Last month my grandfather passed away. We weren’t terribly close, but he was a constant that is suddenly gone. I can’t quite remember the sound of his laugh, but I miss his sharp wit. I can’t recall the last movie we watched together, but I remember how he cherished films and instilled in me a love for Bogart and Bacall.
I can’t remember the last time he wrote me, but I will never forget the distinct crispness to his penmanship. His handwriting in letters, on checks, or in his journals brings a wave of grief for his absence mixed with the comfort of his years of love and support.
I have letters from my grandmother tucked away in storage scrawled out in her broken English lettering—rare for her, as she almost exclusively wrote in her native Japanese. My mother’s mix of print and cursive takes me back to my childhood, and my father’s flowing script is still as difficult for me to read now as it was growing up. And my husband’s written lists or notes remind me of all those cards and letters he sent me while deployed.
Handwritten words from my loved ones can hit me with the same emotion of past memories as can scents, songs, and pictures. With each stroke of the pen or pencil they’ve put a piece of themselves onto that paper. Knowing my grandfather will never write out another meticulous note in his daily journal forces me to pause and ponder the current state of the handwritten word in our culture.
The Price of Convenience
Rarely does the postal service bring us much more than junk mail, circular ads, and credit card offers. My email inbox has become just as bad, with personal emails an oddity. The majority of incoming email is subscriptions to sites I frequently order from. We’ve traded handwritten, personal letters—with jotting down the address, licking the envelope, and patiently waiting for it to be delivered and then a response—for the instant gratification of emails, texting, messaging, online shopping, and pre-addressed greeting cards.
In the name of convenience we’ve embraced the digital age that allows us to type out family newsletters, blog posts, and social media statuses to keep everyone we love privy to our goings-on with such ease and speed that we can get back to more important things, like pinning Instant Pot recipes and posting Instagram pictures of our latest meal, cup of coffee, Bible study, or combination thereof.
As a working mother of four, I am all for convenience. It’s why I gave in and bought that Instant Pot and often choose to shop online instead of venturing to the local store. My mom taught her kids that time is money, and sometimes it’s smarter to pay more for convenience. Social media and the digital age has certainly made connection more convenient, but it, like all other conveniences, comes with a price.
We live in a time when connecting with others has never been easier, yet we—my generation especially—are lonely! Social media has made it easy to connect, but in turn breeds superficiality: “We attempt to substitute real relationships with online relationships. Though we temporarily feel better when we engage others virtually, these connections tend to be superficial and ultimately dissatisfying.”
I’m Not a Facebook Hater, Either
Now, I have never been one to hate on Facebook. For more than a decade I’ve used the site to chronicle life and stay in touch with friends and family. The site saw me announce my marriage, seven pregnancies, four births, three miscarriages, a deployment, a reunion, many travels, daily frustrations, and countless joys. I have long defended its benefits, especially as it helped me get help when postpartum depression hit after our fourth baby was born. I scoffed when others complained about its worthlessness or warned of the dangers of comparison.
Here was a site that, while a known time-suck, allowed me to reach out to my mom, sister, or that random blogging friend I’ve never actually met in person but still count a true friend. I could promote my Etsy business and support friends’ businesses. This one site provides endless resources from dinner recipes to parenting tips. Whatever I’m facing can be shared with everyone I love so easily and simply, whenever I want or need.
That hilarious thing my three-year-old just uttered—shared! The desperate cry for any friend to bring me a gallon of milk and a bottle of wine so I don’t have to fight the unruly littles at the store alone—posted. And answered (whew)! The joy of my husband returning after a lengthy temporary duty assignment—shouted from the proverbial rooftops!
While I appreciate this ability to connect to so many friends and family across miles and time zones, I mourn the loss of one-on-one connections made face-to-face or on the phone or in a handwritten letter. It takes little effort to type whatever I’m facing in a status bar, to throw my heart out there and cast my net wide then wait to see who notices and responds.
It’s Not Comparison, It’s the Space Between Us
It’s not comparison that makes social media so trying, as folks often claim, but that the more connected we are online, the more we realize how we lack connection in “real life.” The influx of online relationships and fellowship brings our loneliness outside that screen into sharp focus.
I want to stop throwing my life at a virtual wall, waiting to see who will notice. I want to stop posting for everyone at once, instead of talking one-on-one. Or, at the very least, I want to find a healthier balance between fostering friendships electronically and nurturing those friendships personally.
Social media isn’t going away, and few of us have plans to go off the grid. But we can combine our social media use with a return to traditional methods of correspondence. Let’s pick up a pen and write a letter instead of typing away at a keyboard. Let’s go to the store, pick out the perfect gift, and package it ourselves instead of clicking on the screen and having it shipped directly.
Letters have long provided a glimpse into others’ lives and customs. We better understand history through the personal accounts of those who lived through it. What will our correspondence today—or lack thereof—tell the generations to come? I fear it will show my children and grandchildren that I was too busy, too self-absorbed, too wrapped up in my phone or computer to be bothered with fostering the relationships I claim to cherish.