In the car. On the bus. In the classroom. In the bathroom. In the store. At the game. In the theatre. Right when we wake up. And right as we go to bed. Incessantly throughout the day and deep into the night, texting takes up a tremendous amount of our time, often without us even realizing it.
We’ve all seen the commercials cautioning against texting and driving with the staggering statistics to boot. On a smaller scale, we’ve witnessed professors profess to their pupils their disdain for texting in class, threatening not to pass those who do so, yet nonetheless, students still find a way. But what is it about this simple act of electronic communication that has the capability to apprehend our attention and prompt us to precipitously situate ourselves in precarious positions?
Is texting a pathological pastime to which our society must acquiesce, or is there a deeper mystical meaning to our messages? A sacred essence of our daily digital conversations? If we see texts as texts, documentations of our social experience carrying with it divine implications, we might get a better understanding of our underlying reliance on them as a mediating tool for communication.
Jungian psychotherapist Thomas Moore, in his book “Soul Mates,” dedicates a chapter to “Letters and Conversations.” He claims that writing letters has a profound effect on our soul in the sense that it serves our “soul’s organ of rumination rather than the mind’s capacity for its understanding.”
Writing letters requires ample reflection. Unlike face-to-face conversation, our words are chosen in precise, proximate and purposeful manners and we give extreme weight to what we decide to disclose and what we choose to conceal. All of this reigns true for texting, which can easily be seen as an advanced form of letter writing and sending. Moore maintains that there is an artfulness and thoughtfulness inherent in this method of expression.
Many of us have had the experience of ruminating over our word choice in the process of revealing bad news, texting a crush or engaging in an argument. Sometimes pressing send can feel like launching a missile. Even the shortest response can fill us with an insurmountable dread. One text can make a day or ruin a week, and waiting for a text back can fill us with anxiety like no other. Of course, this is only exacerbated when texting is our only means of long-distance communication with an individual. A text from an old friend or flame can be a game-changer in a rather mundane day — for better or for worse.
Our texts have the capacity preserved for posterity, as we allow each recipient to revel in the revelation of our own transient thoughts, emotions and experiences as soon as we press send. There’s an element of enormous trust between the sender and recipient, so fundamental to our texts, which is predicated on this notion of revelation and disclosure. In texting, we reveal information that we wouldn’t dare to discuss in person. We deal out details and disclose important truths, trusting that our musings are mediated in confidence. Yet, as French philosopher Georges Bataille asserts, any accumulation of knowledge is also an accumulation of non-knowledge. The more we unveil to one another, the more we realize how much more there is to be unveiled. The dangers of divulging in this medium manifest in the impermanence of our modern-day devices. Unlike face-to-face conversations, anything we say via virtual communication can easily be shared without our permission, taken deliberately out-of-context, re-purposed, re-defined and ultimately used as a “receipt” for later occasions. In other words, oftentimes in texting, curiosity can kill the chat.
Moreover, Moore asserts that the “person whom we write our letters to is more imaginal than actual.”
We have a perception of that person in our mind as we write out our message that is mostly made up and, for all intents and purposes, a falsified fantasy. We never truly know what the person behind the screen is actually thinking, doing or feeling when we text them, contrary to how they might communicate with us in the conversation.
Yet it’s the transient nature of texts preserved for posterity that endows them with a divine quality. As Moore states, “Re-reading (is) a form of reflective meditation.”
Texts are a portal to the past. They dissolve the lines between space and time, giving us more insight into our own or other’s feelings in a fleeting instance. Going through old texts from my family and close friends has made me see how our communication with each other has changed over time.
I recall recently re-reading texts from my old phone and coming across a group chat I had with close high school friends in 2019, the summer before I came to the University of Michigan. It was a very anxious August, as I prepared myself to move away from my hometown. I likened the experience of choosing between colleges to committing to a marriage, claiming I felt like a bride getting cold feet before her wedding. I talked about my expansive plans for my college experience and the different clubs I wanted to join — some of which I didn’t and some of which I did. Some of the things I dreamt about doing then, I would despise doing now. Yet other dreams became reality — like writing for a satire paper and joining an improv team. When I first went through those texts, I didn’t recall being that anxious before starting school (yet rightfully so) and I had forgotten wanting to be in all the clubs I never joined. The things I did want to do which came true shocked me as well. I couldn’t believe how long ago I had considered being a part of certain groups or organizations. Yet as psychology researcher Elizabeth Kensinger recounts, our memory is widely subject to distortion, causing us to forget basic details of past events from where we are, who we are with, what we are doing, etc. Our accounts of events are likely to change over time. Retroactive interference also makes it so that newly gained information interferes with our retrieval and memory of past events. In this vein, our old texts being recollections of events in relative real-time, allow us to recall more accurately how we felt in the past.
At first, I wanted to write those texts out to be an exemplification of my blissful ignorance, overt ambition and immaturity, but then I also found very similar texts this August, as I dwelled on my own anxiety and fears about returning in person after a year of virtual schooling. In the present, we’re divorced from our dialogues of the past, and our perception of what we wrote way-back-when is significantly altered with time. I’ve cringed at how I’ve responded to texts a week ago, was totally surprised at texts sent a month ago and utterly confused at conversations from a year ago. Nonetheless, I always admire how much I’ve evolved yet at the same time stayed the same. Much like back then, I still spend ample time storytelling over text to my friends, persisting in giving a creative, chronological retelling of every peculiar instance of love, hate, drama and comedy I come across in the day-to-day. Maybe it’s just the writer in me, but I really do be texting way too damn much.
In looking through old texts, I’ve noticed the subtle intricacies and complexities that vary yet also persist in my various conversations with individuals — how others and myself respond to exciting news and announcements (acceptances, jobs, promotions, releases, etc) or pressure and duress (losses, rejections, break-ups, etc). I also noticed the differing ways I said the same thing — in essence — to different people. Changes in dialect, code-switching, omissions of certain facts or the adding in of certain details, all became clear and clarified how I related to that person at that moment. In written form, it’s easier to recognize the distinct ways in which the people closest to us exhibit what Erich Fromm denotes as the four basic elements of love: care, responsibility, respect and knowledge.
Care and respect manifest in the simplest of syllables, the “I / love you” texts, sometimes given with reservation and other times with jubilation. It’s the paragraphs of pensive consideration and concern, the checking-in and hearing out. Responsibility manifests in responsiveness (responsibility meaning “being able and ready to respond”). When I was verbally accosted walking down the street in February, I was able to turn to my close friends over text who assuaged my fear and fright at the moment. Knowledge manifests in the knowing of those we’re closest to, being able to interpret what they’re saying and communicate effectively with them through such a separating mediated medium.
Moore posits that “finding words that truly express our feelings and experiences is an achievement of a high order.” With this in mind, we should strive to see our texts as [holy] texts. By doing so they become an artful and expressive means of communication rather than a trivial tool for talking.
MiC Columnist Karis Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.