The most visited page on my website is the one captioned Letters and Aphorisms. Since that's the only page that changes I decided to do it as a blog, though it's like no other I know of. I make no attempt to keep you abreast of the news. These are feelings and thoughts I've communicated to people, mostly friends, in all the various phases of my adult life over half a century.
They were not written for public view. Yet the site-activity meter on my web page tells me that people from Beijing to Montego Bay, Jamaica, and from Washington, DC to Seattle find them interesting. Perhaps you will.
The entries bounce around from my twenties to my early seventies, and anywhere between, in totally whimsical fashion, with no predictable pattern or order. Most of those written in he last decade were emails. Here is the introduction that appears on the Letters and Aphorisms page on the website (skip to the letters if you've read it):
If letter writing is a lost art, in this age of email, Facebook, and Twitter, you couldn't prove it by my friends and me. Many of our email exchanges are serious, reflective, topical, and carefully written. Religion, politics, current events, literature, and ideas, as well as personal matters, are grist for our epistolary mill. I'll post a few here, now and then.
Most will be mine, because posting someone else's requires permission; I don't always have time to get it; and it isn't always granted. But I'll often present exchanges too, or a series of letters to different people written in the same time period. If a letter stands alone it will have its own number, and one number will cover an exchange or a series. The most recent posting will be at the top and will have the highest number. So here as in scripture the last will be first. The order of posting will have nothing to do with the time the letters were written; recent postings may be from way back.
Many of the aphorisms are mine. (Each is attributed to its author.) A dictionary defines aphorism as: "Any pithily expressed precept or observation; a maxim." An epigram is "a concise pointed saying." I don't claim mine have literary value, but they express my state of mind and heart at a particular moment in my life. Many, perhaps most, were written in my twenties when I was an atheist or just coming out of atheism, and my interior life was most unsettled. A few were written later. They stopped coming altogether as I got older.
I never reached for them; never said to myself "I must write an aphorism." I'd be deep in thought when driving my car, a sentence would form in my mind, and I'd try to jot it down at a red light -- or pull over to the side of the road -- before I lost it. A sprinkling of them between the letters provides a change of pace.
I began by using only my aphorisms here. But after the first four entries I decided to mix them in with those of the great and famous, because the supply of Shane Hayes letters is unlimited but the supply of Shane Hayes aphorisms is not.
2/13/2009 – Email to Bill Rayner; cc to a score of others
In our phone conversation yesterday I quoted what I called “the most useful piece of advice anyone ever gave me.” You liked it so much you asked me to email it to you. This is my response to that request, which I take the liberty of sending, via blind copy, also to family and friends – about thirty of them -- who haven’t asked for it but may like it too. The advice -- a paraphrase, not an exact quote -- was this sentence by William James, a notable philosopher and the Father of American Psychology:
“Pay primary attention to what you do and express, and don’t care too much for what you feel.”
Yes, there’s a psychologist telling his readers and clients not to be overly concerned about their feelings. Those born with all the right instincts and impulses – you’re probably one of them -- may never need that advice. But I was born with mostly wrong instincts and impulses, and had to remake myself (a lifetime task still far from finished). That Jamesian maxim, used as a self-command in vexed moments, hours of gloom, and the throes of social tension, helped me turn my mind from emotional turmoil I couldn’t control to the words, actions, and body language I could control.
James points out – and I’ve often confirmed in practice -- that the feeling often follows the act. If you’re feeling glum, acting cheerful can make you feel cheerful. If you’re scared, a bold posture can make you feel brave. If you don’t feel like praying, assuming a prayerful attitude, reciting a psalm, singing a hymn, or saying the Lord’s Prayer can bring on feelings of reverence. If I don’t feel like writing, forcing myself to sit in front of a computer, placing my fingers on the keyboard, and grinding out one uninspired phrase can bring on a torrent of creativity.
If you’re not in a mood for socializing, walking into a roomful of chattering people and acting interested in someone can spark feelings of friendliness and interest you could not have generated if you had stayed home or taken a solitary walk. Since the feeling tends to follow the act, we can’t let our feelings define us or set our limits. To grow, mature, improve ourselves, develop socially, morally, and spiritually, the key to transformation is: “Pay primary attention to what you do and express and don’t care too much for what you feel.”
