I was thinking.
If you could travel back in time and find the younger version of yourself, what would you say? What would you tell younger-you?
There are movies about such things. A guy is older and hates his life, then goes back to talk to the younger version of himself to set things straight. There are books and blogs that tell the same story, varied in one way or another. I’m positive that almost every older person has daydreamed and wished for the ability to teach their younger-selves a lesson and prevent pain, or mistakes, or regret.
I don’t usually check the rear view, but every once in a while I think about “MAN, how awesome would it have been to know this-or-that when I was seventeen.” I think about how differently things would have been for me as a kid if I’d known then what I know now. Or how different my world would be right now if I’d made a different choice for school, or work, or relationships. Like a line of dominoes, the first few tipping in a different direction would have laid down a whole separate path.
MAN I wish I would have known.
There’s a problem with this idea, though.
I was thinking about it, and I remember what I was like then.
Back then, KNOWING would not have been EVEN CLOSE TO ENOUGH.
I imagine being seventeen. I’m sitting in my room late at night, totally awake because of the anorexia-induced-insomnia, studying for an advanced placement history test, thinking about being cheated on and dumped by a stupid boy. I’m listening to classical music on my dual-tape-deck stereo, my pink touch-tone phone is on my desk and NOT RINGING because no one ever calls.
Into the room walks older-me. I look at older-me and FREAK THE FUCK OUT. Set aside the obvious “WTF” with regard to time travel, I’d be FLOORED. “ARE YOU SHITTING ME, THAT IS WHAT I LOOK LIKE WHEN I’M THIRTY-SIX?!!” I’d be pissed. And probably disgusted, and likely depressed. I would want to hear what older-me had to say, if for no other reason than to learn what NOT to do.
I’d look at older-me, a heavier, lined, wrinkled, matronly, exhausted, run-down version of myself, and say “WRITE DOWN EVERYTHING, EVERY DECISION YOU MADE, then title the list “NEVER.” MKAYTHANX.”
I know me. I remember younger-me. I remember what I was like, and even if I could tell younger-me how to fix what I think via hindsight should be fixed, I WAS STILL YOUNG. And stubborn, and stupid. And no matter what I KNEW, it wasn’t KNOWING that was the problem. I wasn’t lacking intelligence, I KNEW A LOT.
What I DIDN’T do was understand.
I had no wisdom.
I hear people talk a lot about “if I could do it differently,” and “if I’d only known.” They think that the KNOWING would have prevented their suffering. In most cases they’re probably right. The problem is, THE SUFFERING is what MADE you understand. There is wisdom to be had in going through the shit. Going through the shit GAVE you the understanding. We change when we suffer. We’re tempered. Like a pressure cooker changes the food inside of it, through pressure and heat and time we become tender and palatable. We become MORE. We go from being a chewy, gristly piece of crummy meat to a tender, succulent, desirable meal.
Without the suffering, older-me would have very little to teach younger-me.
I mentioned it once before, but the difficulty with raising children and bettering ourselves and managing people comes when we try and develop CHARACTER. When we try to develop wisdom.
Today’s self-help books are a collection of lists. “DO THESE TEN THINGS TO FIX YOUR CAREER.” They’re checklists, providing people a list of actions to take in order to climb the ladder or work the system. Popular self-help books avoid the concept of character because by today’s standard character looks a lot like hard work. People don’t want to hear that they need to WORK, and be humble and honest, to put in the time. They don’t want to hear that fellow co-workers are not stepping stones, or that they need to show respect to each other and their superiors. People don’t want to sweat and stress and PUSH, they want an easy checklist. A go-around. They want a way to fast track to the top with as little effort as possible. “Just do this.”
[…..sounds shockingly like popular diet fads and pills and the mindset of being healthy, doesn’t it. “Don’t work hard and sweat, just follow these steps and take this pill.” But I digress…]
If I went back and told younger-me how to be better and how to avoid pitfalls, that’s what it would be. A LIST. A checklist saying “do this, don’t do that, make this decision, avoid that person, grab that opportunity.”
