Last weekend, I wrote a letter I’d been thinking about for the past two months. It was the kind of epistle that requires a little distance and a lot of forethought. The kind addressed to someone else, but really written more for you. The kind that may be sufficiently cathartic that whether or not it elicits a reply, or is even read by the recipient, becomes irrelevant.
In this case, the letter was about the conclusion of my four decades as a daily newspaper journalist and coming to terms with a career that ended sooner than anticipated and with some personal goals left unrealized.
Though the letter shared disappointments and frustrations, it was more diagnostic than denunciatory. There was no defensiveness or defiance, no accusation or argument. It laid out what had transpired, confirmed the consequences and forgave what needed forgiving. “Closure” is one of those psychobabble jargon words journalists tend to abhor, so I won’t use it to describe what I thought of instead as a nice bit of clean punctuation at the end of a 40-year paragraph.
Sometimes, after you’ve written such a letter, there’s no need to even share it. There’s a process therapists use called “expressive writing” -- I’ve also heard it called “disposable journaling” -- for self reflection and release. Basically, you free-flow your thoughts, the good and the bad, the angry and the empathetic, onto paper; read what you’ve written out loud; then wad the paper up and throw it away. As implausible as it may seem, this has been shown to help people heal not just from emotional wounds but physical ailments.
In my case, after reading the letter aloud more than once, I decided I did want to send it. As soon as I did, a persistent kink in my neck and a knot of anxiety in my stomach lifted and I felt more energetic than I had in weeks. Later, when my mind registered that I’d not received any reply, it elicited only an after-burner of emancipation.
I don’t know if you’ve ever written something like that. I tried it for the first time more than 30 years ago. In that case it involved my divorce, another ending arrived at too soon. I was a lot younger and the rumination period that led to the letter was a lot longer -- 10 years rather than 10 weeks. Moreover, it wasn’t even my idea to write it. It was the assigned “homework” during a weekend seminar about creating a better life I was attending only because a friend felt I was taking too long to recover.
The seminar went until 10 p.m.; the homework was due the next morning. I stayed up most of the night, trying to make that letter say what I wanted it to say, exactly as I wanted it said. When, the next day, the group leader asked if anyone wanted to read their letter aloud, I surprised myself by standing up. The next day, I slipped the letter into the mailbox.
That decision radically changed my life. (That sounds overly dramatic, but I mean it.) Not immediately and not all at once. But ultimately it brought a peace that had eluded me and returned to my heart and my family two of the people I cherish most in the world. The blessings forgiveness bestowed would equip me to handle many unforeseen challenges that lay ahead. I now mark that letter as the line between my life’s “before” and “after.”
Yesterday, while trying to find a semi-ripe avocado in the bin at the produce store, I came upon a small yellow card someone had tucked in between the rock-hard specimens. “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” it said on the cover Inside, the religious tract detailed explicit, numbered instructions on what I must do in order to go to Heaven. (Followed by a hilariously cursory: “To go to Hell, never do the above.”)
My own “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”? They’d read a little more like this:
Clean up your mess. Set yourself free. Forgive.
Write that letter.