Live Fruitfully and Honestly: Life Assurance from E.B. White

Monday, April 21, 2014 - 6:57am
Photo by Elo Vazquez

Live Fruitfully and Honestly: Life Assurance from E.B. White

There are moments in every life when the shadow of uncertainty descends, when we lose our sense of purpose, when finding joy seems an insurmountable hurdle. E. B. White, the beloved children's book author of Charlotte's Web, wrote this letter to his niece on the occasion of her own uncertainty — something I wish I would have read when I was lost. His words are reassurance that a life lived fruitfully and honestly needn't be difficult or very far from reach:

"I know just how you feel, Judy. Frustration is youth's middle name, and you mustn't worry too much about it. Eventually things clarify themselves and life begins to divulge a steadier destination. In a way, our lives take form through a simple process of elimination. We discard what we don't like, walk away from what seems to inspirit us. My first job was with the United Press, but I knew within half an hour that my heart was not in it and that I would never be any good at gathering straight news under great difficulties and with the clock always running out.

Your majoring in English was no mistake, even though you do not become a critic or a publisher's assistant or a playwright or a novelist. English and English literature are the rock bottom of our lives, no matter what we do, and we should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry. 'To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.' I agree with Mr. Thoreau himself a victim of youthful frustration. You seem to me a girl whose head is on straight and I don't worry about you, whether you are majoring in English or in bingo. Joe, my son majored in English for two years at Cornell, then realized that what he really liked was boats. He transferred to M.I.T., took a degree in Naval Architecture and now owns and operates a boatyard in Brooklin — hauling, storing, and repairing and building boats. Keeps him busy 24 hours of the day, and keeps him outdoors, where he prefers to be.

We've just had three great gales here and are still picking up the pieces and sawing up the fallen trees. Aunt K. is not well, and there isn't much the doctors can do for her, as her trouble is in her arteries.

Thanks for your nice letter — I wish I could write you a better reply, but your question is essentially unanswerable, except by yourself, and you supplied the answer when you said you wanted to live fruitfully and honestly. If you truly want that you will assuredly bear fruit and be an adornment to the orchard whatever it turns out to be.

With love,
Uncle Andy

(Elo Vazquez / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

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Mariah Helgeson

is a digital editor at On Being. She earned a degree in International Affairs with concentrations in the Middle East and Conflict Resolution from George Washington University. She grew up in Minnesota and was a program associate at the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network. When she’s not submerged in a good book she might be found laughing with her teenage sisters or playing chamber music.

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The place of Joel White's boatyard is Brooklin, Maine, not Brooklyn which is in New York City. May be a spell check correction but we don't want to transplant the boatyard out of Maine.

I appreciate the letter, and I would say it applies to all phases of life, not just to youth. I'm 55 years old with 3 adult children, a successful professional career, a happy marriage, and an active spiritual life, but I'm still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Hi, Chuck. I'm ahead of you. I'm 53 (almost 54) and just coming back to the place of allowing myself to rediscover my future. I'd be happy to share about this if you'd like; I find there is often great benefit in such serendipity.

Keep on stretching and breathing. Breathing and stretching. On the yoga mat and most especially off it. I will be 76 in a few days and have just recently embarked on a project that I realize more fully every day, has been sleeping on a back shelf of my soul for a long long time. My partner and I are buying some land and are building our new home that will have the lines and the light and the space that we design. We have both worked at various jobs in our lives and for this moment we will be architects.

Couldn't agree more, Chuck! I'm 51 and feel as though youth is resuming again. Having raised my three adult sons with my husband, I'm ready to reclaim my life and do what is true to my self. Being currently unemployed while supporting my husband who returned school two years ago to get his BA degree proves challenging in reclaiming myself but I see no better path than to follow what my heart tells me.

Really nice piece. I'd like to think that we often naturally tend toward joy and fullness, and I suppose we do, but there are so many external demands and expectations upon us, such that we lose sight of our own innermost self, visions and motivations. However, even the smallest of reminders and affirmations, such as this piece upon which I am reflecting, can serve to reorient us, perhaps not unlike the clarity and hope that springs up inside us toward the end of a long, bleak winter when we spy the smallest of signs of the spring and summer yet to come. Thanks for the inspiration and vision!

What a kind, thoughtful, loving man besides being a great author (philospher...).

I enjoyed reading this! I'm staring 50 right in the face this year, but this advice is quite relevant to me, even at my age. I've always thought that people, sometime in their life, found their "one thing", their passion, but I think that thing often changes as we grow. It has for me, anyway, and I find that I'm not sure about my current passion, so, I'll take this advice and consciously apply. Maybe it will reveal itself sooner this way. Thanks for sharing this!!

We spend a great deal of our lives in the not-yet. As an English mjaor, this assures me that there are many ways to become myself and it helps me live in the tension with a modicum of hope. Thank you.

I am still amazed when I look back to my youth years in college and even in high school when me and all my friends were faced with so many choices and challenges. And surprisingly, now I can see for the majority, we found a path in life that seems to fit our expectations. In other words:
"Eventually things clarify themselves and life begins to divulge a steadier destination".
I wish I knew that when I was young, maybe I would have worried less...

Did E.B. White really write "in in English"? The author of Strunk & White, "Be obscure, clearly!" If so, it gives me hope that even his grammar, like mine, was not perfect and we can only strive. Or we are giving him an injustice by putting errors in his writing, inadvertently and should amend or he'll be restlessly having a twitch in the grave. I respect him too much, not to point it out. Please forgive this librarian-like message, it's just E.B. White of all people.

Thank you for sharing these marvelous words. I found it on a day when I really really needed words exactly like these words.

Mr. White is surely right, though in my case it took about seven decades to acquire his perspective. I taught English and loved literature all my life, but only in the last few months has my thinking become clearer (dare I say wiser?) and my writing answerably concise. I wrestled with God all those years and have found, at long last that by discarding "him," (sorry, it's an inadequate gerund) my eyes are ever-so-much sharper, my heart so-much calmer..

The disparate programs come together - more and more - Being human - an exploration and a life's challenge.

Thank you.

I was an English major in the 60s at UC Berkeley. Two weeks before I graduated I was talking with one of my professor and asked the question only a 22 year-old would ask, "What good is it to be an English major? It doesn't save the world. Mr. Miyoshi leaned back, lit his pipe, took a couple of puffs and replied, "Well Joanne, after you've saved the world what have you saved it for?" That question has guided my life in all its twists and unplanned roads. God bless him for giving me permission to follow my heart.