When was the last time you wrote, or received, a handwritten letter?
One of the underplayed deficiencies of social media is that it takes the human aspect out of human interaction. Though efficient, convenient, and reliable, the very nature of electronic communication costs us something precious that we may not even be aware we’ve lost.
Receiving a handwritten letter, with a stamp affixed and addressed specifically to us, implies that we are a very important person.
A Quest to Contact All
Communicating via the mail is an experience that I—someone who literally had not written or received a letter in 25 years—became intimately familiar with during my quest to write all 580 of my Facebook friends a letter.
It all began when I reconnected with an old summer camp friend on Facebook. Though we hadn’t had any contact in three decades, when I discovered that her 15-year-old son was battling cancer, I became inspired to write the pair letters.
When her son died, not knowing what else to do, I just kept writing her. Then, eventually, she wrote me back. We became modern-day pen pals, our thoughts and feelings crossing exclusively in the mail. It afforded us the freedom to share on a level that we never had before.
[Read: “Writing Letters: A Spiritual Practice.”]
The profound experience left me wondering: If my life could be changed by one random Facebook friend, what else was out there waiting for me? What if I wrote all my Facebook friends a letter?
Though there were hundreds of takeaways from my journey, I never ceased being amazed at what the letters meant to people. The reactions were filled with sincere emotion and gratitude. To this day, five years after finishing the project, people still send me photos of their letter, or tell me where they keep it, which is usually in a special place. Recipients felt “chosen” even though I clearly stated, in each dispatch, that I was writing everyone a letter.
I came to believe that the depth of emotion was a clear reflection not on my skills as a writer but on what it means to be treated as an individual in the culture of social media.
While it’s a good thing to be able to blast out a message to hundreds of people at the same time, it can leave us feeling isolated. Why didn’t more people respond in some way? you might ask. Did I offend anyone? Does what I say or do even matter?
A handwritten letter leaves no such question marks.
I also learned that there is no way we can understand the realness and depth of someone’s life experience by simply looking at a profile or a series of posts, likes, or shares. Friend by friend and letter by letter, I found that not only was there so much more to each person’s story, but that I had made a lot of erroneous assumptions.
It’s not that social media is inherently bad. It’s that social media, by its very nature, isn’t equipped to fulfill the deep need we have as humans for other humans. While it certainly offers connecting points, it can’t provide us with what we yearn for—an absolute assurance that someone cares individually about us.
Opening More Doors Than You Can Keep Open?
Writing hundreds of letters to hundreds of people also taught me that I can’t be friends with hundreds of people at the same time. It’s another observation that seems obvious but became a life-changing outcome as I realized it repeatedly, on a grand scale.
For as much pure goodness that flooded out of my letter-writing campaign, I walked away from it with a heavy sense of guilt.
If you’re going to reach out to a mass of people and tell them that you care (because you do), you’re opening more doors than you can keep open. While one hello to the entire group is almost doable, being there in a real, in-person way that humans not only crave but need is impossible.
[Read: “Meditation for Letting Go of a Relationship or Friend.”]
The result was the realization that I needed to draw a line between the in-person and virtual relationships in my life. Though I cared about both sets of people, I needed to be deliberate not so much where I wanted to, but where I could and should.
The Biggest Takeaway of All
Though the limitations and drawbacks associated with social media are real, I also learned that there is such value in our online communities. It’s something that’s been illustrated to perfection during the COVID pandemic. Though there’s been much discussion about how lockdowns affected mental health, would it have been even worse without social media?
The biggest takeaway of all? That was about unity.
When one person reaches out to another in the spirit of goodwill, and the other person responds in kind, suddenly perceived differences—whether religious, political, or lifestyle—begin to lose their power to separate.
Our current culture of divisiveness, hostility, and distrust has cost each of us profoundly. My letter-writing campaign reminded me that despite the reality of where we are as a society, hope not only exists in the periphery, it oozes all over the place. It is alive and well between each of us and the person sitting next to us—our coworker, our BFF, our neighbor, a stranger we’ve never even met, and, yes, our Facebook friend.
Combined, these individual relationships, fueled by love, can absolutely destroy every single barrier that separates us. Simply by being connected, we are one another’s hope.
And once we’ve realized that we can be friends with people who don’t see the world precisely as we do, the real change can begin. Indeed, if we are in a free space where we feel safe, listened to, and valued beyond our differences—we can learn from one another.
Together we can find the middle ground that is still out there for us to claim.
Want to start your own letter-writing practice? Here are three ways to approach it as a transformative act.