Sunday Letters
Yellow flowers, blue sky
2 April 2000

Dear Friend,

Can we blame Sigmund Freud for making psychology so depressing? Or are mechanistic explanations depressing by nature?
. . .I remember learning -- was it in high school? -- the concept of partial reinforcement. This particularly depressing piece of psychology claims that it is better to reward someone partially rather than fully. The idea is that if you give someone what they want all the time, they won't respond nearly as well as if you reward them only part of the time.
. . .You can see why this is depressing. It's as if psychologists say, "If someone responds favorably to something you do, don't reward them fully; do it only partially." This, say some psychologists, is human nature. It suggests we shouldn't love someone fully, not even a dog. It's not effective. They grow bored. They take us for granted. They think we're stupid and moronic -- sort of the way some people think of faithful dogs or the way some teenagers think of their parents.
. . .Maybe I have psychology wrong. No psychologist has told me what they really think. My understanding is based on that given me by a high-school teacher -- who did a pretty good job, wouldn't you say?
. . .But suddenly, yesterday, I thought about partial reinforcement and found it comforting. Who would've thunk it?
. . .My friend Sheila had been encouraging my writing. She got me thinking about these letters I send out every week. She said they were like little essays and could be collected in a book. She didn't say they'd be sold by the millions and I'd be famous. She didn't have to. I thought of that all by myself. But first, I thought, I need a bigger audience. How do I get it?
. . .I then did what any red-blooded American male would do -- I launched the web authoring application on my computer and inserted a subscription line on my home page.
. . .But then I wanted to put in some clever little tag line about how anyone who subscribes to these letters could expect peerless prose, hilarious humor, and the explication of engaging events. But that, obviously, that would be a lie. I had to think of something else. Then, like a supernova, it hit me: people will be more attentive to my writing if it only succeeds SOME of the time, that is, PARTIALLY. I don't need to be a good writer all the time; it's better if I'm not. How comforting!
. . . If these letters were always good, my readers would soon take them for granted and stop reading. My writing has its shining moments but, as you can see with your own eyes, looking at this very sentence, brilliance is not a quality to be taken for granted, at least not in these weekly missives. In short, it occurred to me I am giving my readers what they crave most, occasional satisfaction. These letters require adventurous souls willing to forage deep into my miasmic epistolographic swamp of seemingly endless paragraphs seething with stupefaction to find a simple gem of beauty.
. . .Speaking of gems, here are a few, as quoted by an editor from Guideposts magazine -- Mary Ann O'Roark -- at a writers' conference last year at Laity Lodge. Ms. O'Roark likes the testimony of writers such as Natalie Goldberg and John Gardner, who say how much faith writing demands. She herself says, "Writing doesn't get easier but we become familiar with difficulty." Ms. O'Roark sometimes finds speaking difficult. She says, "When I see people in the audience roll their eyes or twitch their underwear, I think I need to kill myself." (Me, I think I need to kill them.) She says if you're scared of writing, do it scared. She quotes Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and Frederick Bueckner. I don't have the actual quotes, but they go like this:

. . . "Writing is an act of generosity. Just turn the 'M' in 'Me' over and make it a 'We'."

. . ."Anything you do not give freely and abundantly is lost to you; otherwise, when your life is done, you go to the safe where you've locked everything up and find only ashes."

. . ."God calls you to the place where your deep gladness and the world's hunger meet."

That's all I have to say this week. I hope your hunger for wisdom, diversion, and human-contact were partially reinforced. Thanks for listening.

Go To Previous Sunday Letter
Sunday, 26 March 2000

Go To Next Sunday Letter
Sunday, 9 April 2000

Return to Home Page

"It is far more impressive when others discover your good qualities without your help." --Author unknown