This is probably not the letter you were expecting, but life is filled with strange turns and hidden pathways on our journey to wherever this existence might lead, if it leads anywhere at all. Sometimes, as I have learned over many years of travelling, we find what we have been looking for without knowing we’ve been searching, and in the most unusual, unexpected places. And by travelling I do not just mean the act of moving from one place to another, although I have done plenty of that, but also exploring the minds of others, the learning and experiences of those who have gone before us, those who we might be expected to look up to as an example of the Good Life, and those who we should exclude, according to gathered social wisdom, but do not as they, too, can teach. My own form of travelling has often been the written word: books by philosophers; over various periods of history; memories, memoirs and biographies of the great and the well-remembered – but also those from a few who thought they were great, perhaps in their own minds, but had nothing but their own arrogance, pomposity and vanity to show for a life of chances.

Life, like letter writing, is a challenge. The only real difference is that we are forced into life, and our lives are controlled less by ourselves than by circumstance and the actions of others – all the best laid plans can be destroyed by one person arriving ten minutes late, for example – whereas letter writing is an act of our own free will, and can be an expression of our thoughts, beliefs, hopes and fears influenced by none other than ourselves or, perhaps better, seen through our own eyes as a bystander to a life influenced by the actions and beliefs of others. We put the words down on paper with our own hands, think the thoughts with our own minds, but must accept that what we think, what we write, is a product of many years of social interaction and learning. Did we learn the right things? Were we influenced by the right people? Diogenes, a philosopher credited with founding the Cynic branch of philosophy, who lived in the fourth century BCE was convinced that we are slaves, regardless of whether we consider ourselves to be free, have freedom of movement, speech and thought. We are slaves to society, to custom, to tradition, to fashion even. To really free yourself and drop the mantle of slavery means dropping everything learned, every civilised mannerism and action, everything to do with society. Not quite what we would wish to do, I suspect, and certainly some of the things that he advocated – such as incest and cannibalism – would turn the minds of many a freedom seeking person, regardless of which period in time they lived. And his freedom of speech, something we claim and strive for today, had a great deal to do with the freedom to insult and offend others which, to our way of thinking, according to our values, is no longer freedom of speech, but an abuse of freedom. Hardly surprising that another, considerably better known philosopher, Plato, described Diogenes as Socrates gone mad.

I cannot say that I have an affinity with Diogenes, after all, he lived much of his life as a homeless person – as we would describe it today – or on the backs of others, and is well remembered for living in a massive earthenware jar behind, or next to the main entrance of a temple. Much the same with Socrates, who spent much of his adult life standing in the middle of streets thinking, if we are to believe some of the stories. Many of the philosophers who pride us with the greatest levels of wisdom, it seems, were crackpots according to our standards today – admittedly, Socrates was considered a crackpot to the people of this own times, and Diogenes was openly abused for his actions and words. We take, though, those things out of what we read, what we learn, that are of most use to us. A very selective manner of gaining wisdom, cherry-picking as it is sometimes called, but better than accepting absolutely everything handed down by the greatest thinkers of all times. After all, while some people claim it tastes just like chicken, cannibalism is not something I have a burning desire to experience. Frog’s legs, a former French delicacy, taste like chicken, and this experience I can live with.

I’m not sure, following the thread of my thoughts, which is also what letter writing is about, that there is any philosopher, any character though the annals of history that we need to emulate in our own lives. Society is constantly changing, sometimes even for the better, and our circle of friends and acquaintances cannot be compared to those of others, especially when we look back over several centuries. We base our lives and our forming characters, our personality, on what we have learned from many different sources, many different people, and according to the time and area we live in. My form of life, now settled in Germany after many years in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, would be completely different to that of someone who has been raised and educated in rural America, for example, or on the Siberian Steppes, Singapore or even Rome. I write forming characters because we are constantly changing. We may well have an underlying personality, but character is formed by environment as much as by education and social mores. You react to the people around you now in a completely different manner to how you’d react at home or in the workplace, your character comes across to these various groups of people in a different manner, and many would describe you in conflicting terms, according to how and where you had met. Rather like, as a very base example, the loving husband and father of two small children who, going to work, oversees the mass murder of children and their families in a camp.

It is fair to say, and I suspect that you’d agree with me, your current environment, being something completely different to what you have experienced in earlier years, has helped to form, to change your own character. There are experiences we do not necessarily seek, which are forced by circumstance – of our own making, mostly – upon us. And there are experiences which we go out of our way to attain. And we adapt according to those circumstances, a case of the fittest surviving perhaps, if such an experience cannot be held in a higher vein. I survived school, looking back on those later school years I cannot think of any other better description than to have survived. I would not have chosen this particular educational system, and certainly not the institution of education, for myself had I been asked had I possessed the knowledge I have now. I have survived, in a different manner, my time in the military and the various war zones, areas of conflict and unrest which came with my assignments. These were also character forming, perhaps character destroying too. None of us come out of such experiences the same person as we went in – all blue-eyed and eager – as I am sure you can attest.

I believe the test of a person’s character and integrity doesn’t depend on being error-free, it depends on what they do after the mistakes.

