To see the loveliness in life despite the misery that’s there—to be able to do that requires a sunny disposition. Seeing to it that you speak in a sunny manner to uplift and strengthen and console is a splendid trait.
Poor Alexander Pope (1688—1744)! A tubercular disease twisted his frame and left him hunchbacked, spindly legged, four-feet-six-inches tall and terribly sensitive to cold. Completely dependent on others on rising and going to bed, dressing and getting seated; he had to wear laced-up canvas corsets for uprightness, flannel shirts and waistcoats for heat and three pairs of socks to make his spidery legs look something like normal. But did anyone put more literary genius into writing anything than he put into writing things that tore and wounded and insulted and humiliated everyone around him? He wrote in the 18th century, which Henry Thomas said was an age accustomed to slugging below the belt with brass-bound knuckles. The poet Dennis called him a “hunch-back’d toad” and, so it’s said—when he offered himself to Lady Mary Montagu who was delighted with his wit and charm—when he did that, she patted his dear little head and unable to keep from it, broke into a bout of laughing and nearly fell off her chair. The fury of a scorned woman is one thing but—. As you can imagine she had just run a plough-share right across his heart. In the loneliness of his room did he look in a mirror and curse his image and steel himself for ruthless verbal revenge on a society that ignored his brilliance and summed him up by his appearance?
Well, with one thing or another he became, as he himself insisted, the most feared because the most skillfully savage man in England. He wrote:
Yes, I am proud; and proud must be to see
Men not afraid of God afraid of me.
It didn’t matter that the same could be said of mad dogs, angry wasps or voracious parasites. Still, his genius wasn’t confined to writing insults (he’s the third most quoted poet in the English language behind only Shakespeare and Tennyson) He wasn’t alone in ‘the insulting business’. The famous Samuel Johnson said of Thomas Sheridan, “Why, Sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such excess of stupidity, Sir, is not in nature.”
Not all of it was quite that brutal. Melville, author of Moby Dick remarked on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s self-confidence that, “Had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions.” Sidney Smith said to the endlessly chattering Lord Macaulay, “You know, when I am gone you will be sorry you never heard me speak.” In later years despite exceptions, the insults were usually less venomous and more sophisticated. Oscar Wilde, speaking of Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop said, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing” and Mark Twain would write, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” Literary critic, Israel Zangwill noted about G.B. Shaw, “The way Bernard Shaw believes in himself is very refreshing in these atheistic days when so many people believe in no God at all.”
Enough of that! It isn’t necessary for us to be as foul-mouthed in our letter writing as D.H. Lawrence could be or as crude as Robbie Burns in some of his poetry. There’s enough in the world that’s warm and earthy, genuine and tender to point the direction that in our better moments we want to go and there are enough people around who need us to tell them something of another kind.
Job thought his friends were “miserable comforters” whose long-windedness drove him wild (16:2-3). He was on the rack and they were using words like battering rams against him (16:4). He knew in his heart that if the roles were reversed that (my) “mouth would encourage you; comfort from my lips would bring you relief” (16:5). It was well known, or he wouldn’t have said so; when he spoke he spoke wisely and gently (29:22). Because that was true of him he expected it to be true of his friends, especially now when he was tottering at the edge of the abyss. They would have been better friends to him and more helpful if they had been kind and encouraging rather than long-winded in their criticism.
Arthur Gordon in that marvelous way of his in A Touch of Wonder made that point. His mother was moving out of her home down in Georgia where her family had lived for nearly a century and a half. He and his sisters went down to check the “stuff” that had accumulated. The attic and cellar were crammed with boxes and trunks of stuff and Arthur was hoping to find some rare stamps or the signature of some famous person. He found letters.
No scandals, no grand chronicle of historic events, no passionate love letters; none of that. But in letter after letter after letter he read unashamed love and admiration expressed for someone by someone. “You don’t know how much your visit meant to each of us! When you left, I felt as if the sun had stopped shining.” “Never forget how much your friends and family love and admire you.” “How wonderful you are!”
Gordon thought his own generation had drifted from that kind of speech. The famous broadcaster A.L. Alexander agreed with Gordon’s assessment of the new trend. It had become corny, too gushy for a tough generation, I suppose. Whatever the reasons, Gordon is surely right when he says the change “seriously interferes with one of the deepest of all human needs—the desire for acceptance and approval by other people.”
