coolness toward Marie Winteler can seem, from our vantage, cruel. Yet relationships, especially those of teenagers, are hard to judge from afar. They were very different from each other, particularly intellectually. Marie’s letters, especially when she was feeling insecure, often descended into babble… Whoever was to blame, if either, it was not surprising that they ended up on different paths. After her relationship with Einstein ended, Marie lapsed into a nervous depression, often missing days of teaching, and a few years later married the manager of a watch factory. Einstein, on the other hand, rebounded from the relationship by falling into the arms of someone who was just about as different from Marie as could be imagined…
That girl to which Isaacson hints is the brilliant Mileva Marić, a student (and one of the only females) at the Zurich Polytechnic, who would later become Einstein’s first wife.