The Things we Feel Most Deeply Fail to Find Expression

[Letter to Margaret Reid Sloan]

October 4, 1938

Dear Grandma,

It is always very hard to write to you. My feelings are such as cannot be expressed with restraint and yet would only be misinterpreted by a show of emotion. Do you know it has been almost a year since we saw each other last? What difference between a year and a week? I always find you just as I so often think of you, and at this moment you are as near as if you were in the next room. When we meet we talk about trivial and common-place things, and never exchange more than a few words at a time. Why should we meet at all then? There is a never-expressed understanding between us upon which distance has no effect. I don’t think it would make the slightest difference if we were in different worlds.

In fact centuries ago Plato, who thought about things harder and more successfully than any other man who ever lived, guessed that much unexpressed affinity of minds had reference to a common experience in another world. Certainly there is no more eloquent commentary on the inadequacy and incompleteness of everything here than the fact that the things we feel most deeply fail to find expression either in words or symbols, the things we desire most eagerly we can’t even define, while the things we despise above all other things – a bondage of meaningless and repetitious chores, a guilty preoccupation with empty trifles and commonplaces – these we make to the substance of our life and action, and mutually degrade each other in all the aimless intercourse of what we choose to call daily life. No wonder the history of our world has been one long calamity.

Death and destruction is written all over lives which deny any purpose in the world but the vegetative processes. It is no more mere theory of mine that the profound dishonesty which makes a fetish of the body and glories in nothing so much as self-approval, which makes an idol of oneself and one’s kind, is dedication to disaster. Not content with being a living death, the way of the flesh prepares for itself rare and monstrous devices of pain and destruction.

I should ask you to forgive this macbre mood, but what is more pertinent? The brightly-lit and not unpleasant stage on which we live is becoming the scene of a strange commotion which it is impossible to ignore and futile to deny. The lines of the gay and artificial background begin to fade and run together; the lights flicker and the floor begins to melt under our feet. We wish, oh how hard we wish! it were not so, and we denounce with feeling anyone so on advised as to call our attention to what is going on. That is simply a further application of the very dishonesty which has produced this alarming state of things. And so the world goes down into a time of troubles which is nothing but the reflection of its own love of darkness.

All of which we have been taught, but have not learned, to expect for a hundred years.

This is poor comfort, one would say, and I a miserable comforter. One who can find no rest in a comfortable resignation to honest trifles and the makeshift amenities of life is not one to administer consoling pats with any semblance of authority. Nor are you one to be touched by sentimental condolences. You from whom comfort and joy flow to many and distant souls as from a strong untiring fountain-head are less an object of sympathy than of inexpressible envy. There is nothing about you I don’t envy; as I have said before, I know of but one person who is just what we should all be, whose soul from the beginning was as clear and noble and magnanimous as my kind can hope to be only after endless years of painful discipline and ceaseless correction. I find it very hard to feel sorry for one whose light has burned so long and so clear and even yet grows brighter every day.

Our sincerest congratulations are due those who are safely out of the world at this time. They will be saved much pain. On the other hand it makes precious little difference whether we work on this side or the other – we are all engaged in the same project, a project which is drawing us nearer together day by day. All the worthy ones who leave us now are those whose condition has so overshadowed their abilities, whose great usefulness has been so vitiated by the exigencies of a profoundly corrupt system, that their lives had become virtually a bondage. In every case you will find some great drawback apart from mere illness, which renders a change of position imperative. If there is any subject for tears it is not these fortunate ones. It is rather those successful ones among us who have found their heaven in rewards of a base conformity, who seek their strength and solace in the buying-power of fellows like themselves, whose possessions alone justify them in all things and whose property is their whole sanctification and authority. These will not have to wait to a hereafter to learn their folly; we are soon to see them giving their lives (and especially, where they can, other people’s lives) to save their treasures, which for all that will vanish like smoke.

I give you the sorry side of the picture because you know the other side better than I do. Forgive my delay in writing: I haven’t known where you were.



[For more on this letter, including historical context, see Sergeant Nibley PhD: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle, which includes an excerpt from this letter as well as more on the profound influence of Margaret Reid Sloan on the philosophies and religion of Hugh Nibley.]


About Hugh Nibley

Hugh Nibley, 1910-2005, was simultaneously the LDS Church's greatest intellectual defender from attack from the outside and Mormon culture's strongest critic from the inside. This blog is composed mainly from Nibley's unpublished writings, letters, interviews and conversations, with occasional posts from associates who had personal interactions with him.
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