April 27, 1938 (very early)
This is your birthday (or a characteristic blunder on my part) and a much more significant day than you suppose. Sentimental letters you used to get often made me wonder why people couldn’t be a little less melodramatic about it. But now that I am trying to send you a sober note, I realize that they just couldn’t help themselves. Everyone who knows you wants to write poems about you. You may wonder, what is this strange power you have over mortals? I think I can answer that as well as anyone. But that calls for a confession of something which I had never intended to confess; but since there never was a safer person to confide in, I give it to you: It was the summer I was alone in the mountains, I went not to play the intrepid woodsman nor seeking any sort of adventure, but being all engrossed in a single question – what is the best way to pass one’s life? You will agree that if I was going beyond my depth the question was in order. The answer was, as I later found out the Greeks had discovered, that the best life was that spent in perfecting oneself. Perfecting oneself in what? Where is the model or standard? Who is the complete human being? Well, believe it or not, dear Grandma, you were the answer, and a complete and satisfying answer to this day. I cannot find anyone but yourself who at all approaches an ideal humanity.
No one has ever fallen further short of that ideal than I have, but I seem constitutionally unable to keep from brooding over our sad generation. Whoever I talk with, young or old, seems to be slipping into what I call the “pragmatic predicament.” Let us say a man has a red house. If the man is one of our own restless stock, it will not be long before he is all for painting it green. Says he to his Oriental friend: “I do not like this bloody color.” And the other replies, “Like it or not, that is the color of the house; why can’t you take things as they are, sir? Will you deny that the house is red? That’s so, isn’t it? Well, there you are.” The man is right: his philosophy has proved its soundness in many thousands of years of experience. But the other man does not see that way, he already sees a green house, in fact, for him this is a reality too, and so he is not in the least surprised to find the green house before him at the end of the day’s work – an unescapable reality the easterner would call it. The difference between the two men is that they have different ideas of what is real. To the one it is the world about him – he is a disillusioned realist, to the other it is the world about and within him. His reality is, alas, the world as it should be, and any man of experience will tell you this is a pipe-dream; this is the infatuation not of a hardheaded man of affairs but of a Plato. Joseph Smith in those wonderful lectures on faith shows how the green house could not exist without faith, and how as soon as it is a matter of faith it is a real and actual thing. Faith is what the Oriental of my Sunday school story lacked. The danger of his state of mind, which is the pragmatic predicament, is that by believing it you prove it, and in view of this proof you are sure that it is the truth and you can’t escape it. Thus my Syrian friend protests that he is bound hand and foot by circumstances, but I have to admit that he is right – his complete subjection is undeniable. So when people start saying to the right and left of me, “Well, that’s the world for you, and you can’t do anything about it,” I become full of apprehensions: if we start thinking that we will soon find out that we are right, and once in that predicament it is practically impossible to get out again. In fact, I know of no one who has ever got out of that state. Whatever started me off on off on this? I have a great deal to do, but no duty more absolute than to give you my congratulations and love, which I have not yet managed to do. I can’t tell you how hard it is to explain the place you have in my world; the others speak for themselves and it is the same with them. We all love you and something more. It is wonder and veneration on my part. I wish I could become such a person. Forgive me if this letter sounds a little weird.
Your devoted grandson,
[Update: The date on this letter was previously incorrectly posted as 1935.]
[For more on Nibley's relationship to his Grandmother Sloan, see Sergeant Nibley PhD: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life and Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless.]