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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

04 NOVEMBER, 2013

20-Year-Old Hunter S. Thompson’s Superb Advice on How to Find Your Purpose and Live a Meaningful Life

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“It is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it.”

As a hopeless lover of both letters and famous advice, I was delighted to discover a letter 20-year-old Hunter S. Thompsongonzo journalism godfather, pundit of media politics, dark philosopher — penned to his friend Hume Logan in 1958. Found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the aptly titled, superb collection based on Shaun Usher’s indispensable website of the same name — the letter is an exquisite addition to luminaries’ reflections on the meaning of life, speaking to what it really means to find your purpose.

Cautious that “all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it” — a caveat other literary legends have stressed with varying degrees of irreverence — Thompson begins with a necessary disclaimer about the very notion of advice-giving:

To give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal — to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

And yet he honors his friend’s request, turning to Shakespeare for an anchor of his own advice:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect — between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

He acknowledges the obvious question of why not take the path of least resistance and float aimlessly, then counters it:

The answer — and, in a sense, the tragedy of life — is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you.

Touching on the same notion that William Gibson termed “personal micro-culture,” Austin Kleon captured in asserting that “you are the mashup of what you let into your life,” and Paula Scher articulated so succinctly in speaking of the combinatorial nature of our creativity, Thompson writes:

Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.)* There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.

Resolving to steer clear of the word “existentialism,” Thompson nonetheless strongly urges his friend to read Sartre’s Nothingness and the anthology Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre, then admonishes against succumbing to faulty definitions of success at the expense of finding one’s own purpose:

To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors—but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires—including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Noting that his friend had thus far lived “a vertical rather than horizontal existence,” Thompson acknowledges the challenge of this choice but admonishes that however difficult, the choice must be made or else it melts away into those default modes of society:

A man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance. So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know—is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

He ends by returning to his original disclaimer by reiterating that rather than a prescription for living, his “advice” is merely a reminder that how and what we choose — choices we’re in danger of forgetting even exist — shapes the course and experience of our lives:

I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that — no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life.

Both reflecting and supporting Usher’s heartening echelon of independent online scholarship and journalism at the intersection of the editorial and the curatorial, Letters of Note is brimming with other such timeless treasures from such diverse icons and Brain Pickings favorites as E. B. White, Virginia Woolf, Ursula Nordstrom, Nick Cave, Ray Bradbury, Amelia Earhart, Galileo Galilei, and more.

* See Anaïs Nin’s equally delightful disclaimer about the usage of the g-word.

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01 NOVEMBER, 2013

Naomi Wolf’s Spectacular, No-Bullshit Letter of Advice to Her Younger Self

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“Don’t gossip; it makes you untrustworthy. . . . Kindness is everything.”

Naomi Wolf was only twenty-six when she began writing the cult-classic The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, which went on to become a bestseller that shaped the cultural narrative on beauty and identity. Confronted with her sudden success, Wolf had to face the demon of “Fear of Having Too Much” — that peculiar ghoul of private self-doubt in the face of public affirmation and material rewards, which so often manifests itself in our conflicted relationship with money. Two years after the publication of The Beauty Myth, Wolf reflected on this demon, a downside of success to which she believes women are particularly susceptible, in her meditation on female power in the 21st century, Fire with Fire:

I reacted by moving further into the elaborate complex of stupidity about money that I had begun to pick up in college. Like many women, I went into a numbers-induced fog that enveloped me whenever I had to discuss my income. I was embarrassed talking to the woman who helped me with my taxes. I thought it was inappropriate for me to learn the least detail about handling my income.

In What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self (public library) — a heartening collection of 41 extraordinary women’s life-tested learnings, including contributions from Maya Angelou, Madeleine Albright, and Roz Chast — Wolf looks back on her early experience with success and money, offering some sage, succinct, no-bullshit advice on life that, while directed at her twenty-something self, holds refreshing and timeless wisdom for all ages and genders:

Dear Younger Self,

INVEST FIFTY BUCKS IN THE STOCK MARKET EVERY MONTH!! You don’t need to eat out so much. Think of all that compound interest!

