Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Letter to My 14-Year Old Self: Be Kind to Yourself

(Written for the Good Men Project).

Hey.   I'm sorry I didn't catch you sooner.  I'm sorry that nobody caught you sooner.   First things first:  most things are going to be okay because most things will change.  Life will turn all of this on its head, not once but many times.  Sometimes, you'll even be the winner.  But that's not what this is about.

You lack control and  you know it.  You feel like you are always pushing against a current that is larger than you, and too often that current becomes a spiral of destructive thoughts and actions.  I know that you wish that the men in your family, your Dad, Grandfather, and Godfather especially, could help you figure it out or at least speak some meaningful words that would help things fall into place, but they can't.  Those men are from a different place (all NYC born) and era (born 1917-1952).   You are in damn Tidewater Virginia in 1988.   You need - you've needed - an older brother, a mentor, someone to answer tough questions.  That person never appears, it seems.  I wish I could say that particular thing gets fixed.  I'm not so sure.

The older men care so much and try so hard to get through to you, saying things like "Toughen up!" and "Buckle down!" and "Don't go looking for trouble!"  What do those things even mean?  I think they're things that men learned from being a little older than you, since they don't have any great advice about being your age.  That should tell you something.  Their advice pertains to men who are, say, 18 to 24, and are putting up a valiant struggle.  Young men who can exert some basic control over the details of their life.  Over each day's accomplishments.  When you're 14 and living in the boondocks, what daily accomplishments can you have?

Here's what you need to know:   First, some things will get much worse.  At times, you will question at a serious level why you bother getting up each day.  You need to be conscious and keep a level head about you.  You'll encounter very few things that cannot be fixed.  In time.  Most of them will fix themselves. In time.  Adding your negativity to them, unfortunately, can make them far more broken.  Don't give in.

Here's the bright side:  most things will get better!   One day, you'll have so much control of your day to day life that it'll seem like everything's a matter of just getting it on a calendar and not double-booking fun stuff.
Eventually, most days you will not feel that current trying to drag you.  You are the current. You are the force.

The best advice I can give you, though, is to be a good friend to yourself.  You haven't been kind to yourself, and that's a pattern that will follow you - maybe forever.  No matter what friends or what money you make, at some point you will need to believe that you are worthwhile and worth the effort.  That you have value behind the small stack of dollars you bring home on fridays.  As you know, the tough times don't come at 2pm when folks are wanting to chat over the phone.  Tough times come at 3am.  At 5am.  You'll meet and marry a fantastic woman who might never ever understand you.......completely.  You need the inner strength to figure out when to examine your feelings late at night in the dark, and when to tell other people to shove off for not respecting you.

Being kind to yourself is not the same as giving yourself permission to do bad things, or to do wasteful things.  Smoking 10 cigarettes and drinking 10 beers in a night is in some ways a reward (you'll try), but it won't make you feel better about anything.  It won't help you do anything better.   When you're feeling stressed, you deserve a quiet night on a warm beach.  Not a bottle of liquor.  You deserve a drive through the mountains or desert, listening to whatever you want to hear on the stereo.  You deserve to own the freedom you'll earn through the years.

Be kind to yourself.  You have survived a good bit, and you will survive more.   As you get older, you'll start feeling a drive to live, not just to be alive.  When you stick up for yourself, most will listen, because they'll see the fire in you.  Every day you continue - pushing, striving, churning, a wake is being pushed out behind you that extends your legacy across other people and deeper into the future. Some days you'll see your impact pass you, like a boat when it slows down.   Your reputation will travel faster than you ever can.  When it's good, it's called a "good reputation" because it's like having your own hype man to introduce you before you enter the room, all the time.   When it's bad, it's called "chasing ghosts," though, and chasing ghosts is impossible.  You cannot travel faster than the bad stories that are told about you.  Do good, be good, and speak well.

The point is this - the problems and endless cycles you feel like you deal with day after day - they're gonna go away.   They'll be replaced with new ones, but those too will go away in their own time.   Don't be hard on yourself for the things at which you're not succeeding.  Apply yourself toward meaningful things that have impact on something.   Those meaningful things may just find you.  The journey of life is figuring out how to get from point to point, so the beautiful, meaningful things can expose themselves to you.   So if you want to move to Richmond, do it.  San Diego? Do it.   Treat yourself to a life of your choosing by making good choices and by treating people well.

I know you are energetic and feeling out of place and are working around the clock to gain comprehension for why things are the way they are.   I know that that kid Bobby is giving you a hard time every day on the bus, for no real reason.  A year from now, you will have punched him in the face and the two of you will be friends again, like you were when you were young boys.  He'll need you just a few years from now, when his step-dad dies, and he feels like he has no one - you and two friends will be the only people under 40 who bother to attend the funeral.  You'll never forget how he hugs you in that moment and weeps on your shoulder.

You're going to help people in this life.  You're going to make an impact.  So stop worrying so much.  Get some sleep.  Make yourself a good breakfast in the morning.   There isn't a whole lot that isn't possible if you stop beating yourself up over small mistakes and instead focus on how to tune them out.

You'll make it.

1 comment:

Mike Sepelak said...

Things every fourteen-year-old should hear. Thanks for speaking up, Kirk. Wish that I'd had such advise at that awkward time, though I wonder if I'd have believed it...