Last night over dinner, one of my oldest and dearest friends mentioned that she had spent some time yesterday writing a letter to her daughter who is attending college in the Midwest. She explained that she had found a beautiful card and decided to send it, accompanied by a letter.
I email regularly with her daughter, as does she, so I was intrigued.
“Really?” I said with surprise. “You sent her snail mail?”
“Yes,” she responded enthusiastically. “I want her to receive mail. You know . . . good, old fashioned mail. A letter.”
It seemed like a quaint idea to me.
I don’t know whether the forces of the universe conspire for the purpose of giving me material to write about here or if I am simply better some days than others at paying attention and gathering inspiration. I suspect it might be a combination of the two.
No matter because this past week, I have been attuned and given a lot of consideration to the manner in which we communicate with each other these days. More and more, I find that I impart information to others almost exclusively vie email.
Since In Treatment concluded, I have been enjoying John Adams on HBO. I highly recommend it. As I was watching the most recent installment a couple of nights ago, I was fascinated by the stretches of time that elapsed between major events because of how slowly information was communicated in those days.
A couple of scenes were particularly striking. In one, Abigail Adams, brilliantly portrayed by Laura Linney, was elated when she finally received a packet of letters from her husband who was away from her for long stretches of time throughout their marriage. In another scene, she arrived in Paris after a lengthy voyage from America, finally reunited with him after yet another separation that apparently spanned several years. They had to get reacquainted. She questioned why he did not write more often. The resulting exchange between the two characters was beautifully written and poignantly acted. As I watched, it occurred to me that the two characters not only spent endless months wondering about the well-being and activities of the other, but also did not hear each other’s voices at all during those long stretches of time spent apart.
Today, of course, we are all perpetually connected to each via available technology. To spend weeks, months or years not speaking to our loved ones would be unthinkable. We just pick up our cell phones or Blackberries and call, text or email each other throughout the day. Frequently, we do so multiple times throughout the day. We have videoconferencing capabilities so that we can see each other while situated on opposite sides of the world.
I remember the first time I ever owned stationery. It was scented and bore images of cute little skunks, along with the phrase “Here’s my five scents worth.” At the time, the cost of mailing a first class letter was five cents, so my grandmother also gave me stamps so that I could mail my letters to her.
When was the last time you sat down and wrote a letter to someone who is important to you? When was the last time you decided to pour out your feelings to someone by picking up a pen or pencil and committing your thoughts to paper in your own handwriting?
I can easily answer those questions: I can’t recall. I literally have no idea when I last wrote an actual message in my own hand expressing anything more significant than “happy birthday” or “my deepest condolences.” I’m sure that I must own some stationery, but without searching for it, I cannot describe it or recollect when I acquired it.
Business correspondence is even much rarer than just a few years ago. In that arena, email is also the primary means by which data is shared. I encourage everyone with whom I transact business to communicate with me via email, even to the point of scanning documents and sending them as .pdf files rather than faxing them. For at least a dozen or so years, my colleagues and I have emailed each other routinely throughout the work day, even though our respective offices are within a few feet of each other.
And my personal relationships are maintained almost exclusively via email. Each year, I send and receive fewer and fewer Christmas and other greeting cards, instead forwarding electronic messages. I have neighbors that I rarely see in person, but we email each other regularly, literally transmitting messages across the street to stay in touch. Hosting a party or other event? Gone, for the most part, are the days of visiting the local stationer to pick out just the right invitations. Instead, you can choose from a variety of software applications to issue the invitation and your guests can simply click to R.S.V.P. There’s no need for your invitees to make a phone call to report whether or not they will be in attendance.
For all the sophisticated technology readily available to us, do we really communicate our innermost thoughts and feelings with each other or have we devolved into simply exchanging bits of meaningless trivia on a constant, unending basis?
And what will be the long-term impact upon our psyches of being constantly bombarded with sounds and images since we are connected to each other all the time? We are living connected lives, but what is the quality of the connections? Will our connectedness ultimately be our undoing?
Click here to read Part Three.