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Feeling Disconnected? Grab a Piece of Paper!

Why we could all benefit from a pen pal

Illustration of a hand holding a pencil and writing a letter. A blue envelope is in the background

Carolyn Sewell

"Once upon a time, there was no Internet, no texting … and no social media!”

Gasp.

To many younger millennials and Gen Zers, the ‘90s teenage experience probably sounds like a scary campfire tale. Photographed artifacts of my adolescence (see-through Conair telephones, bulky pagers, Walkmans) are currently trending via ironic hashtags such as #textlikethe90s; however, instead of feeling embarrassed about our primitive communication methods, I'm grateful for the reminders.


I fondly remember when socializing meant spending actual, face-to-face time with friends or calling them on a landline phone (no digital multitasking during those conversations). And, of course, there were the ubiquitous handwritten notes. At school we survived the agonizing separation of being in different classes by scribbling long missives, exchanging these carefully-folded foolscap pockets of teenage angst with the covert dexterity of drug dealers as we passed in the hallway.

One of my dearest friends and I traded notes regularly throughout our high school years. When we attended separate universities they matured into longer, much-anticipated letters. Over the years we gradually abandoned the practice, but two years ago she moved across the world to Amsterdam, and we rekindled our pen-and-paper correspondence.

I've since realized that letter writing fills a void for me and in our relationship that I didn't realize was there — so much so that I can't help but wonder if many of us are missing out on an important tool for connecting with others … and ourselves.

Social media is useful for documenting the highlights and minutia of our daily lives, but letter writing provides something more. It's an opportunity to look at the bigger picture and deeper themes of our existence, to sort out the “why” behind the “what” and figure out what it all means.

Writing by hand is a slow, reflective, intentional process of filtering through thoughts and choosing what is truly important. Revising while you go isn't really an option (unless you want to send a letter full of crossed-out words and margin scribbles).

To write a letter, I set aside quiet time, free of distractions. I fall into a contemplative state that my busy, noisy life with a preschooler doesn't usually include. It's an important and restorative slice of me-time, and one I have a hard time giving myself otherwise (I know, I know, but that's a different essay).

A 30-year friendship is pretty special, but I find that exchanging letters adds even more depth to our bond. We tend to tackle more intimate and difficult topics in our handwritten correspondence than we are comfortable with sharing in person, or that a simple text, DM or email can communicate. Nuance, bravery, introspection — all of these seem more accessible with pen and paper.

My family recently went through a challenging couple of years with the sudden critical illness of my stepson and all of the stress, upheaval and fragmentation that accompanies such drastic life changes. We also relocated several hours and a ferry trip away from where most of our friends are. Everyone was incredibly supportive via social media, but I also received some handwritten cards that felt like a much-needed hug, just that little bit more real and personal.

Back to those notes in school. Curious, I did some crowdsourcing among my teacher and parent connections to find out if teens still write notes to each other. A few preteens do, when they are not allowed devices, but it sounds like it doesn't happen in high school anymore. When I think back to my note writing, I see how it naturally morphed into writing real, adult letters, and I wonder — I fear — younger generations will miss out on the benefits.

Snapchat message quickly disappears into oblivion, but I still have all my correspondence from high school and young adulthood tucked away in a treasured shoebox. We have so much technology at our fingertips that enables us to stay connected 24/7, yet so much of that connection is superficial, focused on keeping up Insta-worthy appearances.

Are social media-based friendships as tangible, as deep, as the friendships many teenagers across the continent forged and cemented via handwritten notes and letters for generations? I don't know. But what I am certain of is that I'm grateful to have my pen pal back, and our friendship is even stronger because of it.

Would you like to have a pen pal? Find your perfect match in AARP's online community.


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