If they don’t have beards and aren’t clean-shaven either, they make good short-term but bad long-term boyfriends. Beware.

Stop worrying about making people happy or getting people’s approval.

Forget trends; go for the classics.

Don’t gossip; it makes you untrustworthy.

Condoms, condoms, condoms.

Kindness is everything.

(For some reflections in a similar spirit from yours truly, see 7 things I’ve learned in 7 years of Brain Pickings.)

Complement What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self with Dear Me, which features luminaries’ letters to their 16-year-old selves, and The Letter Q, queer writers’ wise and wonderful letters to their young selves, then revisit Wolf’s most recent work, exploring the science of stress and orgasm.

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23 OCTOBER, 2013

Legendary Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s Love Letters to Her Soulmate, Ruth Benedict

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“The thought of you now makes me a little unbearably happy.”

Margaret Mead endures as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, who not only popularized anthropology itself but also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s with her studies of attitudes towards sex. In addition to broadening cultural conventions through her work, she also embodied the revolution in her personal life. Married three times to men, she dearly loved her third husband, the renowned British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, with whom she had a daughter. But the most intense and enduring relationship of her life was with a woman — the anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Benedict, Mead’s mentor at Columbia university, fourteen years her senior. The two shared a bond of uncommon magnitude and passion, which stretched across a quarter century until the end of Benedict’s life.

Margaret’s love letters to Ruth, posthumously gathered in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) with the permission of Mead’s daughter, are a thing of absolute, soul-stirring beauty, on par with such famed epistolary romances as those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.

In August of 1925, 24-year-old Mead sailed to Samoa, beginning the journey that would produce her enormously influential treatise Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. (Mead, who believed that “one can love several people and that demonstrative affection has its place in different types of relationship,” was married at the time to her first husband and they had an unconventional arrangement that both allowed her to do field work away from him for extended periods of time and accommodated her feelings for Ruth.) On her fourth day at sea, she writes Benedict with equal parts devotion and urgency:

Ruth, dear heart,

. . . The mail which I got just before leaving Honolulu and in my steamer mail could not have been better chosen. Five letters from you — and, oh, I hope you may often feel me near you as you did — resting so softly and sweetly in your arms. Whenever I am weary and sick with longing for you I can always go back and recapture that afternoon out at Bedford Hills this spring, when your kisses were rained down on my face, and that memory ends always in peace, beloved.

A few days later:

Ruth, I was never more earthborn in my life — and yet never more conscious of the strength your love gives me. You have convinced me of the one thing in life which made living worthwhile.

You have no greater gift, darling. And every memory of your face, every cadence of your voice is joy whereon I shall feed hungrily in these coming months.

In another letter:

[I wonder] whether I could manage to go on living, to want to go on living if you did not care.

And later:

Does Honolulu need your phantom presence? Oh, my darling — without it, I could not live here at all. Your lips bring blessings — my beloved.

Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, October 1925 (Library of Congress)

By December, her urgency for union with Ruth grows:

Ruth, what have I done that is wrong? What have I done? It is very truth that your love is keeping me alive. I could only face life for you, now. I love you, always.

And soon:

Ruth, Ruth, you’ll never doubt that I love you, love you, love you? Soon I’ll make you believe it.

Later that month, Mead was offered a position as assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History, where she would go on to spend the rest of her career. She excitedly accepted, in large part so that she could at last be closer to Benedict, and moved to New York with her husband, Luther Cressman, firmly believing that the two relationships would neither harm nor contradict one another. As soon as the decision was made, she wrote to Benedict on January 7, 1926:

Your trust in my decision has been my mainstay, darling, otherwise I just couldn’t have managed. And all this love which you have poured out to me is very bread and wine to my direct need. Always, always I am coming back to you.

I kiss your hair, sweetheart.

Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, January 1926 (Library of Congress)

Four days later, Mead sends Benedict a poignant letter, reflecting on her two relationships and how love crystallizes of its own volition:

In one way this solitary existence is particularly revealing — in the way I can twist and change in my attitudes towards people with absolutely no stimulus at all except such as springs from within me. I’ll awaken some morning just loving you frightfully much in some quite new way and I may not have sufficiently rubbed the sleep from my eyes to have even looked at your picture. It gives me a strange, almost uncanny feeling of autonomy. And it is true that we have had this loveliness “near” together for I never feel you too far away to whisper to, and your dear hair is always just slipping through my fingers.

She then goes on to assuage Ruth’s anxieties about losing her love:

Risk my love — Sweetheart, sweetheart, what nonsense you do talk — and will the birds forget to come north in the spring to the land of their desire? When I do good work it is always always for you — That’s my wishing. What do you care, really, whether I devise elaborate color tests for the Samoans? … But none the less it’s all for you. And a day like today when I’ve worked from dawn to dusk without stopping, I feel very peaceful and it is such joy to go to sleep loving you, loving you — and waken so. I’ve a hundred details I should be writing about, but if I were there I’d kick all the mss. and proofs under the table and bury my face in your breast — and the thought of you now makes me a little unbearably happy.

Five weeks later, in mid-February, Mead and Benedict begin planning a three-week getaway together, which proves, thanks to their husbands’ schedules, to be more complicated than the two originally thought. Exasperated over all the planning, Margaret writes Ruth:

I’ll be so blinded by looking at you, I think now it won’t matter — but the lovely thing about our love is that it will. We aren’t like those lovers of Edward’s “now they are sleeping cheek to cheek” etc. who forgot all the things their love had taught them to love —

Precious, precious. I kiss your hair.

By mid-March, Mead is once again firmly rooted in her love for Benedict:

I feel immensely freed and sustained, the dark months of doubt washed away, and that I can look you gladly in the eyes as you take me in your arms. My beloved! My beautiful one. I thank God you do not try to fence me off, but trust me to take life as it comes and make something of it. With that trust of yours I can do anything — and come out with something precious saved.

Sweet, I kiss your hands.

As the summer comes, Mead finds herself as in love with Benedict as when they first met six years prior, writing in a letter dated August 26, 1926:

Ruth dearest,

I am very happy and an enormous number of cobwebs seem to have been blown away in Paris. I was so miserable that last day, I came nearer doubting than ever before the essentially impregnable character of our affection for each other. And now I feel at peace with the whole world. You may think it is tempting the gods to say so, but I take all this as high guarantee of what I’ve always temperamentally doubted — the permanence of passion — and the mere turn of your head, a chance inflection of your voice have just as much power to make the day over now as they did four years ago. And so just as you give me zest for growing older rather than dread, so also you give me a faith I never thought to win in the lastingness of passion.

I love you, Ruth.

Margaret Mead standing between two Samoan girls, 1926. (Library of Congress)

In 1928, Mead’s marriage to Crossman expired, but her love for Benedict, while complicated, remains ablaze. She closes a letter to Ruth with the sort of restless exhale one would expect of new lovers:

Oh, sweetheart I’m lonely for your arms.

That summer, Mead met and decided to marry her second husband, the New Zealand anthropologist Reo Fortune. Traveling by train for their marriage in September, she sends Ruth a bittersweet letter reflecting on the relationships:

Perhaps only one person can make a sufficiently fundamental impression on me to hold me to unswerving fidelity. Perhaps the capacity and attention which I have left for other people beside you is somewhere a little off center and incapable of rising to such heights. The psychoanalysts could fix that up to suit themselves but still I think that it might be explained in terms of a basic orientation of the personality, the only orientation which that personality was capable of. And maybe what I give any man is less than half.

This whole thing is much harder for me to understand than anything which has happened yet. Schematizing my life, there has been you and you steadfastly since you came into it. Nothing has ever threatened that fact.

