The lesson of the unsent letter

Rev David Clarke.
Rev David Clarke.

An unsent letter caused considerable excitement at auction last week.

When the Titanic sank on Sunday 14th April 1912, Alexander Osker Holverson from Minnesota was among the 1,500 who perished. When his body was recovered, a sea-stained letter to his mother was found on his person. He had written, ‘If all goes well, we will arrive in New York, Wednesday am.’ The letter, on official ‘Titanic’ notepaper, went under the hammer and was sold for the astonishing figure of $166,000.

This particular piece of Titanic memorabilia, brought other unsent letters to mind. The novelist John Steinbeck once recounted how he and his siblings were kept in line by their grandmother. When any of them misbehaved, she uttered a stern warning, ‘You won’t get the Lincoln letter when I die.’ The thought of receiving a letter signed by the revered President was an inducement to good behaviour. When the inevitable happened, it was discovered that the ‘Lincoln Letter’ was not one written by the murdered President, but rather a letter which his grandmother had written to Lincoln, but had never posted!

The preacher F.W. Boreham spent his ministry in Australia, but through his books exercised a wide influence in the English-speaking world. He told of an occasion when he was infuriated by some unjust criticism by a man named Crittenden. He decided to answer Crittenden in a letter of rebuke. On his way to post it, he met an old friend who said, ‘I’m sure you heard that old Crittenden has passed away. He had a miserable life. His wife died years ago, leaving him with a handicapped daughter’. Boreham was stunned. He never knew the burdens Crittenden had carried and regretted the words he had written in haste. Taking the letter home, he tore it in pieces, glad that it remained unsent.

What Boreham learned has a vital lesson for us. When anger flares, there is a catharsis in spelling it out in words, provided we then tear the pages up. It will do us good getting it off our chest, while not deepening division with another. The instruction of Jesus to ‘turn the other cheek’ helps, among other things, to stop disputes growing out of hand. We should strive to cultivate the attitude of the great John Wesley, of whom it was said that ‘he had a kingly neglect of trifles.’ If you must write that angry letter, do so, but remember to file it in the waste-paper basket!