Younger-me would never, ever understand why she did what I told her, or why those things were important. She could follow that list, but she would not end up where I am now.
Where I am NOW is “wiser.” I’ve got strength through trial and adversity. I have been pressure cooked, beaten on, tempered, and broken down. The result, though, is an inner strength and an ability to persevere that I would not otherwise have.
Instead of wanting younger-me to have a list of things to do and not do, I wish I could go back and give her my wisdom. My character. I wish I could help her UNDERSTAND some things. To really GET IT.
Younger-self, this list is for you. (I know how much you like lists.) Take it and read it and try deeply to understand that no matter WHAT YOU DO, BE WHO YOU ARE. As you try to comprehend the lessons I’m giving you, understand that they were learned and earned through trial and suffering. None of these lessons came easy.
1. For the most part, your parents have no idea what they’re doing. There is no testing required for intelligence, capability, intention, or knowledge before conception. As much as they would have liked it, you did not come with an instruction manual. Your parents are trying to navigate through the unknown, trying to do the best they can with what they have. They’re just like you, only instead of having just themselves to be concerned about they also have YOU. Be aware that your parents have a constant, never ending, daily and forever awareness of your existence. This especially true of your mother.
Assuming that your parents know what the hell is going on with themselves, let alone with YOU, is a huge mistake. Assume that they don’t know most things most of the time. DO NOT ASSUME THEY KNOW NOTHING. I know this is popular among teenagers. Your parents do know STUFF. They know a lot, and a lot of what they know you can’t even comprehend because you haven’t screwed up enough times yet. GIVE IT TIME, you will learn by making your own mistakes. THEY have learned the things they know by making their own mistakes. THEY WILL CONTINUE TO MAKE MISTAKES. Cut them a break, understand that they’re flawed and crooked, that THEY are still learning, and take what they say with a grain of salt. Listen to them. Maybe if you listen you won’t have to screw up as many times as they did.
If they’re doing their jobs right their only desires are to love you, and to make sure you’re equipped with sufficient tools to navigate the world without them. Believe it or not they do not want you living in their house forever. They want you to be successful and accomplished and to find joy in the work you do. They want you to feed yourself and do your own laundry not because they don’t like doing those things for you, but because you will respect yourself when you can do those things on your own. Feeling “grown up” is pretty great.
A true and total understanding of this concept you will not have until you have babies of your own.
2. Sex is not a bad thing. You will want to have it. That’s okay. It’s NORMAL to want sex. For a while you’ll want sex all the time, and that’s also normal. There’s nothing wrong with you. You are not broken. Sex is wonderful and amazing and spectacular if you do it right, and in order to do it right it takes practice. I want you to have sex, and a lot of it, and for you to enjoy it without shame.
Keep in mind that sex is something that you cannot ever, ever take back. You give a piece of yourself away to every partner you choose to have sex with, and once that piece of yourself is gone you can never, ever get it back. You might tell yourself that you’ll marry the first one you have sex with, and that’s possible… but what if you don’t? If you’re not going to marry that person someone else will, and you’re doing it with someone else’s future husband. More importantly for YOU, someday, somewhere, someone else will need to know about the pieces of yourself that you gave away, and you will have to watch their face and hold their hand and tell them they’re not the only one.
Maybe that’s not a big deal for you, but TRUST ME. When you find THE ONE, the right person, the one you want to live your whole life with, when you find the person that gives reason and meaning and PURPOSE to the entire concept of fidelity-commitment-marriage, IT TOTALLY SUCKS to tell them that they don’t have ALL YOUR PIECES because you gave some away to someone else.
So. Before you’re even close to being in a situation with someone that will make you steamy and burning, think about the piece of yourself that you won’t ever get back. Do you really want THAT GUY to have it? ARE YOU SURE? Before you’re hot and sweaty and your loins are throbbing and you need to have sex RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW, STOP. Take a deep breath, detach from the glitter and shine of the moment, and think. Think about what you’re giving away. Think about the pieces you’d be giving away NOW, and the pieces you will consequently not be able to give to the last love of your life. If you still feel like you need to have sex, do it without regret. OWN IT, enjoy it. Understand though that there are consequences for every action, and not all of them are worth it.
