“This is my letter to the world
That never wrote to me”
This is my letter to the World, That never wrote to me,-- The simple news that Nature told, With tender majesty. Her message is committed To hands I cannot see; For love of her, sweet countrymen, Judge tenderly of me!
Ms. Dickinson’s poem was first published in 1890. I’m not a poetry expert. Honestly, I don’t know that anybody really knows what the poem means, but that opening line has long captured my imagination.
Nicole Burns offered this explanation on Prezi:
“What Emily means by this is that she wrote a letter to the world but the world doesn’t know who she is since she never leaves her home. She also writes about what nature has taught her in hopes to teach other people lessons. In the closing of the poem she asks the readers to not judge her harshly on what she has written.”
I suppose such writing can mean whatever meaning we ascribe to it. My first thoughts when I saw the opening line I instantly had some notions. They’ve remained with me through the years.
What are you telling the world, even though the world has never asked?
What story are you continuing to share with the world, even though the world isn’t writing back?
What are you saying to the world, even though the world may not be listening – and may, instead, be judging?
The Internet empowered us to become our own publishers. Emily had to rely on somebody with a publication to print her creations. The time from creation to publication to consumption in her day could easily be years. I can write these shownotes, record a podcast and hit “Publish” and within nanoseconds it’s online. Within seconds, or minutes (at most), the podcast will be in every major podcast directory on the planet. You can do it, too. No permission or talent required.;)
But just because we don’t need permission doesn’t mean the world is going to care. Or pay attention. Or that haters won’t hate. Emily and every other person who creates anything, or says anything, or does anything is going to endure harsh judgment.
Judgment Is Easy
None of us have a tough time with it. And for good reason. We have incomplete knowledge and understanding. We don’t know what we don’t know. So we fill in the gaps of our knowledge with assumptions and opinions. Finding out – gathering more information, asking more questions, going directly to the person (or the source) – and working hard to understand, that’s tough work. And takes too long. Far easier to just complete the story on our own, then close the book.
The world never wrote a letter to me. And so I suppose that makes it sort of fair for the world to do as it pleases. Including harsh judgment.
Fair doesn’t mean it right. Or that it’s justified. It just means I understand it.
What’s Your Letter To The World?
What would you like it to be? What do you choose it to be?
First, we’ve got to think about our view of ourselves. Psychologists divide our views into two distinctly separate and different perspectives: 1) you were born as you are and the outcomes of your life are largely beyond your control or 2) you get to choose your outcomes (you have control over your life).
Moments of decision make up your life.
Your decisions matter. Your first decision really matters. You must pick one of the two perspectives I just mentioned. Basically, the choice boils down to whether you want to be a victim or in control of your own destiny. So which is it?
This sounds like an easy decision, but it’s not. It also sounds like it would be reasonable and rational to only pick the second option. Yet, we don’t always pick that one because…
We’ve got lots of reasons to feel victimized by others, and by life itself. Everybody suffers. REM sang it correctly, “Everybody hurts…sometimes.” Truth is, suffering occurs a lot of the time.
That second choice is our only choice IF moving forward is the point. But maybe moving forward isn’t the point. I’ll argue it’s the best point. But there are others.
Do you know people who enjoy being sick? Well, to be more accurate, they enjoy being able to tell you about their sickness? Do you ever wonder what that does for them? I do.
I watch them as others lean in and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well.” They do it because it’s the only path they can seem to find to garner sympathy or compassion. Is that the point? I’m not sure. Over time it seems to me that there may be a bigger, grander point. To garner attention. Nothing wrong with that. We all need attention. We all need to be noticed. Question: What do you want to be noticed FOR? Being sick? Surely we can rise above that level of pettiness. Maybe not.
Whether we’re a victim of ill health (legitimately), or we suffer at the hands of the ninnies who surround us (and we often do), or we suffer at the hands of our own idiocy (and we suffer due to that far more than anything the ninnies can do to us)…how are we helped by leaning into that? Far better to lean into wisdom. Far better to lean into answering the question, “What can I do about this that will move me forward?”
Movement may require GPS else we have no idea the direction. Forward is the optimal direction. It’s improvement, growth, and transformation. Not always fun, but always profitable.
But forward robs us of ingratitude and complaining. And where will our attention come from? You mean I’m going to have to start being valuable to others in order to gain attention? But that means I have to do something worthwhile? #StopBeingLazy #StopBeingUngrateful
Unlike the Waze app or Google Maps…our internal GPS sometimes has difficulty figuring out how to move forward. Or whether or not we want to move forward. Too often we may be unsure of what direction to go.
