“It went on, this lifetime in a box, one letter after another.” ― Nicholas Sparks
Imagine your house was burning, and you had only a few minutes to save the things you felt were irreplaceable. Assume people and pets were already safe, and you could only save what you could carry in one trip. What would you choose?
When I ask people this question, their responses tend to fall into one of three categories:
- Important documents
- Letters and/or photos
That “important document thing” is the most practical answer; when I ask someone to define “important documents”, they’ll list things like social security cards, birth certificates, title documents, and the like. It does make perfect sense to try to save certain paperwork for record-keeping or legal purposes, so kudos to you people who think with your heads.
Also, you’re in the minority.
Most answers fall into one of the two other
categories, and I think there’s a simple explanation.
Most of us think with our hearts.
In the case of letters, photos or heirlooms, the items have no intrinsic worth; you’re not saving the family fortune (unless, of course, you happen to be starring in your own version of National Treasure, wherein past generations have collected historical documents or objects worth millions) and they generally wouldn’t make sense or have value to anyone but you.
We think with our hearts, but it’s not simple nostalgia that makes these items so important. They reflect the substance of our lives- our relationships and our memories- and we cannot stand to lose them because they’re tangible reminders of the most irreplaceable things in our lives.
I have no collections, save one- a box full of notes, cards, and letters that date back 30 years. That’s my fire box.
If you dumped out the contents, you’d find all different types of correspondence from my husband, my children, my parents, and friends…old and new. You’d see beautiful cards and letters on lovely stationary, but also scrawled messages and one-liners on Post-It notes, torn notebook pages and construction paper. The words on those pages encompass all the things I love about those people, and they’re full of humor, deep thought, joy, sorrow and love. Going back to read them provides a self-history lesson- the story of my life, past and present, and a reflection of my hopes for the future.
There’s also plenty of wisdom in those pages, and that’s another reason I keep them. We can’t always be with the people who love and support us best, but we can always go back to their words, day or night. Life’s circumstances change, and you wouldn’t think a letter written in support 5 years ago… or ten… or twenty, could bring you comfort today, but it can. That’s because circumstances change, but our emotions affect us in remarkably similar ways throughout the years.
Full disclosure: I’m not a dedicated letter-writer. I don’t sit down and pen personal messages every day. But I do think in certain circumstances, nothing else will do.
Here are some great reasons to consider writing an actual card or letter:
1. They tell the recipient: you are important to me. In this electronic age, it’s very easy to dash off a text message or email to someone- and those things have their place. But it takes time to write out a card or letter, address, stamp and send it. Spending that time says you consider them worth the effort.
2. They can bring a bright spot to someone’s day, especially if they are struggling. Don’t underestimate the power you have to make someone smile. If they’re going through a difficult time, a letter can be an encouraging gesture- one that tells them they are not alone. Plus, a handwritten letter is a novelty these days- imagine their reaction when they open the mailbox and find a personal message from you.
3. They allow the recipient to “hear” you. I have an “If I think it, I say it” policy when it comes to compliments. But those things can be hard to hear, because people are often embarrassed by the attention and tend to downplay their own achievements. When you put something like “I thought what you did was really brave” in writing, however, they can absorb it without the awkwardness of having to respond. And, they can go back to that comment later if they’re in need of words of support.
4. They prevent missed opportunities. The spoken word moves at the speed of, well… sound. How many times have you replayed a conversation in your head, realizing too late that you missed an important nuance- one that would have changed your response? Letters provide a second chance to choose the words you really want to say and to let the people you care about know how you feel.
Just one collection- one fire box- that’s all I have. Everything else can be replaced.
So, if you ever wonder if penning your thoughts is worth the effort, or whether your words matter or make a difference… It is, and they do.