My youngest child, just nearing his seventh birthday, has begun writing what I like to think of as love letters. He is not an accomplished reader or writer. He is all boy – far more interested in sword fighting than in wrestling with letters which currently signify, to him, little that is particularly interesting. Yet my heart is overjoyed to see him write small tokens of his affection to each member of our family. This is how I know that, although he is not yet fully a student of words, he has learned that words are means of conveying and receiving fruitful attention and affection, of establishing and confirming relationship. He has developed a love of letters.
I recently read somewhere that I am a member of the last generation to recall life before the Internet. My personal experiences have in fact lagged behind those of many of my contemporaries: not only did I “grow up” before the Internet, but because of the places in which I lived—the Middle East and Africa—I was raised in a world where use of technology was limited; there wasn’t much on radio or TV (if I even had a TV, which wasn’t always the case); there were no copy machines, no such thing as desktop publishing; the typewriter I learned on was World War II era—gigantic, black, and heavy, and I had to sit perched upon a high stool in order to reach the keys, literally pounding upon them to strike the paper; the archaic jeep I drove as a teenager—nothing computerized yet—navigating around enormous potholes and various flora and fauna (including the odd giraffe or ostrich that might decide to cross the road) was also a relic from a bygone age, massive and cranky…it had a choke I remember learning to master before I could drive it, a thing I just had to develop a ‘feel’ for; even the use of a telephone was a luxury.
I try hard to imagine what it is like for my children, especially for my youngest, to be surrounded by easy and instantaneous contacts, information, and entertainment. There is always some means they can use to access assistance, for example—someone to text, some resource to consult, some fount of supposed wisdom from on-line dictionaries and maps to the overflowing largesse of Internet communities offering insights and answers to everything and anything under the sun. I cannot successfully imagine what it is like to have that experience as an underlying assumption of the nature of reality.
I grew up in a time when people still had to figure things out on their own, where reaching out to real live human beings for help took much more exertion than it does to hit a button on a phone. For instance, I remember being stranded once in Tanzania along a deserted dirt road as dusk settled. I did not want to be caught out once the sun set; if you have ever experienced an East African darkness, you will know why, for night falls like a thick, black, blanket—and dangers, such as the garbage-raiding hyena or even the occasional elusive panther are not mere figments of the imagination. My vehicle was stuck in a massive rut. Sixteen, and alone, I first tried pushing the vehicle out myself. When that didn’t work, I stumblingly articulated my predicament to a group of Tanzanian men who eventually happened to come walking down the road. After much awkward repetition and gesticulation on my part, they chivalrously got my car out and I was on my way. But I had to overcome my lack of sufficient knowledge of KiSwahili, my nervousness to approach people I did not know, and even my sense of fear in the face of the unknown, in order to reach out and connect.
I found myself in a similar situation in Athens, Greece not too many months later, when—due to stormy weather and a much longer boat ride than anticipated—I almost missed my flight back to Africa. Traveling on my own, I had to summon up every ounce of nerve I could manage in order to communicate with the Greek cab driver about how important it was that I get from Piraeus port to the airport as soon as possible; when he did understand my situation, he was nice enough to run red lights for me. Then I had to muster courage, and in all honesty fight off hysterics, as I approached the Al Italia personnel, down in a basement office of the Athens International Airport after the airport itself had officially shut down for the night, to convince them that I could not catch a later flight to Addis Ababa…because if I did, I’d be stuck in Ethiopia for a whole week before another flight came through to take me to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania. Once they understood, aghast, they put me on a baggage cart, waived security protocol (I think the most they did was hurriedly stamp my passport as they rushed me through the doors), and drove me out on the tarmac so that I could board my flight—which, miraculously over an hour after its departure time, was still waiting to take off.