Then there’s the big elephant in the room — HOW?
Empty advice abounds. “Just make up your mind.” “Just do it.”
Would that it was that easy, but it’s not. Life is more complicated and complex. We over-simplify things. Sound bites, pithy quotes, and sayings don’t properly portray the difficulties. The cumulative impact is we wrestle with the complexity thinking we’re doing something wrong because we’re not able to “just make up our mind.” Nobody is helping us figure out HOW.
It’s as ridiculous as the premise on living like a millionaire. First, get a million dollars. Okay…but how? Well, we’re not equipped to tell you that. “Thanks much!”
All this determines our story, the story we’re telling the world.
We’re telling the story we want to tell. That doesn’t mean it’s good, or the best one for us. Some of us aren’t driven to grow. We’re uninterested in being better. Not concerned with having a positive impact on others. Too many of us are selfish, living in the moment, impulsively driven to do whatever we want without concern for the consequences to ourselves or those around us.
How can we modify or change what we want – the story we want to tell? How can we change our desire and seek to tell a better story – a story that involves us being our best self?
It starts with character. Poor character will always write a poor story. No matter what else a person may have in their toolbox, poor character can’t write a great story…just a good looking chapter every now and again. But the chapters are fiction. Readers may not know it, but the writer does. It’s the proverbial truth: “You can fool some of the people some of the time.” It happens.
True character reveals itself in the story. It’s the engine behind the story. Indecent people write indecent tales. Consistently. So job one is to be a good human. Job two is to commit yourself to being even better. Consistently working hard to grow, improve and transform as you journey toward the ideal version of yourself.
It’s the only way to write a letter that impacts the world. Even if the world is just your small corner. Scope and scale don’t matter. You don’t need either in order to have impact. It’s why I’m constanly talking about the parable of the starfish.
One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir”.
The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”
The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!”
You want people to read your letter and feel something. You want that feeling to compel improvement. You want your letter to the world to help the world. To serve.
Why would the world read your letter?
Jerry Van Amerongen (Amer-ho-en – it’s Dutch) is the cartoonist, creator of BALLARD STREET, easily my all-time favorite cartoon. On Saturday, March 30, 2019, he posted his final Ballard Street cartoon.
Jerry was writing one letter and at the age of 40 decided to write a completely different letter. In 1980 he began writing a letter that took the form of a cartoon, The Neighborhood. It was published in newspapers for the next decade. Along with the Far Side by Gary Larson, Jerry’s work refined the single panel cartoon.
In 1991 Jerry created Ballard Street. It began as a comic strip, but after 2 years Jerry went back to the single panel format, which suited him better.
Jerry was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He spent the first 17 years of his professional life in corporate sales, marketing, and product management. Jerry’s cartoon ideas often came from scribbles and drawings. The drawings rely on facial expressions and body postures to give readers a sense of the characters beyond the caption.
Boyhood memories influenced by his Dutch and Polish heritage, images of roly-poly women in print dresses and rotund men in baggy trousers helped form his characters. Jerry said, “Regardless of our physical appearance, we see ourselves as having wrinkles and rumples on the inside. We all perceive ourselves as having big bottoms.”
Since 1980, the year my son was born, I’ve been a rabid fan of Jerry’s work. I’ve often wondered how less rich my life would be – and millions of others who enjoyed Jerry’s work – if Jerry had remained in corporate America. I’m much fonder of his second and third letters (The Neighborhood and Ballard Street).
The world didn’t ask Jerry to do it – to make such a dramatic change in his professional life. But he did it anyway.
I’m so glad Jerry wrote the letter to the world without waiting for the world to write him first. Wise choice.
From Good To Better To Best
Some people are writing a horror story as their letter. Their lives are so incredibly wrecked, it’s the only letter they’re capable of writing at the moment. They need to change their circumstances, their choices, their actions, their behaviors.
Hopefully, most of us are trying to write a good letter. We’re attempting to pursue a good life. Doesn’t mean we craft every sentence perfectly. Sometimes we write a pretty crappy paragraph. I’ve been known to write a few awful chapters. One chapter does not the entire story make.
The writing isn’t always stellar because the decisions aren’t always wise. Or smart. Or congruent with my best effort.
Yes, it’s all relative. Good. Better. Best. But it’s not relative to anybody else. It’s only relative to YOU.
Do you ever get sick of thinking about, or hearing about POTENTIAL? I do. What’s the point of potential if it’s always unrealized? I look at Jerry’s bold move to ditch corporate life for cartooning and I’m envious. Of his bravery and his talent.
