It doesn’t take the mind of a rocket scientist to discover one of the saddest facts of life: some of those people around us, those we trust and rely upon, do not necessarily have more than their own interests at heart, and most certainly not ours. We get to see such people every single day, but rarely relate our own friends and acquaintances to their poisonous actions, rarely see the danger which is lurking behind every single corner because, naturally, we trust our small circle; we see no reason why any of them would wish to harm us. And then, sometimes, we have the opportunity to take a step back, forced or otherwise, and watch the course of events, pass review over what has gone before, and draw new conclusions. The wisest among us balance what we see with a certain degree of longing for the best, the more cynical see only what is going wrong. The sad part comes when we are forced to take this harder route, when we finally come to appreciate that our friends, those we have spent a good part of our lives with, are not quite who they seem to be, are not quite as friendly, supportive as they might claim.
Over two thousand years ago, the philosopher Plato, taking the words of Socrates, gave us an idea of how the mind works, how we fixate ourselves upon those who claim to be there for us, and how we emulate them whilst believing that they, too, are following the right track. His ideal, of course, was for the good, but the bad things in life can be expressed in exactly the same way, just by changing a few words, by adapting his thoughts. He wrote:
… but he fixes his gaze upon the things of the eternal and unchanging order, and seeing that they neither wrong nor are wronged by one another, but all abide in harmony as reason bids, he will endeavour to imitate them and, as far as may be, to fashion himself in their likeness and assimilate himself to them …
When we change the wording slightly, we come across something which is prevalent in daily life: we do not necessarily get to see that something is bad, or that a person does not have our best intentions in mind when they do something; we accept them as others have accepted them and do not question. The innocent following the wrong path, as some would later say, rather than an active inclination to follow a route which can only lead downhill and destroy a life. It is that chance we are offered – voluntarily or otherwise – which helps us see, as you say:
… my life had been filled with people who are like poison to me.
The realisation is a hard blow to a person’s self: all that they have relied on, all they have looked up to and followed is suddenly shown to be what it really is, comes out in a completely different light, and we begin to question even our own motivation and, above all, wonder what we can do. Often we feel completely lost, as if the pillars which have held us steady through all the years have been ripped asunder and left us floundering against a rising tide of hopelessness. It is at moments like this that we either discover who our true friends are, or turn away and decide to begin afresh; taking the hardest decision and time of our lives.
Another great philosopher decided to take things in a different manner, once he had discovered that what he sought was not necessarily to be found in that we surrounded him. Heraclitus, another one of these people from thousands of years ago whose thoughts, actions and motives are equally relevant today as they were thousands of years ago, said:
I went in search of myself.
Such a simple sentence, but so full of meaning and, we hope, promise. We take time out from the problems of our daily lives, and start to look inside, to see what it is that we want, and how we can achieve it. This doesn’t mean rejecting all outside influences, or becoming so narcissistic that nothing and no one else is of importance, more reassessing what we have done, what we have, what we can do for ourselves, but without harm to others. Life does not revolve around us, we learn that very quickly as children when confronted with others in that first playground, but it is a work in motion, a creative and continuing art of social interaction, friendships, and connections. Socrates again:
I spend all my time going about trying to persuade you, young and old, to make your first and chief concern not for your bodies nor for your possessions, but for the highest welfare of your souls, proclaiming as I go: Wealth does not bring Goodness, but Goodness brings Wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state.
This sounds like some religious predication, but it is not intended as such. The ideas here have nothing to do with religion whatsoever, but everything to do with the Self, with being what you can be. Of course, Goodness and Wealth are things that we can evaluate in many different ways: your idea of both would probably be different to mine, and rightly so. We are individuals with our own values, living within differing social environments, with different ideas and ideals as much as opportunities. Our lives cannot have followed the same path, so it would be wrong of me to claim I know the way you should go: only you can find that way. It will continue to be littered with obstacles, but nothing that you, with your optimistic and positive outlook in seeking new surroundings and friends who will bring a constructive influence into your life, cannot overcome.
I sometimes wonder, when constructing a letter in my mind or on paper, whether the words that I write are likely to inspire, to interest, or to scare people away. Writing about my own experiences, about my own life tends to be a very intense affair, and I often find myself considering what I have written, or plan to write, as if I were to be the recipient. Would I understand my own style of writing, my own ideas? Is what I write still caught in the mists of a past time, foreign to all modern methods of thought, of expression? The very fact that I prefer writing letters and using the postal system must say something: the idea of sending a text message, or having a long and friendly conversation through electronic mail has never appealed: these means are too rushed, they allow little time for thought, and even less time to get out and explore. And yet there are people who reply to my letters, despite the ancient quotations and strange formatting of sentences, and some of my correspondents have been writing with me for several years. It has been, I must admit, a very edifying and enjoyable experience, and one which I will never regret beginning.
