I Sat Right Down And Wrote Myself A Letter by George Merrill


More than once I’ve wished that the news were fake. It’s demoralizing because it isn’t.

There are migrants seeking safety, natural disasters and brutal regimes oppressing their peoples. These inequities seem everywhere and are especially painful as I look at my own life. My life is privileged. I feel shame at times, and at other times guilty – like the survivor who has escaped the misfortunes plaguing his neighbor. Why him and not me, or more darkly, feeling relieved that it was he and not I.

Of the feelings I experience in the face of the world’s pain, it’s helplessness that I find the most disquieting. In truth, there is little I can do.

I am a white, middle class privileged resident of Maryland’s Eastern Shore where I effectively want for nothing. I have the freedom of mobility, amply supplied markets nearby, and a car with access to fuel. I receive health care because I am one of those fortunate people who have a good medical plan. I have fresh water at the turn of the faucet, a waste system that efficiently discharges effluences, electricity to cool my house when it’s hot, and oil to warm my house in cold winters. My children and grandchildren are safe, as I am.

Like many people of good will who have the means (and some who don’t), I give to relief agencies, try to do justice where I can, advocate for victims, try to be intelligently informed, but at the end of the day, I still feel that acute sense of how impotent I remain in a world filled with suffering.

In the face of so much suffering, and after doing what I can do materially to address some of it, how am I to be in the world in ways that won’t make me cynical or lead me to despair? Are there ways I can make a difference? Could it be something as simple as writing letters?

The thought came to me recently when I ran across a book called, “The Forever Letter” written by a Rabbi, Elana Zaiman. She develops her idea from a lesser-known tradition in Judaism called the ethical will. This is a statement an aging person might pass on to his or her children to share special values and traditions important to the writer. It’s a kind of moral legacy as well as one of love and care. “The Forever Letter,” is intended to be a hand written letter. It is less formal and offered as a gift of gratitude to anyone at any time that we’ve loved and treasured. As a letter, it can be held and embraced for a lifetime. That makes it a forever letter.

I struck me that if I were to make a list of those people who have, in varying ways, been important to my life and then tell them that by writing to them, I would be actively engaged in creating a tangible web of love. I know that a heart awakened by love is better informed to deal wisely with both good and bad fortune. An awakened heart is always open: a despondent heart closes down and pulls back.

Letters today are arcane. A handwritten letter is distinctive, however. It can be held and embraced, as Rabbi Zaiman notes, and can be read again and again. There’s intimacy in reading sentiments written in the hand of the person sending it. In that sense, there’s a tangible part of that person in the letter itself. I remember reading that Viktor Frankl kept his sanity during his imprisonment in the death camps because he wrote his thoughts on scraps of paper. It gave him meaning to survive in a landscape of total meaninglessness. It was love that helped him stay alive. He writes about that love:

“But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imaging it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.”

I confess that I was energized at first by the thought of writing forever letters. Then I began to feel resistance. I could see myself trying to think myself out of writing that first letter. I have no doubt that something about the idea both allured and scared me.

I decided I would not analyze my resistance. I’ve done that before as a way of ducking an issue. I sat down instead with a real fountain pen and paper and wrote a letter to a young man of thirty whom I began mentoring when he was eight. We cut Halloween pumpkins together, read Harry Potter (I never like Harry Potter books), took trips to the beach and the like. He lived hard times. He is in serious trouble now. He called recently to tell me. I did what I could, but it never occurred to me to write him now that he’s facing his own demons. That’s where I started to lay the first strand in creating a web of love and care.

Would my letter help my young mentee’s troubled situation? At the time I wrote it I was not sure. I knew only that I had taken the time and the energy to communicate to him that he was not alone in his misfortune and that someone valued him at a time in his life in which he had little value for himself.

As it turned out he never received the letter. It was never sent. I learned from his relatives shortly before mailing it that the situation had worsened and nobody was sure just where he was and what had become of him. I felt let down, as if I had been too late. Should I pitch the letter or keep it, I wondered?

Someday I may be able to give the letter to him. In the meantime I decided to save it as a symbol. It represents to me my first conscious effort to be aware and then communicate my own feelings of gratitude for what others have meant to me.

This is one forever way of being in a troubled and tumultuous world.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.


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