“It’s funny; in this era of e-mail and voice mail and all those things that even I did not grow up with, a plain old paper letter takes on amazing intimacy.” – Elizabeth Kostova
Getting the mail is one of the mundane activities in life. The daily trip to the mailbox usually doesn’t ignite much excitement. Flyers, bills, junk mail and other pieces of insignificant correspondence are some of the things we pull out each day. Every now and then we might experience surprise and delight when a handwritten letter is buried in the pile. Who doesn’t enjoy the surprise of receiving a letter especially addressed to them, paired with the suspense of opening it? There is delight in how it looks and what it will say. Pen to paper serves as a tangible, endearing witness to a relationship.
Letter-writing has a long history dating back to Persian Queen Atossa, who is attributed as writing the first letter around 500 B.C. Generations since have followed this simple activity, pouring their hearts out with two essentials — a writing instrument and pieces of paper. Over the years, parents have written letters to their children offering words of wisdom along with lessons for each milestone, lovers have exchanged letters expressing their deep emotions especially during periods of separation or war time and revolutionaries have scribbled on torn pieces of paper to inspire thoughts and actions. Prior to the digital age, letters served as the primary vehicle to dispense information. For decades, our world has relied on letters, but technology has put the hidden value of a handwritten letter at risk.
Life has dramatically changed with the advancement of technology. The rapid speed at which analog electronic and mechanical devices have been transformed to digital technology began in the 1980s and is ongoing. Information overload is an understatement. With every advancement in society, something is put at risk. While technology can perform at amazing speeds and the level of production far surpasses what was possible prior to the digital age, some things such as the art of letter-writing are in jeopardy of being lost. When technology allows us to send 23 billion text messages a day and all that is needed is a device to rapidly dispense a message, why is letter-writing still important?
Annie Carter came to live with the Potter family when Beatrix was about seventeen years old. Carter was hired to serve as a companion for her and teach her German. Since the two young women were close in age, Carter being only two years older than Potter, they formed a close bond very quickly. Even when Carter’s work for the Potter family concluded, they stayed in touch. Carter went on to start a family, sharing her experiences with Potter through letters. After Potter found out about Carter’s son, Noel, contracting scarlet fever, Potter wanted to do something to entertain the young boy who was recovering. And so what started with a letter to cheer a young boy became the famous “Tales of Peter Rabbit,” serving as a way to cheer generations ever since.
September 2, 1893
My dear Noel,
I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.
Benefits of Writing Letters
Focus is required when writing a letter. Short messages such as texts or emails do not require the sustained, undivided attention that is needed for letter-writing. Information is processed better when one sits down to write a letter vs. sending a quick text on the run. Researchers Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer published a study, “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard,” comparing students who took notes on laptops vs. students who took notes longhand. Data from three experiments concluded that students using laptops for note-taking performed worse on conceptual questions. Secondly, letter-writing improves handwriting and might even serve as an avenue for young children to learn cursive writing. It instills pride in their written product. Additionally, the activity of writing a letter strengthens language skills and helps in creative expression, both of which cut across all areas of the curriculum.
Stress relief and healing
Letter-writing can serve as a way to process emotions and work through difficult things. Social worker and author, Sherry Amatenstein, encourages her patients to write letters to themselves and others. “Writing is a healing act,” according to Amatenstein. A handwritten letter, similar to exercise and meditation, can be a calming process, according to Robert Van Den Bergh, director at “Scribeless.” A retired teacher commented, “Of all the mementos I cherish from my time teaching, it is the letters the students or their parents have written me that I have saved, long after the small gifts or tokens of appreciation have been gone.” This same teacher continued by sharing that she has a good friend who is suffering from a debilitating disease, and once a month she writes her a long letter. When her friend is feeling down, she re-reads these letters, which is good medicine for the soul. Again, the staying power of the written word.
Letters are tangible pieces of real life. They don’t allow for a simple click of “delete” such as texts and emails. A letter can be held in hand for years later, allowing the receiver to keep the memories close to the heart with each reading.
Letter-writing connects people and strengthens bonds. During the pandemic, interactions were limited in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19. While this was essential for physical safety, the isolation created many negative impacts on mental health.
Dr. Dawn Carr, associate professor of sociology and faculty associate at the Pepper Institute for Aging, recognizes how the feelings of isolation contribute to poor mental health outcomes, especially in the elderly. Carr said her mission is to “identify and leverage factors that bolster older adults’ ability to remain healthy and active as long as possible.” So why not encourage your children to write to their grandparents, or other family or elderly friends of the family who may be far away, or even close?
Pen pal programs all rooted in letter-writing are one way that bridged connections between generations during the pandemic, including in the DMV. For one fourth grade class at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Silver Spring, Md., what started as a simple Pen pal programs all rooted in letter-writing are one way that bridged connections between generations during the pandemic, including in the DMV. letter to residents at Brooke Grove Retirement Village in Sandy Spring, Md. grew into a yearlong exchange of letters during the height of the pandemic. These letters brought such joy to students and residents both. The culmination was an end-of-the-school-year car parade when students met their special friends. It all began with a simple letter!
Touching a heart
Letter-writing, unlike disposable digital communications, provides a lasting treasure. In his book, “The Book of Charlie,” author David Von Drehle detailed the life of Dr. Charlie White, who lived to be 109 years old. What was nearby when Charlie took his last breath? A letter his mom had written 87 years prior for his college graduation, and one Charlie cherished his entire life.
My Blessed Boy, I just feel I must send you a little love letter on this your graduation day as I cannot be with you in person.
Without a doubt, letter-writing is still important today, even with all the technological advances in our society. A message sent through a device can never compare to the treasure of a hand- written letter. The benefits of letter-writing are many, especially for our children who spend so much time behind screens. A letter is a precious gift that lives on for generations.