Much has often been made of the importance of imagery in our time. An explosion of various social contexts and mediums which deal increasingly – and almost exclusively – in the currency of pictures has introduced a snowballing effect, producing the propensity to use them more frequently in describing the world around us. After all, they are often unparalleled in their ability to tap into aspects of the deep human well of emotion. Whatever the borders of the image may happen to contain within them, the colors excite and seize attention; the backdrop can create impressions undetected by a casual observer; the human occupants overflow with emotion and their postures are loaded with meaning. It is no wonder the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” has gained such a cultural foothold.
It is exactly in understanding the particular strengths of imagery that one can begin to ascertain the accompanying arena in which they fall remarkably short. Indeed, pictures maintain a unique type of monopoly on access to the world of human emotions. Yet if one would only turn this coin to its other face, the story begins to come into clearer focus; they fall woefully short in the unambiguous conveyance of complex and sophisticated ideas. Ideas – it is worthwhile to observe – that often only take a few sentences to address, with the reader easily grasping their core essence in the limited space utilized between periods. Pictorial representations therefore fall prey to subjective interpretations of their content much more frequently than their literary counterparts.
This being noted, I will begin to show my hand. If I may be so blasphemous as to modify that supposedly sacred saying previously referenced, I would contend that while in some instances a picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, it is most often the case that a thousand well crafted words are worth all the pictures in the world.
The tension that exists between the usage of imagery instead of words brings into relief one of the great social tragedies of our day, at least as I have seen it from my own vantage point. As a result of an erosion of the usage of words in social interaction and communication, and a subsequent reversion to easily circulated snapshots on our screens, we have collectively begun to lose our grip on a capacity to engage in extensive conversations on difficult questions. Not only are we less capable of doing so, but are much less likely to engage in them by virtue of our disinterest. Why endure the difficulties of rigorous thought when we can revel in the drug of our emotional responses elicited by constant imagery? As a result, the prospects for wading into the realm of ideas and emerging stronger are slim at best. We have gone about flexing the wrong muscles; our thumbs are far stronger from scrolling endlessly through pictures than our minds are from the strain of thinking long and hard on any particular topic. We have therefore greatly disabled the only vehicle which can ably transport us amidst the landscape of ideas. Instead, we are left to navigate it by the pathetic aid of our impressions and partially investigated premonitions.
A Dying Breed of Communication
A microcosm of this broader inability to exchange ideas in anything resembling a substantial manner is the near extinction of the practice of correspondence. No doubt it is an endangered species, if not already a thing of the past altogether. This extinction of such a sacred human exchange is one of the most easily ascertained manifestations of the tragedy to which I was referring previously. What could be a clearer symptom of our ineptitude at engaging in worthwhile conversations? Instead of devoting ourselves to crafting thoughtful letters and notes to friends and family alike, we text each other memes. As a quick aside here, before we proceed a step further in this discussion, this brings us to a brief point of clarification: those five word text message impostors masquerading as correspondence do not, in fact, qualify as such. Even a cursory glance at the writings of various notable historical figures smashes this notion to pieces.
Ironically, the death of this long practiced social ritual is nested in the age most conducive to communication of any kind. Rather than its having been reinforced by a large arsenal of technological tools at its disposal, it has been supplanted altogether in favor of more convenient methods of communication. This is perhaps poignantly indicative of one of the great shortcomings of human nature: the more we seem to have at our disposal, the less we often do with it.
While I myself could launch into an almost never ending tirade on why this seismic shift away from regular correspondence is alarming on various fronts, I am convinced that the likes of Einstein, Lincoln, Adams, and Bonhoeffer can provide far more compelling cases. Not that they ever expressly undertook a defense of the practice – they quite simply had no need to because of the widespread consensus in their day on the unparalleled benefits of it. Instead, the case they make on its behalf is accomplished merely through their brilliant participation in it. The insights offered into almost every aspect of humanity borne out in their writings to colleagues, family and friends are priceless, refreshing, and inevitably thought provoking; ultimately each syllable portrays deeply personal renderings of the men behind them.
I have been recently introduced to such extraordinary writings as a result of working my way through biographies devoted to these towering historical figures. It has been there, in the midst of wading into those pages, that I have begun to formulate the above articulated conviction about the tragic nature of our widespread departure from correspondence.
I will acknowledge at this point that if you find yourself skeptical at my usage of the word “tragedy”, I am sympathetic of your wariness. Yet, one has only to read briefly through the writings of these men before encountering topics of immense gravity. They contain questions which sound the depths of the human experience, and upon which the trajectory of whole nations and future generations pivot. To leave these questions to the anarchic realms of Twitter and Facebook – rather than a forum conducive to intimacy, reflection and analysis – will certainly have unforeseeable repercussions in our unfolding societal drama. My assignment of such a descriptor may yet prove true, for I fear there is much tragedy still to be wrought as a result of a society that is unmoored from the practice of sustained contemplation. From the soil of our minds will spring the actions we take; let us therefore cultivate it with care, and recognize the gravity which accompanies the rituals we plant therein.
As a result, I feel the necessity of swimming upstream against the cultural currents that would carry me toward the ocean of emojis and abbreviated text messages. One particular way in which I hope to rebel against this seemingly inexorable tide is by displaying a sampling of those letters here. My intent is not only to engender a curiosity for these men and their stories, but also spark a desire to participate in this timeless tradition personally.
What is soon to follow is a selection of writings – brought to my attention via each respective biography – I believe most likely to accomplish those ends. In the interest of allowing proper space for each subject’s correspondence, I will devote two forthcoming posts to this task.