Letters of Note is a fantastic site and book which publishes some of history’s most influential figures’ letters.
Today one from author Henry James to his tortured friend really caught my eye. Behind the poetic words of consolation to a friend suffering depression is a message that speaks directly to the challenges of sobriety.
You are right in your consciousness that we are all echoes and reverberations of the same, and you are noble when your interest and pity as to everything that surrounds you, appears to have a sustaining and harmonizing power. Only don’t, I beseech you, generalize too much in these sympathies and tendernesses—remember that every life is a special problem which is not yours but another’s, and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own.
I love the way he acknowledges the ‘special’ feeling that plagues the depressed, the ‘no-one understands me’ feeling that we can fall victim to as drinker, but has sympathy for the tendency to catastrophes and take the weight of the world on her shoulders. He reminds us to keep focused on what we can control, to accept the things we cannot and to not let the very positive trait of a capacity for empathy run wild and cause us emotional distress.
And what poetry, ‘the terrible algebra’ of our problems, the unique set of letters and numbers that makes us individual, but when thrown out of balance, can make us feel truly rotten.
James goes on to talks of the concept of fellowship and unity which for many of us is the cornerstone of our sobriety:
We help each other—even unconsciously, each in our own effort, we lighten the effort of others, we contribute to the sum of success, make it possible for others to live.
This is what we’re all doing here, reading, blogging, commenting, going to AA, supporting another sober person. We help others spread the load, to balance that tricky equation out.
And as is so important in sobriety, acknowledging the the transience of intense emotion is paramount:
Sorrow comes in great waves—no one can know that better than you—but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us it leaves us on the spot and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we after a manner see.
YES. This has been my biggest lesson in sobriety, the notion of ‘this too shall pass’, that no emotion is eternal and can be overcome.
I’ve read this letter several times tonight, savouring the words and finding comfort in them as I cherish my sobriety after a tough weekend.
To read the full letter and other Letters of Note, visit here.