As I think about my life I wonder about my potential. By now you’d think I’d have it figured out, but I don’t. I think what I’ve always thought – my best is yet to come. I know it’s not necessarily true. I mean, it’s possible I peaked 20 years ago! 😀
Time doesn’t define impact. That’d be like saying the length of the story determines how memorable it is, or how impactful it is on your life. That starfish parable has been pretty impactful on my life. It’s only 4 little paragraphs. Jerry’s final cartoon is like so many others before it – a single panel. But look at it. How well does it tell the story of Jerry’s retirement?
I’d say Jerry figured out how to go from good (a corporate career that lasted 17 years) to better (creating The Neighborhood cartoon for 10 years) to best (creating Ballard Street for almost 28 years). I’m not him. So he’s not my barometer. Fact is, nobody is anybody’s barometer. But he’s a solid illustration (at least for me) of how great a letter can be written.
Maybe I’ve been all wrong. Maybe I’ve assumed people want to write a better story. No, I’m not wrong. People do want to write better stories. I’m convinced we mostly don’t know how. And I’m equally convinced we don’t know how – or we can’t figure out how – because we don’t change our minds. We’re stuck in our head listening to the same endless loop tape we’ve always listened to. Which is why Jerry’s story so intrigues me. And why I wish I knew more details about his story.
To go from corporate sales and marketing after 17 years to cartooning…well, if that doesn’t exemplify change, what does?
Stephen King, a famous horror writer, began professional life as a school teacher. In a few years, his novel Carrie was published. It was his 4th novel, but the first one to be published. That was in 1973. Since then he’s written a couple of hundred short stories and sold more than 350 million books. King has written lots of letters to the world and he’s still doing it.
John Prine was a mailman in the late 1960s. He wrote songs while spending all that time alone. With the mail. Then he began going to open mic nights at the Fifth Peg in Chicago. First only as a spectator. Then one night, a performer challenged him, “You think you can do better?” Prine got up and sure enough, he could do better.
By 1971 he had released his first self-titled album, thanks in large part to having played for Kris Kristofferson late one night in a club, after the club was closed (and all the chairs were upside down on the tables). His first new album of original material in 13 years, titled The Tree of Forgiveness, was released on April 13, 2018. He’s now 72. He’s battled cancer twice. And his latest record has charted higher than any of his other 22 albums. He’s on top of his game.
Then there’s a top chef, Dan Giusti. Here’s what The New Yorker wrote about him last August.
In 2011, a young chef named Dan Giusti quit his job at the helm of 1789, a long-established restaurant in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and boarded a plane for Copenhagen. Like many ambitious cooks, he had applied for a job trial at the original Noma, which was widely considered to be the best restaurant in the world. Unlike most other ambitious cooks, he swiftly rose through the ranks to become Noma’s head chef. But, after running the kitchen for three years, Giusti felt his enthusiasm for fine dining wane. “At Noma, we were forty-five people feeding forty-five people,” he recalled recently. “I realized that I wanted to feed a lot of people, and feed them every day.” He thought about opening a counter-service chain—another Sweetgreen or Shake Shack—but felt that the choices were already too abundant. What was the point? So his mind went to institutions—schools, in particular—where, despite a larger cultural shift away from industrial foods, there had been little innovation or improvement in decades. He saw both a moral purpose and a business opportunity.
In 2016 he started writing a very different letter when he left fancy hi-end luxury dining to school cafeterias. He formed Chef Brigaid, a company dedicated to changing the way kids eat.
Jerry Van Amerongen wrote some chapters as a corporate guy. Then he changed the narrative to a creative endeavor many likely didn’t see coming, he became a cartoonist.
Stephen King got an education and a teacher’s certification. It was a chapter in his life, but the best chapters were yet to be written as a best-selling novelist.
John Prine was a singing mailman. It was a chapter kind of like the chapter of being an Army soldier serving in Germany during Viet Nam. A new chapter began one night at the Fifth Peg and he’s been writing and performing music ever since.
Dan Giusti’s entire professional letter appears to be that of a chef, but what a different letter he’s writing today compared to his earlier writing. He’s no longer attached to 5 star high end restaurants. Today, he’s writing his story from school cafeterias.
What’s your commitment to your craft? If you’re not yet good, then make up your mind to pursue it. If you’re good, then decide to step up your letter-writing game to great, your best!
Don’t fret about how long it takes. It’ll take however long it takes. The important thing is to get on with it. And make progress. Take some chances along the way, too. Jerry and Stephen did. It worked out well for them. Why not you?
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