Could writing a letter to a stranger save your life?
As documented in her 2015 memoir, If You Find this Letter: My Journey to Find Purpose Through Hundreds of Letters to Strangers, writing letters to strangers saved Hannah Brencher’s life. Hannah isn’t transgender, and she doesn’t appear to have suffered a lot of trauma. Yet she, like so many trans and non-binary survivors, found herself feeing alone, depressed, doubting her faith, and unsure of what to do. Riding the New York City subway one day, she thought of her mother’s insistence on writing actual letters to her:
I was…thinking about the love letters my mother wrote and how she must have known an ordinary piece of loose-leaf paper morphs into a love letter when a person puts their self into it. Suddenly, the words steam off the page. Suddenly, your hands are caked with the remnants of someone else’s understanding and compassion and goodness.
Spying an old woman she felt strangely drawn to, she pulled out a piece of paper and began writing. The woman was long gone before the letter was finished, so she tucked it inside her notebook.
Something broke inside of me when I wrote that first letter. Maybe it was the silence, maybe it was the need to make everything look perfect from the outside, but the truth was staring back at me from the page. I could have slabbed honesty thick onto everything that day because it made me remember how it felt to let things out instead of holding them inside of me until something exploded.
She wrote many more letters in that notebook before she began tearing them out and leaving them in places where others would find them: “If you find this letter…then it’s for you.” As she began sharing what she was doing, people began asking for letters. She publicized her email address, offering to write letters to anyone who asked her. The response overwhelmed her.
You’re no longer alone. That’s the first realization you have when you promise love letters to any person in the world who asks one of you. You’ve never been alone. All this time there have been others, crouching off to the sides, who were lonely too. It seemed like everybody had stories of loneliness inside of them. There were so many of them. We could build entire cities out of the stories of loneliness. There would be bridges and fountains and libraries and cafes, all made out of the thick stacks of loneliness.
She could, she realized, “turn [my] whole life into a love letter.” So she did. She built a website (http://www.moreloveletters.com/), gave a TED Talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/hannah_brencher_love_letters_to_strangers), and began recruiting help.
She also noticed something else:
[T}here was always something about the people who requested a love letter for someone in their life. It made the whole process feel different. Each word became much more intentional, knowing someone who be holding that letter soon and asking, ‘Who in my life loved me enough to ask for this letter?’ If that kind of feeling could get stirred by just one love letter showing up in the mailbox, the impact of a couple hundred love letters might leave a person speechless. They might actually feel wanted, and sort of invincible, at the end of that day.
Her website offers two ways for people to involve themselves in her work. On the homepage (http://www.moreloveletters.com/) you can sign up to have fresh letter requests to your inbox every two weeks. At (http://www.moreloveletters.com/the-letter-requests/) you can read selected letters and contribute to the “love bundles” being constructed for those individuals.
Want more ideas for how to use letters to build bridges from your loneliness, depression, or current distress to others in need? Check out the website (http://loveletters2strangers.com/), Pinterest’s collection of letters (https://www.pinterest.com/boxkat/letters-from-strangers/), and Tumblr’s forum (https://www.tumblr.com/tagged/letters-to-strangers). If you have friends you’d like to get involved, check out this blog post (http://bonnyadventures.com/love-letters-to-strangers/) describing a Meetup to write and distribute letters.
In her TED talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/hannah_brencher_love_letters_to_strangers), Hannah points out that millennials and the generations after them “have never known themselves loved on a piece of paper.” You can give that gift to someone – and give it to yourself in the process.