The Art of Writing a Letter

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

When I receive a gift or someone does something particularly nice for me, I try to be sure to write them a thank you note.  When I’m invited to another minister’s ordination, I try to take the time to write them a letter of congratulations and blessing.  And at the holidays, I try to send cards to family and close friends, wishing them happiness and peace for the coming year.  You may have noticed that I used the word “try” in each of those sentences, because I have to admit that sometimes I don’t always do those things, in spite of my good intentions.

From an early age — from whenever I could write, I guess — my parents had me write thank you notes for every birthday present and Christmas gift I received.  I hated having to write them.  Part of that was writing what seemed like the same thing over and over again: “Thank you for the _____. It’s very _____. I shall _____ with it and think of you.”  But I think that writing those notes did something to instill in me the importance of being grateful for what we have, of appreciating the generosity of others.

I’ve been told more than once in the last few years that someone was surprised to receive a card or note that I wrote by hand and mailed to them.  It’s definitely becoming a lost art.  E-mail can be quicker to write and is certainly quicker to receive.  Some might still prefer to pick up the telephone, while others would post a message to another’s Facebook page, but with so many ways to communicate, it’s not surprising that we keep hearing about how the US Postal Service is in trouble.  Standalone USPS mailboxes have gone the way of newspaper vending machines and the passenger pigeon.

The Internet is blamed for many things, including the demise of both the hand-written letter and (so some are claiming) organized religion, but perhaps the writing was on the wall when Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first wireless signal across the Atlantic.  I suspect a changing culture has as much to do with it as new technology, though.  I remember that my grandmother was quite comfortable picking up the telephone for extended conversations with family and friends, but would still write lengthy letters and mail them.  And there were surely times when my grandmother would send a letter to someone and then call them before they’d actually received the letter!

love lettersFor all that the mailed letter is essentially obsolete as a necessary means of person-to-person communication, given how many other ways there are to communicate, perhaps it still has uses in support of other purposes.

Four years ago, Hannah Brencher was riding the New York subway, fresh out of college and feeling at a loss for what to do with her life.  Unable to come to grips with her sense of purpose, she felt alone in one of the most crowded places on Earth.  So she began writing letters to the other people on the subway, people she didn’t know but who seemed like they could do with the encouragement of knowing that someone, anyone, cared about them, even if anonymously.  Brencher began leaving letters all over the city, and as she blogged about what she was doing, she received requests for her “love letters” from all around the world.  In just nine months, she wrote over four hundred letters to people in need of reading them, and she found that they healed her, too.  In a world with so many means of instant communication, Brencher discovered a deep craving for the “old-fashioned” hand-written letter.

When was the last time you received in the mail, addressed to you personally, a letter or thank you note or greeting card “just because” from another person?  When was the last time you sent one?  What could happen if, once in a while, each of us spent a few minutes and the cost of a stamp to put into words some measure of gratitude or compassion or thoughtfulness?  It might not save the US Postal Service, but it might save us.

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About acmillard

Andrew serves as minister to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in Newport News, Virginia.
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2 Responses to The Art of Writing a Letter

  1. Rosalee Pfister says:

    This is so true! Thanks for this well written essay delving into this subject that is so quickly becoming lost. I was recently annoyed with all the mistakes I was making as I hand wrote some notes to myself, my hands so out of practice and much more used to the tapping on a keyboard. I continue to have a long list of people to write in the back of my mind. I must say, however, that not getting to writing these special letters to folks can give me stress as my good intentions become more of an internal battle with no good intentions ever sent!! Your words are inspiring, and so true. There is something about pouring out your soul on paper, catching up, that brings a sense of connection to someone you love dearly but maybe are not close to anymore. I love your grandmother writing the letter and then calling! I so have done that. Definitely taking the time to write a special note or thank you can make a great impact on someone. You must see the movie Her. It seemed like a strange movie of a man in the future falling in love with its operating system, but it is really quite deep addressing how disconnect we are becoming and our dependency on electronic devises for our sense of connection. The twist is that although this is sometime in the future, his job is that of writing love letters!

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