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Friday, February 21, 2014

Letter to a young man

Dear _____,

I felt an inexpressible sense of sorrow when I learned of your loss. Your grief must be beyond measure. I am so sorry that you have to undergo this trauma. I know that you and the woman you now mourn had the highest of hopes for a future together.

What words of wisdom can I offer? I never felt wise. In fact, most of the time I feel like a damned fool.

But I have been around for a while, and experience is supposed to teach us something. For what little it may be worth, here is what I think I've learned.

First and foremost, all families are parades of tragedy. You are not alone in your sorrow. I sometimes think that our family bears a particular curse, one which hits hardest those who marry into it. That may be a romantic or superstitious notion, but the concept still gnaws at me. You've already seen some examples of that "curse" in operation. It began before you were born.

You never met your paternal grandparents. I can assure you that they wanted very much to meet you. Alas, neither your grandmother not your grandfather were granted length of years.

Your grandfather -- my father, and your father's father -- died of a stroke at the age of 36. He was a brilliant engineer who designed components used in projects Gemini and Apollo. The stroke that felled him was his second. There was a very bad year between the first and second strokes -- worse than you can imagine. All memory of what happened during that year will die with me. Your grandfather should be remembered as a genius who helped mankind escape this planet. That's what I want you and your sister to tell your children one day, if you choose to have children.

When we lost your grandmother to cancer, she had just turned 50 and had spent a year engaged in a grueling battle that she never deserved and could never have won. I don't know which is worse -- to lose a loved one after a long battle or after a shockingly brief period of trauma. Both, I suspect, are equally horrible, though in different ways.

A woman I had once loved died less than five years ago. Our time together can best be described by the French term "l'amour feu" -- crazy love. She developed a substance abuse problem and systematically drove away everyone who hoped to help her. We parted badly, to say the least. And yet I was disconsolate when I learned that her personal demons had finally conquered her, years after we said goodbye.

Well, I could go on and on describing the troubles known to this family. You already are aware of much of the story. I wish I could assure you a future free of tragedy, but no-one can make that promise.

So how do we deal with it?

I guess much of the problem has to do with our attitudes toward the past. This is something with which I myself struggle constantly. The bad decisions, the loves lost, the sins committed, the opportunities missed, the injustices suffered: These things haunt us. I want to take back so much. I wish I could un-meet the people who wasted my time, and I wish I had devoted more time and affection to those who were truly helpful and deserving. I wish, frankly, that I had spent more hours with you and your sister when you were growing up.

The past is not a pleasant sight. And yet every car needs a read-view mirror. You should glance at that mirror only occasionally, and only when necessary. You must concentrate on the road ahead.

And in order to accomplish that task, you need one thing above all: A direction.

I hope that what I just said does not seem cruel. You no doubt feel that you had a clear direction, one that involved a life together with the woman you loved. But I'm talking about something different, something hard to put into words.

I have come to believe that every man and every woman needs to develop a fixation, a passion, a point of supreme interest. I'm not talking about something as small as a hobby or as trivial as a mere career. I'm talking about focusing on something completely outside of yourself. Something that will not necessarily fatten the wallet or make you famous.

I have never been rich, although I have, at times, been somewhat well-known, at least within certain circles. Fame is meaningless. But the quest is profound.

I have spent a vast number of hours studying matters which can never profit me in any material way. And although I have amassed a million regrets -- more than most men my age have amassed -- I do not regret those hours. If other people consider those hours wasted, I can only snicker. Those people live such tiny lives. Even if they are wealthy, they are tiny. I am never bored, never without a goal.

That sense of having a goal -- always a new mystery to unravel, always a new skill to master -- makes life meaningful. The tragedies become bearable. The slights and calumnies one must suffer become silly, laughable matters. The losses, however horrifying and sorrowful, become nothing more than a terrible landscape which you can and will pass through safely.

The goal of which I speak can be...anything. There need not be just one goal. There can be many. The only requirement is that the goal must be something beyond the confines of your own life.

I've known a number of people who devoted large chunks of their lives to solving the JFK assassination. Were they being unreasonable? Were they going after a hopeless, nonsensical objective? Many would say so. But those researchers gained the confidence of expertise and a sense of purpose that most people would envy.

I cite that as just one example. Perhaps an absurd example, but it illustrates my point. Any quest, even the quest of a holy fool, confers meaning.

