03/20/2015

Dear younger self

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I wish I could get a letter from my 55-year-old self, telling me what I need to know today, like how I am telling you now what you will come to realize on your own.  You are 16 years old and your world is a bubble. All you know and care about are school, your friends, your clothes, your favorite bands. You don’t have to worry about real life yet, but life for you, however confined it is within the boundaries of school and home, is intense. It’s intense because of the growing conflict between your personal sense of independence and reality, or at least the reality imposed on you by your parents. You think you have the right to stay out late at night, and that a midnight curfew is embarrassing and unreasonable. You think you are expressing yourself by dying your hair green, wearing ripped jeans and smoking cigarettes after school; your mother thinks you are unduly influenced by bad role models. You buy interesting-looking CDs from bands you read about but never heard in music magazines; your mother confiscates them because of the shocking/lewd/devilish imagery and explicit language warning on the cover. You date an older boy because you find high school boys too immature. Your father grounds you for the rest of your life. Your personal battle cry becomes, “My parents just don’t understand!”

Does it get better? I’m sorry to say that it will get worse before it gets better. And I’m saying this now, at 35, that I’m not sure I’ve yet reached that “better” point. This is something that you will be working on for a long time, if not the rest of your life. You will come to understand your relationship with your parents — your mother in particular — differently as the years roll by, as certain milestones are met, like graduating from college, moving into your own home, and handing them their first grandchild. But you will never completely see eye to eye on certain things. To you, your youth was an exploration of identity, a testing of the limits of who you are and what you can be. To them, it was a series of mistakes and bad choices, the result of not having a strong foundation of the soul. This fundamental difference in truth will form the basis of your self-esteem in the years to come, because you will start to see yourself as a disappointment in their eyes, and no matter how good you do, it won’t be enough.

It will hurt. Not that a lot of time will be spent dwelling on your transgressions; hardly. But it is the silence that stings. On a few occasions you will tell your mom they are to blame for how you “turned out.” You will think about going into therapy because you just can’t seem to shake off these feelings of guilt. But you will shake it off because you’ve always known, deep down, that they have done their best, and that they have given you, through their own sweat and sacrifice, everything and more, whether you deserved it or not. And they are only human. They are humans who also carry the burden of the mistakes their own parents made, they are products of the environment they were raised in. And you will realize that somehow you were both right, and that you were also both wrong.

In the end, you just have to own up to yourself, and accept, even honor, your own differences. You will understand that you already have everything you need just being you. The best advice I can give you to live a life of inner peace is this: define success and value on your own terms. We can’t help get caught up in the world’s assessment of a life well lived: accomplishments and possessions, position and power. But you will not be truly happy trying to live up to the expectations and pressure other people place on you. Are you facing your own fears? Are you following your own fulfillment? Are you doing it all in your own time?

One day, you and your parents will be equals. One day, you will be the one worrying yourself sick about them. One day, they will be gone and you will thank them for giving you your greatest gift, the foundation of your soul.

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