The Lost Art of Letter Writing


By Carolyn Shields

What can be overstated: More than anything, I love postcards. I love sending them from my travels--pasting magazine clippings, writing nothing but a Bible verse that was on my heart at that destination, or, you know, writing in Elvin.

But what can't be overstated: is that simple joy that arises within us when we open our tin mailboxes (or sigh, unromantic) and find an envelope handwritten and addressed to us. Why? Because someone was thinking of us. And that's a beautiful truth, and that white envelope and the contents within its belly is a beautiful proof.

But this fading art is being overshadowed by instant communication. I could text my friend in Austria at any minute, but receiving a week old letter from her, scrawled in some train station, meant so much more. Yes, I had my penpal from Sri Lanka's phone number, but why struggle with broken English when her tone was so eloquently put between differing international margins?

At times I view journaling as writing a long letter to no one, or to some ambiguous version of myself in the Future, but when pen is put to paper and an address is scribbled at the top, meaning is shifted. An intention of focused interest comes into play. The letter doesn't have to be a delicate amalgamation of poetry and prose, or the baby of Mr. Shakespeare and Mrs. Shakespeare-Bronte. More often than not, I end up doodling in a Prince Charming with a speech bubble or something equally deep.

In the Journal of Clinical Psychology, a recent study revealed that those who frequently send thank you letters or notes with positive contents experience an increase of happiness and life satisfaction. In this study, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their state of happiness, and then were asked to send out two letters of gratitude every two weeks for two months. By the end of this study, the participants who sent the letters reported a significantly increased sense of well-being whereas the half who did not send out letters reported no change. Researchers concluded that letter writing decreases symptoms of depression.

St. Francis Xavier would confirm this, too. A globe trotting missionary whose ultimate resting place was China, St. Francis was often on a different continent than his friends. But it was ok. Even though their only form of communication between Rome, China, India, and across the Oceans were letters, they all relied on each other for support. St. Francis would kneel while reading the contents of each letter he received, and he would carefully cut out the signatures from his friends' letters to carry with him, "as a treasure."

I shall never forget you.
— St. Ignatius Loyola to St. Francis Xavier

If distance is separating you from someone you love, sure, yeah, hit them up on Skype, Facebook, text, call, facetime, and so on...but maybe just once, consider starting your conversation on paper. Put a stamp on it. And wait for a response.