174. What I Learned From Throwing Out Old Letters

Sorted 5 bags worth of old letters not so long ago. Some of them from 1989. Most from the mid- and late 90s. Back when you still wrote letters …

It’s actually some months ago, but since I’m continually revising and cleaning up both my house and my life, these days more than ever with baby-Jay as our new family-member, I figured this experience still is relevant to recount.

And to remember – for me.

Here goes:

Sorting old letters is something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. These letters, from many different friends, have been lying around in bags, coffers, boxes for years – and gotten more and more messed up each time I have moved.

I postponed sorting them, of course. There were always more important things to do, and perhaps that was right. But at this point in life I can feel it is very important for me to order things, to clear out the old which no longer serves me. Whether it is goals, relations – the non-physical. Or the physical: Old messes.

Or the stuff in-between: Letters – stuff – but also symbols of old relations.

As such, cleaning your old letters (or emails) can be very instructive as regards your priorities for friends and friendships.

And like going through an important operation, it can sometimes hurt, but ultimately it is for the best that you do it.

Sometimes it takes effort and a little bit of sting in the heart, and quite a bit of will, to get something done that is long overdue on a very important front.

And become clearer about what you need now that you did not need then – in terms of friendships especially.

Here are some thoughts:

1) I threw out several pounds worth of letters from an old friend I am still in contact with. They were very nicely written letters, sometimes 25 pages long, often with illustrations cut out from magazines.

But they were dead-weight. The stuff we discussed back then was very short-sighted and ego-centered:

Our own ideas about friendship, love and work and creativity. And mostly it was about convincing the other that his ideas weren’t as good as my ideas.

In short, these letters represented to me a sometimes fun read, but also a level of immaturity that both me and my friend have long since moved away from. Hopefully in a better direction.

I don’t think biographers from the future will miss them either.

So it’s a bit like the past in general: Some of it is just ready to be let go, because it is no longer relevant – like toys you once cherished but which really, really don’t mean anything to you as an adult. Not even for nostalgic reasons.

The past stuff doesn’t give you anything in the present. You have learned those lessons, moved on. You no longer care about certain topics. And good for that.

In what ways does this relate to existing relationships?

I think it is relevant if your ‘friendship’ exists mostly because of some intense experiences you have had in the past: Some stuff that happened in the past, which may have been good and all but which is no longer relevant. And nothing new has taken its place.

No new common interests, shared values, mutual projects or the like.

I’ve had friendships like that, where we kept seeing each other for years – not even realizing how much we had drifted apart on all accounts. But we kept seeing each other, going to the movies together, sending out birthday invites etc.


Because ending a friendship more or less formally – or informally by letting contact wind down … that is a hard thing to do. In many ways there is probably more taboo around this than ending a romantic relationship.

For the ending of a romance there are certain rituals. Certain things people are used to hearing. Certain phrases: “He broke up” … “She wanted a divorce” … “We had grown too much apart.”

Have you ever heard anyone say that about a friendship? “I want a divorce from our friendship?”

No, me neither. But perhaps it is something we should find a word for.


2) I kept a lot of letters from a girl I once knew and cared a lot for  – as a friend – but who actually ‘broke up’ with me. As a friend.

It was quite official. We had a falling out about something and she sent me an email explaining in no uncertain terms how she felt. I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was tantamount to a request for ‘divorce’ – just from our friendship and not from a romantic relationship.

Why did I keep her letters?

Well, for one I am not angry with her. Seen in retrospect, I think she did the right thing. I wasn’t really being a good friend for her at the time – rather needy and pushy, I guess.

But before that – in earlier years – we had a very close and wonderful friendship. Unfortunately, it soured because I was in a state of mind that made me somewhat egocentric, and she was focused on other things – living and making a career abroad, included.

That didn’t make things easier …

So isn’t this dead-weight? Shouldn’t I throw out those letters, too?

If I thought she somehow still resented me, I would probably consider it. But I don’t think she does. It was 15 years ago and I have heard a little bit from her since, mostly in the form of a greeting here through a shared relation and an accept of a request to link up through a social media network – but without further contact.

