Pen Pals Should Make A Comeback — The Time’s Never Been Better
Loneliness is an epidemic that predates Covid by a longshot, and it’ll outlast it, too. To outsmart it, we need to get creative.
There was a time when loneliness was a rare condition for a human being to find themselves in. For most of human history, our species has lamented the opposite of loneliness — escaping one’s fellow man was a luxury, and solitude was considered a thing of great beauty.
Humans are a social species. We are gregarious by nature, and this has been an accepted fact in every tribe and society the world over.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
In days past, people lived close together by default. It was simply necessary for survival that one share their home, their territory, and their resources with a larger group. Later, when people were able to spread out and live more independent lives, they still spent most of their time among others.
When they were divided, they wrote letters to one another — even if they were worlds apart, and even if those letters could take months to arrive. It was the simple act of reaching out and seeking a connection that mattered. This is who we are.
A (Very) Brief History Of Letters
In typical human fashion, a customer complaint represents what is commonly considered the oldest letter ever written. Carefully etched into a stone tablet and peppered with the familiar tone of a dissatisfied client, the cuneiform text represents one man’s attempt to connect with another — albeit in a less than affectionate way.
Still, if one expands their definition of what a “letter” is, older examples exist. A poem etched in stone might represent the oldest love letter and the oldest love poem we’ve found, and it details the experience of infatuation and love between a priestess and her king 4000 years ago.
The ability to read, write, and send letters has generally been a privilege of the free and wealthy. That has changed in our modern era of widespread literacy and electronic correspondence — and now, with the onset of an isolating pandemic and a plethora of mental health crises, we need to use these tools of connection more than ever.
The Other Pandemic — Mounting Loneliness In An Over-Connected World
One thing I feel compelled to note in this piece is the oft-forgotten difference between mere connection and true intimacy between people. The former is important, to be sure, but represents our largely surface-level interactions. The latter is where our social need is fulfilled in the way it’s meant to be filled.
We can connect with more people than ever before. Each day you have the ability to meet hundreds of new people at the click of a button. So why is loneliness one of the biggest mental health crises of our time?
The answer lies in the experience of true intimacy vs. basic connections. These are two different categories and should be thought of as such if we are to understand how loneliness interacts with our overall health and quality of life.
Intimacy is human connection plus consistent, long term interaction with another person. It’s more than the sharing of pleasantries — it’s also the sharing of emotions, thoughts, and worldviews. In spite of our multitudinous connections online, most of us aren’t getting that deeper sense of human bonding that intimacy represents.
With the rise of apps like Tinder and Bumble, people wondered if romantic intimacy would become easier than ever to find and foster. Unfortunately, the opposite has been most people’s experience with online dating. We’ve become more aware than ever of the difference between physical connection and emotional, lasting intimacy thanks to the modern dating experience.
It turns out that there’s no amount of automation or digital ease to replace the effort that intimacy requires.
Letters Represent The Active Choice To Pursue Intimacy
Knowing that real intimacy requires effort is the first step in achieving it. Think of it this way — if you never actively try to see a friend or even set aside the time to talk to them, how deep is that friendship really going to be? And if you never make the effort to talk to, see, or connect with anyone, how many relationships are you really going to have in your life?
At times like this, when in-person friendships aren’t possible and we as a society have moved away from phone calls, letters could be the most effective way to get the intimacy so many of us need right now.
Pen pals can be people you’ve met in person — or even known and loved for decades — or complete “internet strangers.” All you need is two email addresses with living people on either side of them and two people who are committed to typing out a letter at some interval.
It’s the commitment that matters. Coincidentally, it also seems to be commitment that rests at the center of most people’s intimacy problems. As a collective society, we’re busier than ever — many of us tend to push socialization onto a backburner as soon as work enters the picture, or tiredness, or any number of other factors.
“A text here and there should suffice for letting people know we care about them,” we think. Maybe, but it won’t bring you the kind of deep, satisfying intimacy we’ve evolved to need and crave as homo sapiens. Without some level of committed effort, the interaction will only be a placeholder for your relationship.
Longer forms of correspondence create the space and demand the commitment level that allows two people to forge an intimate relationship with one another. By choosing to write to someone, you are opening up the possibility of a more profoundly meaningful bond.
This remains true whether or not the bond exists off-screen (or paper).
Pen Pals Occupy A Sacred Social Space That’s Been Largely Abandoned
The brand of intimacy letters provide is one we’ve largely begun to lose in our fast-paced modern era. As we search for solutions to the current pandemic — both that of the coronavirus and the loneliness epidemic which took root years ago — the tradition of pen-pals could represent an overlooked cure.
My suggestions for making the most of this amazing experience are as follows:
- Make sure you’re writing long letters, at least 500 words or more
- Set specific time intervals for your correspondence (1x a week, each 2nd Tuesday, etc.)
- Try not to take on too many pen pals — you won’t be as inclined to keep up with any of them and the experience could be cheapened
- Archive all of your send and received letters so you can look at them again later
Writing to my pen pals has been life-changing on so many levels for me. I feel I’m more able to express my deep but otherwise “uncategorized” thoughts, learn from my pals, see more of the world, and experience a richer emotional life than I did before.
In these times of isolation and stress, writing letters has been a Godsend that I will be forever grateful for. Pick a pal and start writing if you want to see these benefits and many more!