About five years ago a friend, who is old enough to know better, got himself in a lot of trouble and his family in a lot of grief because he became involved in corresponding with various women through e-mail and Internet chat rooms. He doesnít do that anymore. His present wife, whom he met in one of those chat rooms, takes up all his free time. Sheís very sweet. It was a stage he went through, I suppose.
I was reminded of that situation last evening while reading an e-mail from a young lady of my acquaintance. She expressed appreciation for our continuing conversation, which has been largely about music. Iím also grateful for the chance to talk about things such as the difference in feeling between Copelandís original scoring of Appalachian Spring and his later full-orchestra version. Our conversation simply grew out of an exchange about a different topic on an e-mail list in which we both participate. She and I have also met in face-to-face groups, several years ago. As I remember, we had little to talk about together then. I suspect that if we found ourselves again in such a venue, after an hour of exchanging thoughts about music, weíd run out of topics and/or energy. I find it much easier to share things with people when thereís a computer screen between us. Except, of course, with Judith, my wife.
My penchant for written conversations is longstanding. I found several years ago that I felt more comfortable writing than talking. With the ubiquity of e-mail, itís as though my social life has become much more wideóand deep. Iíve been in small groups whose members shared their most intimate thoughts, and the relationships that developed became some of the closest of my lifeóat least for a time. While my writing is still predominantly solitary, as when Iím at work on one of these essays, I enjoy the give and take of instant letter writing. Starting my computer every morning, my first act is to check to see if I have mail.
Itís a little troubling to me that nearly all my correspondents are female. My exchanges with the one or two e-mail friends who happen to be male provide me with a good sense of connection and stimulating explorations of ideas. With one good friend, male, I enjoy as much depth and feeling in our conversations as I do with any of the others. He and I have been through many periods of personal crisis and vulnerability together, and we share a great affection for each other. Still, as I think about it all, thereís a reserve between us that I canít readily identify. Sometimes I feel as though I have been thoroughly conditioned as a typical male in the American culture, to avoid intimacy with other men. I hate that idea.
A couple of times in the past my relationships with female correspondents has resulted in misunderstandings with Judith. I suppose itís understandable that she could become apprehensive when I seem to be emotionally involved with other women, especially someone she doesnít know or doesnít know well. Weíve always managed to resolve those situations. Thatís important to me, as well as to her.
My mind is perfectly clear about the limits of these conversations. Iím well past the age of midlife questioning, and I have no desire to explore other relationship possibilities. In fact, itís gratifying to me that finally, in my life, I know for sure with whom I will spend the rest of my life. Itís with Judith or, should she have different ideas, with nobody.
So, although my mind is perfectly clear regarding these correspondences I have, Iím sometimes uneasy about how the situation might appear to others. Friendsóeven close friendsódonít always speak of their misgivings about one. Thatís unfortunate, because if one is deluding oneself, convinced of the "innocence" of a peripheral relationship, an honest and frank friend would be a most valuable resource. I fear itís more likely that oneís friends would simply withdraw, or pretend they didnít know.
Iíd like my life to be a completely open book, as they used to say. Iíd like to have no secrets from anybody, no little bits of self-knowledge which Iíd hesitate to disclose. Iíd like to have the strength to be emotionally naked and vulnerable. Let the IRS come in anytime and look at my checkbook. Let my mother, were she still here, browse through my mail (and e-mail). Encourage Judith to look over my shoulder as I write. I think Iím close to that comfortable state.
Back in the 1930s, there was a movement in Europe and the United States that called itself Moral Rearmament. Huge rallies were held in major cities. The name was perhaps unfortunate, because people kept misinterpreting it. The Western world was busy rearming for the war that everybody knew was inevitable. The people who thought up the name were attempting to capitalize on the political situation, to offer a moral alternative to military solutions. Among the principles of MRA were four "absolutes"óabsolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. The organization still exists, headquartered in Caux, Switzerland and now calling itself Initiatives of Change. During World War Two, its influence in this country waned because, I suppose, everybody knew that "our cause it was just," and expressions against the war were soundly trashed. Anti-war protests in 1942 would not have been tolerated as well as those in 1968.
My family had become interested in MRA in the late 1930s but we lost touch with it as the war descended upon us. Still, something about it stayed with me, and as a young adult I tried to find out more. Alas, there was no Internet in 1952. An old family friend who had participated in "the movement" before the war told me that it was "simply Christian ideals" and didnít offer me any encouragement.
All this is just to explain a bit about my desire for personal transparency. Unconsciously, I guess Iíve held on to those principles even though I journeyed far from them in subsequent life decisions. With all my studies of the past few years, I doubt that MRA by whatever name would appeal to me much. Morality, honesty, purity, unselfishness and love donít mean the same things to me that they did with I was ten. Itís interesting to me, though, that I would think of Moral Rearmament as I cogitate on the ramifications of corresponding with women. When I think of moral principles, I think about eating meat and waging war and betraying trust, not necessarily in that order.
Not harming others is my highest ethic. Sometimes rules of conduct, even when they are intended to promote that ethic, serve only to provide legalistic escape routes for those who want a little more latitude in pursuing their versions of happiness. I couldnít even devise a rule like "absolute transparency" that would work for me, because I know that there are things I know, about myself and others, that could easily bring harm to someone.
Maybe maturity, or integrity, or whatever the ultimate dimension of human existence might be, necessarily involves discretion, as well. A lot of my internal definitions of "character" come not from thoroughly considered principles but, as Somerset Maugham wrote about common sense, ". . . only another name for the thoughtlessness of the unthinking. It is made of the prejudices of childhood, the idiosyncrasies of individual character and the opinion of the newspapers."
But what do I do about this tightness in my gut when I sign a letter to
someone, "With love?"
Donald Skiff, January 15, 2003