If "brevity is the soul of wit," as Shakespeare once wrote, it might explain why text messages have more soul than many long-haul conversations.
I saw three people standing on a street corner the other day, presumably all strangers to one another, all talking on cell phones. I felt lucky to have turned mine off. I was walking to the library and thinking of how mariners once composed letters in distant lands and sent them on ships to loved ones back home; letters that had to encompass all the poetry of a journey and the pathos of separation, lessons learned and memories revisited.
That was when "elsewhere" still existed, before satellites made everyone feel as though they were sitting around the same coffee table.
To go somewhere meant adventure and longing. And there was always a good chance that the letter might never arrive for one reason or another, that a hundred sorrows, joys and revelations would be thrown in the wrong sack or dropped off the dock and lost forever. Yet even then, French philosopher Blaise Pascal was compelled to write, "I wrote you a long letter because I didn't have time to make it shorter."
Cell phones give us the freedom to be apart when we are together, like in a city when one wants to explore and the other wants to stay put. They also allow us to be together when we are apart, no matter how important being apart might be. Pulling the heart strings tight every now and then, even getting to the end of my rope and hanging there a while, can be very instructive. Overly convenient means of communication can make me glib, or worse, empty.
The text message is a different animal altogether. A little beep lets me know I will find a treasure on the line. It comes when someone out there has punched in a distilled piece of themselves. I sometimes appreciate an abbreviated piece of slang from the right person more than a 10-minute ramble from others. Personality gets condensed and the air stays clear. There is no listening for hidden meanings and no hunting for innuendo.
And most importantly, it calls to mind quickly that most necessary communication of all—a little face to face.