A Minister's Mail

I

FOR almost five years I have conducted a feature in the American press, called ‘Everyday Living,’ which reaches millions of people each day. It is a kind of everyday church, in which the people talk back at the preacher, as no doubt they often want to do in other churches. They say many lovely things to him, but they also tell him where they think he is wrong, and why. They speak very plainly at times, and that does them good and teaches him much that he did not know. Indeed, if I had known years ago what I have learned from my readers, my ministry would have been different — more simple, more intimate, more full of pity.

The response has been extraordinary, and one is struck by the gift for strong, simple, vivid writing shown by people untrained. Often the grammar is off key and the spelling awry, but the matter is good, alive and kicking, the very stuff of life itself, racy with its reality, salty with the tang of its humor and its tragedy. Of course it has its amusing side, as when a little girl asked me to help her sell some kittens, promising to divide the profits fifty-fifty; or when a man wrote a long intricate thesis, with maps, charts, and a maze of figures, proving that the world is hollow and that we live on the inside of it — which explained to me the kind of hole we are in and why we can never get out of it.

My readers write me about every sort of subject, asking questions no mortal can answer, presenting problems no one can solve. They tell me their perplexities, their difficulties, the terrible tangles they get into, their bitter sorrows, the wrongs they suffer, even their sins — many things too intimate to be discussed in print, which are dealt with so far as possible by letter. It helps people to tell their troubles. To write a thing down defines it, clarifies it; and one who is detached and sympathetic can often make suggestions that are helpful. As one reader said, ‘I know what you will tell me, but I want you to say it like a Dutch Uncle; it will buck me up a lot, and that is what I need.’ Often, even when people know what they ought to do, they want to be told to do it.

It is an awesome experience to be taken into confidence by thousands of people of all sorts and conditions: the servant girl, the truck driver, the bank executive; the minister whose faith has been shaken; the mother whose daughter is running wild; the father in hopeless desperation; the young man who is confused by life and wonders what it is all about; the man who is old and unwanted; the shut-ins and the shut-outs; sensitive people who feel the hardness of life and hate its humdrum; those who reckon themselves failures and accept defeat; men who have been unemployed for years, and are first bitter and then numb; those wounded by death and things worse than death; women on relief who fear that dry rot has set in; those who seem unable to adjust themselves to life at all. My letters are from people in every kind of human situation, and they have taught me more than I can ever teach anyone else. They have shown me the real issues of life, the inner enemies of human souls, the problems with which men and women wrestle in the secret places of their hearts.

Of course, not counting many notes of thanks and good will, most of my letters are from people in dire plight, under terrific strain and pressure. If people are happy, they seldom write about it. For this reason, no doubt, marriage muddles loom large in my letters, and one sees the causes of unhappiness in the home. They are the same things that make unhappiness everywhere, only in marriage they are more acutely felt, because the relation is so intimate and constant. Economic stress plays its part, along with the changed spirit of our uprooted age. But more often it is ‘ an inside job’; people who cannot live with themselves and keep the peace can hardly live with others without friction. The desire to dominate, to use another as a doormat, is the commonest cause of misery, to judge from the letters that reach me. Money, too, mixes things up; lack of tact, lack of real partnership and understanding, and the golden circle is broken.

Out of mountains of letters not more than half a dozen have brought up any question of theology, such as the differences which divide the religious communions. Such issues do not seem to signify in actual life as people struggle with it, perhaps because they are unrelated to its realities. No matter how tormented my readers may be by untoward experiences, it hardly occurs to them that religion can help or that it has anything to do with their woe. A generation ago it would not have been true in the same degree, but people to-day do not know how to use spiritual energy in daily life. They have no technique for doing so, having neglected, if they ever knew, the arts and offices by which such reality is made real. Yet religion, if we know how to use it, ought to help us to attain serenity and self-stability, and most of all to build up an inner defense against the pressures and strains of life in a hectic time.

How to live is the main matter, and that is the subject with which my daily talks have to do — trying to learn how to take the stuff of life and shape it into forms of beauty, power, and joy. Life for so many to-day is deflated, a thing to be endured rather than enjoyed, and our problem is not so much to add years to our life as to add life to our years. All of us have a sense of unfulfilled possibilities; we are people of whom more might have been made. We are living below our possible selves, and we are unhappy, thwarted, frustrated, unable to find a way out. Yet, as many great lives show us, there is a way of thinking and living which, if we can master it, will set us free to use our powers to the full. What are the things that hold us back from the larger life we want to live? What is it that inhibits us, cripples us, making us victims of the morbid fatigues that spoil our joy? After reading piles of letters, many of them ‘human documents’ in very truth, in which people have poured out their souls, some things have been burned into my heart.

