Living Into Some Answers: A Talk With My 17 Year-Old Self
I’m so excited for Emily Freeman’s new book, Graceful: Letting Go of Your Try-Hard Life. It’s a book for young girls, ages 14-18, and I can’t wait to recommend it to young girls I work with in therapy and ministry. Emily is a great writer and has taught me a lot about grace through her words. If you are not a regular reader of her blog, you are missing out.
I’m thankful that Emily has asked me to participate in her work by writing a letter to my teenage self. I might have thought that strange if I didn’t already talk to my child and teen self in therapy and have major life breakthroughs in that that experience. If you are wondering what I’m talking about, I write about that experience in my book The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good.
Anyways…thanks for the opportunity Emily.
I thought writing you a letter would come easy, but surprisingly it’s much harder to write to oneself than it is to write endless blog posts, articles…and even a book. Nothing quite strikes at one’s vulnerability than having to reflect upon and speak to one’s self. There are so many things that I want to say to you, but I’m fearful that if you were to take my advice, we somehow wouldn’t have turned out who we are today. And I just happen to believe that in spite of our flaws, weaknesses, bumps, and bruises, we are right where God wants us to be. I just have this slight hunch that all the things I wish we could have now done differently back then were the very things in life that God used to help us lean more on him and transform our life in the process.
But here it goes…
I was looking through our senior yearbook the other day and came across this picture. I have no idea what we are doing in the picture, but if I believe the caption we are apparently displaying our “patented ‘point and staredown’ before a football game.”
The irony in the picture is both comical and sad. Comical because anyone who played football with us knows we weren’t very good, nor played very much. And we definitely didn’t have a “patented ‘point and staredown’ (high school year book editorial freedom I guess). And sad, because underneath what might look like confidence in that picture was an anxious, fearful, not very confident 17 year old. Sure we had our moments, but I think about all the unknowns that journeyed with us through those years.
I guess the picture is a good metaphor for a lot of our life in that we put on a good front for everyone else to see, but underneath it all there is a lot of insecurity. And we have tried for years to keep it all below the surface, until we ran into a couple of great therapists in the course of four years of therapy. I remember walking out of therapy in October 2010 after I had a conversation with my 5th grade self. What’s up with all these conversations with myself anyways? But that was a watershed moment for us and the only advice I gave that 5th grader was to tell him that he was “going to be okay.”
And above anything that I tell you, I want you to stop what you are doing…listen closely…listen intently…and take this to heart:
You are going to be okay.
If you can believe that about yourself, then let me try and convey a couple of thoughts that might bring encouragement to you on the journey.
Here it goes…
I know how excited you have been to not only become a senior, but to just get out of high school. Finally, that anxiety you experienced everyday going to high school out of fear of having to read out loud in class, give a class report, call a girl up on the phone…some of that anxiety will begin to disappear a bit. All except for calling a girl up on a phone. You will have that all the way until your 28 and calling up your future wife on the phone for the first time. Don’t worry, you won’t stutter and she will say yes to that first date. I wish we would have figured it out earlier that mom’s death would be so traumatic to bring on stuttering in our lives.
Speaking of mom. I would encourage you to grieve and mourn more in order that you may more fully live. I know she missed a lot of important events in your life, and she’s not going to be around for many more such as graduations, a wedding, and births. We can’t change those things, but I would ask you to do one thing. Go and visit her graveside. That’s something you won’t do till your 21, and not again until you are almost 30. It’s okay for you to be sad and wish she was still around. You don’t have to hide that and pretend like you are always doing okay. Like somehow you made it out unscathed after her 5 year battle with breast cancer and her eventual death.
Also, I’m not sure if it was the loss of mom, or just the normal teenager stuff…probably both. But as best as you can, resist the urgent need to always have to fit in with the crowd or always seeking the affirmation of others. That is an insatiable desire that is never quite fulfilled.
That brings me to God. At 17, God is a huge part of your life, but you won’t be quite sure what to make of him or how that translates to life in high school. But if I can give you some guidance, lean on God. He will always be there, though you won’t always feel his presence. In fact, there are going to be periods of time in your life where it seems he has all but disappeared, but trust me, he is there.
Last, you are growing up in a world where being a guy means to always act tough and not show emotion. You will soon pick up on that message that you need to be able to fix everything in your life, and that somehow it’s even better if you can do it on your own. I know that you have a compassionate, tender heart. Take courage to get the help you need to navigate this life. Seek out life giving friends and communities of people that are encouraging. And know that it is okay to need help. You will seek your first counselor out at age 23, but I pray that you have more courage than I did and start looking for one in the next year or so. It will be a helpful guide on your journey.
These are simply just some thoughts that came to mind, yet it feels incomplete and not quite as good as it should be (yeah we will struggle with that feeling for a long time). But these words don’t change the fact that I’m proud of you. And it’s because of your heart and courage at age 17 that I am who I am 20 years later. Thanks for facing life the way you did. You did a great job, and I hope to one day pass on the same courage to my own kids.
P.S. I found this poem by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke when I was 25, and I hope it may express my thankfulness to you in some way.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked room and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Thanks Rhett for living the questions at 17…at 37 I’m finally beginning to live into some answers.