We've found comfort just a click away

September 10, 2002|By John Timpane

PHILADELPHIA -- The events of last September persuaded me to refresh connections to friends and acquaintances throughout the years. Like many Americans in this uncertain time, I wanted to know: What had people done with their lives? What were they now?

That's why the last 12 months have been, for thousands of us, The Year of E-mail.

Good, old e-mail: written and read when convenient, born without the inhibitory politesse of phone calls (you don't even have to say hello, or even address the recipient), and, once sent, instantaneously delivered.

All that leads you into an intense psychological space. You write spontaneously at great speed. You can make errors and be confident the recipient won't mind.

A trail is blazed straight from the seat of passions to the fingers. You don't revise. You write intimate disclosures of great emotional volatility. People get straight to the point -- of what they feel, of their lives, of life. E-mails are first drafts of the heart.

And under the pressure, against the shock of Sept. 11, such passions focused even harder: "I just realized you live near New York. Can you tell me how you are? What is happening to the world? Can you tell me what is happening?" Or "I want to believe that there's still good in people, but it's hard." Or "Just needed to vent. You work at a newspaper. Can you tell me what does it all mean?"

People all over the world, talking about the weather ("So humid tonight here in Oahu"), about a child dead of cancer ("Andrew taught me that life can be short, that you should really try to enjoy it and that having friends is more important than anything else"), and mainly about their gratitude for friendship:

"You are about the closest thing to a brother I have ever had, so I will be a little brotherly until you tell me to go away."

"You are so-o-o-o good for my psyche. Thank you for writing those kind words."

"Don't think you're boring me with your troubles -- isn't that part of it all? Surely a big part would be bearing the burdens that life entails -- bearing it together."

"I don't always have somebody to talk to and that's why I write all the time. Hope you feel the same."

And did people ever sing their troubles? A world for each person. Marriage, disease, money, disappointment, failure, elation, triumph, kids, work, a fair amount of sex, religion, much politics.

Some days I've simply been exhausted by the sheer weight of human relation. Or by laughter. Or by stories. The only person I'll name is a very old friend, Michael Hingson, a blind man working on the 78th story of the North Tower when the plane hit. His seeing-eye dog, Roselle, led Mike down stairs and stairs to safety. You can bet we've traded some pretty great e-mails.

The virtual world is only virtually virtual: Behind this curtain of electronic impulses are human minds and bodies. Those were real people at my grade-school reunion (grade school! class of 1967!) in a little California desert town this summer. We'd gotten back in touch, made a Web site, organized the whole thing via e-mail.

My old classmates were lovely -- and all they could talk about was their thirst to hear from their friends after Sept. 11. It was comforting to realize that good people persist in the world, that many good people have stayed good and continue to spread the good.

Maybe the blizzard of truth and relation will settle down after a while. But this need to connect, to trust and to reveal, this need to be intimately reciprocal with others ... it's erotic, as many researchers have shown: It's an exchange of selves that is personal, provocative and pleasurable.

But it's also a reaching out for the solace people derive from trading voices, from talking about life while the kitchen kettle steams, from asking "How are you?" and listening hard for the answer. Sept. 11 made people more curious about the lives of others. In leading us to be more in touch, better friends, Sept. 11 made thousands of us better people.

John Timpane is commentary page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Columnist Thomas L. Friedman is on vacation.

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