Have you ever felt disconnected from your relationships and your life because of your reliance on your phone and social media? Do you ever feel nostalgia for the art of handwriting letters? Hannah Brencher understands what you are feeling. In this episode of This Anthropological Life, we discuss the difficulties of being present, the importance of time in maintaining relationships, the pitfalls of random acts of kindness, and the joys of writing a love letter. Copy Prepared by Nina Oria-Loureiro
- “The only thing that can beat out fear is love. It can’t be just a statement. It has to be something we live, through active steps.”
- “We need to have more than just random acts of kindness . It has to boil down to more than just one day, one act. Kindness needs to be a lifestyle.”
- Presence is the key. “Be where your feet are”
Hannah Brencher is the founder of The World Needs More Love Letters. The project organizes the writing of love letters to those nominated through social media. Hannah came up with the idea of writing love letters to strangers while living and working in NYC. While she was surrounded by droves of people, she was not able to meaningfully connect with others, which left her with an overwhelming feeling of loneliness and depression. She began to leave love letters around the city to be picked up by strangers to remind them that they are not alone. Over time, Hannah continued to devote her life to writing and distributing letters and, eventually, The World Needs More Love Letters was born. Hannah has appeared in many news sources from the Wall Street Journal to the Guardian. She also gave a TED talk in 2012 about the spark behind bringing love letters to strangers.
The Power of Handwriting
It is hard to imagine letting a phone call go to voicemail or an email go unanswered when we are constantly plugged into our phones, iPads, and computers. In the immediacy of these interactions, we often find our minds wandering to the past and the future, avoiding the present moment.
As Hannah explained,
“People are craving simplicity. They are craving pure presence and connection and intention all of these things that I think are timeless and will never go out of style, but I do think that social media makes it much more difficult to access them”
Hannah suggests that moving away from social media into the more simple and intimate act of letter writing will create more impactful connections between people. Through her letters to strangers, she can remind people they are not alone.
The popularity of The World Needs More Love Letters makes visible the disconnect people feel in their lives and their desire to connect on deeper and more intimate levels with those around them. Hannah’s love letter writing campaign is about keeping things simple and minimalistic. She uses social media to find people who need a love letter as well as find people who want to reach out to others and connects them through the act of writing a love letter. Simple.
The importance of being present is not a new notion (i.e. Eckhart Tolle), but Hannah’s definition is important for understanding her process.
“Presence is paying attention to people giving people something that I guess we took for granted maybe like before all of this technology came into play I just think it’s like being here in the moment instead of ten years in the past and six years in the future, or wherever you are.”
Being present means grounding yourself in this moment and not wandering between “should haves” and “wills”. It is not just connected to our timeline, but also the devices we use to interact with our worlds. Our phones and computers mediate our interactions and isolate us from others. Or as Hannah says,
“We are missing one another”
Today, most of our interactions with others lie in the realm of text messages and status updates. You can even create shortcuts on your phone to make typing common phrases faster. We are not taking the time to create more meaningful interactions. While many of us have some memory of a time before social media and text, more and more generations are growing up primarily interacting through social media. We can learn a lot about a person through social media, but is it the same as getting to know them through face to face interactions? By being fully present with another (no devices, no switching message tabs, no multitasking ) do you not get to know them better?
As Hannah says,
“there is a big difference in investing in someone’s life and investigating into someone’s life”.
“A Different Kind of Human Rights”
Hannah defines love letters as “anything you put your heart into”. These love letters are a form of human rights work that goes beyond access to food and water. It’s about reaching the soul. Hannah channeled Mother Teresa and affirmed that “the worst kind of poverty in the western world is loneliness being unwanted feeling uncared for”.
Before she established The World Needs More Love Letters, Hannah worked at the United Nations in New York City. In between her meetings she would go to coffee shops and bookshops to fill up her time, but she felt very disconnected and lonely. She remembered getting letters from her mother left in coat pockets and lunches and found herself doing a similar thing, but for complete strangers. Leaving these letters in random places began to draw her out of her “fog”. She was not alone. Her love letters reached many people in their own states of loneliness, which drew popularity to her cause.
Hannah has no idea what inspired her to begin to leave love letters around NYC. From her story, it seems her mother’s own habit of leaving notes for Hannah and her identity as a “hopeless romantic type person” played a formative role in her actions. Her passion for building a lifestyle around being kind is an equally important part of her project.
Her project has frequently been called a random act of kindness, but Hannah does not want her participants to see it that way.
“Kindness has to run deeper than that…it has to be something that boils down to more than just one day”
In light of recent events, Hannah stresses that “we have to learn to be better to each other.” For,“The only thing that can beat out fear is love. It can’t be just a statement. It has to be something we live, through active steps.”
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