You know that dream most people have when someone they love dies, that somewhere there will be a letter the deceased wrote in anticipation of such an event, addressed to the bereaved?
What, if anything, is that idea based on, beyond wish-fulfillment?
Do any of us who wish for such things actually have such things we have written ourselves? Do any of us long for an honest communication from the dead, or just a collection of words that “reveal” things we have no reason to believe the dead felt or thought based on their actions in a lifetime – that they really loved us, or were really proud of us, or were really sorry for hurting us?
Would any of us really be satisfied with words from someone who didn’t actually behave based on those words, who wouldn’t offer us those words while they drew breath?
Would we hold onto those words as “proof” that our wishful thinking was real, and all of our experiences were invalidated by words a person never even had to live with the revelation of and response to, much less actually be given time to show through their actions over time and in varying circumstances whether or not they sincerely meant the things they claimed?
If we wrote such letters ourselves, would they really be endlessly flattering odes to the perfection of the people in our lives? Aren’t more of us keeping in negative feelings and lying about having positive feelings, in a world where survival has been forcibly tied to luck and love? The circumstances of the lives we live are closely tied how much wealth the people who parented us and anyone else who loves us happen to have, and the majority of us are subjected to survival-threatening consequences for speaking and emoting honestly to people who have excessive pleasures at the expense of our survival needs being met. (If we told a person who behaves sadistically toward us, reasonably, to go fuck themself, instead of, say, pretending to find their bad jokes funny, if that person happened to be our employer, we all know how that would end.)
Is there value in writing such letters? The in-case-I-die kind?
If we want people to know how we feel, we have to show it consistently in our actions; our words only have value if they match our actions. And for our words to carry weight, we have to speak when there is a chance we will actually be held to our words – so, you know, while we are still alive. If we love someone, actually love, not feel lust or possessiveness or whatever other shittier, more selfish feeling, we show it by treating them lovingly.
Love is pretty clearly the most powerful human emotion. People overcome fear, the survival instinct, for people they love. An emotion strong enough to overpower our inherent will to live is not something we are easily able to keep secret. The feelings we hide that we call “love” are usually relatively diminutive emotions conflated with love – like an unspoken crush in adolsecence.
I can see where in-case-I-die letters might be significant written from parents to young children to express things that won’t be understood til adulthood. Or where the letters speak to truths already known – someone who has treated you lovingly in life leaving a letter reiterating the things you already know would probably be very sweet.
Mostly, though, I feel like the words that matter are the ones we give while we live. Granted, not everyone seems to share that view. And those that don’t might be wary of words given in the knowledge that “too late” can happen unexpectedly. I suppose a lot of people are so terrified of the reality of death that they get locked in that fear and stay in the disconnected half-life where death doesn’t exist, and lose out on the reality-clarifying gift of knowing it all ends, and you can’t know how soon.
I don’t doubt that when a person is gone and they can’t continue to behave in a way that contradicts kind words, getting a letter saying the nice things you wish they’d said while they were still around might provide some comfort. But I can also see where it could leave a person feeling stuck or divided, because there would be pretty words on a page that are so wished for, and ugly actions in the past that were so unwanted, and it might be difficult to integrate the unpleasant realities with the pretty words. Especially where any doubt lingered that the words, so wished for, were just bullshit.
Do I wish I would get letters the dead left for me? Of course. They would be another little bit of voices I loved and lost. And there are plenty of people I never got to say goodbye to, who I had unresolved issues with, who I had left words unspoken with. Would some confessions of secret good feelings or explanations of motive undo hurt caused by some of those lost? I don’t think so. But, being human, I would probably end up hanging onto those words anyway, because our capacity to wish for what isn’t to exist where it doesn’t is one of those maladaptive coping things a lot of us do.
More than letters from the dead, really, I would like to hear from the lost-but-still-living, people with whom there is a possibility, if not a probability, of a changed relationship. I miss those who are irrevocably gone very much, but I would prefer tangible reality to intangible imagination where love is concerned. Those would be words with more weight, because of the possibility a living person would actually act based on them.