Though his own “tough” generation might have thought the speech too sweet and charming Gordon reminds us that those who wrote the letters he found in that old house had been through their own tough war between the North and South that brought defeat, abuse, poverty and prolonged humiliation. They faced their tough times with great fortitude and strength; and where did they get it? Gordon tells us: “The answer lay in my dusty hands. They got it from each other.”
So write her a note. Tell her you love her. It doesn’t have to be a fancy card. Might even be better if it isn’t a fancy card. A paper napkin from a restaurant, a paper towel from your motel room—anything that lets you scrawl some word of love from your heart to hers; an “anonymous” love letter, maybe, that subtly lets the cat out of the bag about who wrote it. She’ll call you silly when she sees it but she’ll store it away somewhere so she can look at it again and again and again, and smile, and tell herself how silly you are before putting it back in a safe place.
If you’ve seen the movie The Man of La Mancha you might remember that Don Quixote sent a note by his friend Sancho to Aldonza whom the mad knight thinks is a highborn lady: Lady Dulcinea [or should I say the note is to his Lady Dulcinea who thinks she is Aldonza?]. The squire tells the kitchen trollop (she can’t read), who sells her sexual favors to all comers and despises them for buying them, that he has a letter from his master that he must read to her as a sort of formal announcement. She sneers but tells him to read it while she wolfs down a meal. The words are grand and lovely—too grand and lovely for her—so she mocks and protests at almost every phrase. Still, though she isn’t really interested in hearing it (of course!) she tells him to keep reading over the sound of her mockery. When he’s done and is turning to leave, the coarse, rude and mocking woman grabs the note—not that she’s interested, you understand. Sancho leaves and Aldonza takes the note out of her pocket and with a softened look scans the ink marks that mean all the lovely things he’d said to her.
People love to get lovely notes even if they think they’re too grand. Write him/her/them a note and tell them how fine they are.
Make the words your own, let your heart speak with its own voice and so maintain its integrity. Let them be “romantic” without confining them to romantic phrases. What is there about him that warms you when you’re cold, gives you strength when you’re weak or that comforts you when you think there’s little point going on? Tell them about these things. If it’s appropriate tell her she’s a “pretty face” and that she drives you wild with passion but tell her more than that; tell her it goes beyond that and that it’s more lasting than that. Tell her that what you feel for her is fed by qualities she has that will be there when her physical beauty is long gone.
Where it’s true we must tell our parents how fine they’ve been, that they’ve been among the “good guys”. Children need to be praised not only for scholastic or athletic excellence but for character and strength. The praise must be judicious and not wild nonsense. Perhaps most often it should be face-to-face praise but there truly is a place for writing for the written word has a magic of its own. It’s no substitute for audible speech but there’s something special and enchanted about scraps of paper that are covered with life-transforming squiggles and sprawlings. There are ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands of bits of paper but these are special because a heart poured out the kind of things that create a new and brighter world for somebody. Long after the writer and the beloved are gone, they still have their magical power.
What follows is risky speech because it’ll make me appear to be a wonderful person and a better husband than I’ve been. My only excuse for writing it is that it seems to fit in well at this point and can illustrate the truth of what Gordon and others have taught us.
Some years ago while plundering to find an old picture I had an Arthur Gordon experience of my own. I came across scores of letters and cards I had written to Ethel (I used to travel a lot)—there they were in several old handbags and in a large square cookie tin. I didn’t know she’d kept them. I began to read and must have read them for more than an hour, stopping to reflect on the times, places and circumstances, trying to reconstruct the original settings. A lot of it was chit-chat and local news but much of it was tender, grateful and warm. Some of it ached with loneliness and so I knew if I’d been feeling like that at times, Ethel, who gave her heart to me and never ever wanted it back, must have felt that way too. Whatever my failures as a man and a husband (and they’d make a long list) I was pleased and helped by knowing that my commitment to her and hers to me was real and warm—strong enough to rise above any obstacle that the years would bring. I’d like to leave a lot more letters of that kind lying around after I’m gone.
When you think of how many ugly things that have found their way into print, wouldn’t it be good to pour your own cup of sweetness into the ocean of finely written things? Give them the chance to bring out such a gift every now and then and let them take pleasure in its softness and tenderness, its generosity and assurance, its commitment and support. Don’t let anyone persuade you that the “ordinary” kindnesses of life are ordinary. They’re not! Don’t let anybody persuade you—least of all me—that the only way you can please and praise God is to wrestle gallantly with profound sorrow; it isn’t so! You can do what Job did long before the sky darkened and fell in on him; you can spill ordinary words and deeds of sunshine all over creation.
(I lifted this from my Life On The Ash-heap, Amazon)