Monday, July 09, 2007

A Great Mind and A Great Soul



Letters From The Soul

I have long had an interest in letters and in letter writing, that is, some while before the advent of the internet, or rather some time before general access to its use here in Ireland. Since then I have written very few personal letters which is a pity indeed. Letter writing is a dying art since the advent of mobile phones, texting and indeed email. Ease of access to another human is momentary almost now. However, I would question in how far real communication has improved using these modern methods. Sitting down to physically write a letter was an art and a craft in itself – indeed a hugely symbolic act or ritual. Indeed, a love letter was, and still is, for those who write them and for those who receive them, an action of the heart or of the soul, both of which terms I use interchangeably here. These thoughts were occasioned by my reading of Richard P. Feynman’s beautiful collection of letters which cover the greater part of his 70 years of life (1918-1988). This book is called Don’t You Have Time To Think? It is edited by his adopted daughter Michelle and published by Penguin Books, 2006. It is a labour of love for Michelle and the personality of her father sings clear and true throughout this wonderful book. There are other wonderful books of letters, one of my favourite would be the collected letters of the young Romantic poet John Keats who died at the early age of 24. However, that latter book is for a review at a later stage in these blog entries.

Some months before his first wife Arline died of TB on June 16, 1945, the young Feynman (only 27 years old at the time) wrote the following lovely words. I shall quote briefly from a few different letters to show the absolute depths of love Richard had for Arline. I loved these sincere and carefully expressed words:

• “I love you. You are a strong and beautiful woman. You are not always as strong as at other times but it rises and falls like the flow of a mountain stream. I feel I am a reservoir for your strength – without you I would be empty and weak like I was before I knew you – but your moments of strength make me strong and thus I am able to comfort you with your own strength when your stream is low.” (April 3rd, 1945) (p. 48)
• “I’ll come and give you strength this afternoon.” (April 21st, 1945) (p. 51)
• “I love you, little Putzie. Drink a glass of Milk.” (same letter) (p.52)
• “You are a nice girl. Every time I think about you, I feel good. It must be love. It is love. I love you.” (April 25th, 1945) (p. 54)
• “Nothing is certain. We lead a charmed life. I love you, sweetheart.” (May 3rd, 1945) (p. 55)
• “I adore a great and patient woman. Forgive me for my slowness to understand. I am your husband. I love you.” (June 6th, 1945) (p. 65) Ten days later Arline died.

What hits home to me is not alone had R.P. Feynman such a beautiful and wonderful mind, but that also he was blessed with a beautiful and wonderful soul. It’s not often that the two go together in any one human being, but in Feynman they interwove in a seamless garment – if I may be forgiven for overstretching the metaphor.

Another interesting fact, though totally understandable, is that Richard had not gotten over the death of his beautiful wife for a good number of years. In this marvellous collection of letters we find him writing a letter dated October 17th, 1946 to his wife Arline. Remember that she had been dead for over a year at this stage. What interests me here is that this action of writing a letter to a dead friend or relative has been recently advised by counsellors working in the area of grief. Here we have Feynman doing this automatically as it were. To write a letter to a dead friend or relative is a really healing action. His daughter notes that this letter was well worn given the appearance of being reread often. Here is a brief quote from this wonderfully healing letter:

• “I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead – but I still want to comfort and take care of you – and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you – I want to do little projects with you…You dead are so much better than anyone else alive…My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead.” (pp 68-69)

And so, friends, there is soul work as well as mind work. I’m not so sure the great physicist and mathematician, Richard Feynman, would use these terms. I don’t know if he was aware of Right Brain and Left Brain theories of how our personalities work. He was not a religious man. He strikes me as being more agnostic than atheistic. The answer to this latter question will have to remain until I have read further into this wonderful little uplifting book. Anyway, the answer to this question is inconsequential really. Suffice it to say that within these covers of this small book we get to meet a really deep and spiritual (in the widest sense of the use of that term) human being. And with the Bard of Avon we feel like singing in the words of Miranda: “O brave new world that has such people in it!”

Above is a picture of Richard P Feynman (1918-1988)

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