Please don’t misunderstand. I thank the Lord for His gracious care over me in these situations, and other adventures I had growing up. I take no credit for the fact that they worked out. My point is: I was alone. I had no traveling companions. I knew no one. I had very little money. It was long before the advent of personal cell phones. I couldn’t call, text, message, post a status, or look up information on a web site. I had to figure out what to do next, gather my strength, exercise initiative, use whatever discernment I had (which I confess often was sparse), make the selection that seemed best, and physically reach out. It was divine support and the kindnesses and efforts of others that in the end I had to rely upon and give thanks for when I made it home safe and sound.
“[Y]ou never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them,” Atticus says in To Kill a Mockingbird. The experiences of my formative years are so influential that I can’t really pull it off. Even as an adult with computers on hand, a smart phone, and several sources of streaming media, I am still not able to truly relate to the world in which my youngest child is being raised. Perhaps this is anecdotal testimony to the power of early experiences. As a graduate student I was told in various psychology classes, time after time, that the most formative years in a person’s life occur well before adulthood. I am inclined to think this is, mostly, true. My experiences growing to adulthood abroad have surely left their mark. As a child, for example, I can remember rarely using the telephone. If a call needed to be made, my parents made it for me. Phone calls from the West usually only came for one reason: to communicate a major life event…generally a death. You can conclude for yourself what my gut reaction to telephones has been.
In my childhood years, the primary means of communication were face-to-face. That not being an option, they were through the written word. What a treasure: letters! The arrival of news from dear ones so far away was like Christmas. Each letter was a gift; we understood the love and attention the letters represented and carried in them. The longer the letters were, the better. And because we had not simply received them but had also written many, we knew the mental, emotional, and physical effort it had taken to prepare such gifts; we realized that the desire to reach out and touch took time and loving attention.
The child of older parents, growing up overseas, I never knew my grandparents. I remember seeing my paternal grandmother only once, and she is the only one I recall meeting. But my maternal grandmother, who had lived with my family in Iran while I was an infant, wrote to me. She kept a record of my first year of life, through which she sprinkled notes of affirmation and advice. For example, she prefaced her diary to me with the admonition that I should endeavor to be useful. I always interpreted this, not as a testimony to pragmatism, but as an expression of her understanding that human beings are blessed in order to bless others. She conveyed her love for people, and for me, through those words. And, I think she knew it would mean something to me, her sole granddaughter amidst a passel of grandsons and one who never would remember meeting her.
I treasure her notes, which connect me not only to the woman I never knew but fuse me to the past, to my roots, and to the knowledge that I came into a world in which I was cherished, in which I belonged. Her notes are evidences that cry out this truth. I rather think that for many centuries, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey might have had the same effect on the Greeks; perhaps Virgil’s Aeneid expressed it for generations of men of the west. If we read carefully, even now I think we can see it too.
Along with her letters I have stacks of others, mostly from my parents but also from friends, written to me from distant places in an era when it took several weeks for any mail to go through the international systems. Even when I was in college it took days for a letter to arrive. My mother, too, gave me letters she had written to her own mother as my mom raised her family in Tehran, far from the country of her own birth. To me, these are priceless. They are not simply chronicles of stories and experiences, not simply insights into those whom I hold dear, but artifacts of love: evidences of time, attention, thoughtfulness, devotion, well wishes, hopes, prayers, and community.
In accord with the time and place in which I grew up, during most of my formal schooling I hand wrote so much material that by the time I graduated from college I had an enormous writer’s callous on my finger. It still remains, though much reduced in size. Akin to a battle scar, it is evidence of thought painstakingly and laboriously put to paper…just as a scar is evidence of an arduous conflict survived. My hand, long immune to writer’s cramp, carries the callous as a mark of energy and determination which has been exerted, over and over again. Every formal written assignment, from laboratory reports to major theses papers, was carefully written out—knowing that an examiner’s ability to read the writing would make the difference between fulfilling requirements or failing. I understood a basic truth: it was simply the responsibility of the writer to ensure that the written words made sense and that handwriting was legible—preferably not only legible, but also beautiful to look at.
