Letters To Myself

From this vantage point, I do not know when I started writing letters, nor the first recipients of those letters. The first letter that I remember writing was a letter to my pastor at the time I was about eight years of age or thereabouts, where after he gave a sermon message that speculated on the widely held belief that resurrected saints will rule over their own planets, I wrote a short letter expressing my desire to rule over Pluto [1], which was such a striking comment that the pastor soon read it out from the pulpit, amused or impressed with my precocity. If that letter was the first one I wrote, or close to it, it perhaps gave me the wrong perception of how my letters would generally be taken. Far from being impressed or pleased, many of the people who have received letters or notes from me have not liked what they read, and worse, they did not read them properly. It would be far easier to forgive someone for their responses if those responses were appropriate for the text that they received, but often that has not been the case [2]. In this endeavor, more than perhaps any other, my shyness about engaging in face to face personal discussion and the difficulties I have in making myself clearly understood whether by speaking or writing are at particularly disastrous cross-purposes.

It seems likely that my adoption of epistolary writing sprang from the habits of my mother. I remember often as a child, in the face of some sort of difficulty, that my mother would express her intense frustrations by saying, “I feel a letter coming on.” And often the result of that sort of thought was a ferociously worded text in my mother’s small but excellent penmanship. One could almost wince in advance at the likely response of the recipient of said letter, even if the fierceness was often fully merited. There is something particularly cutting about reading a letter sometimes, even when a cut is not necessarily meant. When we are speaking face to face with someone, we can gauge the tone of someone, even if we may understate the seriousness of someone who is mild mannered and has a difficulty in making the vehemence and severity of their tone sufficiently plain. When we read a letter, though, we do not have the ability to see someone’s body language nor their tone, unless we are astute readers. All too often, we are not astute readers and read our own fears and anxieties into a text rather than reading what is actually there. And if we who are very learned and expert readers make such mistakes, what of people who are not nearly so well-read or competent themselves in the task?

There are, it should be readily admitted, some very well-known letters and letter writers. The Bible contains quite a few well-known letters—we call them epistles—and they show a careful skill of writing that also manages to show the somewhat stereotypical form of letters in the classical world. Third John is a suitable example that applies for the genre as a whole. First we see the writer, the apostle John, referred to as The Elder, and then we have the recipient of the letter, one otherwise unknown Gaius. Afterward we have a fairly ordinary greeting, a wish for health and well-being and an expression of goodwill towards the recipient of the letter. In this short letter the contents consist of what would likely be two fairly short paragraphs in many letters today, the first a commendation for generosity, and the second a request on the part of John that Gaius would show hospitality to the traveling missionary Demetrius (otherwise unknown, unless it was a repentant Demas who had abandoned Paul decades before), and then we are already at the closing that expresses a desire to say a lot more that could not be written with pen and ink, and the letter is done. Longer letters in the Bible and elsewhere in the contemporary Roman Empire have the same basic format, as writing letters was expensive, sending them often time-consuming, and having a consistent format made understanding the request of the letter writer on the recipient of the utmost importance. Is Paul looking for a room to stay for a while after he is released from prison? What sort of instruction from afar does the letter represent? These are the sorts of questions that must be attended to from a savvy reader of letters.

It is of particular importance to recognize that letters are written for reasons and are themselves occasions. Sometimes, as is the case with 2 Thessalonians, a second letter was written to correct the misinterpretations that the readers had from the first letter. Sometimes the purpose of the letter is painfully obvious, as was the case with letters like Galatians or 1 Corinthians, clearly harsh and corrective letters. At times, the letter was written with a clear purpose, but that purpose was expressed subtly and graciously, with a degree of politeness that is remarkable even to those of us reading this mail nearly 2000 years later, as is the case with Philemon. At other times, as in Jude, an author had one purpose that he had thought to write with, but was forced to write about something else because of what was going on. At times a reader may be explicit with the point of the letter, like a young Roman abroad in Egypt writing to his family asking for money, while at other times, as in Paul’s subtly linked requests for a place to stay and the freedom of Onesimus from slavery, the point of the letter may not be immediately apparent unless we are reading perceptively and attentively. The same is true, of course, for letters written today.