It feels like the board has cleared. Maybe I am wrong, but sometimes you have to go with your gut. And she was right in ‘ditching me’ back then, after all.

So I keep her letters, as a testament to my appreciation of what was good between us.

But I won’t be pouring over them on certain evenings, with a glass of wine in the other hand – feeling Very Nostalgic (and a bit sorry for myself). That would be dead-weight. It would not serve me.

Or her.

So if you can use the old stuff for something positive – in this case an honest appreciation of what was good …

… If you can accept what was lost …

… then keep letters.

How could this apply to relations?

I think it’s the same deal.

If you are divorced … if you fell out with a friend whom you had had a good time with for years … or if you just drifted apart …

In all of these cases, there is no need to throw out memories of what WAS good. Keep them – but only if you have truly let go of what was bad. If you have forgiven. If you have accepted the loss.

Otherwise the old need, the old pain, the old grief, the repressed anger … it will still be fresh, like a wound not quite healed. It will attach itself to the good and pollute it.

It won’t serve you.


3) Some past stuff contains such power that it hurts. Power to move you.

To get something *back* that was lost and which you let go of – but shouldn’t have. Not really.

As such, I found a stack of old letters from my dearest friend. Hand-written. Typed. Printed on the ol’ dot-matrix printers …

They were filled with such joy, wonder, humor, warmth and edge … encapsulating everything that was wonderful about out friendship and still is …

… when we are together.

Because often it might be half a year or more. A phone call or two. A few emails – short. And that’s it.

It doesn’t matter. In principle.

This friend is one of those friends I will have to the day I die. Or he dies. There is no doubt in my mind of it. And I have learned to accept a lot about our friendship and the possibility for its constant renewal.

For example, I have learned to accept that it is possible to renew it even if we only see each other every 6 months. And it is acceptable because his family and other commitments are that important to him. It’s not that I am unimportant. He just has much more on his plate than I have, in terms of relations. For a number of reasons.

It may sound like a cop-out but that’s reality. And you know what – there was a period when I did not accept that, and everything seemed to sour between us.

I was angry he didn’t call that often. Or whatever.

But then … when I did accept it and began showing it 

–  first of all by not pretending that he owed me …

– second, by paying more attention to what he needed from me instead of what I needed from him …

… then he did call more often. Or write. Naturally. I don’t think he was even aware of the change.

I think he was aware of it, though, when I began focusing too much on what I felt he owed.

But the old letters aren’t about that.

The frequency of our communication is a given. The quality of our friendship, too.

Today these two are given. Because of the life he leads. And, actually, because of the life I lead, too. With our mutual priorities.

So what then?

It’s the letters, dammit …

The form … there was something extremely personal by the form of these letters:

Long, well-thought out, going on about all sorts of topics – taking in what had happened over some time. Reflecting …

Not just the more situational, short-time-focused phonecall. Or email.

These are not always like that. And they can be deep, too.

But the letters were always more … More in so many ways, but especially as regards the reflection. About life, the universe and everything. Like snapshots of eternity. The eternity that somehow was our very temporary lives, and all we felt and dreamed about.

I dunno how to explain it.

I don’t even know how to act on it.

Could we write letters again? Would we be able to prioritize it?

Is it even the right form? What about longer phone calls? We have had those, after all …

Maybe more Skype-meetings?

Is it even necessary to do something, since I have just admitted that I feel our friendship – its constraints in time and communication notwithstanding  – is in a very good place?

I’m not sure. But there was so much power and beauty in these old letters that I want to find out.

I want to find out if there is something more I can do – we can do – and agree on – which could renew our friendship again. In 2015.

Something we may have forgotten or not attended to, whilst letting things pass as they passed …

It should be positive. We should both feel for it. There should be no forced dimension to this. No neediness.

And no sense of guilt or blame if it just fizzles.

It should be like we have found this old box of wonderful-ness from a time that was, and we look at it in marvel – the old letters – and ask ourselves:

Is there some of this marvel we can add to our lives today? In a new form perhaps, but still … ?

Not because we feel a lack, but because we want what we have to grow.