In a dark and dusty corner of the garage is a box. The box is old, with a Pinnacle Orchards logo on top and a shipment date of December 1966. Someone in Jacksonville, FL, received fruit from Oregon that holiday season. In its 58 years, the box has housed an array of items, as shown from the scribbled handwriting on top. Decorations, at one time. Household items during another. But now the box holds letters.
They aren’t mine, of course. They belong to my dad. He used to call it his “box of love letters.” And, growing up, he would tell me (with so much excitement in his voice): “When you’re old enough, I’ll let you go through my box.” He spoke about his box as if it contained the wonders of the world, or the secrets of a forgotten past that I’d be privy to with adulthood.
Now that I know what is inside the box, I’d say he was right.
When I first opened the box I expected to find letters from old lovers, the stuff that daughters really shouldn’t read about their dads. What I found instead were snippets of the formative phases of his life, immortalized on paper. Such as his selective service registration card, dated the week of his 18th birthday in the mid 1960’s, a few years before the draft. I found a newspaper article with a photo of him playing guitar at a Young Life gathering, accompanied by letters written to him about the struggles of spiritual growth during college and thanking him for his mentorship. I learned that a woman named Jeanne could have loved him in 1974 but he was not ready to settle down. Then, once he had settled down, my parents moved overseas, where they received letters in abundance from their family about life back home.
I stopped receiving letters when I was roughly 14 years old.
During that time, America Online was all the rage and emails and instant messenger soon became the new and exciting way to communicate with friends. We’d run home from school, eager to connect to this thing called the Internet with that nostalgic yet terrifying dial-up noise that sounded like the signals of an alien invasion. A couple years later, in high school, I received my first cell phone. And during my first year of college I joined a new website called Facebook which, at the time, was still restricted to university students.
We all know how this story turned out because here we are, ten years later. The past decade has brought endless changes in the way we interact with each other and the way we do business. No one can argue that technology has altered the global landscape in incredible ways, increasing efficiency and interconnectedness. At the same time, our world has become less personal as a result of communication being predominately electronic and increasingly concise.
Back to the box: Now I’m not saying I don’t have a box of my own. But my collection of sentimental items consists more of objects than words, because once I reached the age where my soul started evolving in big ways, so did the world. Sure, as a society we still exchange birthday cards and thank you notes, and even the occasional handwritten letter if the situation or person calls for it. But hardcopy documents no longer serve as a mainstream form of communication; they are reserved for unique occasions. In order to fill an entire box with letters of substance—letters that truly say something—we’d have to print them.
Something else has happened, something that is more significant. What we share has changed. We aren’t honest anymore. And by honesty, I really mean vulnerability… the stuff that makes us human. We have experienced a shift in our perceptions of how emotionally authentic we can be with each other. Our preference for electronic communication means that our words will be diluted whether we want them to or not. Psychologically, we are unable to connect with emails as strongly as we do with words on paper. The times may have changed the way we communicate, but they have not yet changed our needs. And this creates some substantial implications for the future, although we may fall short in understanding what these implications will be.
Although we depend on the conveniences of modern day technology, I believe that a universal sense of nostalgia resides underneath. Many people have a loved one’s dusty box of letters stashed away in their garage or attic, a box they consider a treasured portal to the past. We don’t know what the future of communication will look like. The “box of letters” could become a distant memory. Or, maybe, we will have learned the beauty of keeping the old with the new, of merging the conveniences of technology with our very human need for something more.
** Because I’m such a believer in the power of handwritten letters, I want to send a personalized letter of inspiration to three of you this holiday season. Simply share this post or follow me on twitter here, *then* be sure to leave a comment below or message me on the contact page so I know you’re interested & have your name for the drawing. Deadline is Friday at 5pm EST. Afterward, I’ll reach out to the winners to get a mailing address and a few facts so I can craft something special. Bonus points for those of you who subscribe via RSS/email on the sidebar of my blog page. Happy Holidays!