Friday, November 13, 2015

Living in a world of ‘delivered’ and ‘read’, and not uncertainty

“What did you do at school today?” I asked my tired little one, expecting no meaningful response.

“We wrote a letter,” came the unexpected reply.

“A letter?!” exclaimed the twins, as though she’d actually laid an egg in school.

“And who did you write to?” I asked gently, ignoring her siblings’ shock and horror.

“We wrote it to our grandparents,” and with that, she left the table, obviously wanting no more of the conversation.

Something about the topic brought back a flood of heart-warming memories. It was not so long ago that I would sit and write letters to friends and family, and yet it felt like an eternity. I recalled the pleasure in the writing itself, the excitement in the folding and sealing, the trepidation of dropping it off in a mailbox and not knowing whether it will ever get to its intended destination. Then there was the long wait, the vulnerability of the uncertainty, the slow ache of patience. But nothing matched the joy of finding a familiar handwriting in the mailbox, the flurry of finding a quiet corner, the holding onto the letter and hanging onto every word, when time stood still and nothing else mattered.

As I reemerged from my reverie, I thought of my poor kids missing out on all that the simple practice of letter writing had to offer. The mother in me decided that now was as good a time as any for them to experience it. I asked them to write letters to their grandparents. They were horrified at the suggestion.

“Who like writes letters anymore mom?” my daughter asked with restrained exasperation.

“Which is why I think you guys don’t know how to write one,” I said, hoping that would work as motivation.

“We know how to write letters!” declared her twin, indignant at the implication.

Five minutes later, his work of art lay on my desk as incontestable proof of his capabilities. It began as,

“Hi there, it’s so weird writing to you cuz (sic) we don’t like usually right letters and stuff. But just because mommy thinks we don’t know how to, she wants us to send you like a proper letter like this one.”

I stared at the piece of gibberish in horror, lamenting the loss of writing skills and wondering what the school was charging me for. But there was more to the loss than purely academic abilities. I thought of the many strengths and virtues that played a role in the course of the letter writing process.

Letter writing taught us patience – the patience that comes from waiting for things to take their due course. The speed of technology in today’s world has made us jumpy every time there is a lag between a click and a response. Cultivating patience is what allows us to distance ourselves from the immediate urges of the limbic system, a system on steroids in our modern lives, so that the more informed processing of our frontal lobes can occur.

Letter writing also helped us live with uncertainty. We tolerated the probability of our precious letters not even arriving at their destination. Today, when we can check if the message has been ‘delivered’ and ‘read’ on our devices, we are becoming even more addicted to the illusion of control. This may be depriving us of the resilience that comes from adapting to uncertainties and blinding us to the multitude of opportunities that arise when we are not fixated on one certain outcome. In our lives, where the only thing that is in our control is our response to situations that are mostly out of our control, are we setting ourselves up for weakness and delusion?

And finally, letter writing taught us empathy. When conversations were not limited to ‘IDK’s, ‘OMG’s and ‘LOL’s, we expressed ourselves in ways that opened our worlds to the other and allowed us to connect with compassion and understanding. In our world, where we are commonly drifting apart in self-centred bubbles, won’t it would be wonderful to find ways of genuinely making room for others?

Later that evening, I asked my daughter for her piece of writing. It read:

“Hey!!!!!!! Sorry for torturing u like this but u no mommy…so yeah. Anyways, will e-mail u 1 of these days. xoxoxoxoxox!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!(sic)”

I was appalled.

I thought that the only way to fix this was to have them write a letter a week. The twins, who rarely agreed on anything, were mortified and decided to launch a joint plea to their grandparents to deter me from my ‘lame idea’.

My parents emailed me.

“Be kind to the children”, they advised, “Nobody writes letters anymore.”

Sadly, I knew that but I was still confused. Was I hanging on to a practice that was well past its age? Or were my parents simply doing what grandparents did best, siding with their grandchildren over their own children?

Whatever the answer, I do not want the speed of life today to erase the satisfaction of self-expression or the pleasure of sitting down to savour a hand-written letter. The benefits in the moment are myriad. But so are the memories that are built along the way. For nothing beats the joy of reliving long gone times through the touch and smell of old letters stored carefully in a box. Time slows, relationships reignite, and the heart finds comfort in the reality of a life actually lived.

from The Express Tribune Blog

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