In the summer, I live 3,000 miles away from my girlfriend. As with any long distance relationship, we exploited the miracle of modern technology: we texted, Facebook messaged, Snapchatted, FaceTimed, and Skyped. And it's great. We get to be regularly involved in each others' lives, even if we're not physically present. But we also did something else: We started writing letters to each other. With actual pens and paper and postage. This exchange has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and it is something I believe would enrich practically anyone's life: not just between lovers, but between friends, parents and their children, teachers and their students, maybe even the right pairs of strangers.
Modern life moves fast. Our expectations have adjusted accordingly. When we communicate with people, we expect them to answer promptly. Often, this makes life go smoother, especially when the desired response is a piece of information we need. But this rapid-fire communication makes us impatient, and in many cases, obsessive phone and email checkers. We feel pressured to respond quickly and are always wondering why our messages haven't been returned.
Letter writing cultivates patience. When you're writing, your recipient doesn't see an ellipsis doing the worm under his last message. He won't know whether you've "seen" his letter until you respond. And since mail only comes once a day, he won't waste any time checking after the mail arrives. He'll have to wait until tomorrow.
Writing also forces you to concentrate. Assorted cat videos and Buzzfeed quizzes often surround one who composes a text or instant message. To write a good letter, you have to relentlessly drown those things out and focus not only on what you want to say, but to whom you're saying it. And once you're focusing, you start caring more about basic structure, grammar, and spelling. Your message becomes less of a reaction or acknowledgement and more of a fully formed idea worth reading. More importantly, you start having a fucking point.
In addition, it requires conscious thought.
You have to think about the recipient of your letter. What kind of person is she? What's going on in her life? How is she feeling? How will she react to reading your letter? How do you want her to react? Why are you even writing to her?
You have to think about your relationship with that person. How do you normally treat her? How does she treat you? What do you really think of her?
Better yet, it forces you to listen. You can't interrupt a letter, and you can't write a response without reading the previous letter. As time passes, you'll be eager to read her response. What she writes back will matter more.
Finally, it enables you to be more open and clear. Most of us aren't naturally inclined to pour our hearts out in conversation. We beat around the bush. We use small talk. We often avoid saying what needs to be said, even when we desperately want to say it and hear it. Writing frees you; it lets you cut to the core, and it can deliver a visceral impact.
In our letters, my girlfriend and I were able to say things we'd felt intensely that had nevertheless gone unsaid. It has deepened our relationship in a way that transcends distance =- and it has the potential to do so for anyone with a pen, some paper, and postage.
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