'What Can We Believe?': A Letter From a Mother


[THIS Letter was written by a mother to three close friends of her son, a young law student who disappeared from his rooms in the winter of 1937. Three months later his body was found in a near-by river, but the mystery of his death has never been solved.—THE EDITORS]

From our pitifully narrow human viewpoint, it is really impossible to see how an event may fit rationally into a majestic scheme of cosmic destiny.
I place these words at the beginning of my letter because I want them to be in your thoughts throughout anything I may write.
I have been able to talk to you of the circumstances of Bill’s disappearance, the long search for him, and the finding of his body, and to tell you, although inadequately, a little of what your sympathy means to me. I failed to respond to the other questions so disturbing to you, not because of unwillingness or because of my inability to conceive and formulate replies to your ‘What can we believe now?’ — ‘Why should this happen to him?’ — ‘How do you bear it?’ but because I knew that my surface calm would break and I should add to your distress by the sight of my tears. As all maimed creatures do, I try to hide my wounds as best I may. The sight of my suffering could but strike pain deeper into your hearts, and my tears but add their weight to the weight of your sorrow.
As I write, some lines from a century-old poem are saying themselves over in my mind: —

Each in lily white,
With a lamp alight;
Each was clear to sight,
But they did not speak.
Then, a little sad,
Came my child in turn,
But the lamp he had,
O, it did not burn!
He, to clear my doubt,
Said, half turned about,
‘Your tears put it out;
Mother, never mourn.’

Since I cannot speak without tears of the feelings that lie so achingly within me, I shall try to write. I choke back my tears even when alone, for I would not have them dim the light that Bill left burning in my heart, nor would I have them dim any lamp he may have lighted in yours. I have not forgotten that one of you wrote of him, ‘ Happiness shone in him like a light, and, after knowing him, I found that I had a spark of it glowing in me.’
You must realize, of course, that I am wholly unable to answer your questions. They are my questions, too. When my heart was twisted and torn by the shock of loss, the months of agonizing fruitless search, the torturing, long-drawn-out uncertainty, and at the last by the finality of death, my anguish was complete. You suffered, too, and I think your realization of our common need made you come to me with your questions. You want my personal response, the answers I myself have found, which, though they may be lacking in wisdom, are rooted in the event we are trying to understand.
You ask, ‘What can we believe now?’ Although our tragedy has come to us in a manner so startling, so sudden, so heartbreaking, and so apparently irreconcilable with any plan for good, it may be that not the plan but our understanding is at fault. Realizing, as we must, how impossible it is for us to do more than glimpse a minute part of the majestic scheme, shall we, because of our narrow view, say there is no plan? I agree with Arthur Balfour that ‘excesses of unbelief may be as extravagant as those of belief. To eliminate the spiritual is not only hazardous but absurd.’
My reason accepts as possible the teachings of my church, and also accepts as equally possible all the creeds and philosophies that give strength and high purpose to life. All are true and none is true. Each, bearing as it does the mark of the limiting human viewpoint, is a result of the glimpse someone has had of the majestic scheme — a scheme that in its beauty and grandeur is humanly incomprehensible because of the infinity of its scope and purpose.
I find it strange to realize what small happenings, what vague thoughts and fancies, may account for an inclination one has toward certain philosophies. I do not place undue importance upon the incidents I am about to relate, but I cannot discount their value as awakeners of the imagination.
When Bill was a baby of a few months, one morning as I leaned to lift him from his bed I was startled by a sensation of delighted recognition. I felt that someone whom I had long known and loved had come to me in an amusing disguise and was laughing at himself and me. So strong was the feeling that I found myself saying aloud, ‘So, it is you!’ Although I dismissed the experience as fanciful nonsense, the impression was a vivid one and I never forgot it. Later, when Bill was a child of three years or a little more, he had been sitting in quiet contemplation, as children often do; at last he said, ‘Before I came here, I chose you and Father. I saw you walking on the street and I chose you.’ Merely a childish fancy — yes, but it suggested a connection with the earlier experience and I thought, ‘Perhaps some of us do choose those among whom we are to learn life’s lessons.’ As my imagination played with ideas suggested by the incidents, I began to feel with Wordsworth, that

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.