ALSO UNDERSTAND that “I want to have sex” IS NOT A GOOD ENOUGH REASON TO GET MARRIED. Not even a little bit. DO NOT let “wanting sex” guilt you into marrying the wrong person. NOT WORTH IT.
3. Hard work is hard. Do it anyways. In fact, find hard work and do it on purpose. YOU CAN DO HARD THINGS. You can do more than you think you can. When you feel yourself breaking a sweat, keep going. When you want to quit because you’re run down, KEEP GOING. The best things I’ve ever accomplished required a measure of mental toughness toward the end because I didn’t have anything left in the tank. Set reasonable goals for what you want to accomplish and then crush those goals by working hard. Break nails. Get dirty. Use your legs, not your back. Never let “because it’s hard” be a reason that you don’t try.
4. There is no such thing as perfect. Stop trying to get there. Perfect is not real. An illusion. No matter how good something is it always, always has room for improvement. No matter how great you do something there will always be someone else that can do it better. YOU WILL NOT EVER BE PERFECT. YOU WILL NOT EVER BE THE BEST. You are a flawed, imperfect person living in a flawed, imperfect body living in a crooked and bent world. Perfect does not even fall inside the radar screen while we live on this earth.
Your body will never be perfect. In fact, the body you have RIGHT NOW is the best body that you’ll ever have. After tomorrow, the body you have tomorrow is the best body you will ever have. When you’re my age THIS BODY I HAVE RIGHT NOW is the best body you will ever have. Treat it well, and take care of it.
STOP STARVING. You need food. Stop binging. If you’re eating enough you won’t binge. Food is not the enemy, it is a tool to get you to where you want to go. No matter how skinny or strong you are the body you have will be a mass of wrinkles and moles by the time you’re 80. LET IT GO, accept your human-ness, accept that you cannot beat biology or time. Do what you love, exercise when you can, find joy in moving around, use your body to experience the world. LIVE IN IT, live through it. STOP mentally traping yourself inside of it.
Get the grades you get, stop trying for straight A’s. Stop worrying about doing it PERFECT and just DO IT. Find something that you love and do it until you FINISH. It’s more important that you finish and enjoy the ride than getting to the finish line without a flaw. Just GO. Stop being afraid that you’re going to make mistakes and just GO. YOU WILL SCREW UP. When that happens stand up and brush off and try again. Put your best effort into everything and learn from the mistakes.
There is no such thing as perfect, but there IS a such thing as “right.” YOUR “right.” Find what is right for you and go for THAT.
5. There is not one single person in the world that is like you. No one else thinks like you, acts like you, assumes what you assume, does things the way you would do them. You are an individual, unique and spectacular. SO IS EVERYONE ELSE. Treat other people the way you want to be treated, because they are just as spectacular in their own way as you are in yours.
Never assume that anyone else understands you, because they never really can. Never assume that you understand other people, because you never really can. No one can ever understand you the way you can understand yourself. Anyone that tells you “We are exactly the same” is lying or delusional or trying to sell you something.
Assume that anyone you meet or deal with is only telling one percent of their story. If you don’t like how they make you feel or how they act, choose to not spend time with them, but don’t hold a grudge. Understand that there is likely a lot going on inside of them that you’ll never know about. Give people a break, even the assholes.
When people do things differently than you would, or they make choices that you wouldn’t make, say “OKAY,” and carry on with your life. Most of the decisions other people make should not even blip in your awareness. It has nothing to do with you. It is not ABOUT you. It doesn’t matter if they are gay, straight, religious nut jobs, atheist, black, yellow, white, pro-life, pro-choice, married to their same-sex partner, or married to their dog, if it doesn’t have a direct impact on your personal possessions or basic human requirements (air, food, water, sleep, shelter) then it doesn’t matter.
