Letters of Florence Nightingale – Her desire for intellectual growth (July 2010)

Susan's Thursday morning note July 1, 2010 
Ever Yours, Florence Nightingale: Selected Letters
Desire for Learning

Good morning!  July….where in the world did the first half of this year go?  I have a journal that begins with this line every few inches down, “It’s been 7 months since I’ve written…” – does life just fly by like this?  Can we catch the moments?  We can if we discipline ourselves to, I’m convinced.  Time doesn’t have to be a blur…fleeting.  One word.  Silence.  When all is quiet and we look into the eyes of those we care deeply for…time momentarily stops.  Captured in our heads like a photograph.  Will we take the time for the picture?  I remember a quote from Agatha Christie from our last newsletter…One of the oddest things in life, I think, is the things one remembers.  Will a moment today be one of our photographs in our head years from now?

I have been entering the journals and letters of Florence Nightingale the last few weeks.  I have just finished her “early years” where she fights inwardly in depression and sickness the battle of pursuing academic and intellectual stimulus for herself rather than what was expected in her high society – idleness as a woman and expectations in society.  Her family did not give their blessing to her desires which spiraled her for years into a deep depression.  These journals and letters share her thoughts, her frustrations, her personal failings, her eventual entering academic communities and then medical work.  When she was first working in a small hospital in Europe she was assigned a position in Turkey in 1854 – to work with the injured soldiers.  Below are some of what I’ve underlined – from her desires to enter the academic (meaningful to her) world and then as she first begins her work with soldiers…

Description of a dear woman she wants to emulate followed by a description of entering a home she loved…

She is a thorough woman of the world without ever having had a worldly thought – I have known many more intellectual, many more brilliant, but I never knew such a union & harmony of opposite qualities, she has the heart of a woman, the judgment of a man – she is practical & poetical – the habits of a man of business, the imagination of an artist – the hand of earth, the soul of heaven.  She pursues one object with unfaltering steps, yet is ready with her sympathy to respond to all.  She has the steadiness of the Conqueror and the lowliness of the servant.  She has the energy in action of one, who bears down upon his object as if he had no other aim on earth, & the serenity in failure of one, who feels that he has no work at all of his own to do & says “I made a mistake.  My Mater has other work  for me that was not mine” – or rather she can feel no disappointment – none of that death, which the soul often dies between the destruction of one idea & the taking up of another, for she has no idea which she is striving to carry out for its own sake.

…I hope to spend some more time at dear Combe, where the very atmosphere of love and kindness much improve every one who comes there…

Her prayers,

…May 12.  Today I am 30 – the age Christ began his Mission.  Now no more childish things, no more vain things, no more love, no more marriage.  Now, Lord, let me only think of Thy will, what Thou willest me to do.  Oh, Lord, Thy will, Thy will…

My God, what am I to do?  teach me, tell me.  I cannot go on any longer waiting till my situation should change, dreaming what the change shall be to give me a better food.  Thou hast been teaching me all these 31 years what I am to do in this?  Where is the lesson?

But why, oh my God, cannot I be satisfied with the life which satisfies so many people?

…God called me in the morning and asked me, “Would I do good for Him, for Him alone without the reputation?  “Mar Thought much upon this question – my madre said to me, “Can you hesitate between the God of the whole Earth & your little reputation?”

On family not being behind her decision to not marry, not follow the cultural norm for a woman, but rather to pursue academic studies…

I must expect no sympathy, nor help from them.  I have so long craved for their sympathy that I can hardly reconcile myself to this.  I have so long struggled to make myself understood, been sore, cast down, insupportably fretted by not being understood (at this moment even I feel it when I retrace these conversations in thought) that I must not even try to be understood.  I know they can not.  I know that to try for it & fail irritates me…

…Let me entirely avoid these subjects – it is better to be silent, even when appealed to…I do not seek his sympathy.  I know that he cannot give it to me.  I never ask for it…Never let me seek it.

(when her sister and mother would not talk about her desires, but go to parties & have clothing, etc. be the main topic of conversation)…so we play thro’ life among the mangled souls of those we love.

Plea with her mother for her blessing…

I should be as happy here as the day is long & wish I could hope that I had your smile, your blessing, your sympathy upon it – without which I cannot be quite happy.  My beloved people, I cannot bear to grieve you.  Life & everything in it that charms you you would sacrifice for me – but unknown to you is my thirst, unseen by you are waters which would save me.  To save me, I know would be to bless yourselves, whose love for me passes the love of woman.  Oh how shall I shew you love & gratitude in return, yet not to perish, that you chiefly will mourn.  Give me time – give me faith.  Trust me.  help me, I feel within me that I could gladden your loving hearts which now I wound.  Say to me, “Follow the dictates of that Spirit within Thee.”  Oh, my beloved people, that spirit shall never lead me to say things unworthy of me who is yours in love – Give me your blessing.

