Dear Teenage Me
Ah, to be young and foolish. Trite. Youth is so obviously wasted on the young. Platitude. And just plain wrong. Youth is fleeting. Stop and smell the roses. Seize the day! Oh my God! You have got to be kidding.
You idiot. (Now you’re talking.) Wipe that smirk off your face. I suppose you think you’ve got it all figured out. Well, news flash: you don’t. Here are a few things it will be very helpful for you to know. So listen up.
1. What you put into the world matters. It matters for the world and it matters for you. Right now, you think of yourself as a person who has wandered into an elaborate play, where everyone already knows his or her lines, the set and props have all been selected and provided for you, and your task is simply to play the leading man. In your earnestness, you simply want to be good at doing whatever is expected of you.
Life doesn’t work that way. The world is actually like a countless number of improvised, one-man shows, all performed simultaneously. Sometimes we catch a word or two of the monologues from the various plays being performed near us, but taken out of context, they make little sense. Sometimes we succeed in convincing ourselves that all those people are in fact spectators at our show, but that’s a lie. Like you, each of them is performing for an empty theater, a theater full of phantoms.
So it comes down to this. You will have to make a decision. Do you continue to delude yourself that the universe revolves around you? Or are you willing to accept a minor, supporting role (on occasion, at least) in this person’s and now that person’s production? By doing so, you will enrich both their lives and your own. But be aware that the challenge of resisting the Siren song, the hypnotic chant that says your own life experiences are the only ones that truly matter, will not be easy.
2. Life is not school. You don’t get a grade at the end. No one shows up when you’re on your death bed to pat you on the head and congratulate you on a job well done. If you try always to do the right thing, fine. If you are determined to be a nice guy, fine. If you volunteer at a homeless shelter or a nursing home, fine. If you fight corruption in government, crony capitalism, polluters, oppression of women, bigotry, child abuse, whatever — more than fine. Just don’t check the mail every day for a report card with an A+ on it. It won’t happen. You could believe that virtue is its own reward, but you’ll be better off forgetting about rewards entirely.
3. There are bad people. Not just misguided. Not merely ignorant. Not only wounded people who were once victims of abuse suffered at the hands of their ostensible protectors. No, plain bad. And guess what? That’s not your fault. If a bad person does something nasty that affects you, directly or indirectly, that’s not about you. Don’t take it on. You are not responsible.
4. There are unhappy people, too. You cannot make them happy. They can only do that for themselves. So no need to practice your song-and-dance routine. You won’t be needing it.
5. Learn the definition of the word “grace.” Be on the lookout. It will arrive unexpectedly.
You will have left your canoe on the riverbank in the early evening, miles short of the takeout point you’d planned to reach on this day trip. You’ll be hitching a ride as the light falls, hoping that someone will agree to drive you upriver, back to your car. Yes, three guys, homeward bound after a hard day’s work. You’ll make conversation in the car on the way there. You arrive. You offer money. It is declined, first gently then firmly. After you drive back to the country store where you flagged down the car, you ask the owner behind the counter whether your three saviors shop there. They do. Will she accept money on their behalf, to cover their groceries when they are next there? She does, but very reluctantly. “It can be a gift to a person to let them do something kind for you.”
That, my 14-year-old self, is a moment of grace.
6. Laugh. (You could tell him to “let his hair down,” but of course anything concerning hair is a sensitive topic for you.) As often as is appropriate. There’s so much more that I could tell you about tears and laughter, but there are some things that you probably need to learn for yourself.
7. If you use a toothbrush to mix the several gin and tonics you are drinking in rapid succession with your friends on Spring Break, it stands to reason that for days afterward every time you brush your teeth, you will want to vomit. Think ahead.
8. Just because a girl glances in your direction does not mean that she has been struck by a lightning bolt of love for you. Fantasy versus reality: there’s a difference.
9. It’s absolutely not true that “everything happens for a reason.” That’s just stupid.
But it is certainly true that once something has happened, you have a choice. On the one hand, you can imagine that the “you” to whom it did not happen is off in some alternate universe — the “real” you — living a better life. Happier, wealthier, and wiser. A thought that will fill you with regret, anger, resentment, a sense of grievance, or something similar.
Or this. You could choose to believe that everything we experience in our lives, from major life stuff to the most trivial and mundane eventlet — your mid-afternoon snack, your short conversation with the person at the cash register, reading a thank-you note from your recently married cousin — all of that without exception makes up who you are. And so if you are more or less okay with who you are, then you can live without regret.
10. And related to that, remember this is you, too. Yes, you will make a few trips around the block in your lifetime. But every time you come around the corner, it’s still you. Looking reasonably happy, by the way.
Photography by Bill Rose