Sunday, October 30, 2005

A View on Contentment

I am reading the book, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From The Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman. (edited by his daughter Michelle Feynman. Copyright 2005 by Michelle Feynman and Carl Feynman. Basic Books member of Perseus Books Group. ISBN: 0-7382-0636-9).

Richard Feynman was Nobel prize winner for his formulation of QED (Quantum Electrodynamics) theory, he worked on the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, was a public figure of much character, and he uncovered the reason the space shuttle Challenger exploded as part of the President's commission demonstrating in a congressional hearing the failure by dropping an o-ring into a class of ice water. A fascinating man who died in 1988.

Below is a letter to his mother, Lucille Feyman, August 20, 1954. Please note the year as you read. I found this letter very touching and appropriate to many blog discussions I have been involved in lately. I hope you find it as enlightening as I do. I have edited the letter to focus on the sentiment revealed to me. [] reflect my insertions. Bold type is mine.

Dear Mom;

You have nothing. A small room in a hotel. Stuffy and no home with friends and family in it. A job that gives no enlightenment or has no further aim than to be done each day, building nothing for yourself. No easy transportation but to be jostled by the crowds. Nor fancy meals, nor luxurious trips, nor fame nor wealth. You have nothing.

So say your friends, but they are wrong. Wealth is not happiness nor is swimming pools and villas. Nor is great work alone a reward, or fame. Foreign places visited themselves give nothing. It is only you who bring to the places your heart, or in your great work feeling, or in your large house place. If you do this there is happiness. But your heart can be as easily brought to Samarkand [lower income] as to the Hudson river [upper income]. Peace is as difficult to achieve in a large house as in a small one. Feeling can be brought to any work. Your friends of wealth have nothing because of it that they would lose, if with more modest means.

In the sea of material desire that is our country you have found an inlet and a harbor. You are far from perfectly happy, but are as contentful as you can be, with your make-up in the world that is. That is a great achievement, or a great woman.

Why do I write this? Because you have told me these things many times, and I have nodded,vaguely understanding. But you mention them again and again, so perhaps you think I do not understand. For so few understand, each friend questions you, each relative hounds you with the query, how can you live in such a tiny place, how can you work in that unbearable shop with those horrible sales girls? You know how. They could never do it, nor can they live as contentedly in any other way, for they do not possess your inner strength and greatness. A greatness which has come to realize itself thru the knowledge that, beyond poverty, beyond the point that the material needs are reasonably satisfied, only from within is peace.

I offer you all my resources of wealth. What do you want, what will you take? I have offered many times. Not $10 worth can you think you need that you will let me give you. You must always know that I will give you any material thing of wealth you could desire. Now or in my ability in the future. You have no insecurity. And tho you wrack your brains to think of something--not the smallest item suggests itself to you. No man is rich who is unsatisfied, but who wants nothing possess[es] his heart's desire. No need to concern yourself with friends' attempts to help. You are not forced to live as you do. Your son's offer proves that. It is your choice, your life, your simplicity, your peace and your contentment. It needs no further justification.

When I offer it, what do you ask? You ask that I write to you. What can I give more easily, and am yet more stingy about? Tho I know your strength now requires nothing for its self-confidence,--tho I know you could live without my writing by accepting such a fact and living with it,--I do not desire to test your strength or to make your burden more heavy. What son has a mother who in such circumstances asks less of him!

My duty is clear, right action obvious. May I have the strength of resolve that this be the beginning of a more regular correspondence. I hope that the lesson of your strength in life will inspire me more often to try to add a bit you really want. I hope I can write more often to a most deserving and inspiring woman. I love you.

Your Son.


jettybetty said...

I think of this from a mom's point of view--how thrilled she must have been to get this letter from her son. I know I would be!!!

JMG said...

I wonder if he found that contentment that his mom did?

Jana said...

Um, hello! Thanks for making me cry this Monday morning, Tony!

Tony Arnold said...

JMG, Yes, I believe he did. He is quite an amazing man unique character. If you want to know more about him I recommend the resources below:

Jana, I am glad you found the post moving.

"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman

What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman

Infinity. Movie with Matthew Broderick playing Richard Feynman and Patricia Arquette as his wife Arline who died of tuberculosis while he was working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos.

erinlo said...

I grew up in Los Alamos and always heard a lot about Feynman and his intelligence. I did not know, however, what a WISE mans he was. I love what the letter says in light of the fact my ladies class has been studying Philippians and finding joy and contentment in spite of your circumstances. Great post. I'm going to forward this letter to my Dad who works at the lab in Los Alamos.

Amanda said...

What an incredible letter, and it speaks directly to what I've been struggling with in the past few months: how to find contentment and joy amidst so much pain.

jettybetty said...

I thought about this letter a lot today--the sweet lady in the office next to me (we share a wall) is what I would consider wealthy in this world. She's never content, though. She is always wanting more.

I do love her--and would love for her to know Jesus--then, perhaps, she would know true *riches*.

I think Aggie-Ed might enjoy reading some of Feyman's stuff. Do you know if he was a Christian??

Tony Arnold said...

Jettybetty, no he was not. I think he was a true atheist. That is he did not believe in God or at least never worried about it much. Not the atheist that says I don't believe and then spends much time debating the issue.

He did believe that moral and spiritual issues should be left to religion and not debated as part of science. He believed that study of science should be fact driven and viable theories adopted only by their ability to accurately predict outcomes of valid experiments.

He seemed very ambivalent about God and religion. Didn't have problems with it, didn't participate in it.


jettybetty said...

Very interesting. Kind of makes the letter all that more amazing to me.