I have had conversations about history and philosophy – two of my major interests – but also about beekeeping, about travelling across the United States, about museums and books, life and friendship. I have learned where someone remembers eating a hamburger at a hole-in-the-wall café in some small town, or sitting atop a shed and looking out across the prairie. I have shared memories of living in a wooden hut in Belize without running water, of times of war in Belfast and Saudi Arabia, of museums and art in Florence, Rome, Berlin and London. I am brought back, by the memories other people have, to my own childhood and the earliest formative experiences of my life. I am challenged to find new topics, to read more, to travel further, to experience and, above all, to share. I have discovered the intimacy of letter writing as much as the broadening of the mind it allows, and the fact that, as a letter writer, we are trained to listen (by reading without the possibility of interrupting) and learn to reply. There are, in the writing of letters, few restrictions.
And letter writing is a challenge, not just for the writer but also the reader who, suddenly, is confronted by someone they do not know personally, their thoughts and experiences, and all contained on a sheet of paper. It is a challenge because we cannot interrupt, because we cannot read body language or see expressions, because we are being introduced to a world which is, often, completely different to the one we know. It is something which not only expands our horizons, but challenges us to seek new horizons, as much as trying to understand the motivations of another, the obstacles they have to face, the pleasures, Wealth and Goodness they seek in life.
And then there is the fact, exactly as with this letter you now hold in your hands, that we are confronted with something so different to anything we have ever experienced before, that it takes a moment to realise something new and , hopefully, exciting has presented itself. I am told, and this does not surprise me as much as it has surprised those who have told me, that such a letter cannot be read in just one go; the recipients come back to it time and again, sometimes because of the language used, often because the ideas spark new thoughts in their own minds, and they need time to get away and consider. It is a challenge to reply, I am informed, and a challenge that many do not feel themselves capable of.
We are all individuals, I tell them, with our own lives and our own outlook. For me to demand that someone should write a letter in any other style than their own, or that they should try to emulate or enhance beyond their real interests, would be wrong. We express ourselves through the written word, and not the expectations of other people. We’re no longer in school, and certainly not learning some antiquated form of correspondence which went out with Julius Caesar – although, possibly, this is the form that pleases me in my writing the most!
Philosophy and history I have already mentioned, as if they were not obvious so far, but I also have many other interests. Reading, as well as writing, are very high on my list of things worth doing, and I spend many hours browsing through books, or allowing myself to be taken away into other worlds, other times within this world, by a skilled author. I collect antique photographs, wandering around flea markets in all weathers and then bargaining as best I can to get a good price. I travel, as much as is possible, and gather experiences which, eventually, appear in a letter to someone alongside words I have garnered from others, ideas which have grown from a seed to something greater in my mind. I am not the sort of person who refuses a new culinary experience because I’ve never tried something before, but welcome each new opportunity with open arms – how often, here in Germany, have I seen people ordering what they know from the menu, and ignoring the various and varied gastronomic wonders from foreign lands simply because they do not recognise the name, have never taken the risk of experimenting before.
I am a Londoner by birth, and an European by conviction, which is something many people here in Europe find strange these days. The political problems of the British at the moment cause many to shake their heads in wonder, and question whether a person can be born in one place, but feel more at home elsewhere. I write letters in my own private library, often in the style of those who have gone many centuries before, and live for the chance of interaction with those few other people, no matter where in the world they may be, or what they are experiencing in life, who take up the challenge to write back. My current project is a Letter Book: a notebook with an essay or letter, illustration or poem from one person, sent on to another for their entry, then on to a third and so on, until it is full and returned to its origin. My current reading is on British and Russian spies in the Twenties, with a stack of about twenty-five books waiting to be read covering the origins of opium, the British and Orientalism, slavery, and many other things. Now and then, although it might not seem that way, I allow a few works of fiction to wander across my reading desk, and have Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Lee Child and Val McDermid awaiting my attentions.
But my main addiction, every working day of the week, is walking up to the post office to see whether there is an envelope or two in my post box, whether someone has taken a chance and replied to one of my letters, whether an old friend is continuing our correspondence. You would know it as Mail Call, and how important this small moment in the daily routine is for some people: for me it is the same feeling of expectation and, when a letter is there, joy. Perhaps, in a few weeks from now, I will see a small missive from Texas awaiting my eager attention.