Imagine two friends, one on Mars and one on Earth. A silent vacuum separates the two. How could they possibly keep their friendship from cooling off? The answer seems obvious. We now have the technology to send a message from one planet to another faster than it takes to roast a chicken. Online messages are instant and almost entirely free. Is the Internet then the best way of preserving long distance friendships? My friend does not live on Mars, but in a foreign country on Earth. We became friends at a language school in Spain, where people would hang out after class, have lunch and go to tapas bars. It was here that Lorenzo and I bonded. Conversation was fluid, laughs were plentiful. We were both students of philosophy, and it seemed to be the start of a long friendship. But after three weeks everything was interrupted. My time at the school was over, and I was leaving Spain. Would Lorenzo and I stay friends, or would our communication fizzle out across the seas and continents? The day before I left we met in the shadow of the great cathedral. As we stood there and talked we decided we would keep in touch. And we did, in a way. Thinking that instant messages were the easiest, and therefore the best way of staying connected, we started doing what most people do and tried to keep a steady stream of chat messages going. But the chat had a way of exhausting our communication. Our once interesting conversations became superficial. The messages lacked gravity, were carelessly typed and sprinkled with emoticons that somehow cheapened everything. In the end we grew weary of messaging each other. After a while I started wondering about the best way to preserve a long distance friendship. With today´s technology it should be a simple matter, even if one of us lived on Mars. After all, “staying in touch” is easier than ever. Where messages once travelled at the speed of horse hooves or pigeon wings, or even by the wheels of a motorcar, they now travel on the backs of electrons. But as my friendship with Lorenzo was fraying, I started wondering if it's not just a matter of staying in touch, but of how you stay in touch. I kept wondering how people did it in the past, when there was only paper and pen. This led me to an idea that felt hopelessly old fashioned and somewhat insane, but the more I thought about it, the more convincing it seemed. The idea was classical, yet radical, timeless, yet behind the times. The idea was to write letters. Of course I had my doubts about it. This was not a mere postcard with a few lines about my holiday. There would be whole pages in which I mused about some philosophical issue, wrote about life and asked Lorenzo to share what he wanted. I had never written quite this way to anyone before, and it made me feel vulnerable. Who did this sort of thing today? To my great surprise Lorenzo liked the idea. It took a month for the mailman to deliver his reply, but the long wait only increased the significance of the words. He wrote about feeling much more open and honest in a letter than on his phone, and it showed. Suddenly there was a fullness to our communication that had been absent online. There was no longer any limit to how deep or complex one could get. We started writing about the meaning of the alphabetic symbols. We wrote in depth about our lives. And somehow, what I had thought impossible was happening: despite the distance, our friendship was growing. In the past I would have thrown myself in the couch and typed a few lines on the phone with an emoticon or two. It was cheap and easy, and no proof that I valued the friendship more than that. The instant nature of it was an upside, but it paled in significance to sitting down at a desk, grabbing a pen and shutting off all distractions to write a thought out letter that would survive into the future as a testimony to our shared existence on this earth. Every time I sat down to write a letter I felt strangely present. I disappeared into a calm vortex, feeling very much “outside” the frantic rush of the day, connected only to my recipient. And the whole process of writing the letter and paying for its journey was a tangible proof of how one valued the friendship. Furthermore, the handwritten lines conveyed metainformation that the standardised digital fonts lacked. How straight, thin or ugly the letters are, how hard you press with the pen, all these things can show sadness or peace, stress or pedantry, almost like a body language of the pen. The Internet is very good for “staying in touch”. But when it comes to keeping friendships alive, a handwritten letter can offer the next best thing to meeting face to face. So how could a Martian stay friends with an Earthling? I believe handwritten letters would be an effective and down to earth solution, if only a mail service were to be established between the planets. Friendship must to be nourished by a sense of presence, even when we feel separated by millions of miles.
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