While studying in Germany in May of 1900, pioneering American psychologist William James discovered that his 13-year-old daughter, Peggy, was finding it incredibly difficult to adjust to life at school in England, many hundreds of miles from home. In an effort to lift her from this emotional slump, James wrote to her with the following advice.
It’s interesting to note, particularly given the subject matter, that Willam James was the older brother of novelist Henry James, who 17 years earlier wrote this amazing letter of advice to a depressed friend.
(Source: The Letters of William James, via Phil Oliver; Image: William James, via.)
May 26, 1900
Your letter came last night and explained sufficiently the cause of your long silence. You have evidently been in a bad state of spirits again, and dissatisfied with your environment; and I judge that you have been still more dissatisfied with the inner state of trying to consume your own smoke, and grin and bear it, so as to carry out your mother’s behests made after the time when you scared us so by your inexplicable tragic outcries in those earlier letters. Well! I believe you have been trying to do the manly thing under difficult circumstances, but one learns only gradually to do the best thing; and the best thing for you would be to write at least weekly, if only a post-card, and say just how things are going. If you are in bad spirits, there is no harm whatever in communicating that fact, and defining the character of it, or describing it as exactly as you like. The bad thing is to pour out the contents of one’s bad spirits on others and leave them with it, as it were, on their hands, as if it was for them to do something about it. That was what you did in your other letter which alarmed us so, for your shrieks of anguish were so excessive, and so unexplained by anything you told us in the way of facts, that we didn’t know but what you had suddenly gone crazy. That is the worst sort of thing you can do. The middle sort of thing is what you do this time—namely, keep silent for more than a fortnight, and when you do write, still write rather mysteriously about your sorrows, not being quite open enough.
Now, my dear little girl, you have come to an age when the inward life develops and when some people (and on the whole those who have most of a destiny) find that all is not a bed of roses. Among other things there will be waves of terrible sadness, which last sometimes for days; and dissatisfaction with one’s self, and irritation at others, and anger at circumstances and stony insensibility, etc., etc., which taken together form a melancholy. Now, painful as it is, this is sent to us for an enlightenment. It always passes off, and we learn about life from it, and we ought to learn a great many good things if we react on it right. (For instance, you learn how good a thing your home is, and your country, and your brothers, and you may learn to be more considerate of other people, who, you now learn, may have their inner weaknesses and sufferings, too.) Many persons take a kind of sickly delight in hugging it; and some sentimental ones may even be proud of it, as showing a fine sorrowful kind of sensibility. Such persons make a regular habit of the luxury of woe. That is the worst possible reaction on it. It is usually a sort of disease, when we get it strong, arising from the organism having generated some poison in the blood; and we mustn’t submit to it an hour longer than we can help, but jump at every chance to attend to anything cheerful or comic or take part in anything active that will divert us from our mean, pining inward state of feeling. When it passes off, as I said, we know more than we did before. And we must try to make it last as short as time as possible. The worst of it often is that, while we are in it, we don’t want to get out of it. We hate it, and yet we prefer staying in it—that is a part of the disease. If we find ourselves like that, we must make ourselves do something different, go with people, speak cheerfully, set ourselves to some hard work, make ourselves sweat, etc.; and that is the good way of reacting that makes of us a valuable character. The disease makes you think of yourself all the time; and the way out of it is to keep as busy as we can thinking of things and of other people—no matter what’s the matter with our self.
I have no doubt you are doing as well as you know how, darling little Peg; but we have to learn everything, and I also have no doubt that you’ll manage it better and better if you ever have any more of it, and soon it will fade away, simply leaving you with more experience. The great thing for you now, I should suppose, would be to enter as friendlily as possible into the interest of the Clarke children. If you like them, or acted as if you liked them, you needn’t trouble about the question of whether they like you or not. They probably will, fast enough; and if they don’t, it will be their funeral, not yours. But this is a great lecture, so I will stop. The great thing about it is that it is all true.
The baths are threatening to disagree with me again, so I may stop them soon. Will let you know as quick as anything is decided. Good news from home: the Merrimans have taken the Irving Street house for another year, and the Wambaughs (of the Law School) have taken Chocorua, though at a reduced rent. The weather here is almost continuously cold and sunless. Your mother is sleeping, and will doubtless add a word to this when she wakes. Keep a merry heart—”time and the hour run through the roughest day”—and believe me ever your most loving