My personal history is recorded in a variety of places. It's in the art projects on the wall of my old bedroom. It's in VHS tapes of childhood birthday parties and Christmas mornings. It's in the photo albums on my Mom's shelf, the emails archived in my Gmail account, the journals I've written in intermittently since the 6th grade. It's in the memories of my family and friends. If you gathered together all of these sources you could recreate a picture of some past experience of mine. But even though my history is recent and there are plenty of sources, the picture would be imperfect. It would be missing details. Some, forgotten. Others, intentionally omitted from the records because they weren't notable, or significant, or graceful.
This is how all history is written. Consequently, historians can only attempt to get as close as possible to what actually happened. What's more, the result is unintentionally skewed by the worldview and biases of the historian. A historian who has subtle, internal desires to find meaning in events and organization in chaos. He elaborates on what he understands and has no concept of things he doesn't understand. We cannot blame the historian. We are all historians.
If you look at the historical record, you'll see a general trend: The further we look back in time, the less we know. We can blame much of this on decay. We live in a dynamic world with forces of erosion, destructive organic processes, and tectonic activity. Nothing lasts forever.
When we piece together histories based on the records that haven't decayed, we get an even more partial view of history. Many times, we only see what the original recorders wanted to preserve. It's another layer of abstraction away from the truth. First, the truth is filtered by what we chose not to record. Then it is filtered by what we chose not to preserve.
Even if some information survives both filters, we cannot properly understand it without contextual information that didn't survive the filters. That's why it's so hard to answer questions like how atrocities like the Crusades or the Holocaust could have happened. It's hard enough for us to put ourselves in somebody else's shoes. To truly do it accurately for somebody who lived 400 years ago… that's nearly impossible.
So what DO we actually know?
We know a lot of information. Names, dates, sequences of major events (or events that seemed major to the people recording them). We know about battles, heroes, cities, religions, discoveries and philosophies. We know about many of these things in great detail. Sometimes by reading the interactions of people in ancient books or plays, we learn a little bit about how people lived. What they thought was important. Where they spent time. Their desires, fears, and sorrows.
But those samples are few and far between. Certainly, they don't represent all the cultures and classes of citizens through the various periods of time. And when you think about how different your life is to the novels you read or the sitcoms on TV, it's easy to see that those ancient works won't paint a complete picture.
The biggest issue is that we don't know what we don't know. Like I said before, the world is a lot messier than we tend to portray in history books, and only a tiny fraction of the total sum of historical information survives. When we look at history with a 21st century worldview, we easily miss details about public opinion, social pressures, and other nuanced topics. We instantly assume that we are smarter, more informed, more disciplined, more principled, and more enlightened then they were. That perspective radiates self-serving bias, and it is incorrect.
Why does this matter?
In most cases, it doesn't. History doesn't help me decide how much bus fare to buy or which books to check out from the library. It has very little impact on my decision making process. However, historical misunderstandings can cause bitterness in all sorts of situations, from long held grudges and family feuds to racial and religious intolerance. Those things are so bogus. It doesn't matter if it's 2, 20 or 2000 years old, if you have beef with something that happened a long time ago, then you have to realize that you know almost nothing about what actually happened. Your beef is with an imaginary reconstruction of the truth that exists only in your mind. Life is too short to hold fiercely onto such biases when we live in a world that desperately needs more positive influences. Everybody deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Including those who came before us.
I've been pondering on the purpose of a family newsletter. Growing up, my parents would send one out every year. They were always cleverly designed and filled with bite-sized chunks of information about what each family member had been doing during the year. Mom has a new calling at Church, Jeff got a new job, Bryan's Track and Field team went to state (that never happened), and so on. It's a way of telling the people you care about what you have been up to, with a family photo included to ensure that the faces of old friends don't grow unfamiliar.
But we live in a different world today. A world where anybody can keep track of their friends through Facebook, Twitter, or a personal blog. Perhaps I shouldn't even consider making a newsletter at all. These platforms have more information and photos then the traditional newsletter and they are way more convenient. Keeping up with friends and family is easier than it has ever been. What value does a newsletter have then? Is it obsolete?
