“We write to taste life twice”

Mark Zuckerberg looks forward to the day when the camera, rather than the text box, will be the main way we share on social networks. What would that mean for the future of words and the experience of writing?

When I read Zuckerberg’s comment, I had already been thinking about how less rich our communication is now that we so rarely write letters to each other anymore. Handwritten letters were on a list of objects and ideas in American Magazine last November that are “teetering on the edge of extinction” (along with cursive handwriting and proper grammar!) I realize that communication consists of a myriad of nonverbal elements, and that a picture is often “worth a thousand words”, but do we value words, especially written words, enough anymore?printed words

In the American Magazine piece, Amy Burroughs writes that letters have been a rich historical source of “information about the way people lived, loved, learned, fought, created, and died…In their own words, in unguarded candor and confidence, letters reveal the day-to-day experience of real individuals.” I know from my own experience that I communicate differently in writing than I do when speaking. I am more likely to say what’s in my heart and to express my emotions, and less likely to worry about sounding “cool.”

When I was a young adult, I moved across the country a couple of times, leaving friends and family behind. In those days shortly before the internet exploded onto the scene, we wrote letters back and forth to stay in touch. Two years ago, when I was moving yet again, I spent some time going through a huge box of those letters that I had saved. The thing that struck me the most was how thoughtful all of my friends were. They spent a considerable amount of time, and care, writing their letters, and it shows. The letters are smart, funny and clever. Many of them are several pages long. Some of them are from younger people I worked with, which touches me now, realizing that I must have had some impact on their lives.

I also have the privilege of being in possession of much older letters, some written by distant family members back in the 1800s, others by parents, grandparents and cousins. The letter that my father-in-law wrote as he shipped out of New York harbor on his way to fight in Europe during World War II is especially poignant. He reflects on his entire life as he departs, not knowing when he will see his family again. More quotidian are the letters from my mother-in-law to her mother while she was living in Toronto and expecting her first child (my husband). They detail her struggles with making friends, her shopping and decorating of their apartment, and of course her pregnancy, including the choice of baby names.

jrcletterThe letters are a way for me to know people I never met, or to know the younger selves of people I only knew when they were older. The letters sometimes reflect an optimism that was missing later in their lives. Often the change from optimism to discouragement is recorded in the letters, as with the relative who between the 1830s and 1840s lost 11 of 12 children, divorced his wife, and thought his brother had forgotten him. I’m fascinated by these people, and I wonder if my children and grandchildren might feel the same if they ever come across my old letters and my younger self.

The thing is – I have a lot of old photos too – pictures that might be posted on Facebook if they were taken today. But they only tell me so much. Sometimes I don’t even know the names of the people in the photos, or when exactly they were taken. That wouldn’t be a problem with Facebook tags, but still…what was going on when the photos were taken? What was in their minds, their hearts? We just won’t know without the words to go with them.

People want very much to be heard, not just seen, by others. They want to tell their stories. When Burroughs speaks about the “unguarded candor and confidence” of letter writers, it’s the desire to be heard and known, a desire for intimate retelling, that inspires it. Or as Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

 

 

 

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What was your first social network? (Hint: Not Facebook)

A baby in the arms of her father – with her mom looking on – is forming her first and most important social network. Her network expands day by day, babybecoming more complex, as she is introduced to siblings, babysitters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Soon, she starts forming networks separate from the family – friends, neighbors, teachers and coaches. Eventually she has networks that encompass jobs, community and the entire digital world.

Traditional social networks give us several kinds of support.  Tangible support includes things like money, a place to live or help with chores; informational support includes advice and instruction; emotional support covers love, trust, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. When we’re young, we rely on our parents for all three kinds of support; but as we mature, we look to other people in our network to provide some or most of these things, and we learn not to rely on any one person for everything.

Social connection is vitally important for health and well-being, but “connect” may be one of the most overused words of the last decade. We connect on Facebook, Linked In,Twitter and blogs; we connect with old friends, strangers, and people around the world; we connect at home, at work, on the subway and as we walk. But in our rush to connect with everyone, all the time, everywhere we go, do we make it all seem too facile? Do we forget the effort that goes into forging strong and lasting bonds?

It’s easy to click the “Like” button, but not so easy to engage with people day after day, through good times and bad, in the face of disagreements and hurts. It’s easy to send a text or an email, but it takes time to pick up the phone or meet in person to iron out differences. As our digital networks expand, are our in-person networks contracting?

The family network – our first – in many ways bears the brunt of our relational laziness. Maybe it’s because we don’t have the same fear of losing the people in that network. We learned early that we could rely on them, so we don’t worry about paying attention to them and cultivating the relationships. We take them for granted. Worse, we don’t mend the little tears and breaks in the fabric of the relationships, because we don’t think we need to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the past two weeks, I’ve been both to a family funeral and on a family vacation. Each one reminded me that families are messy and complicated organisms! At the funeral, a sister stood on one side of the room not speaking to her siblings. No one even knows for sure why she’s not speaking to them. On every family vacation, I see how hard it is for everyone not to slip back into their habitual roles: good child, bad child; provocateur, peacemaker; the bossy one, the passive one. No wonder we want to be with our “easier” social networks instead!

The novelist Doug Coupland has written, “People are pretty forgiving when it comes to other people’s families. The only family that ever horrifies you is your own.” The truth is, though, that unless you have a truly terrible family, they are the people who will be there for you over the long haul, the ones you’ll be able to call in the middle of the night with a crisis, and the ones you’ll want to share your successes with. Sometimes you feel like you can’t live with them, but it’s almost always better than living without them.

My intention for the new year? To pay attention to my family, to give and forgive, to listen more patiently, to judge less often and to share more meaningfully.