People will assume that you are just like them. They will be upset that you don’t choose things they would choose, and you don’t do things the way they would do them. Some people will distance themselves from you because you don’t make sense to them and they are unwilling to understand. Let them go. Some people will disdain and ridicule you for the things you do that they don’t understand. Tell them to fuck off. They can accept you for what you are and what you do, or they can not. That choice is theirs.
DO NOT change who you are for other people. People come and go in your life, and if you behave in ways that are only acceptable to you because they are acceptable to others, you will be sorry. The people will leave and you will be left alone, standing on a path you had no desire to walk in the first place.
6. Age does not equate intelligence. Experience should not imply wisdom. People that are older than you will feel they can tell you what is best. Hear what they have to say out of respect, but do not let their opinions about you and your life override your own understanding. THEY ARE NOT YOU.
People feel they are better than those around them because they are thinner, or more educated, or more worldly. Because they have more money or better skin or a faster car or bigger muscles. NONE OF THIS IS TRUE. Those things they have make them THEM. Those things they have do not make you any more or less than what you already are. Find your own path, let them walk theirs. Measure yourself by your own stick, not by one that was handed to you by someone else.
7. Words are the most powerful weapon we have. Spell correctly. Use proper punctuation and grammar. Understand that the very core of your being and everything that people believe to be true about you are reflected through the words you use.
EVERY WORD that runs through your head, comes out of your mouth, or is typed by your fingers needs to be given the same measure. Say nothing via technology or second-hand conversation that you would not say face to face. Say ONLY what you really mean, and mean every single thing you say.
Use your words to defend, protect, and secure your integrity. Do not use words to hurt others on purpose. Speak carefully, and speak LITERALLY. Do not infer. Do not imply. Do not assume that anyone knows what the hell you’re talking about, or that “they should just know” without you having to tell them. Do not use a passive word when you really want to be aggressive. Do not use words as hand grenades when you’re angry or upset.
Words cannot be unspoken. One poorly timed, hurtful word can cause broken hearts, years of arguments, and endless hurt feelings.
You have two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion. LISTEN first. Listen second, and then speak third. Seek first to understand before you try to make yourself understood. Practice active listening and pay attention when other people talk. Use the time they’re talking to form empathy and compassion, not to put together in your head the next thing you’re going to say.
Understand and accept that very few people follow these rules of verbal engagement. Believe NOTHING that you hear and only half of what you read. Passive-aggressive communication is rampant. Ignore any attempt by anyone to engage that kind of behavior. If they don’t come out and say it, it doesn’t exist. Do not assume things that are unsaid.
Demand from any important relationship that the other person follows the same rules of conversation that you have for yourself. If they do not follow them and are unwilling to learn them, WALK AWAY. IT IS NOT WORTH IT. YEARS of life I’ve lost trying to talk to someone that wouldn’t listen, arguing with someone that wouldn’t fight constructively, and feeling bad because someone thought or felt something they wouldn’t say outright. NOT WORTH IT. Relationships are built and held together by the words inside of them. If there are no words or primarily non-productive ones, the relationship will take away from you more than it puts in.
8. You are going to die someday. Time is finite, you only have so much. Every second, minute, hour, day, week, month, year that you spend doing something you don’t care that much about is equal time you could spend doing what you love.
UNDERSTAND THIS: YOU WILL RUN OUT OF TIME BEFORE YOU ARE READY. This should freak you the fuck out. You should not panic, but you should understand the need for pace and intensity and purpose and intention when pursuing your passions. You should also understand what a complete waste it is to strive for anything other than what you love, and what you feel called toward. DO NOT WASTE TIME.
Play hard. Work hard. Follow your dreams. Dream big and go for broke. The only thing you will be sorry for at the end of your life is that you didn’t do enough of what you loved. Minimize that sorrow by doing as much as you can with the time you have.
Consequently, BE ON TIME. Understand that time is a fleeting commodity, and to steal another person’s time by being late is to take from them something they can never get back. It’s rude. Plan ahead and be on time.
I write all this and I wonder if I would have listened. I’d like to think that I would. I hope I can teach my kids what I’ve learned, and express to them the importance of finding their own path.
If nothing else I really do like lists, and I would have appreciated it for that.