Monday, January 30, 2012

Of Steinbeck and Stereotypes

This letter came to me as a mail forward last week and I haven’t been able to get it off my mind ever since. It was written by the Nobel prize winning writer John Steinbeck to his young son in the year 1958. I found this to be so beautiful that I went ahead and ordered John Steinbeck: A Life In Letters after reading this. 900 odd pages of letters written by this man. Should be good reading for when one craves to read a letter.

New York
November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First—if you are in love—that’s a good thing—that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply—of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it—and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone—there is no possible harm in saying so—only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another—but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens—The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.



Source: Letters of Note 

Anyway, so when I got this letter, I sent it to some of my girl friends but not to even one guy. Please note that this letter was written by a man to a boy. And I still didn’t send to guys. It is not like I don’t know any guys who have fallen in love. But still.

Because I didn’t think they would understand. I could almost anticipate this coming back to me with the typical banter that guys throw at girls when they think we are getting too girly. I could almost see them finding it mushy beyond tolerance. I imagined them rubbishing the whole thing. Because it in today’s world, it is girly to talk about love in general. Writers/artists are allowed a little leeway, but very little. I think over the years the stereotypes have hardened and not dissolved and unfortunately men are expected to conform to them (as are women). And in the entire process, tenderness has made an exit from real life and been kept alive by silver screens, if at all.

I remember this one incident so clearly that it surprises me. I was sitting with a group of bikers a few years ago on a lazy afternoon and after exhausting stories about bikes, someone brought up the topic of one of the guy’s engagement. This guy, apparently, had first asked a woman biker in the group for some help with picking a platinum ring so he could propose marriage to his girlfriend and then he had memorized+rehearsed a Johnny Cash song to sing when he proposed. He had gone down on his knees, sung that song and asked the girl to marry him.

If I had been in that girl’s place, I would have cried. The whole thing was so beautiful (notice I am saying beautiful and not cute). Clearly the guy was going out of his comfort zone but he was doing it willingly so he could make that one moment special for the woman he loved. But the bikers made a big joke out of this. They called him pansy and said they couldn’t come to understand how he could have done all this. The topic changed, eventually. I, however, have still not forgotten about it…it left me that appalled. What kind of friends deny someone his feelings! What kind of a world are we living in where a man cannot tell someone that he loves him/her without being called pansy! 

The more surprising part is that most bikers in that group married the people they had fallen in love with. So it is not like they did not understand love or feel it. But expressing it was another matter altogether. It was heart-breaking, the whole episode.

I read Kim by Rudyard Kipling recently and one of the most striking things about the book is how openly men expressed their love even for other men, young and old, back then. It was so pure, that expression. Unadulterated by modern day terminologies and judgments. People – men and women – telling each other how they really felt and not trying to mask their feelings to protect themselves from getting hurt. Where have all those real people gone and whose value systems are we living by these days?

If only we understood that being in touch with your innermost feelings is a sign of a complete human being, whether it is for a man or a woman and no person should have to mask that for the fear of being ridiculed by people who don’t seem to understand the first thing about feelings. Unfortunately, only Raymonds seems to understand that in the present day and only their model seems to be allowed to express his feelings openly without a group of guys jeering at him.

3 Thinkers Pondered:

DeEpAK KaRtHiK (420) said...

Great analysis !
osum post :)

Anupama said...

Thanks Deepak :)

Sathej said...


To be honest, when I read the letter, I thought it was really very nice of Steinbeck, but that was about it. I somehow couldn't connect entirely with the letter. It starts off with deeply thoughtful ideas and that maybe created expectations that weren't met especially when he switches to the 'if its right, it happens' theme. That somehow doesn't appeal to me, maybe its just me, but just thought of putting down how I felt.

The latter part - oh can't agree with it more ! So agree with that distinction of beautiful vs cute. You know when people use the word 'cute' for something beautiful, sometimes it just brings me down. Thats kind of trivializing it..

The Raymond - oh can't connect more to it..cha how beautiful that one ad was, with the old-teacher -in-the-wedding - the sparkle in the eyes, the nostalgia, the spontaneous reverence..I always almost had tears in my eyes watching it - these are the essence of things that are 'beautiful'..

Well, I can go on..anyway shall stop here..somehow certain posts generate a lot of here after a while and notice quite a few posts..hmm..shall read at leisure :)