always write the letter

In November 2010, Christopher Hitchens was dying of cancer. Gaunt, bald, and sallow, he gave a 30-minute interview to the BBC, which turned out to be one of his last.

At the end of the interview, BBC presenter Jermey Paxman asked Hitchens if he thinks his life has been one well lived; Hitch responded in a way I hope to never forget.

“I’ve been encouraged in the last few months by some extraordinary, generous letters and these are the ones I take most to heart, from people I’ve never met or don’t know,” Hitchens said. “If they say that what I’ve written or done or said means anything to them, then I’m happy to take it at face value, for once, I say ‘I’ll take that.’

“And yes, it cheers me up. And I hope it isn’t written with the intention of doing so, though I must allow for it possibly being that reason. But in case you are watching this, anybody, and you ever wonder whether to write to anyone, always do because you’d be surprised how much of a difference it can make. I regret not doing it more often myself.”

A month later, Hitchens died. He was 62 years old.

I write this to echo Hitch’s message to you, the anyone reading this at home: Always write the letter. Always send the message.

There’s a paucity of niceness online. Often, a new notification on social media for me triggers a feeling of dread – what kind of threat or argument will this be? Email brings about a similar feeling.

Knowing this and knowing that others likely experience similar feelings each day, I’ve been trying to send at least a few nice messages per week to people I don’t know (mostly) whose work I’ve appreciated. Many respond, others don’t – but I do not write for the response; I write because I genuinely appreciate what they do.

After all sent messages, I feel better to know that I may have made even just a few seconds of someone’s day better. And they earned it.

You’ll never regret sending a letter of admiration and you’ll always feel better for having spread a moment of joy. Sometimes I get nice notes at work or for the small pieces of writing I scribble out (or, every so often, a nice note for something here), and it always changes my day. A small word of kindness – although I still have trouble showing my gratitude in my reaction –makes me realize that what I write sometimes reaches people. Sometimes it makes them feel happy or sad. Sometimes it makes them think. Every time I hear about any of this happening, it astounds me.

Another reason to always write: Preempt regret. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I should have said or written before having the chance taken from me. I’m thinking about what I could have written to people right now as I write this sentence.

When my mom was dying, there seemed to be so much left unsaid that I couldn’t say anything at all. The rush of regret sprayed out like a broken fire hydrant the night she died. I was a child and had no idea it worked that way, but I’ve taken that feeling to heart. Other people have been here today and gone tomorrow, last impressions left as lukewarm handshakes and half-assed smiles. It doesn’t feel good to let them slide away.

There is a lesson to be learned: Write the next note before it’s too late. Always write the letter. Always send the message.

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