“We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart.”
Last night, while rummaging through an old shoebox collaged with magazine clippings of sandy beaches and words like Be Beautiful, Strength, and Peace-–I found letters I’d written myself when I was 16.
These letters were addressed to an older version of myself, a twenty-something-me that sixteen-me dreamed she’d become—a young woman with everything figured out, with all her problems solved.
One letter had the number 21 written in thick, purple ink on the envelope in place of an address. I’m guessing this was the age I was supposed to open it. I’m currently 28, seven years late to this reunion.
The letter I wrote to my future self was short. Its writing was large and erratic, as if I’d been running away from a wild animal while scribbling thoughts on paper.
The letter was simple in its demand, although its demand was not simple.
It said, very clearly, By the time you read this letter you should be completely healed. You should be over all your crap.
Um, okay. No pressure there, right?
A person who’s completely healed? What does that even look like—a Superhero with no human frailties? If so, that’s not me.
I stared at the letter, at its wildebeest words, and felt like my head was a balloon, floating up, up and away from my body.
This is what anxiety has always felt like to me—like I’m part floating balloon, part firmly rooted tree, the two parts of myself separating like oil and water.
Panicked thoughts sparked like wildfire, and I wondered—was I a completely different person now? Was I over “all my crap?” Or, had I just accumulated more crap during the last 12 years?
What if I had opened the 21 Letter at 21 like 16-me had instructed? What if?
What if I had done it all so differently?
But I didn’t.
I didn’t do “it all” differently. The truth is, that at the time, I lived the best way I knew how, which wasn’t always the healthiest. But it’s done. The past is non-negotiable.
I went through crap. I fought crap. I let crap defeat me. I let go of crap. I found more crap. I got back up. I took a breath, or two, and then the process started all over again—and that’s life.
Life is messy and imperfect. It’s beautiful and alluring. It’s sometimes crappy and it’s sometimes almost-perfect, but never-ever perfect.
These musings on life were obviously not something 16-me grasped. She thought she could, by 21, become a completely healed person—and to be honest, I love her for that. I love the optimism she possessed. I know how dark those days were for her. I remember the pain she felt, and I love her for wanting to heal.
But if I wrote to her now, I would tell 16-me to face her pain.
I would advise her to write a letter to her present self about who she is and about who she wants to be right now—asking her to resist the urge to imagine herself in the very distant, ever-changing future.
I would let 16-me in on the truth that life is all about moving through darkness and into light, moving from dark spaces into well-lit rooms, and that this cycle often repeats itself.
We are not meant to avoid pain, I’d tell her, but we are not meant to live inside its shallow palm forever either.
I would say, life is about movement and this is where people get stuck. They don’t move. They resign themselves to a painful way of living for too long.
And this is where we went wrong 16-Me, 21-Me, 27-Me. We lingered within the problem—we did not let go.
We did not, as Pema Chodron says, Come together and fall apart. We arrived at pain and ignored it. We wrote ourselves letters filled with future intentions of a time when we would be so many healthier things, instead of attempting to be those things now.
We delayed, postponed, ran—and that’s the way it was, and that’s okay.
There is only right now.
And I would write in my letter to 16-me that I am not who she dreamed I would be.
That I am 28 and just starting to wake up.
And I would tell her that we don’t get to live each moment within the crystalline bubble of perfect clarity. That things swoop in, like illness and trauma, and change us—shaking the ground beneath us, making it harder at times to walk our path.
And I would encourage her to be as present as possible within her life—to stop numbing herself. To strive towards loving herself and others, to practice kindness and compassion.
And I would remind her, and my present self, that we cannot wait for a future version of ourself to swoop in and save us. We cannot write a letter to 33-Us and demand that she be all the things we’re unwilling to try and become right now.
We must not dwell on fixing things, but truly see them, move past them—letting go of what we can.
Reminding ourselves—we are in the process of becoming something, and never becoming one thing.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise