The letters from readers keep coming. All kinds from all over. Snail mail has given way to e-mail over the years, but the substance of the letters remains basically unchanged:
Most deal with politics, as one might expect in response to a columnist who deals mostly with politics. These valued correspondents agree with me, they disagree with me, or they may do both in part. All are welcome; the cheers lift the spirits and we learn most from our critics.
What was it Confucius said of one of his followers? "My disciple Hui is of no help to me. In my words there is nothing which he does not admire."
The criticisms that hurt aren't those that don't make much sense, but those that make all too much. After the initial defensiveness passes, instruction sets in.
As for the blusterers, the snobs, the bores … it's wholly a pleasure to hear from them. I save their missives (or should that be missiles?) like a miser hoarding treasures. If I didn't have them to use as a ploy, how else would I fill up a column with replies on a slow news day? They're the salvation of the lazy columnist.
Then there are the nameless bushwhackers who want me to criticize others but, please, leave their names out of it. Brave people.
Others explain that their ideas would get more attention if presented by your obdt. servant. Much like Mark Twain telling his old friend William Dean Howells that he'd written an outrageous letter to someone and signed Howells' name to it. Just to give it more weight, he explained.
And the loonies we will always have with us. I think of them as the Death Ray people. I can still remember the first time someone shared that delusion with meon the steps of the University of Missouri library. She was a nice, elderly lady who had waylaid a few of us students to talk about how They were directing lethal rays at her, her house, her car….
What was scariest about her was the calm, rational voice in which she related all this hysterical, irrational stuff.
My buddies and I backed away gingerly, thinking the whole episode exceeding strange. Only later would I discover that the Death Ray syndrome is a quite common form of paranoia. As my correspondence demonstrates to this day. ("Am I an experiment here? … Who are these people terrorizing me day and night? Why? What kind of chemicals have they been spraying in my house, garage, car?") You're torn between pity and, well, just pity. It can't be easy to live like that.
Here's a clue that might be of some help to the psychiatrists: I never receive an e-mail complaining about death rays; they always come via old-fashioned snail mail. I'm not sure what that says about the relation between psychosis and technology; maybe the professionals can explain it.
Then there are the people with real troubles, the kind that require more help than a columnist can give. The young girl who's retarded and is taunted at school. The disfigured, the seriously ill, the terminally lonely … they'll tear your heart out.
Their letters bring to mind the kind that Nathanael West's character in "Miss Lonelyhearts" receives when he signs on as an advice columnist, aka sob sister. He takes the job on a lark, but the poor guy winds up taking it so seriously it kills him. Even today, reading some of the letters that came to Miss Lonelyhearts can tear your heart out. The novel was published in 1933 but remains all too timely.
Happily, just when you think you're about to lose it, there are the kinds of letters that pull you back from the edgeletters from old friends you haven't heard from in years, or, even better, old enemies you can scarcely remember. (Gosh, was I mad at him or was he mad at me? It's been so long ago….)
Then there are the readers, bless 'em, who tell you, yes, yes, yes, that's just the reaction they had, too. And those who help you understand something you never would have understood without their help. They restore balance.
It all comes with the territory. You sign on for it all when you take the job. And what a grand job it is. Imagine getting paid just to express your opinions. Listening to others is a small price to pay for the privilege. Who knows, maybe that's why we're all here: to listen to one another.