WorshipWeb: Braver/Wiser: A Weekly Message of Courage and Compassion

Connecting Across Differences

By Anonymous

“Real letter-writing ... is founded on a need as old and as young as humanity itself, the need that one human being has of another.”
—Agnes Repplier

My penpal and I like emoticons. Smiley faces, surprise, anger, laughter, sadness, tiredness, surprise—they all pepper our letters. Nothing too odd about that, right? Except we both hand-draw these characters to each other with pen on plain white paper.

A man in an orange prison jumpsuit reads a letter, smiling.

My penpal and I don’t have much in common. He has been imprisoned for many years for a long-ago crime, spending most of his day in a cell with a concrete floor. He’s young, Mexican, loves watching basketball, and has little to occupy his time. I am old enough to be his mother, white, work full time, and have an abundance of opportunities for entertainment–but watching sports isn’t one of them. I have never been confined.

Add to these great divisions the fact that we don’t share photos of each other. Therefore, letter writing was a challenge for me, as I usually envision the recipient when I write, picturing them smiling at the good news or sighing at the frustrations, just as my words intended to convey.

I remember the difficulty of my first letter: Would he understand when I meant something to be funny or sad? Does he even read cursive writing?

On a whim, I inserted a Japanese emoticon, or kaomoji, in my letter, which uses symbols for eyes to express emotion versus the American-style symbols for the mouth to express emotion: (^^) instead of the American : ) . He loved them! They sparked a firestorm of correspondence about our mutual appreciation for Japanese culture, where we would like to travel, and what inspires each of us.

A hand, holding an older model iPhone, with a menu in Japanese for many different emoticons.

Examples of emoticons on a Japanese phone

New differences between us are revealed with each letter; we may never agree on some. These differences are softened by the things we have in common: the taste of oranges in winter, the pleasure of a good run outside, travel—and emoticons. And the emoticons help heal our differences by filling our minds’ eye with the emotions of the other.


Holy One, praise be for our connection. Praise be for letters, filled with the emotions of the other. Help us to learn from each other. May we have courage and determination to journey together, bridging our gaps with a smile. (^-^)

Editor’s Note: The name of our author, who's a member of a UU congregation, is being kept private in keeping with the safety practices that are part of CLF’s Worthy Now prison ministry. If you're interested in this form of connection, please consider applying to be a Worthy Now Pen Pal.