It is because of these things, perhaps, that most reasonable to me is the theory holding that each of us is an immortal soul in process of growth; that the soul’s experience does not begin with its birth here, but is a continuation of spiritual growth that has been going on in other worlds than this or maybe in recurring earth lives; that the relation of the body to the soul is one of a temporarily useful tool, and that the body, with its attributes of intellect and emotion, is an instrument by whose means the soul gathers something needed for its growth and development.
When I look about me and see the inequalities of endowment, of opportunity and desire, I think of the seemingly unjust differences in circumstances as conditions necessary, perhaps, for spiritual growth. If it should be true that souls do come to this earth in varying stages of development, some mere seeds carrying bare possibilities of growth, others beginning to show a slight quickening, still others more developed, and on in an ascending scale to those souls who, after many lifetimes of experience, come among us almost fullgrown, almost God-like in their love and understanding — conditions would indeed have to be infinitely varied to meet the individual needs.
Such a theory of spiritual growth apparently would offer solution of many mysteries. However, my feeling that the theory is a reasonable one does not assume the proportions of a belief, and so, for me, it dissolves into vain imagining. And such imagining is no answer to your question, ‘What can we believe now?’ But I have no other answer, nor have I found an answer to ‘Why should this happen to him?’
I am not comforted by being told that Bill was spared much. He did not want to be spared. He had strength and courage. He longed to walk the common road and share the common burden. A keen mind, a healthy body, and an understanding heart marked him as fitted for life, and I cannot see why life’s doors, opening before him, should be shut so suddenly and with such a sharp, echoing clang. His twenty-one years did not give him time to do the worth-while things he planned. But we know he fulfilled one ambition.
Perhaps you have seen, under the glass on his desk, the part of a poem he clipped from a newspaper — I do not know who wrote it, but remember asking Bill why he kept it there, and he said, ‘Because that is the kind of man I’d like to be.’ These are the lines: —

Far from his kind he neither sank nor soared,
But sat an equal guest at every board,
No beggar ever felt him condescend,
No prince presume, for still himself he bore
At manhood’s simple level, and where’er
He met a stranger — there he left a friend.

