During my morning ritual of coffee, checking email and scrolling through Facebook, I came upon a question that caught my attention: What advice would you give your young self? I’ve come across that question before. But this morning I began to ponder: What advice would I give my younger self?
To answer that question I need to get reacquainted with my twenty-something self—it’s been a while, a long while.
When I reenter the mind of my younger self, the first thing I remember is how unsure and alone I felt. There was a hole inside me, a gaping, empty space; one I didn’t know how to fill, or what things were needed to fill it. I remember driving one particular evening, my daughter fast asleep in her carseat, through the car window I watched a full moon rise in an exquisite scarlet sky. Instead of feeling awe, I felt empty and alone. Without a hand to hold or another pair of eyes to share the spectacular moon, I was unable to appreciate the view before me. I spent far too many years searching for someone or something to validate myself. And even today, I cannot identify what, exactly, would have filled that empty space.
I often compared myself to others, a habit that increased with a vengeance in my young adulthood. I wish I was as thin as her, or as pretty as her; if only I said clever, witty things. I believe this is a common theme in a young person’s life. Trying to figure out exactly who we want to be by observing the qualities we admire in others, trying them on to see how they fit, how they feel. Throughout my twenties I collected things I thought were important. None of those things made me feel better about myself, most were ill-fitting and temporary. I spent that time running in circles, searching.
I made decisions quickly and without enough thought. And before long I agonized over every choice, if only I’d done this instead of that. I knew it was impossible to go back, but for years I tortured myself with regret. There was a continuous loop of my life replaying in my head. I focused on every mistake and fantasized what my life would be if I’d chosen a different path. It took me a long time to fully accept that you cannot go back, no one gets a redo—no matter how strongly you desire one.
On my journey for acceptance I hurt people; I shamelessly used the weaknesses of others to make myself look or feel better. One night I was out with friends at a diner. We waited a long time for the waitress to take our order. I wanted to impress my friends with my sharp wit, so I blurted out something I thought was funny. I said to that poor waitress, “Did they have a sign in the window when they hired you that said, ‘Looking for someone who is slow, dumb and fat?’” There was silence at the table. No one laughed, and rightly so. I am not inclined to forgive my young self for that mean spirited remark. I’d like to ask my teen-aged self, “What were you thinking?”
So what advice would I give my younger self? What would I say about that empty space and self-doubt? How would I address the many imagined scenarios of roads never traveled? How do I help that young woman forgive herself for those she hurt along the way?
First, I tell her how much I admire her strength and courage, her outspokenness, her drive and determination to do the right thing. I tell her to take the time to breathe in her unique beauty. But I’m not sure she will believe me. I might offer her a magic amulet to hold when she is unsure, or a golden compass to point her in the right direction, or a special talisman to lead her to self forgiveness. Or, I can wrap my arms around her and whisper, “Slow down. You don’t need to have it all figured out. Breathe. Laugh.” I reassure her that it will all work out exactly as it is supposed to. I tell her the empty space will disappear, that one day she will realize it is gone, and she will never know the exact moment it vanished. I cannot tell her she will never be lonely, but I can tell her she will be content and very happy in her own company. I tell her that her mistakes will lessen and her kindness increase. And lastly, I tell her to have faith: she will find her true love.
The paradox is that most of these concepts can only be realized in a more matured mind. One that has stumbled through life’s difficult obstacles and decisions and has come out the other side, not only alive, but better and more complete with each passing day. Only then, can you see and appreciate the wonder of your true self.
Which leads me to another question: what advice will my eighty-year-old self have for my middle-aged self? I hope I get to find out.