In the end, not only did it take time, concentration, and drive to write to someone, whether a friendly letter or a school essay, it also took time and attention to read such artifacts—to decipher a person’s handwriting; to accustom one’s ear to their writing voice rather than one’s own inner voice; to take the time to sit down and enter into someone else’s thoughts and experiences in a whole-hearted attempt to understand them—to meet them in the space and under the circumstances which they offered and, in effect, dictated.
What was writing, then? As the writer, the effort to communicate, to be understood and to have one’s thoughts and ideas articulated and heard, began with the incarnation of the words onto paper in a coherent, and even, ideally, physically lovely, way. The incarnation of the words had a manifold purpose: to be structured clearly both in physical appearance as well as in organization of thought. The goal of it all was to communicate and that effort to communicate included mental, emotional, and physical work: the hand that diligently, and in a disciplined way, carved out symbols of structured, intentional, thought onto paper. As the reader, it was to receive the communication; to study it, to enter into it; to welcome not only the story the writer wanted to tell, but to greet and acknowledge the writer himself.
Wendell Berry points out that, “When we reflect that ‘sentence’ means, literally, ‘a way of thinking’ (Latin: sententia) and that it comes from the Latin sentire, to feel, we realize that the concept of sentence and sentence structure are not merely grammatical or merely academic…A sentence is both the opportunity and the limit of thought—what we have to think with, and what we have to think in. It is, moreover, a feelable thought, a thought that impresses its sense not just on our understanding, but on our hearing, our sense of rhythm and proportion. It is a pattern of felt sense” (Standing by Words). Thus both the writer and the reader are engaged in a process of communication that is conceptual as well as sensory, and both can be powerful acts of love. It is loving to thoughtfully communicate with one’s neighbor and to thoughtfully receive your neighbor’s communication…not simply because there may be something pragmatically valuable in what is written, but because the writer himself is of value.
I learned to love words because those who wrote to me loved me and I loved them in return. My little son now loves words because he loves us.
Today all around me I see a stark, utilitarian focus in writing in this age of technology: all must be said to purpose—briefly and efficiently; effortless interaction seems the primary goal as though thoughts are like footballs that simply need punting. Writing is regarded as a chore. Often, so is reading. Extra words, like Mozart’s famous “too many notes,” are regarded as distractions, time-consuming, even burdens on the reader. “Why does Melville ply us with his dense prose so packed with allusions? That is so boring,” I hear my students complain. “Why does Tolstoy carry on endlessly chasing one description after the other? Why can’t he just cut to the chase?” “Why does Tolkien play at length with interwoven plot lines in his wordy fantasies? Why can’t he get to the point?”
Why? For one thing, I think it is because ‘the point’ is not the only thing that matters.
What also matters—and perhaps matters more—is the revelation of what it means to be human contained in a person’s speech and writing, and expressed as uniquely as each individual can compose it—in his voice, in his style, in the stories he tells; a means of incarnation which is an act of love. It is true that this can be twisted, and turned terribly awry in broken renditions; but nonetheless, it is a creative work which I postulate is always rooted in some kind of amare. We should grieve the loss of this understanding as we teach our children to write, reducing speech and incarnation to such bare bones that we “drink up, as it were, all the blood of thought” (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria).
I fear we have lost the notion of writing and reading as acts of love. It often seems to me we see them solely as means of conveying and obtaining data, methods of wielding power over others, frequently as ways to receive self-affirmation by expressing or reading things which make us personally feel noticed and feel good, and on which we are not asked to work too long or too hard. People appear to feel that they are imposed upon by words. And words that are written are even more avoided than those which are spoken.
Yes, in effect, words do impose upon us. They are meant to: just as it takes effort to express ideas, feelings, and stories through words it takes a willingness to be vulnerable, to be in a way passive, and to receive the incarnations of others into one’s self; to consider, to ponder, to contemplate the humanness of other people rather than obsess about our own. It takes humility. Although C.S. Lewis wrote the following in terms of evaluating works of art, I believe his words are equally important to remember with respect to even the mundane communications we daily offer one another, especially written ones: “A work … can either be ‘received’ or ‘used’. When we ‘receive’ it we expert our senses and imagination and various other powers according the pattern set by the artist. When we ‘use’ it, we treat it as assistance for our own activities” (An Experiment in Criticism).