Bill himself probably never knew that he attained the qualities of his desire. He did not know how many lives his life had touched — how many warm friends his simple loving-kindness won.
Sometimes, as I allow imagination to follow the shadow structures of theory, I try, though vainly, to see how it might be possible for even the violent deaths of such eager, happy ones as Bill to be a blessed and not a cursed part of the brief experience here. I try to see the apparently unjustifiable fate as offering, in some mysterious way, an opportunity for growth exceeding any opportunity that life continued here or death in gentler form could give.
However, the theories I have touched upon are but shadow structures in my mind. They cannot bear the weight of a broken heart. They are useful only as outlines for thoughts to follow — outlines to be filled in or erased when the vision clears and widens. No, I cannot see why death should come to him and in such a form. I see no reasonableness in it — but from our pitifully narrow human viewpoint it is really impossible to see how an event may fit rationally into a majestic scheme of cosmic destiny.
You have asked of me, ‘How do you bear it?’ I give my answer hesitantly. I fear that what I would have you see can be seen, perhaps, only through experience, and may be more obscured by words than made clear by them. Any attempt to take you, slow step by slow step, over the path I have trod would be futile, but I shall try to tell you what I found along the way.
Shadowy theories and poor, tentative beliefs were powerless to sustain me. My heart cried out for knowledge. Most desperately I needed to know that God is. I needed to be sure of His love and infinite care. When I saw the unshaken faith with which Bill’s father faced the news of the disappearance, sight of that faith gave me strength to hide the dark nothingness that lay in faith’s place within me.
As we prepared to leave for-amid the confusion of messages received and sent, the coming and going of friends, and the demands of the reporters, unbearable pain was rising within me. Gradually I became aware of a calm within the swirling agony, a quiet such as may be at the centre of a storm, and Bill seemed to be there saying gently, ‘I’m all right, Mother, I’m all right.’
At last we boarded the train. The dead November landscape unrolled in endless dreariness, and the hundreds of miles we traveled were as thousands. A number of the passengers inevitably became aware of our connection with the newspaper story spread before them. A young woman, with tears for our suffering, spoke words of hope, and a Sister of Mercy said, ’I shall pray for him.’ Then on a strange level of consciousness I heard Bill’s voice saying, ‘See, Mother, see.’
We have all smiled at the eager ‘See, oh, see’ with which Bill always pointed out the beauty that he continually discovered — beauty he found everywhere, but most of all in human hearts. You may know with what eagerness he spoke those words when he brought you to me — each a happy discovery he wanted to share.
It must be that shock and intensity of anxiety sharpen the ordinary powers of perception, producing a condition of acute awareness, for the character and motives of each of the many whom we met during the months of the search were vividly clear to me. But the words, ‘See, Mother, see,’ continued to echo in my consciousness, bidding me to look ever more deeply.
I heard them when we arrived at the office of the university and a woman’s kind hands poured for each of us a cup of tea — a cup of tea that I knew was a cup of wordless sympathy. I heard them when I saw that the men there, who in a measure shared our responsibility toward Bill, were such men as we hoped to find them — such men as Bill had believed them to be; when we saw them considerate and kind, thoughtful for us in countless ways, putting aside their own crowding affairs to concern themselves with the search that meant everything to us. And I heard the words again when the wives of two of these men came to us and I, looking into their pitying hearts, felt that I must not let them see my own horribly broken one, must not shadow by fear the thoughts they had of a happy future with their sons.
And, somehow unexpectedly, the echoing ‘See, oh, see’ sounded very clearly within me when I talked to Mr. Hoover at his office in Washington. I found him a man wise and strong, undismayed and unhardened by the daily contact with crime and its attendant sorrow and suffering. I discovered that his qualities so inimical to the criminal — his cleverness, his understanding, the sure, swift, almost fluid action of his mind and body — were qualities he used often and with supreme gentleness to help the innocent. I saw the faces of the men who work with him light with pride and affection at the mention of his name.
Whenever sympathy and kindness were shown, the words would ring in my heart. I heard them many, many times during the long, weary search. I heard them, too, at the last — when the search was ended and there was no longer anything to hope for or anything to fear. It seemed that all the world was trying to comfort us and to share with us whatever solace it had found.
‘Poor human beings,’ I thought, ‘so powerless, but so kind; binding up the brokenhearted with fibres from their own hearts.’ And I felt my heart break again for all of our weak, pitiful efforts to help one another. Surely no loving God could plan such a world!
As though in answer to the thought, there came, when most needed, the letter that brought to me the words I have placed at the beginning of this one to you. The non-understandableness of the majestic scheme was not offered to me as a new thought, but, phrased anew, was sent to comfort me in my despair. Its expression of a serene acceptance of the human limitation calmed me, quieted the restless striving of my mind. Then, in a realm beyond consciousness, I was aware that I had looked into many hearts, great and lowly, wise and simple, but had failed to see what was pointed out to me. When I looked upon the loving-kindness there, I mistook the sign for the thing signified. I had not understood that kindness and love are bright signals that the soul gives to show God’s presence in the heart—as the vessel in harbor flies a pennant when the owner is aboard.
What a difference in my feeling when at last I understood the purpose of the persistent ‘See, Mother, see,’ and I, too, found God in human hearts — where Bill had found Him! He had not called the beauty that he found there ‘God’ — perhaps he had not known its name — though in eager wonder he had loved the radiance that God’s presence made.
All through the months of sorrow I had treasured, one by one, the gifts of sympathy. Now, as I looked within my heart, I saw that all the thoughts and flowers and prayers and words were shining lights set row on row upon an altar wide and high. In wonder like his own, I knelt beside my son, and there beneath the cross I saw his love illumine Christ for me.
Now when terror holds me and I, in seeming, hear the cries Bill uttered in the night, I wonder still why God did not answer them and keep him here with us — but I kneel again before the cross and know that Bill is safe within its light.
Because it is our nature, we shall forever question God’s purpose and His plan, but I no more shall doubt His being or His love. Until my own experience, any account of ‘finding God’ was distasteful and unreal to me, and, although God is now the deepest reality of my existence, I remember that it has not always been so and doubt that words so poorly chosen as mine can have any meaning for you unless you, too, have found Him. He is everywhere, they say — but I have seen His dearest dwelling place, and, when I am frightened by the things I do not understand, I see the pennants flying there and knowGod is!
If my words should have any meaning for you, you will understand how it is I can bear it at all — the sorrow that you share with me; and you will know, too, that

My lifted eyes no tear must shed.
No grief, no mourning should there be
For one whose happy feet run on ahead,
Whose eager voice cries ‘See!’

Let us not make of Bill a stranger because of his strange death. Let us hold not Death but Life in our memories — making of our thoughts a memorial to the qualities that endeared him to us. Let us remember his quick sense of fun and his enjoyment of all the simple familiar things of every day.
When, to express his feeling for Bill, Mr. — established in his school the scholarship he named for Bill, he said, ‘It is the purpose of this scholarship to keep alive his joyous spirit that blessed the world wherever he touched it.’ Can we not make of our thoughts another memorial to Bill’s happy life, and so erase from our minds some of the horror of his tragic death?
Your sympathy and your love for him have helped me bear his loss.