My grandfather keeps files of his life. Earlier this month, when I interviewed him, he pulled them out and used each folder as an outline to tell stories from his childhood, young adulthood, and more recent past.
The most helpful items were letters, typed or handwritten in script on stationery and cards. He shared letters from former music students, individuals in the churches where he played organ and directed choirs and, at one point, he pulled out letters he had written to my grandmother when he was in the hospital with tuberculosis.
We didn’t have time to delve into that last group, so this week, my grandfather (who is almost 85) emailed me and recounted events and emotions from that period of his life, about half a century ago. Every detail came from his letters.
Letters keep a record. Not just of dates and events, but also of thoughts and ideas. Before the Internet, before the telephone, before the telegraph, anyone who left home for a period of time wrote their loved ones letters that not only shared their experiences, but also their thoughts, questions, fears, and triumphs. When a letter arrived, entire families would gather to hear about their son or brother’s life out West or at college in Massachusetts.
Now, we’re living in the communication age. A child stays at a friend’s house and calls or texts home to say good night. Parents and grandparents keep up with their offspring via Skype and FaceTime. College friends have no excuse not knowing where each other are geographically or professionally because it’s all on Facebook or LinkedIn, just keystrokes away.
Letters are not only unnecessary — they’re expensive: to send one costs 49 cents, not to mention paper and the time spent ensuring each word is legible.
It’s also the age of instant communication, and an instant is about how long we keep our conversations. Think SnapChat. Think of the strings of texts you delete to free up memory on your phone. Think of the video chats that function like face-to-face conversations, nothing recorded unless someone’s bugged.
These things aren’t archived somewhere for posterity to see later as they try to learn about their namesake or great-great-grandparents. But if you compared those interchanges (okay, exclude SnapChat and two-thirds of your texts) to what you post on Facebook and Instagram (posts which are kept indefinitely), which would be more interesting to future generations?
I had several pen pals when I was in elementary and middle school (late 90s, early 2000s), and I remember making an effort to share something of value in each letter I wrote. Usually, this meant sharing something I’d learned in school or a book I’d recently read. I remember bonding with one of my pen pals over a shared love for Nancy Drew and writing; I remember connecting with another through our mutual trials in piano.
A boring letter talked about clothes, to-do lists (they existed in fourth grade), and all the activities one of us had going on, with no aspect of growth, trial, or triumph.
Most Facebook and Instagram posts contain the makings of a boring letter.
Think about it: how religiously do we record our meals via Instagram and our workouts in a smartphone app and our busyness on Facebook, yet, we don’t record our thoughts?
Thoughts, ideas, life-changing (or shifting) experiences are more important than what you ate, how far you ran, or how much you have to do. Every animal eats, moves, and in some sense works, but we, humanity, have more going on inside of us. It’s important that we share it, not just in the moment — right here, right now, via Skype, SnapChat, or text — but also in some long-term form that won’t just disappear someday: a blog, a journal, a tweet, a Facebook post. A letter.
When we look back at history, common meals and exercise routines are fun pieces of trivia, but what catches our attention is life — where body, mind, and spirit work together in a human being who moves, breathes, thinks, wonders, postulates. We remember and love Anne Frank because she wrote her heart. I can know what my grandfather thought in that hospital bed in the 50s because he wrote my grandmother letters.
If you are human, do posterity a favor: record your thoughts, your worries and anxieties, your triumphs and failures. Keep a log of your life, because even if your memory doesn’t falter, eventually you will. And what’s left inside, we won’t be able to know.