In thinking about it, I determined that a newsletter created value in the following ways:
- It allows you to give a synopsis of the year with the wisdom of hindsight
- The brevity of the format makes it very digestible
- The time it takes, and the exclusivity of individually mailing letters, is a message to the people that merit one that they are important to you.
I then realized that sending out a mass email or a well crafted blog post actually hits on the first two points. It doesn't, however, hit the third. Of course, I want to tell my distant family and friends that they are important to me. But how?
A personal visit won't work, with many of my friends and family on the other side of the country. A phone call is better but all the scheduling required makes it hard to do very many. If I had a restaurant, I could name a menu item after them, or if I was a respected biologist, I could name a new species after them. But with no such connection to fries or flies, I cannot take advantage of these options.
So it is without any clear alternative that we will be sending out a newsletter-esque christmas postcard to a couple of you.
But I want to be clear. If you do not receive one, you are still important to us! Our lives have been influenced by you in so many ways, some that neither you or I will fully recognize. We love you all. Happy holidays!
What have we been up to this year?
Bryan finished his Mechanical Engineering degree from BYU. He built Batman's grappling hook for his capstone project which landed his team a third place finish in the Air Force competition and some air time on KBYU and the Discovery Channel. Now he's a web developer at Acquia, Inc and is working in downtown Washington D.C.
Holly wipes noses and bums all day and is surprised at how rewarding it is. This year, she's seen her daughter, Heidi Adele, start walking and talking, singing, running, helping, hugging, kissing, and praying. She also brought Peter Bryson into the world and two weeks later, packed him up and moved across the country to have a new adventure. Peter is now a friendly, round little boy.
We hope the holidays find you and your family happy! We certainly are.
Today, I decided to spend an hour writing somebody a letter. You know… that thing with the paper and the envelope and the stamps. I'm aware of the inconveniences of this dated mode of communication but my choice to use physical pen and paper was deliberate.
Perhaps we thought that with the advent of email and mass communication, writing letters by hand would disappear. Email is quick, free, universal, archivable, and scalable. But there is one thing it doesn't have… something it could never have.
It's the inconvenience of buying stamps and envelopes and paper for writing. It's the fact that writing speeds are 1/4 the pace of typing speeds. It's the lack of the ability to make corrections, move paragraphs around, and spellcheck automatically. It's the fact that one letter can never be sent to more than one person. It's the energy you spend putting on your shoes and jacket and making a trip to the mailbox on a cold day in November. It's the discomfort. The tedium.
In an incredible twist of irony, the costs of writing a letter by hand became the medium's most valuable asset. In deliberately choosing the inefficiencies of writing by hand, you are sending a message to the recipient. A message that says, 'This is not a whim or an afterthought. This is important to me. You, are important to me.'
In writing a letter, you send more then just content. Seth Godin would say that you are giving a gift. A gift purchased, not with money (beyond the price of shipping) but with time and effort. And think about it… that means a lot. Money will come and go, but once you spend time, you can never get it back.
After my last job interview, I scrounged together a few pieces of paper from the hotel I was staying at and I penned out an individual thank you letter to each of the three people I had interviewed with. When I arrived at the airport, I had no envelopes so I asked the woman at the information desk where I could find some. She pointed me to the business services center which had no envelopes but sold stamps. By the time I had found a stationary store with envelopes, slapped a few stamps on my letters, and dropped them in the postbox, I was dangerously close to missing my flight home (which would have been bad, since my unborn baby's due date was the very next day).
Sending those letters was hard! I could have done 10% of that work with email but it wouldn't have had the meaning. And if you're wondering if that makes a difference, notice how I said it was my 'last job interview.'
Two days ago was National Letter Writing Day. Besides the nostalgia, I don't think there is anything remarkable about the process of writing a letter. Certainly nothing meriting a celebration. But what makes it remarkable is the writer intentionally choosing to incur the personal cost of doing it. Perhaps 'Letter Writing Day' is an opportunity, like the many we get at this time this year, to look inside ourselves and ask "when was the last time I did something kind for somebody else?"
So no, I don't see snail mail going away anytime soon. Not as long as people care enough to make small sacrifices for each other. And I certainly hope that doesn't ever go away.