Sunday, January 12, 2014

Letter to my 21 year old self

Pretty sure I was 21 when this photo was taken.  Or maybe 20. 

Dear Self,

You are living on the top of the world right now.  Your 21st birthday was spent on Flathead Lake in Montana, you went out to the Great Northern bar in Whitefish and danced with your friends.  You are headed back to your senior year at Augustana College.  You feel like you have MADE it.  You feel like you are a completely formed adult right now.  You feel like you know who you are.  You are feisty, you are opinionated.  You are a feminist, you are an outspoken pro-choice activist and gay rights activist.  In fact, you seem to have a an "activism flavor of the month."  Life seems pretty black and white.  Right and wrong.  Liberal and progressive is good.  Always.  Conservative is bad. Always. You don't really seem to have an understanding of how you impact other people. But all you know, is that you are a grown up, and your knowledge and liberal arts education and opinions are a gift to the world and you are going to keep sharing them (or ramming them down people's throats).   You've spent so much time thinking these things, that certainly no one else has ever had these thoughts before, and the world needs to hear them.

Looking back, ten years out, I sometimes wish that I could have just a little bit of the stupid confidence that you seem to have had at age 21. But a decade later, there are some things that I wish I could go back and tell you, although I won't, because we all need to learn them.

First, nothing is ever completely black and white, particularly when it comes to beliefs, values, or opinions.  Everything is gray.  Everything. You will be working at Planned Parenthood one day, and strike up a conversation with some very gentle Catholic pro-life activists.  You will realize that other people hold their values just as closely as you hold yours and you will realize that openness and listening to others is the way that real change happens, not militant shouting. You will end up living in intentional community with a friend who is a very conservative evangelical Christian.  He will become a close friend and he will teach you how to love others before judging them, and he never points out to you that you were judging him first.  He only listens. You will meet many people along the way who teach you about places and situations that will forcefully expand your comfort zone.  And you will be better for it, but it will be painful.

Next, right now you think you have a pretty good grasp on issues of social justice and feel the need to tell everyone about them.  A year from now, when you are working in a homeless shelter, you will fall to your knees when you realize that you really know nothing.  Things are far more nuanced than you realize.  You've spent a lot of time bashing political/fiscal conservatives or people who don't think the same way that you do as being ignorant or misguided.  You will come to realize that most people are basically good, and most people are just doing the best they can at any point in time with the resources that are available to them.  You will feel a lot less exhausted when you stop trying to take on the world and make the world see things from your perspective. Just being, and doing the best you can with what you have, is all that you can do. And that is enough.

And being a fully self-supporting adult is really, really hard. Right now you have all these values, like having a fulfilling job that will change humanity for the better and traveling the world. But then real life will creep in, with all these boring things like car insurance and root canals and saving for retirement. You might not find the job of your dreams at age 22, but you need to find a job to support yourself.  And guess what, that is okay.  Because work doesn't define you.  You will go on to travel a lot, and that's okay too.

This might come as a shock, but most people don't actually care about the earth-shattering revelations that you have uncovered in College.  Everyone that goes to college ends up reading Betty Friedan, Simon de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Ghandi, queer theory, interfaith dialogue, and so on, at some point. They've gone out into the real world and gotten jobs and learned important things like how to play well with others and make compromises, and that's actually worth more that being able to recite feminist theory anyway. You will make valuable contributions to the world, but learning is just as important as teaching and doing.

So calm down, take a deep breath, and just be.



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