When I told strangers on the Internet I wanted to write letters to them, and would they all kindly send me their mailing addresses, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t expect so many would take me up on my offer, first of all. I hoped they would, it’s not that, but I didn’t expect it. And I definitely didn’t expect people would open up in the ways in which they have, sharing deeply intimate, often painful stories from their lives.
Over the past weeks, I’ve read their messages with a sense of responsibility, even reverence. They’ve told me about their battles: with cancer, with anorexia, with depression and other demons, told me stories about what it’s like to care for your aging mother who has dementia; what it’s like to be a young man, alone and very far from home on Thanksgiving. When I think about it, most of the letters have been, in one way or another, about heartbreak.
None of this I expected. All I knew when I started last month, was that we had, as Americans, endured a vicious and bewildering Election cycle, somehow emerging from it with a Celebrity Apprentice Cheeto as our next President. All I knew was that we had lost our footing. We were now standing on shaky ground.
There is a Buddhist contemplation practice that encourages you to think of the potential good you can do. You personally, in the flesh, in the now. I like this practice a lot. I’ve been trying it out — especially after the Election. I think it appeals to me because I’m a very physical person. A do-er, which is probably just a way of saying I don’t value thoughts, or even words, as much as I do actions, as much as I value action. Maybe you can relate.
The way I see it, it’s one thing to talk about stuff, to come up with words and ideas about humanity and justice and decency, and quite another to try and actually live them. To fully live them. To push these things out into the world. To embody them. To walk the talk, so to speak.
And so. Letters to strangers. I’m writing them. Posting them in twos and tens. Are these letters changing anything? I can’t say. Do they matter? I don’t know. In the big scheme of things, probably not. No one cares about love letters in Aleppo, is one way of thinking about it.
Sharon Salzberg is a mindfulness expert who has written about kindness extensively. She says carrying out some gesture, however small, of good intent, supports the person on the receiving end. “Kindness,” she writes, “supports our sense of being someone deserving of love, someone who can in turn accomplish something, who can vanquish difficulties, who can make it through the travails of life, who can be a good person.”
The other day a young letter writer, I will call her Maddie, asked me my worst quality. I told her I can be very reckless, a real jerk who’s capable of emotional brutality. Maddie wrote back to say she hurts herself. Harms herself on purpose. She said she gets lost inside her head, and can’t find her way out. She said she feels burdened. Betrayed. She feels lonely.
In different ways, things have unraveled, even collapsed this year. Things have happened to us, maybe for us, in some cases. Big things. Tragedies and triumphs, local and global. The world seems to be changing, rearranging itself, tectonic plates shifting around into some new formation. Everything is opening up, I guess, but it’s also becoming more chaotic. Busier. It’s difficult to understand where it’s all leading. Maybe we’re not meant to understand.
Last night, as I read Maddie’s message a second time, I tuned in to the NASA live feed, the one that beams footage down from the International Space Station, round the clock, every day. It’s broadcast on YouTube. Such is how the world works now. We are all connected in ways we’ve never been before.
There’s something hypnotic and profound about watching the planet, its familiar patches of blue and green, the wispy white clouds, all of it rolling steadily, slowly, like mysterious clockwork. I watched for a while last night, with a sense of awe, with an acute sense of how very small and fleeting I am. It took my breath away, really. All of it does, you know? Everything. Everyone. In the background, I let it spin and spin, that broken and precious ball, suspended so magically in space, as I reached for a pen and began my letter.
Dearest Maddie, I wrote.