I am always intrigued by those who suggest that we, as outsiders, might want to find out who they are, that we, as outsiders, have the ability to delve into the mind and personality, the most intimate corners of a person, and discover the real being behind some form of facade, some wall which has been erected to protect from the outside world, or from those whose attentions are not welcome. It fascinates me not so much because of the suggestion, for which I can find many good reasons, but more because of the idea. How can a stranger discover the real person inside when we, the real person, have not discovered it ourselves? That is to say: we are constantly finding out new facets of ourselves according to the experiences we have on a daily basis, and opening up ourselves and our inner being to ourselves through our reactions, which are often surprising to ourselves too. How many people, as an example, accept themselves for what they are and what they have lived so far in their lives? All too often I read that a present situation does not define the person, that they do not let it alter them in any way, and again, I wonder whether they really know themselves, and whether it would be possible for an outsider to get to know them better than they know themselves.
We all have a different impression of the person sitting opposite us, those we work with, even those we live with and love, to the one that they have of themselves. We see them in a different light, often noticing small things about their character and their reactions to certain events which they do not see themselves. A person looking in a mirror does not see what we see, he or she sees a reversed image, and this is what influences their opinion of, for example, their own looks. If you ask three, five or even ten people what they think of a certain person, you will get as many answers.
Having said that, lettering someone into your life, into the most intimate thoughts that you may have, is often something of a revelation: we learn a good deal about ourselves by seeing and hearing what other people think of us, especially in an unguarded moment. How often has someone said a little something behind our backs, and we have caught it? It may well be the truth that they are recounting, or merely their impression of us, but it is rarely something we have thought of ourselves. That little bit of gossip we hear, or pass on ourselves. The belief we hold of the reasoning behind someone’s actions. Our suspicions on another person’s motivation. All are part of the true person we see before us, which they do not necessarily recognise, as much as they are a part of the true people we are: passers on of gossip and tittle-tattle; purveyors of rumour; destroyers of hopes and dreams. Do we really want to let other people know the real us, or just give them access to the us, the inner person, which we are prepared to release for their enjoyment; the person we wish to be seen as.
So, now that I have thoroughly confused you and probably taken your words completely out of context, I can give you a small insight into the true me, if you wish. I am a passionate letter writer who, as you will have noticed from the first page, enjoys taking a subject and tearing it apart, delving into meanings behind the words and, often, bringing out philosophical thoughts and wandering off in directions other people have not expected. To be honest, sometimes directions I have not expected either. I am an ardent reader of the ancient classics as well as of philosophical works, of history and classical literature, and spend a good deal of my time – which is all free or leisure time – dissecting what I have read, what I have experienced, my feelings, the thoughts of other people and so on. When I write to people I try to force them into thoughts they might not usually have had, might not have entertained. My pleasures are of a far deeper nature than most appreciate, and that includes the ideal of finding the real person behind a mask, behind a picture that they have of themselves. It gives great pleasure to challenge those I write to, and have them dig deep into their own minds and characters, their past, their thoughts for the future to come up with replies which, often, come from the soul, from inner thoughts and desires they did not realise that they had and which prove, to the surprise of many, that they are deeper thinkers, and far more intelligent – given the time and incentive to think – than anyone else has let them believe in the past.
I am a firm and convinced believer in the power of thought, and the power of intelligence, and know that many I write to have been suppressed in their own thoughts over many years: by the educational system; by their friends and family; by the situation that they find themselves in at work or, as now, in other places. Their true self, their innermost self, is one that they have not found, because everyone else – especially those in some position of authority – have told them what to be, how to act, what to expect out of life because of their birthright, their ethnic origin, their gender. And I am a firm believer that someone who has set themselves the target of furthering their education, as you have, is more than worthy of a real challenge to get them thinking and, if possible, exploring all the wonders of this world which, despite their situation, are available to them.
An example? A young man who has not completed his GED, has been incarcerated since he was a teenager and whose first language is not English. In our last letters to one another we wrote about the philosophical meaning behind a work written by Friedrich Nietzsche and the influences on this man – and his writings – by other philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Artur Schopenhauer, and the times in which he lived. We also talked about Harry Potter and other works which can be seen in a philosophical light. He believed himself in tune with his inner self, with the real person, and we went far deeper than he had ever thought possible, than he could have imagined and found a different true person in there.