II

The first thing taught me is that Private Enemy No. 1 in human life is neither sin nor sorrow, bad as these can be. No; as Kipling wrote of the shadow that leaps so swiftly through the jungle, ‘He is Fear, O Little Hunter, he is Fear!’ It is not too much to say that human life is a battle against fear in which there is no truce. No wonder Montaigne said, ‘The thing in the world that I am most afraid of is Fear’; and that is the fact we must face and the force we must harness and handle, else we may be wrecked by it. Some things, of course, we ought to be afraid of. Two fears should follow us through life, Robert Frost has told us: fear lest we prove unworthy of the One who knows and loves us best — that is fear of God; then there is fear of Man — lest he misunderstand us and withdraw his fellowship from us. These fears are real and valid, useful and wholesome, and they ought to be the end of all other fears. But alas, as we know well enough, it is not so.

To-day we have a thousand other fears, less real but no less terrifying, which torment us by day and torture us by night. Never has the world been so full of fear, and it takes all sorts of subtle, shadowy shapes. A lot of our fear is a hang-over from days when life was more dangerous than it is to-day, and this surplus fear, unless mastered and directed, is apt to turn inward and work havoc. Sensible fear stimulates; foolish fear paralyzes. Oddly enough, the fear most rife to-day is not fear of death, but fear of life, not only fear for ourselves but fear of ourselves; and that is not healthy. The thing that benumbs men to-day is fear of failure, of breakdown, of illness, of poverty, fear lest they be unequal to the demands made upon them. So few have any material security; and we have set so much store by such security that the lack or loss of it assumes hideous forms and gigantic dimensions in the night, robbing us of the rest needed to do our work aright. It is this self-fear which makes life an agony for so many sensitive souls.

How can we fight our fears, real and unreal, and win the victory? Half of our trouble in life comes of wanting to have our own way, and the other half from not facing facts. The first fact to face is that ‘since most of our fears have been learned, so they can be unlearned.’ Also, if we ‘really understood ourselves, we should be afraid of very few things in the world.’ Courage we need, of course; it is the finest human quality, if not the root of every virtue — courage to ‘take it’ and come back, courage to meet defeat and not be defeated. The plain pluck of people is astonishing, as my letters show. Many a frail little woman faces disaster with a grit equal to that of a soldier going over the top. But even the finest courage wears thin unless it is supported and fortified by the ‘something beyond courage,’ of which Lady Montagu wrote in a letter. What is that ‘ something ’ ? Only a mystic can tell, but surely it is Faith — finding that in God and in our own souls which enables us to endure and triumph over anything that life or death can do to us. When faith flies out of the heart, fear crawls in, a vile and slimy thing. By the same token, when we win faith, which is ‘reason grown courageous,’ fear is driven out of our hearts. As a friend of mine put it picturesquely, ‘Fear knocked at the door. Faith opened it, and lo! there was no one there!’ We hate a thing because we fear it; when fear is dead, love lives, and life begins.

Next to fear — if not a form of it — the worst thing in life is the nagging, gnawing worry which wears us out, weakens us, and unfits us for living. Worry is a kind of subconscious fear, a tiny rivulet of fear seeping or trickling into the mind, like a slow poison, until it paralyzes us. Unless it is checked, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained. Some things we ought to worry about, but it very easily becomes a habit of anxious, fearful, fretful thinking, and that is bad. The insecurities of the last few years have told terribly on the inner lives of people, as my letters show. Many have been almost eaten up by anxiety, and it will be so for years to come, if we do not learn a finer art of living.

One of my readers — a dear lady eighty years old — taught me these two things which have helped me greatly. She learned them, she said, slowly and at great cost, and they prolonged her life. One is that we must learn to forgive people for what they are, as well as for what they do; because what they do grows out of what they are. We cannot make people over, as the old button-moulder wanted to remake Peer Gynt, and if we could we might make them worse than they are. Besides, our business is to make ourselves better and others happy, and that is enough to keep us busy. If only we attend to our own business, in this respect as well as in others, it will make for our own peace and the happiness of our fellows.

The other thing my reader learned by living is that we must wait and see what happens, and not worry till it does happen. In nine cases out of ten the thing we are afraid of and worry about does not happen. But if it does happen, as it does at times, other things will happen too which will change the setting and modify the result, making a different picture from the one our fear paints now. By a little effort we can learn the knack of putting things from us, throwing them off far enough to see them more clearly, and think of them as they matter — many things do not matter, and are not worth the bother of worrying. Also, we must never believe our night thoughts; they are the biggest liars on earth. Then, she added, if we are patient enough to live one day at a time, letting yesterday go and leaving to-morrow till it arrives, — which is really all that is asked of us, — strength will be given us to bear what is laid upon us and to do what is required of us. Here is real wisdom, learned in a long life, if we are wise enough and brave enough to obey it.

By reading thousands of letters, a third thing has been brought home to me overwhelmingly, and that is the appalling loneliness of human beings. If one of my talks touches on this topic, a shower of letters follows. Never were human bodies so jostled; never were human souls so much alone, especially in the crowded loneliness of great cities where life treads on life. Many, to be sure, living to great age, are left alone, and they must learn to be alone and not be lonely. Others are isolated, but the loneliness that is most keenly felt is the loneliness of insulation, lives locked up, inhibited by fear, by shyness, by flatness of life, by a sense of inferiority, unable to get out of themselves into other lives. They have a craving to be liked, a hunger for intimacy, but shrink from the emotional contacts needed, unable to enter into other lives or to allow others to see into theirs. They are made prisoners by bolts and bars they cannot break, and one feels the ache of it.

