Email As History

“Sometimes I very much doubt whether in the future anyone will be interested in all my tosh.”
Anne Frank

It is said that letter writing is becoming a lost art. In the past, people took time to compose letters with pen and paper. The recipient had a hard copy of the correspondent’s thoughts that could be saved and savored years later. Those of us fortunate enough to have letters and journals of our ancestors possess priceless treasure. They tell us of a world we cannot visit and they can help us understand where we came from and what makes us who we are. Now, letters are often replaced by email. The quick note with haphazard spelling and grammar may go in the trash or be stashed on the hard drive and will often be lost at the next computer upgrade. If the email is saved on electronic media, how long before that format is obsolete? Will our children and grandchildren have floppy disk or CD drives or the software to read them?

Your email likely contains details about your life that you will forget in years to come. It is part of your history. As you age, dates, people and places will fade or flow together in memory. While we usually advocate living in the present, we also see value in remembering and understanding the past. Who we are is also who we were. To know the self, we ought to be able to look back at our past and see what was there. How are we the same as we were, and how are we different? Knowing the self, we can also gain awareness of the impermanent and illusory nature of the self. We probably weren’t exactly who we remember ourselves to have been years ago. We aren’t even exactly who we think we are today.

So here is the suggestion:  Treat your email as part of your personal journal. Make it part of your own historical record. Some email probably really is trash, but some is not. Save the stuff that includes information on what you have been thinking or doing. Stop to consider if what you have written or received might have some interest to you in the future when memory has faded. Or will it hold some interest for someone else in the distant future?

Create a few folders (directories) in your email program for saving emails of a particular type: Maybe one each for emails to and from relatives and friends; maybe a folder for emails that contain ideas or activities worth keeping track of. Thinking about your email style, you can come up with categories for storing the messages that will help keep it organized.

Backup your email files to external media so it isn’t lost when you get a new computer.

Consider printing out the good stuff so it can be read without a computer. Put it in a file or binder and keep it as part of your journal.

If you really want to make this a project, transfer the email messages into word processing documents by cutting and pasting the text. You may need to enter the email date and sender manually. Then you can organize the messages any way you want and printing won’t take so much paper.

Whether you do any of this sorting or saving or not, take some quiet time to look back at what you have written in the past and reflect on the changes in your life and the changes in your psyche. How have you stayed the same and how have you changed? What was important to you then that seems less so now? What were you thinking and feeling? Do some of your thoughts appear to be core beliefs, those unchanging beliefs that shape your relationship with yourself or the rest of the world? Do they need to be challenged?

Writing as Meditation

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© 2004 Tom Barrett