[…]

My feeble attempts to go on with my marriage once I had rejected it don’t count in my sense of having willed what I wanted. But I didn’t will this. I have a sense of very definitely not willing it, of having felt no place for any other important relationship in my life, and of having quite clearly done what I could to avoid it.

She continues with a poetic meditation on the nature of her relationship to Ruth and its fundamental difference from any of her marriages:

Our relationship and any relationship to a man are as separate and incomparable as they seem, operating on different sets of wheels. . . . It would make a fascinating study to work out just in what respects two people could gradually come to depend upon a common mind, selecting one function from one mind and one from the other, counting one person’s experience to explain one set of points, drawing on the other’s memory to clear up others, etc. We come awfully near to doing that in everything from science to love. I wonder if you’ll feel as mentally amputated as I do. I have just one definite urge and that is to write to you, write to you, write to you.

[…]

The great pieces of space, the steadily falling hours of time which are passing without being woven closely in the net of our common knowledge, terrify me. It’s as if in a long, woven strip suddenly blank spaces were to appear where before all had been rainbowed and patterned. Something has happened to the weft, it runs brown and gray, gray and brown through my hurrying fingers. I weave desperately fast, but under my window pass fields gold and lovely with flowers which you will never see and my elbow is sore and irritated from a bad cut which you didn’t know I’d gotten by falling down on the Museum steps. Brown and gray and only every twenty or thirty threads can I slip in a colorful one and regain one note in the pattern which winds woven and beautiful all about me, woven by our four hands in the last six years.

The next day, in another letter, Mead explodes with reawakened gratitude and love:

Darling, you will never know what a priceless and so undeserved gift you have given me in giving me a perfect love no least inch of which I need ever repudiate — Oh — I love you, my beautiful. I kiss your eyes.

A day later, on September 5, another bittersweet letter to Ruth leaves us speculating about what might have been different had the legal luxuries of modern love been a reality in Mead’s day, making it possible for her and Ruth to marry and formalize their steadfast union under the law:

Darling,

[…]

I’ve slept mostly today trying to get rid of this cold and not to look at the country which I saw first from your arms.

Mostly, I think I’m a fool to marry anyone. I’ll probably just make a man and myself unhappy. Right now most of my daydreams are concerned with not getting married at all. I wonder if wanting to marry isn’t just another identification with you, and a false one. For I couldn’t have taken you away from Stanley and you could take me away from [Reo] — there’s no blinking that.

[…]

Beside the strength and permanence and all enduring feeling which I have for you, everything else is shifting sand. Do you mind terribly when I say these things? You mustn’t mind — ever — anything in the most perfect gift God has given me. The center of my life is a beautiful walled place, if the edges are a little weedy and ragged — well, it’s the center which counts — My sweetheart, my beautiful, my lovely one.

Your Margaret

By 1933, despite the liberal arrangements of her marriage, Mead felt that it forcibly squeezed out of her the love she had for Benedict. In a letter to Ruth from April 9, she reflects on those dynamics and gasps at the relief of choosing to break free of those constraints and being once again free to love fully:

Having laid aside so much of myself, in response to what I mistakenly believed was the necessity of my marriage I had no room for emotional development. … Ah, my darling, it is so good to really be all myself to love you again. . . . The moon is full and the lake lies still and lovely — this place is like Heaven — and I am in love with life. Goodnight, darling.

Over the years that followed, both Margaret and Ruth explored the boundaries of their other relationships, through more marriages and domestic partnerships, but their love for each other only continued to grow. In 1938, Mead captured it beautifully by writing of “the permanence of [their] companionship.” Mead and her last husband, Gregory Bateson, named Benedict the guardian of their daughter. The two women shared their singular bond until Benedict’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1948. In one of her final letters, Mead wrote:

Always I love you and realize what a desert life might have been without you.

To Cherish the Life of the World features more of their tender correspondence. Complement it with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s love letters to Edith Wynne Matthison and Virginia Woolf’s short and stirring epistle to Vita Sackville-West.

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