I think this all came to mind because of writing letters to a person I love who I lost, and thinking about how I wish she was here to respond, and how, lacking that, I wish I had more words she had left for me. And thinking about the living who are lost, and whether, beyond the I-really-get-any-time-we-part-might-be-the-last things I have already tried to communicate, there is any point in writing letters to people who I might never get to speak to again, in case I am the one who dies first, and how much, if I end up the one left behind, I might wish those who are silent would leave me some piece of resolution in my grief. And whether there is any value in trying, again, now, to say the things I would like them to know, whether directly, if possible, or here in a public forum where they might see them, while we are all, so far as I know, as I hope, anyway, among the living.
Of course, doing that would be in the hope those words would matter in the present. Although I guess that would also mean that if something happened to me, someone who went looking for their own resolution might find some words here they were hoping to find. I don’t really know. I guess we can’t really know, where there is poor communication, especially dishonesty, or where there is silence.
Maybe this sounds rather morbid, but I have had the excruciating experience of having lost people I wished I had said some things that were important to, and I never want to go through that again. I would rather, by far, have my words ignored or mocked or thrown away than live with the regret of having left them unspoken. I can’t know whether anyone in my life has words they are waiting to speak that they would regret keeping to themselves, and I can’t do much about it if they do. I can only share my own experiences of regret in the hope they might spare someone else the same cost for the same mistakes, and try to be a person who demonstrates speaking vulnerable truths is possible, even when you are scared to speak or have no reason to believe you will get a response that you like.
There are words we need to speak for our own sakes as much as anything else. We control our actions, not others’ reactions, and speaking up for ourselves when we aren’t guaranteed a happy outcome can definitely lead to some pain, but it also a pretty solid road to self-respect and self-love. Refusing to speak up for ourselves is also a road to what, in my experience, is a deeper pain than someone else’s rejection, or a result that isn’t the one we hoped for. I think because of the knowledge we failed ourselves, that we had the chance, and let it pass by without even trying. That we valued our lives, loved ourselves, that little.
This has been a long random musing, and as many questions as I have asked myself, I really have no answer as to whether I will write and send/publish any such things. Maybe. Having mulled it over this long, I suppose I will probably try the writing. Although on occasion, I have written to absent people in the past, and found that what I was doing was not so different than writing letters to the dead – working out what remains unresolved for myself in a past relationship, clarifying what I am feeling, sometimes even realizing why there is no point in sending such a letter.
Sometimes because it is simply angry, and where there is no mutual communication there can be no conflict resolution, and the only healthy reason to engage in conflict is to try to resolve, improve, what can be. Sending an angry letter is kind of emotionally assaultive, as you are shielded from having to see the person’s potential pain, or experiencing their immediate response.
And sometimes because in writing the letter, I become less certain that I really want to seek a resolution; sometimes I get more certain that the person is one I don’t want in my life again, because I realize there was never a healthy relationship, or there is unlikely to ever be one, or ultimately, I don’t like the person, or I just don’t want to try with them any more.
And where there is doubt in my life, I think, sometimes, of a quote from a song I don’t know the name of, by a band I can’t recall, that my then-friend Ian (someone who was in my life a lot for a short period, then just kind of faded out, for no particular reason and with no hostility, or none I know of, and who, in keeping with the theme of this piece – sort of, I don’t really have a letter’s worth of stuff to say to Ian – I should add, on the extremely small chance he ever happens by here: Hi Ian! I would be happy to hear from you again if you ever want to get in touch, and if you don’t, you were a kind, fun person to be around, I hope you are well, I am glad that I got to have you in my life for the time I did, and when I remember it, the phrase I am about to quote to has been useful for me, so thanks for sharing that) told me was something of a mantra for him:
“Stillness is the move.”
Paralysis is not likely to be our best emotional response, but sometimes, when we are uncertain, we need to take time before we act, instead of acting preemptively just to alleviate the anxiety of the uncertainty. The latter is unrealistic, anyway: every moment is uncertainty.
We never, never actually know what is going to happen, even though an absolute fuckload of us hate uncertainty so much we prefer to pretend we know everything will turn out badly rather than acknowledge the uncertainty that means that means we could possibly be pleasantly surprised.
Undecided as I am, and also getting kind of hangry, I am going to put aside the letters-question I have been slowly musing out all day, and go make some dinner. Stillness, and some food.