James admits this prescription, potent as it is, doesn’t work every time. But when the effort to apply it fails to change an especially intractable mood, “then nothing else on that occasion can.” Though it’s not a magic formula, it’s the closest thing I’ve found to one. For many vexed by emotional problems, I think earnestly using that tool for one month will improve their psyches and their lives more than ten years on an analyst’s couch and a barrel of tranquilizers. I wish I could share that insight with a lot of people who might profit by it, as I have.
2/17/2009 – Email from Rev. William H. Wood, III
I thank you for sharing this wisdom. It is indeed sound counsel, say I. I remember my brother years ago wrote an editorial in our high school newspaper expressing the belief that the hardest part of studying for exams is sitting down and opening the book. Once that is done, the intrigue often kicks in. I find that is still true for me in the process of sermon writing.
I am grateful to you as well as to William James. I’m glad to know you two are friends.
The Reverend William H. Wood, III
Rector, St. Christopher's Church
2/17/2009 – Email to Rev. William H. Wood, III
Thanks for your acknowledgment. Your brother’s exam-prep experience and yours with sermon writing are good examples of the James maxim in practice. That recalls another bit of wisdom often urged on me by my father: “Begin, and the power to do comes to you.” I’m not sure whether that was his saying or someone else’s, but like the James maxim its truth has often astonished me.
Hope you and Christine are well and enjoying the New Year, market collapses and icy winds notwithstanding.
8/26/2007 – Email to Pete Krok (re: a collection of quotes he sent)
Nice collection. For me, though, the Churchill maxim was worth all the rest. [“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”] I'm reading a book entitled "Franklin and Winston," which makes Churchill look like not only a statesman but also a personality, an intellect, and a master of English rhetoric and prose... for the ages.
Did you know he wrote not only those famous historical works and memoirs, but also a novel, and that his paintings are now thought to have serious artistic merit? In the 20th Century, who more than he could be called a Renaissance man? He was apparently always faithful to his wife, and had a surprising, quick, trenchant wit. This book is engaging, but it is likely to whet rather than satisfy my desire to know more of Churchill.
Mary Ellen joins me in thanking you and Bobbie Lou for a very enjoyable party last night. Lots of good stuff to eat and drink, lots of agreeable people to talk to. Karen was an unofficial MC and added greatly to the fun by her multiple-choice questions, and anecdotes, in the basement and her conversation in the living room. Quite a woman. No doubt, soon to be quite a doctor. Glad she announced your forthcoming book to the assembled guests.
8/27/2007 – Email to Pete Krok in reply to a page of quotes he emailed.
Thanks. I'm moved to comment on these two:
“Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping.” Bo Derek
“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” Oscar Wilde
Bo Derek is probably the most physically beautiful human being who ever said something quotable. Of course, the content of her quip proves wit but not moral elevation. In defense of her view, no less an artist and thinker than Samuel Butler (author of "The Way of All Flesh") shared her sentiment and ranked money even above health as a human desideratum.
This is the second time in a week that I've seen an Oscar Wilde quote that is grammatically wrong in a way that is politically correct today but would not have been in his day. I'll bet that in the original it read: "Experience is the name everyone gives to his mistakes." Wilde was nothing if not grammatical.
The same mentality that edits these intellectual icons into political correctness -- and often grammatical solecism -- also edits the words of Christ in the Bible to make it appear that he said what they wish he had said. (The Catholic versions of scripture read at Mass do this, and Mainline Protestant versions do the same.) But Jesus was no more politically correct than Wilde in his pronouncements, though he said vastly different things. Thank God the original versions of these venerable works have not yet been burned.
The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated. William James
Don't worry too much about how you feel. A man is under no obligation to be happy at all times. As long as he behaves decently to his fellows he may be as miserable as he wants. Shane Hayes
Keep a cool head, a benevolent heart, and a determined will. -- Shane Hayes