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An Old Letter From a Friend

Throughout my time at college I’ve had a close friend whom I have exchanged letters with sporadically. This fall, when feeling exceptionally down, I wrote a letter to this friend and he responded with some musings and advice that I have continually gone back to in the last few months when in poor spirits. Tonight is a night that I needed a another look at this letter and after re-reading it I decided that maybe somebody out there on the internet might also benefit from my  friend’s writing. The following are the relevant “happiness-bits”.

“Well, I have today received your letter, and I felt it important to respond in good time. Naturally, the immediate moment seemed most appropriate. For as it has been recorded Goethe once said, “The only day that matters is today.” And while no doubt such a line smacks of cliche in our present day, there seems a certain wholesomeness that can, regardless of the spirit of the age, be gleaned from its central message.

“Now I would not expect such a message to necessarily lift your spirits out of or indeed above the moroseness that presently plagues it. Yet I think it is in words–not mine or anyone else’s, but your own–and the array of those words, in your own mind, that may offer you again the joyfulness of experience.

“What do I mean by “joyfulness of experience”? Well, I might begin with what I don’t mean. I don’t mean to limit joyful experience to some particular achievement or development. To win a race, or to finish a project, or to graduate from a school are all good things, but they can cause trouble if that is the reason you get out of your bed in the morning. For as long as the race is unwon, the project unfinished, or the outcome of the present semester still in doubt, these goals will ever dance before your mind, and verily all of your attention will come to rest on these phantoms and shades rather than upon the actual task of accomplishing them. To focus on the end result can in this way keep you from ever getting there. It is strange, no?

“Let me tell you a story. An old man once brought an aspiring runner into his office. The young fellow’s gaze quickly caught a shimmering crystal trophy behind the old man’s desk. The old man, in seeing this, told the young man how he had won the trophy in a 5k many years ago against the best distance runners in the country. Upon hearing this, the young man grew swiftly excited, and asked it he might hold the trophy. The old man obliged, but no sooner than after the young man felt the weight of the trophy in his hands that it slipped from his grasp, and shattered into a thousand [shards] upon the floor. And as swiftly as the young man has grown excited at holding an object of his greatest desire, he then became stricken with grief and fear at causing the destruction of so great a treasure. And when he had explained these feelings to the old man, the old man replied, “the treasure is not the trophy, but rather the experiences that led to that victory.”

“For the old man, the end was a beacon leading him on, a star that raised his gaze above the pressures of accomplishment, and the demands and expectations of the world. For the old man, his outward victories became more reflections of his victories within. “The arrival is nice, he said, “but the journey is best.”

. . .

“I shall try and detain you not much longer with this not-so-little note. It is helpful I think, to feel that it is within yourself and by your own efforts that life is made meaningful and good. You won’t find this in man, riches, or achievements. It is in you; the capacity to create and to think in unorthodox ways. To find humor in the mundane, and joy in things that nobody notices. To think about  your work in a meaningful way, as though you would hug the idea to acquire understanding of it. When you focus on results and getting work done only, it can feel like your focus is like a tea-cup, and all those thoughts about getting done cause the cup to become filled, so that when you seek to think about the idea, the cup overflows, and your attention is overwhelmed. Of course, then you might think, “Well, I must be a mediocre thinker if it takes so little to overwhelm me.” But of course, the reality is that your capacity to think is stuffed with preoccupations to begin with–occupations focused on achievement and getting the job done–rather than on the process of reaching that end. It does seem strange, but to think seems to require an empty cup.”

It seems fitting that I read this letter again tonight, its message reminds me so much of the book I am currently reading: The Alchemist.

Posted in Alexandra Funk.