It is a striking fact, and perhaps not entirely coincidental, that Jane Austen originally wrote her early novels in epistolary form. One such novel, Lady Susan, was never revised and expanded into her better-known form, perhaps because its material was more than a little bit harsh, and its eponymous heroine mercenary and unsympathetic. In other novels, like Pride & Prejudice, the original form of the letter is still at least somewhat visible in the fact that so much of the weight of the plot is carried by letters. There is the disastrous letter from Fitzwilliam Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet that contains his first marriage proposal, of which Elizabeth later views its adieu to have been charity itself. There are the letters that force Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle the Gardiners to leave aside their touring of Pemberley to return to deal with the elopement of Lydia with the perfidious Wickham. It is likely letters, although they are not stated directly in the text, from gossipy Lucases that lead Lady Catherine to seek to bully Elizabeth into ceasing her attempts at courtship with Darcy, among many other letters written between Lydia and Kitty, as well as between Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bennet and others yet besides these. These letters themselves are a variety of different genres. Some of them are formal letters of business, some of them are juicy tidbits of gossip, others are attempts at awkward romance, and though they are contained in a romance novel, they are far more broad. While the letters were, in general, meant to advocate a particular action or make a request, they were far more broad in their scope than is often recognized, as is the case with letters today.

At the end of their book Naming Our Abuse, authors Andrew Schmutzer, Daniel Gorski, and David Carlson write letters to themselves as young kids. The letters are told from the point of view of the adult, written with the benefit of hindsight. The letters are written with a great deal of compassion, seeing as they are written by people to themselves. It is likely that this sort of form of a letter was the result of therapy taken by the authors. Speaking from my own personal experience, one of the more helpful aspects of my own therapy in 2013 was the task of writing a letter to myself when I was young. The goal of the exercise was to have a sense of understanding for the child inside, to picture what it would have been like to have been young from the point of view of someone who is older and wiser. By showing compassion to ourselves, recognizing what it would have been like for us as very young children in the grips of and in the aftermath of great trauma and abuse, we free ourselves from at least some of the burden of the past, something like survivor’s guilt, or for the way that we coped with such matters as small children without many options. It is, in light of the therapeutic value of this letter writing, that the authors of a book that seeks to rectify the widespread under-recognition and under-reporting of the sexual abuse endured by men would write a letter at the end to themselves that also ends up being a letter to the audience as well.

It is in this light that I would like to close the text of this short memoir with a series of four letters to myself, each of them written at a specific time of transition in my youth. The first letter is written to my five year old self. I was, at the age of five, a highly literate child who read the newspaper every morning and was even then fond of books, just entering kindergarten. The second letter is written to my ten year old self, finishing with elementary school and looking forward to leaving Cork behind and years mixed between academic glory as well as years of bullying from mean girls, something I have known from time to time in my existence. The third letter is written to my fourteen year old self, moving from junior high school (now called Middle School) to high school, facing the remarriage of my mother and the collapse of the church I had grown up in. It was a busy year. The fourth and final letter of the collection is written as a birthday letter to someone turning eighteen, graduating from high school, and facing adulthood, a letter full of congratulations as well as a certain amount of sadness, and perhaps even something like regret. It is my hope that, at least in the imaginary sense, that the person receiving these letters will read them more accurately than the recipients of many of my own missives. One cannot be certain, though, that my own younger selves, as conscientious as they were, would accurately read the politely worded but anxious communications of someone like myself.

Nevertheless, if writers cannot receive merciful benefit of the doubt from other writers, who then can we expect to treat us with kindness and graciousness? This was, we should note, Jane Austen’s lament at the end of Northanger Abbey, that novelists were far too hard on each other. She took up the lament again in Persuasion, when she wrote through her good-natured narrator Anne Eliot that men had for far too long had the pen in their hands and told their own story, and so that no one could prove anything about gender by writing. Ironically enough, when it comes to sexual abuse it is women who have too often been holding the pen, writing about violence that is a matter of conduct as if it was a matter of identity in a warfare between men and women as genders. Yet the writing of letters, just like the writing of a book like this one, is an act of hope that one will plant a seed in good soil, nurture and water it, and see it grow into the fruit of love and joy. Ultimately, just as farming is itself an optimistic occupation that cannot be practiced without hope that one’s work will be rewarded even though one cannot control the circumstances between sowing and reaping, so that he who sows in hope will reap in joy, so too writing from the scale of a personal note to a book is also an exercise in sowing in the hope that someone will find the words worthy of reflection, appreciation, and response, and that like a seed grows into a plant in good soil, so too the kindness and well wishes and fond feelings expressed in writing may in the good soil of a kind and loving heart grow into friendship, admiration, and love. We continue to live and to push against the obstacles in our way only because we have the hope that our efforts will not forever be in vain.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/searching-for-pluto/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/where-spaceships-go-to-die/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/12/26/book-review-would-you-baptize-an-extraterrestrial/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/book-review-letters-to-children/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/05/19/the-perfect-paramour-you-were-in-your-letter/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/03/14/book-review-the-world-needs-more-love-letters/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/10/21/letters-that-you-never-meant-to-send/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/lest-i-seem-to-terrify-you-by-letters/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/im-going-to-sit-right-down-and-write-myself-a-letter/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/i-feel-a-letter-coming-on/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Letters To Myself

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