Loneliness is one thing; solitude is another. Loneliness is thrust upon us; solitude we seek at times if we are wise. Loneliness hurts; solitude heals. Our religion is what we do with our loneliness, a great philosopher tells us. We can do two things with it — try to get away from it by going places, doing things, hunting escape; but that way does not work. Or we can make contact with One nearer to us than our own souls and turn our loneliness into solitude, if we learn the law and art of doing it. It is not easy to do in an age of blinding speed and shattering noise, but it can be done. Otherwise we are broken off from the Centre and Whole of Being and left isolated and adrift; life becomes ingrowing, not outgoing, and we get on our own nerves. As Bertrand Russell put it profoundly: ’We are suffering not from the decay of theological beliefs but from the loss of solitude’; and that insight goes down to the roots of our restless, feverish life, anxious, fear-driven, and haunted by a sense of the futility of existence.

But we also need the fellowship of human beings, with needs and hopes like our own, if we are to escape self-centredness; not organization, but fellowship. To get out of ourselves, to get ourselves off our hands, is the first step toward health and joy. Some know the knack of it; others are inarticulate, awkward, inhibited, held by some secret bondage which must be broken. The Church, said Newsman, is ‘the home of the lonely,’ and one wonders why more lonely souls do not find it so. Perhaps it is because the fellowship of the Church is not as rich, as real, as warm and fruitful as it ought to be. Here, no doubt, is the reason why so many are seeking today in outside groups, of one kind and another, a freedom and intimacy of fellowship they do not find in the Church. One may regret some of the uses of such groups, but they do tell of a deep need when a new loneliness has settled down upon human beings.

One other thing my readers have taught me in a startling way. It is amazing to me to find how many people go limping through life, crippled souls, owing to some hurt or humiliation, some injustice or cruelty, suffered in childhood. The stories told me are staggering — of starved souls, of people looking for something they have lost, of stabbing hurts and devastating frustration. We do not realize how sensitive children are and how easily they can be injured, even when we do not know it, much less intend it. Humor we need in dealing with them — yes, but not satire, not sarcasm; they make deep wounds and leave ugly scars. How often, when one of the primary instincts is thwarted or bruised, it may mar a whole lifetime, unless it is healed. As a mother wrote: ‘My boy fails in nearly everything he undertakes, and he seems to expect it.’ Exactly; something or someone broke down his belief in himself, and he is defeated before the battle begins — self-defeated by a negative pattern of mind, which it will take time and tact to alter. Else he may become a poor derelict drifting to and fro among the unburied dead, to be dropped at last into the wastebasket of the world.

After reading so many records of little lives mutilated by unkindness, it seems to me that kindness is the greatest thing in the world, if not the final joy of life. As Dr. Johnson wrote to his friend Taylor on the last Easter Monday of his life, ‘In the meantime, let us be kind to one another’; for that is the central and supreme simplicity of religion, as Jesus taught and lived it. In a rough world where we hurt each other so sadly, let us be kind, very kind, ‘kinder than is necessary,’ as a young husband said in a Barrie play; for it is needed. What else is there that we can do in this crazy, cruel world? Little indeed, so little that it looks like giving pills to cure earthquakes. Yet, little though it seem to be, it is the one thing more needed than all else.

III

Fear, anxiety, loneliness, and unkindness, these four things make human life horrible; and the worst of these is fear. It is the cause of most of our wickedness, our weariness, our unhappiness, and our strange stupidity which passes belief. There is not as much sin in the world as many of us think; there is enough, God knows, but most of our brutalities are the blows and blunders of blindness. We hate, we hurt, we rob and wrong each other, making life hateful to ourselves and to our fellows, because we are afraid.

A noble Spanish seer, who died not long ago, had only one dream and desire: ‘To know the truth in life and the life in truth,’ as he put it. For there is a Truth about life — nay, a Truth in life — a Truth that makes all other truth true, which, if we are true enough to grasp it and brave enough to follow it, will set us free from the torment and terror of fear. Man was not meant to be a cringing being, eaten up by anxiety, shut up a prisoner in silent loneliness, living in blind cruelty. He was meant for great adventure, if he has the insight to see the laws of life, and the key of kindness to unlock doors; and in his quest for the best in others he will discover something in himself not guessed before. For each of us, though we may not be clever or commanding, but only average and unknown, life can be a winged and wonderful thing, full of meaning and music, if we have faith to five, love, and learn.

(A thoughtful and rewarding analysis of the human significance of Mr. Newton’s paper will be found immediately following the serial installment of ‘Enchanter’s Nightshade’ in this issue.)