'A Minister's Mail' by Joseph Fort Newton: The Atlantic Panel Outline for November

by Alice H. Pawsey

Hundreds of Clubs throughout the country are using the Atlantic Panel Plan. Here are the discussion Outlines supplied these Clubs for November, based on Mr. Newton’s article (page 603) in this issue. Why not enjoy an Atlantic Panel meeting in your own group? For further information address The Atlantic club Department, 8 Arlington Street, Boston.

Panel Chairman’s Introduction.

George Bernard Shaw has unkindly said that love is ‘a gross exaggeration of the difference between one person and all the rest.‘

In or out of love, perhaps there really is less difference between any of us and the rest than we are pleased to suppose. Or so it must seem to a minister who conducts a newspaper feature which is more or less of an invitation to its readers to talk back.

For almost five years Joseph Fort Newton has conducted such a column. And to him, in response, have come thousands of letters—such letters as he realizes, from his present vantage point, would have made his ministry an infinitely closer and more compassionate kind of service if he could have read them years ago.

Endlessly varied as are the circumstances and experiences of the writers of these letters, they are, after all, only variations of a few very elemental themes.

The bewilderments and illnesses of the spirit that take years from our lives, and life from our years, are rooted in the commonness of our inner experience, no matter how far apart some of us may seem from each other in all those things which happen to us from the outside, and in our worldly equipment to meet them.

We fear, we suffer, we strive, we love, we wonder, we mourn. We know the terror of those lying shapes and shadows that creep upon us in the night — and the mercy of the morning.

The most fortunate of us can only be as happy as our inner defenses are strong.

Are we doing all we can to build them up and sustain them? Let us see.

Discussion Outline for Individual Panel Speakers.

1. Do you think that any external worldly circumstance causes as much suffering as the four great maladies mentioned by the author. Fear, Anxiety, Loneliness, and Unkindness?

2. Is it your feeling that most of us suffer more from these disorders than we should? Or than is necessary? Do enough of us seek and find in our religion a source of vital spiritual energy for our daily lives? Or do we make it too much a matter of detached theology, unrelated to the urgent realities of living?

3. What are you most afraid of: (a) Something specific that you know or believe is actually going to happen some day? (b) The uncertainty and suspense of looking ahead and having no possible idea of what might happen? (c) Your inability to meet and cope with some condition which the shadowy future may hold?

4. Have you ever had the experience of living for a long time in terror of some possible or inevitable happening, and of finding yourself, when the dreaded hour came and the blow actually fell, incredibly feeling only a peaceful release amounting almost to exaltation? How would you explain this phenomenon? It you have had such an experience, have you been able to avail yourself of its lesson in meeting some later test?

5. Do you think that in every normal life, at some period, there is one staggering blow or loss which represents a certain limit of suffering? Or do you believe that we can actually suffer as much, or more, a second time — not seeming to, perhaps, even to ourselves, simply because life has by this time inured us to suffering, and we now know the measure of our own strength?

6. Do you think we remind ourselves often enough that every anxiety, depression, doubt, or loneliness that besets our own spirit is known to each and every one of those around us? If we could make ourselves hold last to this knowledge, should n’t we have gone far toward banishing much of the disappointment, impatience, and resentment we felt, too easily and too often, even in contacts with those we love the best?

7. Do you think the fact that so many troubled souls leap at an opportunity of unburdening themselves to a stranger indicates a weakness in the family and social structure that we should seek to remedy? Or is it inevitable — desirable, even — that there should be these reticences and reserves in our close relationships, even at the cost of a better understanding?

8. Have you ever, on a vacation or journey, struck up a friendship so spontaneous, so unguardedly natural in its free exchange of ideas and experience, that it made you wonder, with a wistful pang, why our more permanent companionships could not have this same precious and delightful quality? Do you believe they really might have if we could hold always to the thought that life, too, is a journey, and our time together, at best, so very fleeting before our roads must part?

9. Do you think most of us get as much happiness out of life as we could, and should? Has the average person a fully developed capacity for happiness? Do you believe it is true that the happier you have it in you to be, the more you are fated to suffer? Would you rather dwell comfortably on a more temperate middle ground than scale the heights at the cost of plumbing the depths?

10. Do you believe we really can ‘unlearn’ our fears? Have you ever gone through a ghastly time of discouragement and the complete despair of not being able to tackle things, only to wake up one morning and find the cloud suddenly and unaccountably lifted, and courage again in your heart: no outward condition changed — just you? Does this indicate a certain periodic ebbing of our energies, and should we gain strength for enduring these doldrums by taking them philosophically, and not make a bad matter worse by condemning ourselves for what indeed we cannot for the moment help?

11. Many people have endured serious troubles and known very real privations in the last few years. Do you think these people have become chronic worriers to as great an extent as some others who have watched these things going on around them and been stricken with terror that they might some day happen to themselves? Is the fear even more destructive, and harder to recover from, than the calamity itself?

12. As a single rule for making the world a happier place, can you suggest anything better than Barrie’s brief and simple one, to be ‘kinder than is necessary’?

In closing, perhaps one of the Panel Speakers would like to read this little poem:

Little and lonely under the evening star —
These are the children of men that are wandering by,
Each with his packet of dreams and sandals of pain,
Scarred by revolt and white with the dust of despair:
Gypsies of thorn-marked brows and blood-clotted hair,
All of them fated to dream what is ever vain,
Born unto song and sorrow, and marked to die,
Little as buttercups under the heel of June,
Little as wind-cries under the edge of the moon.
See — through the dusk of an hour they are wandering by.
These with the souls as vast as a God’s dreams are —
Little and lonely under the evening star!

—GEORGE BRANDON SAUL, in The Third Book of Modern Verse1

RUMFORD PRESS CONCORD, N.H. U. S. A.

  1. Edited by Jessie B. Hittenhouse (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston)