We Study The Art Of Living
I was struck by many of the things that you wrote, and spent a great deal of time both considering the words and their hidden meanings as well as aligning them with my impressions of life, my life as it has been so far, and what I had planned, hoped for or even demanded as a teenager, many years ago. It is sometimes hard to look back on feelings, emotions, even plans from youthful years: the passage of time changes us in so many ways as we gain experience through life, meet up with new people and interact within or on the outskirts of society, that a glance back with the same eyes as we had then is almost impossible. I doubt that I would necessarily recognise many of my youthful desires now, although I remember them and have achieved many of them, the reality has never been close to the dream. My life – if not my world – has revolved around literature and travel, the art of learning as much as anything else, which can be summed up succinctly through the words of Pliny the Younger, a Roman statesman and letter writer who lived near the city of Pompeii at the time of its destruction and served his country in many different ways. He wrote:
Not only is it always a pleasure to hear something new, but also through examples we study the art of living.
Not that there are so many people who study the art of living today, we tend more to plunge headlong into each new adventure and hope for the best, sometimes with unexpected results, sometimes not managing to make it through unscathed. But, if we didn’t take that plunge, what would life be but an almost unending – or seemingly unending – series of nothing; each and every day exactly the same with no excitement, nothing to perk up our spirits, excite our interest and intelligence, no chance of change.
There are, of course, people who live such a life, who get up each morning and wander through the day as if asleep, and then lay themselves down to slumber in the evenings having seen nothing, gained nothing in their lives. Some are content, that must be admitted, but few look back on their lives, when the day comes, and do not regret chances missed. And there are those who are forced into a situation which changes their lives, and must follow destiny whether they wish to or not but, for those with more sense, will still make the best out of their fate as they can. Who am I to judge the lives of others, those that I see working in offices, or travelling on the bus, stuck in traffic, grabbing a sandwich and coffee instead of lunch, dragging children through the shops, staring into space as if seeking an answer? I may try to put myself into their shoes, walk in their footsteps, but, as Simone de Beauvoir wrote:
[…] the little monkey will never see with the eyes of man. And I will never slip into the skin of another
which does not, I hasten to add, stop me from joining someone else on their journey, does not stop me from learning with them, from sharing my experiences and my life with them along the way. And, hopefully, they will share their life, their thoughts, with me so that I might learn too. We are, after all, never too old to learn from others, as much as from ourselves.
No one ever really gets to know a person for who they truly are or for what’s on the inside. They don’t take time to know the heart.
There are those who do not even attempt to scratch the surface; they make assumptions based on what they have heard and will not bring themselves away from this impression, no matter how much reality may show them a different person, a different picture. There are those who automatically assume that another person has a certain character, is intelligent or ignorant, a success or a failure from a visual impression; from the manner of dress; from a few words spoken or written; from the words and impressions of others which they take at face value without any considerations of their own. The world does not need more of this type of person, what it needs is those who are willing to take their time, to ask questions and, above all, listen to the answers. It needs people who can step outside of themselves long enough to gain a different impression, despite their own natural prejudices, fears and expectations.
The idea of a dark dungeon where a person is trapped, which you write about, is one which has followed mankind down the centuries. There are those who do not realise that they are trapped, that there is more to life than what they see, and there are those who have both the imagination to understand that there is more possible, and the will to attempt these possibilities. One of the best examples of your dungeon is used by the ancient philosopher Plato – who lived in Greece over four hundred years before the birth of Christ – and used the picture of a cave for his tale. People sit within this cave and look towards a wall where shadows play. The shadows are cast by a fire behind these people, but they do not know this, as they cannot or will not turn and see what is behind them. They take the shadows on the wall for reality, for their gods. Those who have imagination, or the necessary intelligence to think things through to a logical conclusion, realise that there is more to life than the shadows projected on a wall, turn, and see and then move towards the fire and beyond. As you can imagine, once they see that there is a fire and realise where the shadows are coming from, they also see that there is more beyond the fire, and begin seeking their way out of the cave. This is Plato’s allegory of intelligence and of the seeking of knowledge: there are those content with what they see and who wish no more or are incapable of finding more, and there are those who think, who seek, and who move towards the ultimate goal of happiness which, in ancient times, was wisdom.
