As Dr. Rick, the fictional pitchman for Progressive Insurance, leads seminars on how not to become your parents, it's pretty clear his students have a long way to go. My favorite attendee is the guy who thinks he's hash-tagging; my favorite scene is the group's trepidation when asked to open a PDF.
You would think our analog-to-digital conversion would be further along, given the abundance of digitally connected doorbells, washing machines, smoke alarms, sprinklers, garage doors and sump pumps.
But alas, we still make fun of those who haven't boarded the digital train. Even the Oxford English Dictionary has gotten into the act with one of its definitions of "analog": "Unaware of or unaffected by computer technology or digital communication; outdated, old-fashioned."
Calling Dr. Rick.
Along with the multitude of other everyday tasks we've sent to analog pasture, everyday handwriting has been largely replaced by the use of computer keyboards, smartphone screens and voice recognition. With little need for a pad and pen, we take tests, write letters, make grocery lists, and text our family and friends — mostly with fast thumbs or slow index fingers.
The advantages of texts and e-mails are obvious. But is something lost when we abandon handwriting?
This question is a hot topic among elementary school teachers. Should children even learn cursive writing (or printing, for that matter), or is keyboarding a more practical use of limited time and resources?
Or do we impede learning when we sever the connections between the brain, the nervous system, and the fine motor skills required to process and write down a thought?
Beyond these educational debates, I believe there is signal loss between senders and receivers when we go all digital. We know from handwriting experts that each stroke of a pen carries a visual DNA that is unique to each writer. Manuscript scholars are able to differentiate one hand from another, even though medieval scribes did their best to generate uniform calligraphic text.
Handwriting experts are adept at identifying forged signatures because each of us has a unique (dare I say analog?) way of starting and finishing letters.
But it doesn't take a handwriting expert to know who sent you that birthday card. Just a glance at the elegantly rendered address on the envelope told you it came from Mom. It was both a message and an original work of art physically connected to the person who raised you. For my wife, her dad's large, slanty script matched his colorful personality. He passed away many years ago, but his letters still bring a smile to her face.
When our daughter, Carolyn, was in high school, she handwrote a wonderfully dramatic note declaring her room off-limits. The trials and tribulations of being 16 were captured beautifully in the bold strokes of her black Sharpie — on both sides of the page. It was an edgy work of art, forever curated in my desk drawer.
Handwriting can also provide some Walden Pond-like benefits. In Commentary magazine, Andy Smarick wrote about his 2020 New Year's resolution to write 366 letters to friends and relatives by hand. ("Letters in the Time of COVID," June 20, 2020) He learned that the act of writing forced him to slow down, disengage from the digital world and meditate:
He writes, "I quickly realized two things. First, handwriting letters was, in fact, calming. Finding a still, comfortable spot at the end of the day, putting screens and other distractions aside, and focusing attentively on corresponding with someone was a balm for a frazzled mind and frayed nerves."
Initially, Smarick received few responses. But after COVID hit, he received at least a letter a day, each one a "handcrafted treasure." When was the last time you described a text that way?
Another beautiful testimony to the power of the written word is Bruce Springsteen's latest release, "Letter to You." In the opening stanza, he sings:
Got down on my knees
Grabbed my pen and bowed my head
Tried to summon all that my heart finds true
And send it in my letter to you
Clearly, this letter is an act of love, confession, pain and, hopefully, redemption. There is a physical connection between the words on the page and the writer:
I wrote 'em all out in ink and blood
Can you even imagine the Boss typing this?
So at the risk of becoming fodder for the next Progressive ad, pick up your favorite pen and write a letter to your brother, your college roommate, an old neighbor or that aunt you haven't seen for a while. There is no better day to begin than this Saturday, Jan. 23 — National Handwriting Day. Your penmanship may be lousy but who cares? Aunt Jenny would love to get your letter.
Jim Triggs is the executive director of the Saint John's Bible Heritage Program at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minn. The Saint John's Bible is the first handwritten Bible commissioned by a Benedictine abbey in over 500 years.