Originally published on TEDxWilmington.com
Some of you here know that I lost my grandmother in February and that we had been pen pals for more than twenty years. What you may not know is that our relationship deepened 100% because of that paper letter exchange. She was severely hard of hearing growing up and my memories of her are peppered with the sound of her hearing aids screeching from feedback because she had them turned up so high. My five cousins had siblings they fought with and through it learned to speak up for what they wanted and to be heard when it counted. I was a sensitive only child that was intimidated by all of that, and thus my grandmother knew my cousins better than she knew me for many years, because I was so quiet around her and we didn’t know how to reach one another.
When I went away to college and she sent me the first letter there, suddenly I had a way to fully communicate the all of me. Our relationship became very vibrant and rich through an exchange that finally allowed me to be fully seen and heard. And, being six states away, having a letter come through the mail to me felt like getting a message in a bottle. Sitting with it in my hands felt like a hug. Seeing her handwriting and reading it with her voice in my head felt like a kiss on my homesick heart.
I think about children today who only have email at their fingertips; an oxymoron because what do they actually touch? When communication is via popcorn text message and Instagram photo caption and emotions are summed up by animated gifs and emojis, how much authentic communication is actually happening? But what I really think about are the sensitive children who are having trouble connecting with others in their very family and are missing out on developing connected and meaningful relationships, are missing out on being truly seen and heard, are missing out on bonding with another generation of their own family.
I invite you to celebrate National Letter Writing Day with me on Friday, December 7th and write a letter to someone near or far in your life. It could even be to someone who lives right under the same roof as you! I’m talking a letter, not just a card, on a piece of paper, more than two paragraphs long. Fold it up, seal it up in an envelope, put a stamp on it, and send it through the mail. Tell me about it, if you want. firstname.lastname@example.org
Letter writing causes even the busiest and most frenetic of minds to slow down and think through concepts and thoughts with great consideration. According to an article published by the Guardian, “Pens and keyboards bring into play very different cognitive processes. ‘Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills – feeling the pen and paper, moving the writing implement, and directing movement by thought,’ says Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva. ‘Children take several years to master this precise motor exercise: you need to hold the scripting tool firmly while moving it in such a way as to leave a different mark for each letter.’
Operating a keyboard is not the same at all: all you have to do is press the right key. It is easy enough for children to learn very fast, but above all the movement is exactly the same whatever the letter. ‘It’s a big change,’ says Roland Jouvent, head of adult psychiatry at Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. ‘Handwriting is the result of a singular movement of the body, typing is not.”
Letter writing helps develop and reinforce vocabulary and language skills, creativity and humor through metaphor creation, and delivers dopamine to the nervous system that lasts much longer than hearing a text alert or seeing a red heart indicator on an app. Letter writing has been described as natural ritalin and natural prozac. It also helps one deal better with difficult times. And receiving a letter to read: the same. The connecting from the brain to eye to hand to pen to paper is a cognitive one that delivers a host of long term benefits in the act itself, and when practiced regularly can even become spiritual, meditative, divine. You are present and therefore become a channel between the subconscious and conscious, letter writing is a cleansing therapy and a zen art. And once all of the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits are added up.. there’s more.
Letter writing helps a mentally sharp ninety year old widowed man who can’t walk anymore and has been left to exist the rest of his days in a dismal nursing home feel alive, seen, heard, thought of, cared for, and like he matters. It helps a quiet woman a third his age connect to him and ask him all the questions about his countless adventures through life. It could help a child gain insight into world history and geography and economics and politics and all things romance. It could help a parent connect with an estranged daughter and make amends. It could take a new romance to the next level. It could help a prisoner feel like a person who counts again. It could help a child grow into a special bonded relationship with a grandmother that will shine on in her heart which will spill onto all those around her long after the ashes have been laid to rest. I’ve seen it all happen.
Those conversations, even if they are not cross generational but peer to peer, will never have the same quality in the context of an Facebook message or a Snapchat story. They will hardly have the lasting power and the artifact quality. They will hardly have the gravity, the connection, and they certainly will not do much to develop the cognitive, educational skills, and deliver the long term positive physiological benefits to which letter writing lends itself. Handwriting letters does something the keyboard and tapping letters on a smartphone touch screen will never, ever be able to do.
See Alessandra Nicole’s TEDx talk HERE.