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The He(art) of Letter Writing: Compassionate Connection
September 25, 2020 at 1:00 PM
by Janine Ilsley, LMSW

The most precious gift we can offer begins with a deeper awareness of one another’s suffering and a conscious intention to cultivate more meaningful connection. Despite living in a social networking era that has helped us connect globally, the vast majority of our population is left feeling more alone. The greatest spikes in loneliness are taking place among young people, The Gen Z and Millennials, which is ironic given the vast connections such generations have on technology. Indeed, policy leaders – including both our former U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy and the U.K. Prime Minister of Loneliness– have started to address what studies have corroborated over the years: we are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness in the West, and it profoundly impacts our emotional well-being. What we are recognizing, however, is that it is not about being more connected as it is about the quality of our connections.

As a holistic therapist whose foundations are whose foundations are rooted in attachment-based theory, I deeply believe that we are born to be in relationship with others. When we do not have it, we seek it out – that’s what makes us, in part, a resilient social species. In light of these months of social distancing and quarantine, it is only likely that the current health pandemic will continue to challenge this inherent drive for interdependence in the world. Here, I am offering a simple yet worthwhile anecdote and one that has certainly been catching on lately: the act of letter writing.

This form of “antiquarian communication” has receded to the background as a powerful, persisting tool for renewing human connection in an otherwise fragmented world, as well as an effective tool for tending to our mental health. In reflecting on my own letter writing history, I seem to have natural penchant for handwriting letters. This took many forms beyond the forced Thank You note: from scribbling longwinded Post-It® letters on classmates’ desks, to fondly tucking “love notes” between books of a former lover’s bedroom library, to sending off postcards on a physical journal to friends in divergent corners of the world. I even wrote letters to younger self, older self, and current self. Regardless of content, such words were like threads to the inner workings of my heart that allowed us to unite closer than before.

I found that letters were not just a mere pleasurable hobby; rather, as I grew older, they became a medium of self-compassion during difficult times. Indeed, at the start of my post-graduate trajectory in the field of clinical social work, my letter writing took on a new sense of urgency that was born out of a stark realization of an unsettling sense of disconnect. In the years transitioning out of my identity as a “forever-student,” I have grappled with the ambiguous loss embedded in heartbreak, fled the attractive, unpredictable chaos of New York City, or negotiated my less-than-human spiritual ego in yoga ashrams. It is during these turning points of life that I found letter writing to be a vehicle to process the deep recesses of my mind, break through mental blocks, more fully embrace the inner landscape of my emotions, and arrive in a more self-aware state. A form of “soul-searching,” one may say. It awakened me, through humility, to the people I was connected to across the world who have also taken up their roots, re-transplanted them, and continued to grow their branches. Above all, letter writing reconnected me to the core of Myself – a “Coming Home,” if you may.

“I like receiving a letter and knowing myself loved.” – Virginia Woolf

I rekindle my personal experiences of letter writing to hone in on a simple point: in order to belong, we need to be fully Seen and Heard. By nature of being more deeply invested in the words we choose and the meaning behind those words, we deliver the message more intentionally and we engender deeper connection with the recipient, thereby working to close the gap of idle loneliness. And that, is at the heart of conscious, compassionate connection.

Become a Part of the Larger Collective

If you find yourself fraught with uncertainty, bogged down by a lack of motivation, or caught in an unsettling abyss of loneliness, I encourage you to join this letter-writing endeavor. It was not until picking back up this practice of mine that I began to witness how many other initiatives were taking place alongside me – a subtle, delightful reminder that we are indeed more connected and interdependent than our current “pandemic narratives” may deem us to be.

· Support the #Doitfor102 campaign for the Tanzanian Children’s Fund: I have committed to write a total of 102 letters over 14 days to celebrate the 102 incredible kids of the Rift Valley Children’s Village in Tanzania.

· The Letter Project: a faith-based non-profit that writes letters to women and girls around the world who are in the midst of some type of transition and in need of extra love and support

· Shut-In Social Club: founded by a former creative director for stationary, Courtney Cochran of Nashville unites like-minded folks during the pandemic via handwritten letters.

· AARP shared an article about socially-connecting residents of assisted living facilities and care homes through Pen Pal clubs, especially given older people’s greater vulnerability to senior loneliness (or say to the impact of loneliness in later life). Kirstin Reed recently started the Pandemic Pen Pals Program at the O’Neil Center in Marietta, Ohio.

· Letters Against Isolation: a heartfelt initiative that blossomed out of two sisters’ desires to support their self-isolating grandparents

Having Trouble Starting? Guideposts for Letter Writing

Reconsider Your Template

Opt for a postcard instead. While ruled lines provide a container or boundary for our sentences, it can feel intimidating to “fill the space.” I find that the small space of a postcard almost begs us to write about the immediacy of the Present moment – not the past…not the future…Now. This immediate Presence of dialogue truly comes to the forefront in the absence that is white space behind the text.

Let go of the “perfectionism,” especially when it comes to penmanship

Our handwriting is like our unique calligraphy – a form of hieroglyphics, you may say. While you may be impelled to type, our handwriting bears the indelible traces of the process that goes into letter writing: cross outs, smudged ink, sentences wedged in the corner of the page, coffee stains. These are all marks of a real human in real time.

Draw a picture

At times, words can be limiting and linear, thereby making it difficult to capture the depth and dimension of experience that may otherwise come from drawing or painting. Pictures allow us to show, instead of just “tell,” offering perhaps a greater sense of personal subjectivity and emotional expression by choosing specific colors, textures, shades, or gradients.

Make it a practice - like gratitude

Like any habit, it takes repetition and, as such, it is essential a cultivate a time and space to nourish this seed of compassion.