Welcome to Day 12 of the #sendcardsspreadlove challenge for National Card & Letter Writing Month!! Today, we have a BONUS challenge & a guest post from Naomi Hattaway sharing how empathy muscles are strengthened through letter writing.
If you’re just joining us, you can get all the important details here. Make sure you sign up to receive all the info & special bonus content that won’t be shared on the blog and/or join us in the Facebook group.
AND if you haven’t seen the previous posts yet, you’ll want to go check out: a list of reasons to write, who to send a card to or even what type of card to send, and guest posts from Alexandra Franzen with a letter writing script AND FREE pdf with 7 letter writing projects, Amanda Sue Howell with a hand lettering tutorial & Jill DeLuce on letterpress printing with a free pdf & 20% off code.
Week 2 BONUS Challenge:
The BONUS challenge is to send yourself a letter.
I’m guessing that many of you have never sent a handwritten letter to yourself. For an online class I took mannnnyyy years ago, we had to email ourselves a letter from our future selves five years ahead, and have it delivered one year away. It was quite a surprise to receive an email from myself & I really enjoyed reading my own advice. For ideas, you can refer back to Reason #14 on the BIG LIST of reasons to send cards.
This bonus challenge is in addition to the Week 2 Challenge – details + tips here. To be eligible to win your choice of a single collection share your card and/or note & include the bonus challenge, tag me on IG @prettybypost or in the FB group along with the #sendcardsspreadlove hashtag by April 20th at midnight EST.
I invited Naomi Hattaway to write a guest post for two major reasons. The first is that she is one of the Pretty by Post Posse & the second is that she embodies sending cards & spreading love. Naomi is a consummate letter writer / card sender, so I knew that she would have beautiful stories to share with us. And…she does not disappoint in today’s post about two different pen pals who taught her about the power of the written word, about empathy & about how important it is to listen to & learn from one another.
How Letter Writing Strengthens Empathy & Leadership
When I started writing my very first pen pal, I believe I was about eight years old, back in the early 80s. I was writing JR Jones, a man in his 60s who was incarcerated. He was serving a life sentence and had been in prison since he was 19 years old. We wrote frequently, and he would often send me paintings or poems. He played the guitar and would send cassette tape recordings of him playing and singing along. He signed every single letter with a swirly notation of his two initials: JR and always drew a little mouse.
While I don’t remember what we specifically talked about in those letters, what I do know is that in writing back and forth with JR, I learned a lot about the inner workings of a man’s mind. He taught me about freedom, forgiveness, second chances, and opened my mind up to the very early days of learning about empathy.
Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy, although many confuse the two. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone, or feeling badly about a situation. If I had felt sympathy for JR, I would have been sad for him that he committed a crime and now had lost any possibility of freedom until the day he died. Sympathy would have mandated that I felt pity for him, and his shell of a life inside the prison walls. What I instead felt, and learned to nurture, was true empathy. Empathy allows us to share the feelings of another. Dr. Brene Brown explains it well when she says that sympathy is throwing a sandwich down to someone who has fallen in a hole. Empathy is crawling down into the hole and sitting next to them, while they eat the sandwich.
I didn’t know it then, but allowing JR’s life to teach me about empathy – through years and years of letter writing – set me up for the impact and leadership roles I have today. What I also didn’t know was that JR would be there for me when my father left our family and we dealt with the subsequent divorce. While JR didn’t have that personal experience, and had never met our family in person, his demonstrated empathy was an incredible support to me, via our mailbox at the end of a quarter mile long driveway in the middle of the country, in Nebraska.
Getting to know someone, one letter at a time, means that while you are reading what they’ve penned to you, you are engrossed in the telling of their story. There is no immediate need or urge to blurt out a reply, or answer with just the right words. The time and space that is held when reading a letter offers an opportunity to learn and listen.
He never did divulge the reason for his incarceration and only shared that he was terribly sorry for what he had done, and I never wanted or needed to know. We stopped writing after about twelve years, and while I can’t remember the reason we stopped, I did hear much later that he had passed away. I still have a few of his letters, one of those cassette tapes and a picture he painted, I also still retain solidly imprinted lessons on the art of empathy through letter writing.
My second pen pal experience began in early 2014. I had heard Charles Morrison give a talk for Creative Mornings and somewhere in his talk he mentioned that he doesn’t often receive letters in his mailbox, even though he sends hundreds per week, all across the globe. He said “I often send 125 letters per day and I imagine the joy those 125 people will get when they open their mailbox. Each day I pray that there will be a handwritten letter back – but it doesn’t often happen.”
I tracked down his address at the university where he is a professor and mailed him a thank you card. Soon, he wrote back. We have written for over four years and each time I open my mailbox and see his handwritten calligraphy, my heart skips a beat. Interestingly, Charles doesn’t respond to content in the letters I have written him, so it’s a series of conversations in two parts. The first is his letter to me, and the second is my response back to him.
He has a file of hundreds of fascinating ideas, and he pairs that with his list of addresses. He selects who he’s going to write, chooses his card, takes the next interesting topic from his file (and a dictionary) and he then writes a two page letter – front and back, never any longer, and sends off the letter. He says “each day, I get to play with language. I find a connection between my life and the universe.”
When I receive a letter from Charles, I respond directly to the topic he introduces, however that punctuates the end of our dialogue on the matter. Because he sends an original letter each time, we are perpetually engaging in a fresh dialogue, which is quite beautiful! Because of his letter writing process, our pen pal experience is completely different than my experience with J.R. Knowing that he is randomly choosing the topic of his letters to me, I can then take the intentional time to share back my thoughts and correlating perspective.
Again, I am taken back to the power of the written word, and the empathy muscles that can be strengthened with a letter writing practice. Listening to and learning from Charles’ life and wisdom allows me to expand my capacity for holding the stories of those I come into contact with in my everyday life. His willingness to share with me – one handwritten letter at a time – an alternate universe of reality enables my ability to be a better listener to those in my international community, and read between the lines of what my real estate clients need.
We can all stand to learn so much from these two men, and their willingness to pen letters, over the course of many, many years. With a simple pen and paper, they have provided an amazing opportunity to learn from their life experience, which allows me to turn that into an elevated capacity for empathy and kindness.
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Naomi Hattaway is the founder of I Am A Triangle, an international social network with thousands of global members who share in common a life lived away from their passport countries. IAAT offers in-person gatherings in 70+ international cities and is a one-stop-shop for resources, expert advice and more. She also owns 8th & Home Relocation, a nation-wide network matching families on the move with relocation professionals. After living in several locations in the United States, her family moved to India where she learned to thrive in the midst of chaos. Following one year in Singapore, they moved back to the United States, and traipsed from Florida to Virginia and now, Ohio. Naomi is passionate about community building and empowering others to thrive, not just survive, in the places they call home. You can connect with her on Instagram and Facebook.