Only Lisa can make Lisa happy
Norman Lear offers some words of advice to a stranger
Norman Lear died this week, leaving behind a towering legacy as a visionary in television. Renowned for revolutionising the sitcom genre, he managed to weave critical social commentary into the fabric of mainstream comedy, transforming the way audiences engage with TV. A quick glance at the industry's reaction to his death speaks volumes about his impact.
Hearing of his death reminded me of a particularly touching letter he once wrote to a stranger who was too young to read. It was 1978, and a man named Michael Hurwitz had approached Lear with a unique request: he wanted Lear to write to his infant niece, Lisa—a message she would open 19 years later, on her 21st birthday. Lear kindly obliged, and not with a cursory greeting, but with the thoughtful letter below. It was sent to me by an acquaintance of Lear’s in 2020, just as everything went pear-shaped, and amidst the chaos the letter was temporarily forgotten.
So here it is.
February 2, 1978
The first thing you must know is that you have a remarkable uncle in the person of Michael Hurwitz. That he would be thinking about your 21st birthday while you are still in your second year, makes him very special indeed.
You’re special, too, Lisa. There is only one of you, one only in all the world, and that fact is among the things I would want you to know.
Another is an ancient definition of happiness which has meant a lot to me: “Happiness is the exercise of one’s vital abilities along lines of excellence in a life that affords them scope.”
Actually, that means two things, Lisa. First, it means that you will be happy if you are doing your thing -- not necessarily achieving excellence, simply reaching for it -- in a life that allows you to do so. But, it also means that happiness is something we all deliver to ourselves. No man can deliver happiness to you. No amount of loving children. No money, no status, etc. Only Lisa can make Lisa happy -- and then all those wonderful alternatives like husbands, and children and money and other material things, however important they may be (and I do not mean to minimize their importance) are all extras. I repeat that I don’t mean to minimize the love of a mate or a child. I intend only to emphasize that you cannot accept that love until you deliver the essence of happiness to yourself.
There is a hope that I have for you, too. It is the hope that you go through life trusting and not wary. If you go through life trusting, you may get hurt just a little bit more, but you will never miss any of the action. If you go through life a little too wary, you may not get stepped on here and there, but you will miss far more than you will avoid.
The last thing that I would like to offer you, at the invitation of your uncle, is to remember that success is a question of how you collect your minutes. From the time you wake up each morning and do the first thing you promised yourself you would do last night, you are dealing with success or failure. For example, you promise yourself that you would get up promptly at eight and you do it. Success! Tell yourself that, immediately upon arising, you will do ten minutes of calisthenics, and you don’t. Failure! Try to make the successes outnumber the failures -- and most important, count them all. If you start each day counting all the tiny successes -- they have a way of adding up. Each one takes you to another plateau and so you climb through your days, your successes escalating all the while.
Have a good, happy, healthy and productive life, Lisa.