Exactly. Do they learn from their mistakes and try to remedy them, to make things better in the future, or do they cover-up, blame others, try to worm their way out of responsibility? In the old days we’d say a person needs to Man Up and admit to the failings, and many people would have done, believing it to be the right thing to do, the thing we are taught from the very beginning of our lives, at home, in school in a church. Is this still true today? How many people religious, political, the average Joe, face their mistakes and accept the responsibility, the consequences of their error? And by this I do mean voluntarily, not forced by the system, by the mores of civilised society or a judgement. I mean after the fact, when the dust has settled and there is nothing more to be done or said, when the chance to learn from an experience, and perhaps even remedy it, comes. How many people put the words they speak, the promises they make, into action? None of us can claim to be angels. Or perhaps we should say everyone can claim to be an angel, but few are. After all, the figure we call Satan was an angel once, if we’re to believe the stories created in about the first century CE by Palestinian Jews: the rebellion of Samael against his father (God), resulting in his loss of status, the Fall, and his own adoption of the name Lucifer, the Bringer of Light.

If we cannot admit to our own mistakes, then there is no point to anything. We fail to learn, we fail to advance, we become stuck in one position with no hope of betterment, of the chance of a decent future. We are condemned, perhaps, to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. And yet we know, because of our upbringing, our education, or moral values, that something is wrong even before we are confronted by other people. Much of the time we know something is wrong before we even set out to do it, rather like sticking our fingers in an electric socket: we know of the dangers, and yet…. At least we have the experience afterward, presupposing survival. However, this is a matter for each individual, and pointless discussion is hardly likely to stop someone, somewhere outside of our range, doing something which would make us slap our foreheads and ask what they could possibly have been thinking.

One of my major interests is literature or, perhaps better, reading. As I sit here and write I am surrounded by boxes of books I have not yet unpacked, and by shelves of volumes covering many different interests, from several centuries of knowledge and writing. Just over a year ago I moved to my present address, having lived in a very small city – about four thousand five hundred population – for over twenty years. Looking back over my life, I have never lived anywhere for longer than twenty years, often considerably less if you count military service. This move, however, will probably be my last and it is something of a strain to get used to the idea. Not so much the move from a small city into a larger one, but the move from a large house to a smaller apartment. To be honest, I couldn’t afford to stay where I was, on an intellectual basis it was a killing experience, both for the mind and the soul. My entire social life revolved, and revolves, around life in the larger city, and it seemed sensible, after much consideration, to pack up and move on. This brings, as you can imagine from your own situation, many logistical problems with it. Moving from a large house – I had thirteen rooms and three bathrooms – into an apartment with a main room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, and bringing many years worth of material possessions meant selection, separation, major decisions on what was to be kept and what should disappear. The hardest decision, surprisingly, was not which books to keep, how to cut my ten thousand volumes down to a more comfortable five or six thousand, but which items of memorabilia, which collected memories of many years on the road were worth keeping, or could find a place in much smaller surroundings. In the end it was made relatively easy for me, in that the people buying my old house, having been tasked with clearing out the furniture I couldn’t take with me, also disposed of many other things they considered to be of no value. What has memories for one person is often a bit of tat for another, which can be a very hard lesson to learn.

And right now, in my new apartment, I am faced by people who ask me how I can hang pictures on my walls of people I do not know, people who are not family, who I have no connection to whatsoever. My answer has been a little off-the-cuff, I don’t know the model who posed for the Mona Lisa, but I’d still be happy to have it in my wall, but it has also made me think. Books are not the only collectible item I have surrounded myself with over the years, I also have a sizeable collection of old and antique photographs, some framed, many loose. Back in the day, when photography was young and only just started to be seen as a commercial enterprise, many allowed themselves to be photographed as a memento to send to others. These images were then printed onto very thin slips of paper and pasted onto a hardboard back, often with an advertisement for the photographic studio, and called Carte d’Visite. The size of a modern day credit card, they could be left as a calling card when someone wasn’t home, or as a reminder of those left behind when people emigrated to new lands, such as the mass exodus of Europeans, and especially Germans, in the late nineteenth century. The ones that I hang on my walls are family groups, or groups of workers at special events – the opening of a new railway line in 1880, for example, or the commemoration of fifty years of existence in 1931. They are unique, often the only copies left, and a small piece of history. Not of my history, of course, but just something left behind others thought worthy of remembering. And they also look fine on my walls! Not that my landlord is likely to be too happy, should they ever get a glance inside the apartment, as each new picture hung means a new hole in the wall for the hook.

Letter writing, as I mentioned earlier in this letter, is a challenge. We can present ourselves to people we do not know, have never met and, probably, never will meet. We can introduce a whole new world to them – much the same as the best works of fiction – both as place and as person. It is a challenge because we are forced to take as new look around us, to think about the things which we see and experience, and form words to convey these impressions to someone across the seas in a foreign land. No matter what anyone might wish to claim, Europe is completely different to the United States, even the individual European countries are different one to another, from traditions through to culture, languages and customs. Individuals – you and I – have followed widely different paths through life to reach where we are now, and our memories are coloured by many events no one else has ever seen or experienced. The challenge, for many, is putting these memories, thoughts, experiences down on paper. Converting what is in our minds to an image, in words, that another person can see in their own mind. Ask almost anyone to writer a letter about their day, and they will probably answer they cannot, they’ve done nothing, there has been nothing of interest in their day. It’s almost as if they have lain on their backs, eyes and ears closed, and cut themselves off from their surroundings, from the entire world. No one does that, not even in your situation. We all have thoughts, hopes and dreams, experiences, memories. And that is what letter writing – or even keeping a daily journal – is all about: conversation based on lived experience.

No one has to accept the challenge, but those who do can expect nothing less than enrichment. As I wrote in the first line, this is probably not the letter you were expecting, but perhaps it opens a way to the experience you are hoping for. Challenge accepted?