Issue 143 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


In your interview with David Schiffman [Issue 138], I found myself again and again troubled by his responses to your questions. Why? Was I envious? Here was a man exactly my own age, who, by his own self-portrait, had evolved a life of personal power, intensity, prestige, property, and obvious self-assurance far beyond mine. Since, in your introductory remarks, you clearly indicated that your doubts had been overcome in your personal interaction with him and in watching him work, I read the interview again and tried to give him his due. Quite to the contrary, something didn’t ring true. My heart remained closed and distrustful throughout, my mind argumentative.

Again, why? I’m not always envious of people with considerable personal power. But, in Schiffman’s case, there were simply too many statements which were self-justifying, self-flattering, and which oversimplified issues that are complex. I missed the element of doubt. There were many statements of how hard he had to struggle to get where he is, but nothing indicating current struggle, current conflict.

Here are some examples of statements which kept me at a distance: “. . . I have perspectives that are worth a certain amount of money. . . .” “. . . By its nature, Esalen is a white, middle-class type of operation. . . .” (What does “by its nature” explain?) “. . . I live a decent life, and I have to pay for it. I have many mouths to feed: forty animals, two men who look after things, and me and my wife and the children. . . .” (What are the “things” the two men he “has” look after? And do any of these mouths feed themselves?) “. . . How hard-put people are to give up their ideals! The greater challenge is to surrender your high-mindedness. . . .”

Concerning this last remark, it seems to me that ideals and high-mindedness are not necessarily the same thing. Certainly, idealism can cast the dark shadow of high-mindedness. One needs to be aware of a false or shallow investment in one’s ideals, and of the temptation to use one’s ideals to avoid acknowledgement of one’s reality. But I’m not so sure the solution here is to give them up. And isn’t even the desire to give up ideals also an ideal? “I do my best not to be anything but an ordinary man doing some useful work. . . .” Do I detect a note of pride in this humble statement?

The need for more doubt in David Schiffman’s self-presentation became most clear to me in his attempt to accommodate his wild man side with domestic loyalty. He says he’s learned to embrace the sexual luster in everything he does, and yet not “personalize” it, except with his wife. I understand the fine line he is trying to discern here, but I mistrust his confidence, the ease he has with it all. To me, he is saying that he can symbolize his wild side (“. . . How much I value and need this wildness, which is not going to be domesticated for anybody . . .”) without having to act on it, or, as he puts it, “without having to fuck anybody about it.” Perhaps. But isn’t there always a need for doubt when we symbolize instead of act? The title of the interview is “Acts of Courage,” not “Symbols of Courage.”

Schiffman says of his wife and marriage: “If there’s a climate of uncertainty in terms of loyalty, that can be an irksome matter, but Elisa has been a loyal wife. She’s made that very evident to me a variety of times. She doesn’t strain me. That’s not a part of the structure of our relationship. So I can be peaceful about that.” Does this mean he can be peaceful that his wife can also symbolize the wild woman in her (“. . . the gang of [women] that live in [her] that [also] all love to fuck . . .”) without having to act?

This all begins to strike me, possibly, as big talk. At least is it not possible that there are some unworked-out areas here? Schiffman says of his own wayward temptations: “How much trouble do I want to make for myself? Not much! I mean, what’s a couple of squirts. . . .” OK, put in those terms, what are a couple of squirts, one way or the other? If they are potential disaster, or even trouble, doesn’t that trouble still underlie the relationship, even if one avoids the temptation and symbolizes the wild energy by fixing trucks, raising animals, wearing a boar’s tooth around one’s neck, shooting arrows, or doing other “wild” things?

In the end I am far less sure of David Schiffman’s answers than he seems to be. And I am reminded again of the dangers of calling anything one’s own, be it perspectives, or wife, or children, or animals, or job, or hired men, lest one drift into a kind of attitude that one deserves what one has, that one has earned it. When this attitude is carried to an extreme, we see modern-day TV evangelists justifying their million-dollar homes, salaries, bonuses, etc. as being simply their just desserts for doing God’s work. Certainly I don’t accuse Schiffman of such blatant hypocrisy, but in such a statement as “I have perspectives that are worth a certain amount of money,” I see a seed that is deserving of some serious questioning, before it sprouts into a root system.

Jim Ralston Petersburg, West Virginia
David Schiffman responds:

Oy vey! I don’t know what to start worrying about first — my wife, my pride, my lack of doubt, sex, money, or white middle-class privilege and exclusivity.

