John to Arthur, May 11, 1941
May 11, 1941
Glad to hear your physical troubles are under control. Your letter has opened up a field of typical X Club speculation which I have enjoyed in homeopathic doses for the past ten years. It happens that our minister has decided to be in Chicago and Boston the next two weeks and needs some pinch hitters. After getting two definite NO's from me he consulted Lawyer Hollingsworth (who is on record in the 1933 symposium), and the latter nailed my promise to perform next Sunday, if he took care of the following week. So I got up in meeting today and announced that instead of Church next Sunday we would meet in the basement, arrange the chairs in a circle, sing a hymn, read a classic from the Episcopal Prayer Book [a beautiful technique for outworn sanctions] (my copy has inscribed "A. Wells, 1839" in gilt on the cover), read portions of a letter from A. Wells, 1941, relax while the hat is passed and our super-suprano sings a solo, then engage in a free-for-all on the topic "Sanctions and Techniques". Incidentally I may read portions of this letter, if I succeed in recording anything appropriate. I am well pleased with the reactions evidenced in your letter, because I have been concious of the fact since you visited me when I was ill in Philly that you and I have never had much in common. I was learning some sanctions and techniques at that time in the hard way, and I needed someone to bare my soul to, but this is a lonesome world at times. You were away to college before I was out of knee britches and I never caught up with you. G.P. turned up too, and solaced me with the thought that men who think themselves gods are funny, presumably because I showed no interest in the ministrations of the apostolic church. Then I came out to the farm folks who are saturated with the milk of human kindness, and rediscovered what counts in life. Add to this the unflinching devotion of a wife who asked nothing and gave all and you have a picture of human salvage, not that it was worth saving.
So much for the personal chatter. I hardly think you should judge the culture of the Middle-West on the basis of the X Club affairs. I think this group, though unique in itself, (middle west) is composed of critters who are very much like the East as I knew it. Their business and professional pursuits, their social life, their church and fraternal associations, their literature, their family life, etc. follow much the same patterns as in the East. My escape from the city merely added a balancing rural element which in no apparent way has detracted from my previous limited appreciation of urban enlightenment. In fact, this emancipation proved a progressive step for me in the business of learning somewhat of the art of living, without which the science of living is a dull thing. I think your approach to a philosophy of life inclines in the direction of science - classified knowledge - and although it would be very convenient and comforting to be able to pigeon hole our sanctions and techniques in a nicely mapped plan, I find my inquiring and skeptical mind doesn't work in such channels. Not that I am not forever trying to classify motives: I am simply never able to come to permanent solutions. O, I suppose I have formed many habits of thought which constituted my personal orthodoxy, but conventional ideas don't capture my fancy per se. On the other hand, the artistic approach is very hard to distinguish from the scientific in that the methods are identical: observation - guess - test. I think the difference between the two is a matter of scope. Scientific appraisals are based on the accumulated discoveries of mankind, which you will admit are quite limited, however proud we are of our harnessing of nature. I suspect Boulder Dam is a rather inconspicuous from an aeroplane, and invisible from the Moon. But the art of living enters the realm of science plus the intuitive inheritance of the ages, and more often than not a hunch is a better guide than reasoned judgement. And we rise to our greatest heights under emotional stresses which are hidden in the inner man, and which are not recognizable or definable even to ourselves. But the scientific method is the only tool of the conscious mind which enables us to improve our sanctions. And come to think of it, our techniques are the results of successful tests. That is, if we assume that bad techniques are the result of the lack of tests. Many techniques, on the other hand, are the result of purely defensive tactics against cold circumstance. We all do more or less disagreeable work, simply because we have to; or take social inharmonies in our stride for some ulterior motive. And I think of the Catholic girl who asked Madlin for an hour off to attend a feast or fast, which she said was pure bunk, but she thought there was just a chance that the priest was right, and she didn't want to go to hell. Well all this sort of talk probably convinces you more than ever of the sloppiness and fogginess of Mid-west thinking. And I think to a certain extent you are right. One great difficulty in being a skeptic is the lack of the rudder of tradition. But if you had to choose between being a conscious hypocrite and the captain of your soul, I think I know your choice. I propose that 50% of the members of orthodox churches are hypocrites, 25% are sheep, and the balance are sincere. And I have the greatest respect for the latter of any faith. When I was Chairman of the local Troop Committee the Kiwanis Club donated the materials for a cabin for the scouts; we attempted to pour the concrete foundations one Sunday and the Presbyterian minister scout master had conscientious objections; and I got poo-pooed by a lot of town people when I stopped the job - that man was sincere. But you accuse us of ignoring techniques, and I won't let you get away with that. Perhaps I will dismiss with a shrug the parrot like repetition of an ascension into heaven and sitting on the right hand, etc. etc., but Jesus, the teacher, commands my instant respect. And so do all wise men. And what constitutes a wise man? He whose life and teachings have come down through the ages as examples of the very sanctions and techniques you seek. Not because of antiquity, but because of proven worth. And you will agree, I think, that methods are subject to change. The culture of the priesthood was the bright spot in the middle ages, but at the best today the priest can only establish some of our sanctions, and if we don't work out our own techniques we simply drift. and that brings me to some specific discussions in response to your letter, and incidentally to give the good folks of the church something to claw over in case they haven't walked out of the meeting thus far. As a matter of fact, Arthur, it is very doubtful if you would have received a reply so soon if it weren't for the job of preparing something for these folks - there are entirely too many gardening, carpentering, mechanical, pet delousing, and other chores on the other side of the river crying for attention. Anyway, I shall be glad to get your reactions to the following:
Sanction: What is going to be is going to be. Cold Presbyterian predestination, Santa Clause Methodist trust in the Lord, or to me - resignation.