What you choose is up to you. Perhaps you will want to hike the Appalachian Trail. Or to climb K2. Perhaps you will want to visit one hundred foreign countries. Perhaps you will simply want to see the breadth of this country by bus. Run a marathon. Collect autographs. Return to school. Get a degree.

Or just do what I do -- constantly: Stumble across a topic that interests you and then gather every scrap of available information about that subject.

Even if you should choose a ridiculous pursuit -- what of it? The doing of the thing is what is important. Not one minute spent on your quest is ever wasted, even if no-one else believes in what you are doing.

Suppose (to cite an intentionally inane example) you decided to devote yourself to the task of photographing Bigfoot. Do I believe that Bigfoot exists? Of course not. (Well, one should never say never. But the evidence strikes me as very, very thin.) Even so -- just imagine the adventure of it! Going out to remote locales, learning how to survive in the wilderness, gaining expertise in night photography, conducting interviews with witnesses, getting into heated arguments with other pursuers of the impossible...

The writer Anthony Burgess, I am told, tried to learn Japanese in the last year of his life. He worried that he might die before he finished the task -- and he did. You must understand that he did not want to learn Japanese for any larger purpose. He did not want to read a particular book in that language. He did not want a job in Japan. He simply wanted to get that knowledge into his brain before the brain ceased to function.

Knowledge, in and of itself, is this world's one absolute good -- even when the knowledge seems, at first, to be purposeless. We never know which scrap of learning may lead us to wisdom.

Not long ago, I read of a rich man who devoted himself to the task of painting an exact replica of a Vermeer. This rich man was not an artist. He had no innate talent. He did not even have a longstanding interest in art history. But he wanted to prove a point, and so he set himself on a quest.

Incidentally, I think that you could be a painter. Your sister as well. Even if you think that you have no such ability, you could learn. Your grandfather was an excellent artist -- and a musician as well.

It does not matter what you choose. Even if you were to decide to collect unusual pepper shakers -- fine! Make it the best damned collection of pepper shakers the world ever saw.

My advice may seem bizarre to you right now. This is your time of mourning. I understand that fact all too well. But this time will pass. Although you will carry its bitter lessons with you for many years to come, it will pass.

I ask merely that you always be alive to new possibilities. Someone may refer, in a casual conversation, to the beauties of the Andees or the Pyrenees. At that moment, you may hear an inner voice: "That's it. I'm going to hike a great mountain range. I'm going on an adventure!"

Starting from that moment, you will have your quest.

When we have a quest, the unbearable parts of our lives suddenly become bearable.

I am sorry I am not with you. I am stuck in the city of Edgar Allen Poe -- a writer who once said that the most melancholy (and most poetic) idea was the death of a beautiful young woman.

All I can offer is the love of your uncle. Perhaps I am indeed just an aging fool. Still, I hope that these ramblings contain at least one worthwhile notion.

Please take care of yourself. Never lose confidence in yourself, no matter what occurs. You are still young and healthy, with incredible freedom -- more than you can possibly guess.

My love to you, to your sister, and to your father.
My condolences to your nephew, Joseph.
Sincere condolences to the young man to whom you've written such an inspiring letter, Joseph. I even found it inspiring myself and I'm neither young nor a man, and not grieving for anything but the state of the world.

I'm sorry for your nephew's loss, Joseph. A common sliver of wisdom spoken by elders, is that a person should follow their passion. It is a sad sad life which contains no passion.
CBarr -- Maybe "follow your passion" isn't the most profound philosophy of life ever uttered. But at this age, I find that that's pretty much it. That's what I have.
That focus is what keeps me alive. I'm not aware of anybody who on their deathbed regretted that they hadn't spent more time earning money. Except maybe Sam Walton.
This is a beautiful letter. More importantly, the advice is sound. I am close to your age and I have a son in his 20s. I have been trying to help him navigate life for the last few years and not let setbacks dictate the road he takes in life. I did not realize what I have been trying to say to him untill I read your letter. I came to believe in your sentiment in my own life, but could not put it into words like you have. I feel that there is a core to me that is unshakable by events because it is unrelated to events. If you do not mind, I would like to borrow your words.
So awful of a thing for a young person to deal with! I still miss friends I thought I would grow old and wear purple with. I'm glad your nephew has your perspective to think on, and so sorry for his loss.
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