What have we forgotten in our habitual modern-day ‘usage’ of words? The idea that words require not just mental, but also emotional and physical work, and that this effort is made by the speaker and writer as well as the listener and reader, and that the goal is achieved in tandem, a tango: the idea that the aim of communication is relationship—to cross the gaps not just of time and distance, but to cross the chasms that exist between us. Our bodies can touch one another, but do we not also yearn to touch one another with our minds? And are we not edified by such encounters? I agree with the essayist Michel de Montaigne when he writes that “Human understanding is marvelously enlightened by daily conversation with men, for we are, otherwise, compressed and heaped up in ourselves, and have our sight limited to the length of our own noses” (Essais). This daily conversation is not simply limited to verbal discussion (and even that we appear to want to keep to brief, scheduled increments). In fact, I heartily embrace the Great Conversation, much of which is literally thick with letters.
As I consider the perspective my children have on communication—surrounded as they are by a plethora of means of instantaneous connection with others, with information, and with entertainment—I realize that this inundation of connectedness in which it takes but the tap of a screen to feel at least superficially linked, is perhaps engendering, not deeper relationship and connectedness with others, but ironically a profound sense of isolation. Never truly left to figure out let alone express anything on their own—always told what, why, and how to proceed—our children are nonetheless surrounded by deep moats.
In a great incongruous reversal, connecting has become too easy; maybe it has come to the point that it is so easy it is no longer communication at all. Is no one really working at expression? No one really listening? Andrew Kern once said something to the effect that we live in a world of competing monologues (A Contemplation of Nature). In a world where neither the writer nor the reader expects to exert any energy to reach across the voids between us, we may have to consider a reality in which communication, understood as the meeting of minds, is perishing.
In order to truly appreciate words—spoken as well as written—we need to work both at expressing ourselves and at listening to others express themselves. Doesn’t the love of others need to outweigh the cost of the effort for minds to meet? Is this not the unfathomable beauty expressed by the Creator in the Incarnation of the Word?
Although I probably find myself at odds here with everyone from the Masters Fowler to Misters Strunk and White, I need to stake a claim: communication—spoken and written—is most assuredly not the sole realm of experts trained in rhetoric and persuasion, nor is it the sole milieu of the creative writer; it is the inheritance of all men.
The time and work which we set aside to speak, write and read might possibly be best viewed as sacrificial, as a labor of love. It behooves us to ask: how many of the great classics would have been written, let alone withstood the test of time, if the advice of Mister Strunk were always employed? It behooves us to consider the question: perhaps it is because of advice such as Mister Strunk’s that the great classics are now sparsely read, that the current educational trends desire to banish them not to bonfires but to obscurity?
Dear reader, forgive my imposition upon you. It was done, yes, to make a point by the inclusion of far “too many notes,” but also to plead an exhortation: the letters of the alphabet, strung together in cogent meaning, might be best thought of, not as means to an end (as we so often think, and teach, of writing today), but as an end in and of themselves—a living, incarnated, creativity that encourages, even encapsulates, relationship. And this, not just of one person to another, but of humanity to itself and I venture to think, even humanity to its Maker.
I like to consider speech, in all its forms, as love letters…just as I think of God’s speech spreading out across the void as an act of incomparably stunning, creative love, profound in its implication and vast in its effects. We are made in the image of God. We are creators. Dorothy Sayers asserts that “The urgent desire of the creative mind is towards expression in material form” (Mind of the Maker). Here in the throes of the twenty-first century, we do well to remember Neil Postman’s claim: “Speech…is the primal and indispensable medium. It made us human, keeps us human, and in fact defines what human means” (Amusing Ourselves to Death). I beg of us that we take great care not to rob our children of the ability to express this image through their own words and to be heard. This is the legacy I wish to pass to my children as I teach them: be men of letters; love letters.