“Grace to you and peace …”
—how Paul opened his early letters
“This is my letter to the world …”
—how Emily Dickinson began one of her most popular poems
“I think I should give my reason for being in Birmingham …”
—words penned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that echoed around the world
EDITOR’S NOTE: We welcome these occasional columns from veteran journalist Martin Davis in which he explores, through his own family life, the experiences of a growing number of Americans seeking deeper meaning in life outside the realm of organized religion. As a people, that doesn’t mean we’re turning away from spiritual answers. In fact, Pew Research shows that millions of us have regular experiences of wonderment about the meaning and purpose of our lives. Down through the millennia, countless men and women have experienced those moments. Some responded, as Martin has, by picking up pen and paper—and writing a letter. We wouldn’t have the Christian church today if Paul hadn’t written his letters, which pre-date the Gospels. Dickinson’s missives—in the form of verse—transformed American literature. King ignited the Civil Rights movement with his famous letter.
Welcome, Martin, as a regularly contributing writer to our online magazine …
By MARTIN DAVIS
My youngest son left for Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, not long ago.
He carried little with him.
The Marines, more than most other branches of the military, completely cut off recruits for the majority of their 13 weeks on the Island. They’re allowed no electronics, no computers, no Apple Watches, no modern form of communication whatsoever once they step on the bus.
Upon arrival, they’re afforded one tightly scripted phone call that lasts all of 10 seconds. They say they’ve arrived, you’ll get information later on how to mail, and the line goes dead. There isn’t even time to say “I love you.”
Just like that, the child who for the better part of 18 years texted me 40 times a day about every little detail—suddenly went silent.
The next day, I picked up my pen, an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of notebook paper, and began to write:
You’ve got this.
We’re all very proud of you.
Stay strong, and Semper Fi!
As I dropped the letter in the mail, I realized how little we really communicate in a world of mass communication. Sixteen words was all I could muster. Sixteen good words, to be sure, but missing were any passion, any connection, any feeling that shows there’s more between us than what we might find in a greeting card.
I followed up the next day with a second letter, including details about the people we know who ask about him. Tidbits about his friends who are still in high school. The scores to the hockey games. Even a bad-Dad joke.
But I also started writing about the future–his future. The courage he needs to stand strong. The stamina he’ll need to endure the rigorous training that builds America’s elite fighting men and women. And the commitment it takes to survive in this world.
In between my expressions, I found myself also using greeting card lines that now sound more real, more honest, because they’re wrapped in the bonds that have formed over the course of our lives.
Every day I return to my pad and pen. The letters grow longer, more personal, more spiritual, more human.
I miss my son. I miss his voice, his smile, his grumpiness, his messiness, his passion. I miss our conversations about football, politics, family, and fears. I miss our arguments–even the heated ones.
By putting pen to paper, I was resurrecting his spirit daily—and lifting my own.
Now, I realize that these epistles also are beginning to chart the spiritual realm we share.
- Faith in what we can’t control: He’s gone. He has launched his own life and will never again be in our home as our charge–only a guest who is always welcome. But my faith in him is boundless.
- Hope in things not seen: We know that he will be fine, come what may. We know he will doubt that on occasion—but we never will. He has shown he’s embraced the lessons of following your own heart by having the courage to step out from home and onto his own.
- Joy in tomorrow: No matter where he may be. Parris Island or Paris, France; Camp Lejune North Carolina or a Firebase in Afghanistan. We are always with him. And that is a source of joy for both of us.
In our letters, we are knitting new bonds. We are learning a new, richer way to communicate. And we are learning to live lives of spirit, because the flesh is too far apart.
It’s a lot to put in one letter. But only a letter seems an adequate medium to bear that burden.