Margaret Mead’s Beautiful Letter of Advice to Her Younger Sister on Starting a Family in an Uncertain World
In praise of “living more intensely and doing better work” whatever life may throw your way.
By Maria Popova
“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured,” beloved children’s book author and artist Tove Jansson wrote in her marvelous parable of uncertainty and self-reliance. It’s a heartening sentiment that captures what John Cowper Powys called, three decades earlier,“the marvel of our being alive at all; alive in a world as startling and mysterious, as lovely and horrible, as the one we live in.” But how do we hold onto the marvel when the uncertainty of life reaches its shrill crescendo in times of trouble, terror, and senseless violence?
That’s what trailblazing anthropologist Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) addresses in a beautiful 1938 letter of advice to her younger sister, the artist and educator Elizabeth Mead Steig, found in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Mead on the fluidity of human sexuality, her symbolic dream about the meaning of life, and her breathtaking love letters to her soul mate, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict.
In a 1938 letter to the great psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who later came to write what is perhaps the greatest treatise on love, Mead writes of her love for Elizabeth:
She is not only my favorite sister, but as a child she came to stand to me as a sort of pledge of the beauty of life, because she was born three years after my older little sister died, and became in a sense that other baby reborn. From that experience I drew such a confidence that life holds a sequence of good things, that the most precious experience will not be lost, but will come again, that it has in a way patterned my whole life, and definitely surrounded Elizabeth with a special halo.
A few weeks earlier, Elizabeth had written to Mead asking for advice on whether she and her husband — the celebrated artist, Shrek creator, and New Yorker cartoonist William Steig — should have children given the looming threat of global violence in the buildup to what would become WWII. Mead’s reply emanates the lucid and luminous wisdom that undergirds all of her work and defines her legacy as one of the greatest humanists our civilization has produced:
Elizabeth darling, today is your birthday, your twenty-ninth isn’t it, and how good it is to be as young as you are at twenty-nine, with the world still ahead of you. Next year, when you are thirty, you will find it correct to have very staid and sober thoughts — at thirty I decided I would never do anything better or different from what I was doing, and what a bore that was — but this year, you are still in your twenties, the very best year of them because with the joy of the twenties you almost hit the wisdom of the thirties. So be as happy as you can, my love, and don’t live too much under the shadow of coming events.
Coming events, seen in retrospect, have never been very hot. What if you had been a bride in 1860, or a mother in 1935; what if you had been a European bride in 1914, or an English mother in 1895. You have read Joan and Peter, haven’t you, in which [H.G.] Wells describes the beautiful safe world, in which all the nurseries had rounded corners and science was going to solve every problem, science and humanitarianism. Just the age in which to be hopeful and happy, to breed freely for the great new world. And the boys who were born into those English nurseries so lighted with hope, are dead.
We can’t know, anymore than the parents of the 1890s knew, what the future of twenty-five years from now holds. Which isn’t an argument for your having children, if you don’t want them, and if Bill doesn’t want them… But don’t dramatize too heavily the evil to come, even as a dark cloud against which the present looks so golden. You may stampede yourself into a position on politics which has actually nothing to do with them at all, but is simply an enriching personal device for living more intensely and doing better work.
Elizabeth and Bill ended up having two children. Both were born under the dark cloud of WWII and both became beacons of light in the world — their daughter, Lucinda, grew up to be an artist and psychiatrist; their son, Jeremy, a jazz flutist.
The sentiment at the heart of Mead’s advice to Elizabeth is a reflection of her lifelong credo — an unflinching faith in the transformative power of living intensely and doing good work despite whatever uncertainty or hardship the world may throw one’s way. It permeates every missive in the wholly fantastic To Cherish the Life of the World, which is titled after one of Mead’s most memorable epistolary lines:
I’ve no responsibilities in the world except friends and students and cherishing the life of the world — and the belief that there is enough love to go round.
For more of Mead’s spiritual genius, see her enduring ideas on uprooting racism, why women make better scientists, and the difference between myth and deception, then revisit her astonishingly prescient multi-part conversation with James Baldwin on forgiveness, identity and race, and the future of democracy.
Published November 30, 2015