Technique: Resignation, Not in the sense of letting a bully walk all over me without a scrap, but rather in the sense of a healthy recognition of human limitations, and letting providence (which isn't necessarily beneficent) take off from there, with all the grace we can muster. Circumstance is an immovable object in much of life, and it is a shere waste of energy to buck it or hate it. I have an abiding confidence that if we can survive and wait out any disaster, sooner or later the tide will turn. Possibly through the law of probability and chance. But I personally like the warmer conception of the fatherhood of God. For are we not as children, grimly dependent on the bounties of nature, which we could not possibly conceive of nor plan; and are we not subject to spankings if we do not follow the rules of a universal umpire. And the fatherhood idea naturally tickles the vanity of one whose four progeny undoubtedly imagine there is some sort of tin god around the house.
Sanction: Be friendly.
Technique: I fail more often than I like to admit on this one. But after all you and I are setting up some castles in Spain, and I suppose this technique is about as personal a problem as any of them. Friendships are so often a matter of happenstance - they click or they don't - and it's pretty hard to say why. But I think your scientific mind will go along with me on the generalization that the degree of introspection we habitually indulge in is more or less controllable. Not being a psychologist I cannot speak with authority, but I have discovered by personal experiment that if we go out of our way to cultivate universal contacts which have no initial appeal, we open our lives to some pleasurable discoveries. And the wheels of life turn more smoothly with this brand of axle grease.
Sanction: Tie up with some institution which deals in sanctions.
Technique: I take no particular credit for attending church regularly. The best way I know to establish this habit is to be a little choosy in picking ones parents, and if they happen to be Chatholics or Episcopalians - so much the better. Anyway I wasn't a choir boy for nothing, but they didn't pronounce the right hokus-pocus when they baptized me. Having established the habit, it is easy to theorize from there on. The theory being: ministers have a batting average of about .500, which isn't so bad in any man's league. But there is no way of predicting when he is going to hit the ball. I feel like throwing Pop bottles at the fellow we've got now every once in a while, but occasionally he socks one clear over the fence. He's in there pitching all the time though for all he's got, and there is only one sporting attitude to take. We treat our ministers like ball players when we should all be playing cricket. The institution I belong to is so ultra-democratic that it's lack of technique may be its undoing. This practical problem is being aired rather strenuously in Boston right now. So you might justly inquire if it satisfies, and the reply is yes - if it survivies.
Technique: This is largely a matter of minding your own business. Conversely, the intolerent person is one who is preoccupied with keeping up with the Joneses, and more concerned with criticising what others do than doing something themselves. The complete tolerence is embodied in the idea of live and let live. I would like to expand it to include live and help live, but that doesn't sound accurate; and I hereby ask you to name the sanction which embodies the latter. I always think of Edwin Markham's ditty in this connection: They drew a circle which left me out - A heretic, rebel, a thing to flout; But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle which took them in.
Technique: I like to bring this up, because it involves a rather pretty distinction. Honesty is not a completely practical virtue. Disinterestedness is the ability to accept the truth, even when it is most unfavorable to ourselves. It rises above partisanship and advocacy, whereas honesty does not necessarily do so. However, honesty is one of the homely virtues, and maybe I like it better. Holy smokes, Hitler is probably disinterested, although there are likely some Napoleonic illusions there.
Sanction: Intellectual discipline
Technique: Our hit or miss efforts to establish a strong central authority in the mind are not particularly commendable. We admire it so much in others and wonder how they get that way. We are so much a part of our ancestry, and our environment, that the education which results from what we do in our controllable life is of varying consequence. This clumsy effort I am making to define a few commonplace elements of every day life illustrates the need for personal discipline. If we make any headway we have to have some idea whither we are going. But as long as we continue to meet life in the spirit of learning and romantic expectation it has some meaning. If we give these up in favor of eating the good of the land, we may as well be dead. (So you see I am not Hedonistic, however Pantheistic I may be.)
Sanction: Mary Roberts Rinehart's creed
Technique: Love and work, and live life to its fullest, and with honor, that seems to me the universal creed. To take one's self lightly, and one's work seriously. To be a good friend, and a poor enemy. To look out, not in.
All very trite, of course, but you asked for it.
You take off from here, Sincerely,
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