Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Letter to a young man

I have in my possession a three-page typed letter from one Howard Griffin, a neighbor of mine in Texas, that he handed to me along with a book, The Collected Letters of Ludwig van Beethoven, the week I graduated from high school in 1958.

If the name Howard Griffin -- or as he is better known and his letterhead states, John H. Griffin -- seems familiar, it may be because he went on to write Black Like Me in 1961. He had also written The Devil Rides Outside in 1952 and Nuni in 1956, but Black Like Me is what brought him to the attention of a larger public.

It is a bit long, but I wanted to share this letter with you that was written to a 17-year-old boy from a man in his late thirties, married with children. I have kept it now for 56 years.

.................................................................May 17, 1958

Dear Bobby,

.....This is perhaps an unwanted intrusion of advice, but at this time in your life, and out of my respect for you, there are a few things I wanted to tell you. Although I have had little contact with you, I have been concerned about you for many years; certainly because it is rare to encounter a first class mind, and you have one. You also have something even more important, a sensitivity and creativity that can make that mental equipment fruitful. Perhaps you yourself do not even recognize this yet.

.....Such people have a problem which few others understand or even know exists. I know that you feel alone in this for certainly you have felt the beginnings already. It is a subtle thing, perhaps too subtle to formulate. Without false humility, you recognize that you have superior equipment, and you also recognize that you have a grave responsibility to use that equipment fruitfully, not to waste it by following the crowd and becoming ordinary; and again not to waste it in fruitless experimentation or in seeking to gratify your ego by demanding that you yourself prove what great minds have already proved. Understanding first principles is correct; seeking to re-establish them becomes a presumption on which many fine minds fritter themselves out.

.....Our civilization has a dangerous tendency to brand everything which is not “average” as “abnormal.” Our colleges are permeated with a spirit of standardization that seeks to make men “average.” It is evident that to be average and to be truly normal are vastly different things. Seeking true normalcy does not mean following a standardized pattern, it means fulfilling one’s potential.

.....This, highly simplified, is the problem you are beginning to know. It will grow more acute. This is what makes for loneliness. It is terribly easy these days to lose sight of this, to be driven toward what is “average” rather than what is truly “normal.” To be normal requires all of the intellectual and spiritual virtues, to be average requires nothing more than a deadening acceptance of social standards which petrify the soul and compromise the intellect. It is basically the difference between expediency values that fluctuate according to what is convenient and acceptable, and absolute values based on what is immutably right (regardless of convenience or rationalized acceptability.)

.....You will go one of two ways now. You will either go toward normalcy (in the philosophical sense) where soul and intellect remain wedded and in close contact with reality, where your gifts will be liberated and given full sway to grow and enrich the world. Or you will, for want of an example of the proper encouragement (or because splendid and sterile minds will lead you that way) go toward what is average, no matter how brilliant it may appear to be. In this realm, the mind learns to rationalize to its own satisfaction rather than submit itself humbly to truth or reason. In this there is a separation between soul and mind, a divorce. In this we learn to act from motives of social approbation (even under the guise of morality) rather than from motives of love for higher values. In a word, we become dedicated to ourselves rather than to higher values. This produces a certain brilliant sheen -- we see it constantly for it is very fashionable; it is the superb mind which has become gluttonous and presumptuous; which feeds on itself rather than on reality. It is one of the great obscene tragedies that can happen to a man. All is done, in this instance, for the good of the man rather than for the good of a higher value.

.....This, in a word, will be your great temptation. You could easily go that way. We hunger for approval, all of us. Perfection in a given field, mastery of a given art, dedication to a given value -- these are hard things, rightfully so. No man has ever dared enter these worlds, whether scientific or artistic, without trembling and dread; for this means self-renunciation on a heroic basis. There is great private loneliness. A man has to seek his way in these realms utterly alone, maintaining complete independence of spirit insofar as the world’s opinions are concerned and at the same time, complete humility and respect for the value to which he is dedicating himself. This way ultimately leads to greatness and must eventually benefit the world. The other way, the way of the brilliant average leads to more immediate satisfactions, but also to grave frustrations unless the person completely deadens his soul against reminders of “what might have been.”

.....The only ultimate freedom, therefore, comes in voluntary slavery to a higher value.

