Monday, March 16, 2020

Advice to my 17-yr-old Self

Every parent wants their child’s life to be better than theirs. My son is a baby, but someday, he won’t be. Someday, he will be on the verge of adulthood, and I will be in a position to offer him the advice I wish I had been offered, advice to improve his circumstances and avoid regret.

What advice is it that I wish someone had given me?

I imagine myself at seventeen years old, brimming with possibilities and as-yet-unfulfilled potential. At seventeen, I am on the cusp of greatness, standing on the precipice of adulthood. One step will send me plummeting forth into the unknown, and it’s with the extreme confidence of teenagedom that this ghost of my past self steps forward, blissfully unaware that he doesn't have a parachute.

I stretch out a hand, and open my mouth. I have a split second to dole out some grand counsel to slow his nosedive into adult life. What advice can I give him in this singular moment, with one foot already poised to step down into the chasm below? There are an infinite number of parachutes I could scramble for, each one a piece of wisdom or guidance that will make his descent a much easier journey.

When the human mind turns to the “what ifs,” it invents a series of scenarios designed to correct its regrets. I regret, for example, that I gave up acceptance to an Ivy League school in favor of State, all in a bone-headed attempt to rescue an already-doomed relationship. Should I advise myself to go to the superior college? If I had done that, I would have missed out on meeting my future spouse in my senior year. Every piece of advice, every parachute, that I can conceive, is designed to prevent some catastrophe from my own past. But every regrettable catastrophe led, in turn, to something better, something I don’t want to give up.

As my seventeen-year-old self waits impatiently for his release, I realized that all the instructions I have for him share one thing in common. They are self-focused. Each is an attempt to rectify a personal past regret, because the feeling of regret is such a negative one. Yet, regret serves a purpose. Regret is the emotion that a mistake distills into, a bitter medicine that is remarkably effective at shaping our future selves. Fundamentally, regret is the advice our past selves give to our future selves. Every piece of advice I have is an attempt to alter a bad decision, but by doing so, I will rob myself of the experience of the consequences.

As I look back at myself at seventeen, I realize that, somehow, all of my past mistakes have resolved, and what I am left with is a present I can appreciate all the more because of the arduous journey it took to arrive here. Would I want to change my seventeen-year-old self then, at the risk of sacrificing myself now? I would not. I have already made peace with my regrets.

Perhaps the best counsel I have to offer this seventeen-year-old specter is to try to find that peace sooner. When faced with adversity, I have always dug my heels in. There is no confidence like the confidence of the righteously indignant, and I learned early on that anger was an empowering emotion. I displaced fear, sadness, and discomfort with it, and for years, I was a stubborn skeptic, jaded, convinced that this was what maturity looked like: the chain-smoking cynicism of a cop in a Noir film. Now, I see the next step, past aggression, is a fierce compassion rooted in self-control. A refusal to be made cruel. Compassion need not be synonymous with passivity; forgiveness can be as empowering as anger when wielded correctly. To be a kinder and more forgiving person is to be vulnerable, but that vulnerability itself can be worn as a sort of armor.

I don’t want to change my past as it affected me, but I want to change my past as it affected others. I wish I had not mistaken antagonism for strength.

How can I summarize this complex truth to a seventeen-year-old, when it’s one I only arrived at after years of hardship, and one whose applicability relies heavily on the context and mechanics of experience? Even if I could dispense a single piece of perfectly crafted, succinct, and overarching advice to myself, I doubt I’d follow it. In fact, I know I won’t. I will dismiss it with a cocksure attitude of teenage smugness. Part of the process of growing up is discovering certain truths for oneself, and doing it the hard way.

My seventeen-year-old self has waited long enough. He turns. I lower my outstretched hand. I have no advice to offer, only encouragement. Someday, I’ll watch my son take this plunge, and my job as a parent will be to let him. As I watch my teenage self step off the dizzying cliff of adolescence into the abyss of adulthood, I extend no parachute. Because the truth is, he’s going to land, eventually, and when he does, he’ll be just fine.

Where the sidewalk ends is where adulthood begins.  
And what a beginning it is...

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