Sometimes you read something that makes you pause. In fact, when I was on the subway reading this, I put it down and haven’t stop thinking about it since. I happened upon it in the New York Times Magazine and while it’s short, I found it incredibly beautiful. It’s about the passing of a journalist, but what you take away from it is much more.
In August, David Rakoff — a longtime contributor to and friend of this magazine — died of cancer. He published three collections of essays and finished, days before he died, a novel (in rhyming couplets) that will be published posthumously. He acted in movies and plays and was a regular contributor to the radio show “This American Life.” What he was best at, though, was friendship. Below is an excerpt from a letter sent to Rakoff, shortly before his death, by Ariel Kaminer, which Rakoff’s family agreed to share.
You know how much I love you, but what I’ve never told you is how much I’ve learned from you.
Here is the simplest lesson you taught me: Don’t trade up.
In terms of three-word volumes, it ranks right up there with “It gets better.” Like that more famous line, it starts out as a bit of simple, practical instruction — don’t back out of a social engagement just because a snazzier offer came along — and broadens out into an entire perspective on how to live. Don’t grade friendships on a hierarchical scale. Don’t value people based on some external indicator of status. Don’t take a competitive view of your social life. There are very few rules I carry around with me every day. Don’t trade up is one of them, and I truly can’t tell you how many seemingly complicated situations it resolved into clarity and fairness. I am grateful to you for that.
You came to this realization, I gather, about 1990. I read the essay in which it appears a full 20 years later, and it was still only just slowly dawning on me. I knew, of course, we were supposed to strive for kindness. But I hadn’t yet gotten to the point of clarity that your simple sentence brought: cutting wit can be fun, but at some point you have to decide what’s more important to you, and the options are not equivalent. It seems insane, or worse, that I didn’t have that epiphany until I was 40 — years after I had aged out of those drunk-witty-and-cutting nights out on the town. I was just cooking for my family and going to bed. But until I read your essay, I had not put away childish things. You grew me up.
Here is a third. It’s the big one: Be grateful and humble and mean it.
The other day a friend found me in a sad state. When I told her why, she shook her head in disbelief and said something like, “Someone like David Rakoff can have all the talent in the world and all the most devoted friends and all the adulation, but when something like this happens, none of that makes any difference.” I knew exactly what you’d say: It does. It makes all the difference. I know you feel that way without even asking you, because you’ve always described your gifts and the company of your friends as humblingly good fortune. A lot of people say things like that, but few could do with it what you do. And that’s because you mean it.
Humility should be easier for me than for you to practice. I don’t have millions of people racing to their radios to listen to me, devouring my books, guffawing at my jokes, applauding my performances, crying at my movies. And gratitude should be easier for me, too, because for God’s sake, I don’t have metastatic cancer. But it isn’t. I still lose sight of the big picture and feel petulant and entitled. Thinking about you helps.
This has nothing to do with the nobility of suffering. I would just as easily have said all this the year that I met you as the year that I will lose you. What’s so astonishing, however, is that you would say the same thing in both those years. I don’t know a lot of people, maybe no one else at all, whose values are that clear and that unshakable.
Your friendship is a powerful force. You bake bread, paint denim jackets, craft pear lanterns, adapt screenplays, talk through breakups, pay sickbed visits, slice freezer cookies and give home décor consults for more people than I’ll ever meet. I can’t do what you do, but I think about what motivates your kindness, and I try to learn from that. I’ve done it from the earliest days of our friendship, and I plan to keep at it for a great many years to come.
Thank you for giving me that chance, and for being my friend.