.....This will be your big problem, as it is the problem of all men, and especially of highly gifted men. To see it clearly is half the battle. This does not mean that we should rebel -- rebellion is a form of egotism. This means that, as Pascal said, we must live among men and yet live alone, and that we must sacrifice ourselves out of love for them and the higher value; that our creations, scientific, scholastic or artistic do them more good than our preachments. The saint has always taught more by his example than all the tomes of theology. True normalcy, in its final analysis is synonymous to true sanctity in arts, sciences or scholasticism.

.....Symptoms that we are going the wrong way, even while persuading ourselves that we are going the right and dedicated way are these: if we have contempt for lesser men; if we feel arrogance for them then we are merely deluding ourselves. The motive for our actions then is one of hatred or repugnance, fleeing into another world to escape the vulgarities of this one. No, we must be drawn to that other world by love. That is the essential difference.

.....Another grave mistake, commonly made because men must blunder toward their own truths without too much guidance and help, is to think that dedication to a higher value implies “rising above reality.” In perfecting our tastes, we often tend to mistake values and to see as ugly what God created as good. We develop a certain contempt for that which is animal in man and for that which is of the earth. This is often carried to such extremes that it becomes a total delusion wherein “high type” men feel themselves “dragged down” by their very natures. This again is an enormous presumption -- it is not being spiritual, but in reality it is having contempt for God’s creation of man and nature. In moments of supreme tension, pain and death, men have always seen clearly the error of this tangential refinement -- they have seen that they have missed everything by refusing to go into the essences of all things, no matter how humble; by refusing to have affection for all elements of living. The saints have always known that it is good to have hunger and to eat, to have fatigue and to rest, to have work and then to have the good relaxation of pleasure. The other attitude is so obviously foolish and wrong, it hardly seems worthwhile to mention it, but it is too commonplace and dangerous an error not to be forewarned against.

.....You will, no matter what you do or where you go, feel the downdrag of lesser values espoused by most men. All I hope to do in this letter is to help you see this one fact clearly, to recognize it and not be dismayed by it. That is the average. What is important is not to be average, for the average is full of vanity and compromise and temporal logic. What is important is to be normal. The difference is ultimately simple -- it lies in whether one has a greater receptivity to merely pleasure dispensing values (as the average) or whether one has a greater receptivity to happines dispensing values (which indicates true normalcy) . It is possible that pleasure dispensing values can also be happiness dispensing values -- and this is safe and good. When pleasure dispensing values are not happiness dispensing values, then the choice must always be made; and this choice will depend on the depth of true culture possessed by the person who makes that choice.

.....I hope these observations will make you less lonely when you face these decisions. We must have faith that if we work hard enough, respect mastery, dedicate ourselves selflessly enough, some result will accrue, even though that result may not be clear to us. As Beethoven said in the book I am giving you: “Let your motive be the deed and not the result.”


...................................................(Here he wrote “Howard” in black ink)

.................................................................John Howard Griffin

P.S. No need to embarrass yourself acknowledging this letter. If I can ever help you in any way, call on me.


  1. An amazing, insightful letter. I wonder, what were the thoughts of the 17 year old Bobby upon reading? How did he see into your soul? Did you file it away only to find it years later or did it affect your life as you remembered it often? And, was he right about you? Did it immediately strike a chord within you? Mr RWP, you simply must follow up on this!!!

  2. I find it almost incredible that a man like that would write such a unique, lengthy and intellectually well-considered epistle to a sallow youth. Fortunately you did indeed use your "equipment fruitfully" as evidenced by your children and grandchildren

  3. Very interesting. I read Black Like Me in high school, and have never forgotten it. Amazing that he would take the time. And I'm wondering the same things hilltophomesteader is!

  4. Interesting and a very kind thing for him to do too. Who knows what might have happened to you had you not received this letter? Did you relate to it back then, or refer to it over the years?

  5. I thought the letter was awesome when I was 17 and I still think so at 73. Yes, it struck a chord within me. I related to it back then, and I have referred to it several times over the years.

  6. That's some letter. I suffered from my childhood on from a lack of intelligent guidance by someone--anyone--who believed in me, and now that I am growing old (though not so far along that path as you), I no longer believe that others have any useful guidance to offer beyond that which awakens in me things that are already there. I say this because it does grow ever clearer to me what Jesus said about the kingdom of heaven within. The only really useful guidance I can imagine at this point would be in terms of how someone lives rather than what they say. Hence my interest in Brent.

  7. You know, it occurs to me that you might want to consider writing posts about how your life has worked out.