As we returned from our trip to Europe this week, I found myself thinking back to my first trip abroad, when I was finishing college in 1993. Back then, the world seemed a slightly larger place. There was no World Wide Web or international cell phone usage. In fact, there was barely any telephone use–at least among the group of American students I lived with in Florence, Italy. During the semester I was in Florence, I called home just twice: once to let my parents know I had arrived, and once to wish them a happy Thanksgiving.
Otherwise, I communicated with my family the old fashioned way–through handwritten letters, most of which I still have. At the time, these were sent via air mail. We bought sheets of special blue paper marked “par avion” that were designed to fold up into their own envelopes and so reduce weight (and, hence, postage). Essentially, you were writing to your loved one on the inside of a blue envelope that they could unfold completely once they received it. This gave the letters a slightly funky–and fittingly exotic–feel.
Of course, it also increased their value. Or, rather, the relative rarity of the letters, and the inevitable delays between them, made each of them matter more than any mere email or text message does today. And that comparative weight seemed to deserve its own format, which the blue “par avion” paper appropriately provided.
Today I type my messages–including this missive–into a cell phone, and they exist in virtual space. On the one hand, this means that they can theoretically last forever and be accessible to hundreds of people at once (in the form of, say, a blog post). On the other hand, it means that they are lost amid a ceaseless swirl of everything perpetually arriving all at once–and deemed special due to the “likes” and “shares” they receive rather than due to their own weight and color and feel, not to mention the distance they have traveled.
Back in the day, the care it took to craft and deliver letters made them comparatively precious. Today, every e-message runs the risk of appearing careless–as just one more note in the continuous virtual cacophony. Even as modern communication technologies have reduced the distance between us, they have reduced the inherent “per capita” value of the messages we send. Understanding this implicitly, we typically take less time to compose them–investing less effort in updates we suspect our recipients will spend little time reading anyway. The net effect is to drive down real reflection on both ends. In effect, we communicate far less much more frequently.
Some wise person once noted that “half of all music is silence.” The pauses between notes, in other words, aren’t just gaps; they are essential breathing space that helps to distinguish music from noise. Something similar is true of communications: piling many notes on top of each other reduces the resonance of each–and at least runs the danger of ruining the song.
This is not to say we should stop texting or emailing or instagramming or whatever. But it is to suggest that there’s value in writing letters that consist of complete paragraphs rather than a few characters or pixels. That value lies in discovering what you really have to say, sharing a developed idea with someone else, and potentially deepening the understanding between you–both of the world and of each other. As I’m trying to do here.
Just something to consider on your travels, both literal and figurative. Wherever those take you …
I love you,