Specifically, I fear that because nowadays we are rarely forced to spell out what we are thinking and experiencing, we can avoid the necessity of coming to terms with our circumstances and ourselves.
It’s harder to evade reality in the kind of long-form correspondence that everyone took part in not too long ago. In other words, the fact that we can communicate with our families and friends without having to write out a letter telling them what’s happening in our lives means that we can avoid ever leveling with them or ourselves.
Think of the difference between checking out someone’s Facebook page and visiting them in person. Anyone can maintain a decent-looking public persona on Facebook. In real life, we are capable of living with a lot of disorder and slovenliness in our lives if we’re left alone. If a parent or friend were to drop in and see the reality firsthand, though, we’d feel embarrassed at the way we’re living.
The same is kind of true for a letter—it’s like a substitute for an in-person visit. You can’t hide everything about yourself in a letter. Omissions will stand out to your correspondent. You can keep up appearances forever through texts and tweets, though.
Maybe this is just my own experience, but I get the sense that we are doing a little worse in gauging our own hopes and fears, and that it’s harder for all of us to maintain a sense of direction and purpose.
As Stony Brook sociologist Michael Kimmel has documented, there has been a massive shift within the U.S. toward delayed adulthood, especially among men. Compared to the 1960s, men today are far less likely to be married and starting their own families by the age of 30 and far more likely to be living with their parents, trends that appear to have accelerated since the financial crisis. Men are increasingly delaying adulthood for a prolonged stay in what Kimmel calls “guyland”—an extended adolescence in which young men trade the responsibilities of marriage for low-risk, low-reward comfortable lifestyles heavy on video games and hanging out with other guys. Guys lacking the advantages of strong familial or social networks or rewarding, meaningful work are at special risk of slipping into that rut, but it could even happen to privileged Notre Dame grads.
The causes of this mass delayed adulthood are probably complex and numerous. But maybe one of the factors is that young men rarely, if ever, are forced to to be honest with themselves and with others about who they are and where they’re going.
Maybe writing a letter could force a reckoning. One example from the past that has stuck with me, as a history buff and Massachusetts native, is that of John Adams. Adams exchanged over 1,000 letters with his wife Abigail during the times that he was stationed in France, Holland, and England as a diplomat and in Washington as a politician, while she stayed behind in Massachusetts.
Skimming through their correspondence, it’s possible to see key moments in which writing with Abigail forced John to examine his own intentions and think through the implications of his decision not just for his life but for the new country.
For example, in one letter sent while working in the Continental Congress in 1775, Adams acknowledged that his judgment about national affairs was clouded by his hometown pride in New England—a bias that he admitted was partly irrational. (Adams did argue, though, that New England was in fact better than other places, in part because it had “purer English blood,” less mixed with Irish and other less-desirable ethnicities.)
Many of the letters that the Adams sent each other contained far more about their circumstances, hopes, and fears than could be captured in many text messages.
In fact, before the cost of communications dropped to almost nothing, a single piece of correspondence could easily provide the sole basis of a major life decision.
My great-grandmother, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was working as a nurse on the frontier in Saskatchewan when she received word that her sister in Boston was sick. She made the 2,000-plus mile journey by horseback, at one point getting caught in a blizzard outside Cleveland and knocking on random doors for shelter. She met my great-grandfather in Boston, and my dad’s side of the family has been there since.
In comparison, I’ll exchange 50 group texts with my siblings and we’ll discuss … nothing in particular.
Not that those messages or snaps or whatever are not meaningful, or that long-form letters are the only way to honestly describe what’s going on in your life.
But maybe we need to start either writing letters or find other ways to hold ourselves accountable.
For me, maybe this column could be a start.
Joseph Lawler graduated from Notre Dame in 2008. He served as managing editor for the American Spectator, edited RealClearPolicy, and currently serves as the Economics Writer for the Washington Examiner.