I hope, for Jim’s sake, that he agonizes less about himself than he does about me. He’ll likely live a little longer, have a more peaceful and productive life, probably sleep better at night, too.

I suppose making it up as you go along has its drawbacks. Clearly, from Jim’s objections, I ought to reconsider more earnestly and humbly the pleasure I take in my triumphs, and the lessons I’ve learned from my own follies, and the impermanence of it all. Amen, Jim.

To set his mind and heart to rest, I still have my share of doubts, dilemmas, and heartaches. I figure long-term peace is what you earn at the end, when they put you in the ground. Still, it’s a sensible man who appreciates and savors what he’s got while he’s got it; you never know what’s around the next turn. It’s no small blessing to have decent work, a healthy family, and good friends.

His objections to my style of life, my willingness to talk plainly about money, sexual fidelity, and idealism seem thoughtful and sincere, but I still don’t feel reluctant to speak up about such basic concerns.

Putting a value on the ability to inspire or influence may seem self-serving or callous, but for everyone engaged in this kind of work it has to be considered.

If Jim’s ever in the Big Sur area I’d be delighted to have him visit to experience firsthand the particulars of my life that he characterizes so disdainfully. It might give him a real taste of the simplicity and self-respect that grow out of the life we live in these mountains. I would hope he might also get a true feel for the gentle, open-hearted spirit he doubts so thoroughly in me, and could use a little more support for in himself.

A friend of mine sent me a copy of your Editor’s Note, “The Hill” [Issue 139]. How heartwarming and moving it was to read!

Life is a series of “hello”s and “goodbye”s; I think you wrote one of the best “goodbye”s I have ever read.

The show is gone and we live on. (I hope the show also lives on in syndication.) I just wanted you to know that I’ll miss it. It makes me feel good that you will miss it too, and deeply. I enjoyed doing my part for your Thursday nights.

With very best wishes and my thanks,

James B. Sikking [James B. Sikking played Lt. Howard Hunter on the NBC television series, “Hill Street Blues.”]

I’m a new subscriber to The Sun, and I’m writing to express an immense appreciation for what you are doing.

I feel I receive a gift every time I read something sincere in The Sun. Sincerity seems to be the common theme within the diversity of articles you print. I also appreciate that you print unconventional forms — strange poems, diaries, short essays, free associations, scholarly pieces.

Also, you print idiosyncratic, individual voices. In most publications, even radical or fantastic thought must be presented in a conventional, monotonous style.

In The Sun, I feel that I encounter numerous individuals — strong, beautifully diverse minds, which renew my faith that beneath our relatively similar exteriors, we are fascinating, strange, boundless creatures, trying to understand one another, to touch other minds, to develop a common touch, a common tongue, to create love in defiance of the vast physical and psychological space that separates us from one another.

At the other end of the spectrum, The Sun is humorous, unassuming, and simple. You do not seem caught up in the commercial, pseudo-mystic, new age narcissism. You do not preclude possibilities. You do not preach. You do not declare truths. You acknowledge the validity of everyone’s thoughts.

Mary Virginia White Bethesda, Maryland

I wonder if Walter Wink (“Pacifism Versus Passivism: On Revolutionary Nonviolence,” Issue 141] knows that “Third Way” is an old Quaker term and a basis of the Quaker peace testimony. Quakerism teaches that situations seem insoluble only to us; the Spirit always has an answer, which will be shared if we wait quietly and attentively for it. The Quaker term of comfort to a perplexed friend is, “Way (always capitalized) will open.” Or, as a recently popular button puts it, “Way will open when I get out of my own way.”

Thank you for a great magazine.

Susan Shaughnessy Washington, D.C.

Thank you for sending me Issue 141 of The Sun. Although I fully appreciate Ram Dass, David Spangler, and O. Carl Simonton, whose works presumably appear occasionally in your magazine, I’m gravely disappointed in the substance and overall quality of The Sun. With few exceptions, the writing and editing are (appallingly) at about third-rate junior high school level. The cover seems disingenuously tasteless, nude child aside — slatternly appearing female, legs spread, arms akimbo, against a setting of acute ordinariness. The effect is both trivial and tacky. Surely a more sensory-appealing subject could have been found.

The Sun’s masthead is great, its concept stimulating, its intent admirable. All that’s lacking is an editor of greater gifts and higher standards. Not every new age reader is semi-literate.

Jeanne Silverman Arlington, Virginia
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