letters of wisdom

Today’s post on Letters of Note is a letter from essayist and clergyman Sydney Smith to Lady Georgiana Morpeth who was suffering from a bout of depression. The reason it caught my eye was just yesterday I tripped over one of those posts about what not to say to someone who is depressed. You know the sort of thing – “it’s not that bad” “you just need to exercise more” or “stop feeling sorry for yourself.” I can’t remember right now where I saw it, but there are dozens (or hundreds) of them out there. Apparently enough people have heard the unhelpful things that lists of what not to say abound.

I thought the Sydney Smith letter had some worthwhile thoughts. Some things I know from experience are very hard for a person who is depressed but others rang very true.

1st. Live as well as you dare.
2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.
3rd. Amusing books.
4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.
5th. Be as busy as you can.
6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.
8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.
9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.
10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.
11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.
13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.
14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.
15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.
16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.
17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
18th. Keep good blazing fires.
19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.
20th. Believe me, dear Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith

emphasis added

They listed a couple other letters of note including one by Stephen Fry which I had previously posted a portion. He compares depression to the weather, as you may recall, saying that “You can’t change it by wishing it away. If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.”

In the same way that one has to accept the weather, so one has to accept how one feels about life sometimes. “Today’s a crap day,” is a perfectly realistic approach. It’s all about finding a kind of mental umbrella. “Hey-ho, it’s raining inside: it isn’t my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it, but sit it out. But the sun may well come out tomorrow and when it does, I shall take full advantage.”


Also included was a letter by Henry James to fellow writer Grace Norton. It is an incredibly caring and thoughtful letter.

My dear Grace, you are passing through a darkness in which I myself in my ignorance see nothing but that you have been made wretchedly ill by it; but it is only a darkness, it is not an end, or the end. Don’t think, don’t feel, any more than you can help, don’t conclude or decide—don’t do anything but wait. Everything will pass, and serenity and accepted mysteries and disillusionments, and the tenderness of a few good people, and new opportunities and ever so much of life, in a word, will remain.


I don’t know why there seems to be a splash of writing on depression. Perhaps because holidays are often hard and more people may feel particularly alone and despondent at times of celebration. I’ve been struggling with the darkness the past few days but I’ve been blaming it on a seriously messed up sleep pattern.

As far as Smith’s list goes – two things in particular strike me. Not looking too far ahead: depression by it’s nature makes the future look very bleak. Also, setting small goals and living the best you can. Today, I made brioche (and I plan to post that recipe since it’s become my favorite new bread recipe), hamburger buns for tomorrow, and chocolate cake to take to Dad tomorrow. I hope the fudge frosting turns out well later. I need to finish cleaning the kitchen and do a couple of other small things but I am running out of steam and probably won’t get to the other things, like vacuuming, which I planned to do today. That’s okay. Remember my mantra from April, I love you anyway.


4 thoughts on “letters of wisdom”

    1. I think #11 can be viewed from (at least) two directions. You can think be reasonable in your expectations or life sucks, live with it. On good days, I think it’s a good idea to not expect perfection from life. On bad days…

      I’ve come to the conclusion that, at least around here, the very worst day of the year to not feel well is the 4th of July. Sure, you might miss out the food and family activities on Thanksgiving or Christmas but you can’t get any freaking rest at all on the stupid 4th of July.

      Not worth a whole post of it’s own just to rant about some idiot shooting off fireworks until 3:30 AM, then as I finally was getting to sleep – the pain medications that I took 5 HOURS before, wore off. It took another hour or so for the new meds to kick in (normally I’m asleep and don’t notice when they wear off) and then the nursing home called. Do you think I could get a nap during the day? I tried and earbuds helped some but I’m tired and grumpy and I feel like crap.

      Oh sure, none of that really has to do with this post or Margaret’s comment.


      1. The 4th of July was tough for me because of the noise and my own emotions. One of Patt’s favorite holidays, so it was very tied into memories of him.


        1. It was pretty miserable here, but mostly from lack of sleep. Some tears while watching the show – it used to be a family thing, you know?


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