Misc. Thoughts

…I do so believe that every tear one sheds waters some good thing into life…

On need for intellectual growth and challenge, not idleness (as was the normal day in the woman of her ranking and time period)

Oh, if mothers saw what I have seen, had watched as I have the downward course of the finest intellect and the sweetest temper, thro’ irritability, nervousness & weakness to final derangement – & all brought on by the conventional life of the present phase of civilization, which fritters away all that is spiritual in women..

Why cannot a woman follow abstractions like a man?  has she less imagination, less intellect, less self-devotion, less religion than a man?..Why?  (the paragraph then explains the expectation for social life, conversation that isn’t intellectual…renders her powerless to rise to any abstract good, or general view.  It cuts her wings, it palsies her muscles, and shortens her breath for higher things – & for a clearer, but sharper, atmosphere, in which she has no lungs to live.  She has fed on sugar-plums, her appetite is palled for bread…

her health worsened under the strain of idleness.  She wrote, “I see the numbers of my kind who have gone mad for want of something to do.”

Description of her sudden work in Turkey – “The Crimea Years: 1854-56” where she is given charge of caring for the wounded soldiers…

Six rooms, of which one was a kitchen and another a closet, space normally occupied by three medical officers and their servants, now had to accommodate the forty-two people in Nightingale’s party.  The room assigned to the eight Anglican sisters from Mother Lydia Sellon’s order in Devonport was found to contain the corpse of a Russian general.  No furniture, food, cooking utensils, blankets, or supplies of any kind were provided.  Raised wooden platforms around the room served as beds.  Fleas and rats were to be a continual problem.  While Mr. Bracebridge found someone to remove the corpse, Nightingale obtained basins of milkless tea from the hospital…the spirits of all sank…the hospital was worse…

On the day of the landing…We have now 4 miles of beds – and not 18 inches apart.  The wounded are now lying up to our door & we are landing 540 more from the “Andes”.  These poor fellows had not had a clean shirt nor been washed for two months before they came here & the state in which they arrive from the Transports is literally crawling…40 nurses for two Hospital averaging 3000 sick…the destruction of the army was due to illness rather than to battle losses.  One of the best surgeons treated a total of 3025 cases of sickness as compared with 564 for wounds…

Okay – does that wet your appetite?  I don’t know why I ordered her journals, I just know that I’ve always studied her name and who she was in one line in school, but knew nothing of her.  I am realizing that I personally like to first find out about someone I would like to possibly emulate by ordering their own journals & letters instead of reading someone else’s biography.  Right to the heart….the problem is so many letters are thrown away, but what is left I find so interesting.  How did those we hear of become who they were?  By chance?  By circumstances?  By diligence?  Because of sorrow?  Because of opportunities presented to them?  Because of solitude?  Because of family support?  Because of personal determination to beat the odds?  Because of pride to show those that don’t support them they can do it?  So many reasons for how we get where we are….Because of prayer?  Because of constant inner strength from continual silent prayer?  I am only on page 87 out of 439!  How much more I have to gain from her thoughts…how she went on despite what came into her story and who in her life supported or didn’t support her.  What will I learn?  I hope to use her own story in my own life story….learn from her relationships, her dreams, her sicknesses, her relationships…learn from authors and those before us…learn to be more than we alone could’ve been without their training.

Who is a “name” that you know did great things with their life but you don’t know much more about?  See if you can find their journals or personal papers….we all have a choice on how to spend 20-30 minutes in our morning or evening…before unexpected “life” enters our days.  Florence Nightingale was determined to pursue learning.  She disciplined herself to 2 1/2 hours per morning before breakfast of studying and praying.  Would she have turned off the computer, gone to bed with her family, and then awaken early to have time alone?  How would she have dealt with what we now have to “interrupt” our thinking and solitude each day 150 years later?  Let’s go make decisions today that are worthy of writing on our epitaph tonight – what did we use our time that we will lose today thinking about, reading, discussing with friends?  As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, ” Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” – I try to keep that quote in my head…which category do we fall into?  Have a great rest of the week!!  Thank you, again, for all you do for our store.  Thank you so much for letting me in your world again this Thursday.  Susan

Latin for this week:
Nosce te ipsum - Know Thyself

Works Cited:
Vicinus, Martha and Nergaard, Bea, Editors.  Ever Yours, Florence Nightingale: Selected Letters.  Cambridge.  Harvard University Press.  1990.