Does every encounter teach you something new in life, as your profile suggests? It does if your eyes are open, if you go into an encounter looking for something without knowing what, and without hedging yourself in to specific thoughts and expectations. It does if you are so open-minded that even opinions in direct opposition to your own are allowed time to express themselves, even if they still do not convince you to change your own opinion. It has long been believed that we enter life as a clean slate, a blank sheet with no experiences, no expectations, no learning, nothing on it whatsoever. To a certain extent this is true; the normal survival instincts are written in big letters, but the rest s clear and waiting for input. It has also long been believed that this lack of everything is very quickly filled and that we learn everything we need to now by a certain age or a certain point in our lives. I agree with the first position, but most decidedly not with the second. If we are open and prepared, we continue learning throughout our entire life, no matter where we are, what we are doing. There are so many new sights and sounds, experiences which present themselves to us even when we are asleep – dreams are not just what we know, but also our imagination at work – that it is impossible to claim this originally empty and clean slate is anywhere near full. The chances are it will never be; the chances are we will still learn something on our death-bed, as strange as that may seem. Whether this small piece of learning could enrich our lives or not, we’ll have to wait and see.
So am I going to start writing to you about Nietzsche, Kant and Schopenhauer? Or about the mysteries contained in Harry Potter or the books on Prince Caspian and Narnia? Probably not. It is fair to say that not everyone has a small piece of the philosophers inside them, or even the slightest interest in what they wrote two hundred, five hundred or even two thousand years ago, or even whether they accept that these ancient writings make a difference to our lives in some way or another. That is all acknowledged today, even if we do not know the source, the why’s and wherefore’s. And a letter writing friendship, one that works, is all about sharing, about learning and about listening as much as talking. No relationships, on an equal level, work where only one person talks all the time and expects the other people in their life to listen, to do, to obey; that is the past, and can remain so, where women were the property of men and did not have the right to their own opinion, let alone education and freedom of movement.
But letter writing is still an exploration, and especially of the inner self, the true person. Anyone can write anything that they wish: the can create a character for themselves, a personality, be a completely different person to their true selves and be perfectly happy with that, for a while. Or they can write from the heart and, like me, have friendships where they have never met the other person, where everything is written on paper and sent through the post, which last decades. These are the friendships which bring out the true inner self, which define a person regardless of their physical situation, regardless of the level of their education, their origin, religion or political standpoint.
On the other hand it is also possible to follow those slightly more shallow but interesting conversations which are slightly more racy, make wonderful promises, or open up images in the mind which excite more than anything else. A different form of stimulation. The only problem here is that they go stale quickly: there are only so many things that can be written and said when only one topic is on the table, and a virtual relationship of this nature is hardly the most exciting thing in the world; the physical side is missing, is possible not even there. And when such a person, who writes of the physical in a virtual world and makes promises all know cannot be kept is fed up? They just disappear without a word of explanation, and leave us wondering whether it was something we said, or whether their mother came down into the basement and caught them messing about. But a correspondence of the mind, where thoughts are raised which challenge, which demand that both sides express themselves and delve into their own understanding of the world and all that is within and without it, they last and, I dare say it, bring considerable more than any other form of conversation can. The honesty of consideration, which you are seeking, comes out far better. The truth of what a person thinks and believes. The challenge of the new, the experiences of other people, the unimaginable formed and explored.
Letter writing, especially for someone who is restricted in life’s possibilities in one form or another, brings life to your very door. Not everyone can sit in the old Jewish quarter, the original ghetto, eating Italian olive bread in Venice, or wander through the back streets of a Belizean city, the slums of Calcutta, through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. But everyone who has access to pen and paper, to stamps and an imagination, can find a friend who has done some or all of those things, and can create a new world within your mind from their memories. Or they can discuss the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant. Are you open to such a challenge?
This letter was returned by FCI Aliceville in Alabama with a notice that the recipient is no longer at this address. She has been moved and, apparently, they do not know where to, which, for a system based on high security levels, surprises me somewhat.