That doesn’t mean we should all be looking over our shoulders to see if there is something better behind us, or whether what we can see is merely a shadow which has been fooling us all our lives. It merely says that there are many different levels of society, of intelligence, of willingness to learn, and that we should never take anything for granted. To which I would add: no one should assume that because I am old I have nothing in common with someone as young as you are, nothing to say which might prove interesting, nothing to offer; no one should assume that you, because of your circumstances, are incapable of taking steps in a new direction and opening up a new – if virtual – world.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when a young woman would not have had such opportunities; not just for learning, but to converse with someone she did not know in person. There was a time when the woman’s place was in the home, and education was considered a waste, almost against God’s law. Fortunately times have changed a great deal since then, and education as much as the creation of friendships without any bad thoughts are commonplace. I sometimes astonish younger people, when they ask me for tales of the past, by telling them how few years it is since women had to ask their husband’s permission – or that of their father if they were not married – just to open a bank account. That there was a time not so long ago when the property of a woman automatically transferred to her husband upon marriage, and he had complete control of it, to the extent that, should they divorce, he was entitled to keep whatever she had earned or inherited and leave her out on the streets and penniless. We are fortunate, also in that a young woman may now write to another person, of the same gender or not, without arousing suspicion as to her morals or lifestyle.
I have two great passions in my life: letter writing and reading. Both bring me a certain level of satisfaction which is almost impossible to explain – not that this fact stops me from trying – and both bring me new knowledge each and every day. There is hardly a book in my collection that either doesn’t have paper markers for interesting text sticking out of the top, or hasn’t been used in a letter at some time or another. I gain my pleasure delving into the past as much as into what some believe the future will hold; reading the letters and about the lives of those who have gone before us; learning what they learned as if at their side; following their travels across a once uncharted globe. It has been and will continue to be a fascinating journey, and one which it has been my pleasure to share with several other people through this medium, through pen and paper. You write:
I don’t expect someone to change to accommodate me and would never change who I am to gain acceptance
and I agree with your thinking. It is, however, a fact that we do change, and that we do allow the influence of other people to come into our lives and bring new light, to invigorate us, to show us a path which might have been hidden behind brambles – the impenetrable hedges of our mind – which we had never expected, but which take us on a new, exciting, stimulating journey elsewhere. And sometimes it is the strangest people who take us on this journey: Alice being taken on her great voyage down the rabbit hole by a white rabbit? We do not wish to be forced to change, but we do change as we grow, as we learn, as we experience more in life, and that is a good and wonderful thing no one should hold back from. Anyone can get up in the morning, work their way through the day and then climb back in to their beds at night, but is that what we really want to do? Do we really want to look back, at the end of our lives, and see those chances we could have taken and didn’t?
As a letter writer I probably belong to a different era: my letters are long and can seem to be complicated, filled with quotations and convoluted thoughts. Had I been born a hundred years earlier than I was, I’d have been completely in my element, surrounded by correspondents who understood the value of letter writing, and who, like me, spent time and thought on writing them. Today, with all the modern technology we have available to us, with instant communication in both word and image, it is difficult to convince people of the benefits a letter writing friendship can bring with it. It is difficult to persuade people that the time they spend writing a letter is worth every minute, and will not take them away from the real life, out there in the worlds any longer than their staring at a small screen and waiting for someone to Like their Facebook status. It is only when people are placed in a situation where such technology no longer works, or where it is not allowed, that they come to appreciate the old ways, the old-fashioned. They suddenly discover that their mind can work, that their intellect has a reason for being, that their experiences in life are of lasting interest to other people, and not just for as long as it takes to scroll down to the next name on a Timeline. And many also come to see that, no matter who we are, what are educational standard may be, what we read, what we do, where we are, we can join and be a part of the most beautiful experience in the world: a real live conversation, a debate, a life-changing experience in words where we, the ordinary person in our ordinary life, take a leading role.
That, believe it or not, is how I look at letter writing and, you can trust me, I have given it a great deal of thought over the years. And that is why I am writing to you, from the other end of life and the other side of the world; inviting you to correspond with me, to see some of my experiences and live, with me, those which are still to come. A letter from the middle of Europe, from a country you’ve never visited – a continent you’ve never visited – and a town, a person you’ve never heard of, and correspondent who will accept you exactly as you are, with no demands or preconditions, and merely enjoy the pleasure of your company, now and then, through the written word.