A Letter to Myself at 17

12 Sep

If you could go back in time and give your teenage self some advice, what would it be? My super-talented good friend Emily P. Freeman, who blogs about the intersection of faith and ordinary life at Chatting at the Sky, asked some fellow writers to answer that very question. Her request comes as she celebrates the launch of her new book for teenagers: Graceful (for Young Women): Letting Go of Your Try-Hard Life. So here’s what I’d offer to myself at 17.

Dear Guy with the Full Head of Hair,

Stop spending so much time combing it. I know, it’s so thick and dark and unruly that keeping it under control is about as pleasant as listening to Milli Vanilli on your boom box.

Me at 17. Hair sold separately.

But you’re wasting your time. Because by the time you’re 35, that hair will be gone.

Life is like that – surprising, ironic, highly unpredictable.

That’s something you don’t get yet. And you still won’t for quite a while. You’ll walk into a Matisse museum when you’re 21, knowing nothing about art and caring about it even less, and his beautiful paper cut-outs will stop you in your tracks. You’ll think, “I want my life to be like this – bold and vibrant and energetic and still expertly organized somehow, with every piece exactly where it should be.” You’ll obsess over creating a state that is incompatible with life: order. Your inability to do so will cause anger, frustration, despair.

Trying to keep everything manageable, you will aim way too early for security and predictability and easy answers. You will develop a very narrow view of who you are and what matters and where you’re going, and that will make your world small. There are people you should meet whom you will never say hello to, trips you should take that will seem like too much of a hassle, jobs you could learn something from that you’ll instead ignore.

When you were a kid, you’d go running out to the beach, grab every seashell you could get your hands on and toss them into a bucket. You didn’t pause to say, “Is that one good enough?” or “How exactly will I use this?” You just figured that out at the end of the day when you sat down and emptied the bucket. The more shells you had, the greater the options. You knew that at five years old, and then you forgot it.

Collect all the chips and fragments and broken pieces of experience that you can, especially the jagged ones that draw blood, and don’t worry too much about how they all fit together. There will be time to address that, and when it arrives you will want an overflowing bucket to draw from, not one with just a few completely perfect shells rattling around lonely at the bottom.

That’s how you make art, and you are called to make your life into art – a canvas worthy of Matisse, one humming with so much sorrow and joy and mystery and grace that neither you nor anyone else could possibly fathom all its depths, not in 60 more years or 6,000.

If you have any young women in your life, they’ll benefit from Emily’s new book. For a chance to win a free copy, leave a comment here and I’ll do a drawing in a few days.


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12 Responses to “A Letter to Myself at 17”

  1. Gary September 12, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    LOVE “collecting all the chips and fragments and broken pieces of experience that you can” idea. Rockn letter Steve.

    • Stephen September 12, 2012 at 6:47 pm #

      Gary — really appreciate your kind words. And your own letter is fantastic. I’ve never been cool enough to be trendy, so timeless is my automatic default. My wife and I especially love the close to your letter: “On second thought, ignore this letter. Tear it up and pitch it. The road you’re on is the one marked out for you and it’s a good one. No matter which way you go, it’s a train wreck that God puts back together his way. I don’t want you to miss a thing.”

  2. emily freeman September 12, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    Fantastic letter. Thank you so much for adding your voice to this. I love this “… one humming with so much sorrow and joy and mystery and grace that neither you nor anyone else could possibly fathom all its depths…”


    • Stephen September 12, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

      Emily — I’m just trying to write a little more like you! Awesome idea on your part that has generated some awesome letters; thanks for making me part of it. And I can’t help but wonder what I’m doing wrong in my life now that won’t be pointed out until I write another letter to myself in 22 more years.

  3. Bridget September 13, 2012 at 12:37 am #

    Great letter. I like the art analogy. I can relate to your need to have predictability and stability, but wanting boldness and vibrancy at the same time. Matisse definitely took risks, and I think he found the perfect places for each piece as a result. I wonder if he even knew the shapes of the pieces before he started cutting.

    • Stephen September 13, 2012 at 1:03 am #

      Thanks for the kind words and for joining the conversation, Bridget. That’s a great question about Matisse. One of my favorite stories about Matisse, which I write about in my book actually, is how he made building a Catholic chapel near Nice the final major project of his life — even though he was a lapsed Catholic who had no use for religion. He still worked closely with a small group of priests and nuns to make this project happen, and the result was amazing. His artist friends thought he was insane for running around with religious types, but it was a typical Matisse move.

  4. Anita September 13, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    Great letter! I’m loving reading all the ones Emily has linked to. If we only knew then what we know now, but oh so thankful for grace!
    Would love to win a copy of Emily’s book for my daughter who just turned 13 a week and a half ago. I so want her to know more and understand better than I did at that age!

    • Stephen September 14, 2012 at 1:46 am #

      Hi Anita — thanks for stopping by, and glad you liked my letter! I agree; Emily has connected us all with some excellent letter writers. Will let you know how the book drawing turns out in a couple days.

  5. Jodi @ Heal Now and Forever September 14, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    I love this letter and the metaphor of the shells, and how you say collect all the experiences of life, that is so beautiful. I am going to not block my collection from now on!

    • Stephen September 14, 2012 at 6:31 pm #

      Thanks very much, Jodi! It’s just human nature, or at least it is for me, to want to keep the collection tidy and manageable, but we’ll short-change ourselves that way. The great thing, though, is that it’s never too late to start piling up the shells!

  6. JB Wood September 17, 2012 at 10:23 am #

    This is an interesting exercise, isn’t it? I recently completed a similar letter (except I was in my 20’s) for a publication called, oddly enough, “Letters to Me.” What surprised me is how harsh I was with myself, since it was during a time of difficult transition from the carefree kid to responsible adult. It’s almost as if I was angry at myself for being so clueless, at all the hard knocks I had to experience in order to grow up. But, how else does anyone grow up?

    Anyway, I really enjoyed this. You did a great job weaving in the metaphors about collecting the experiences to create something beautiful in the end.

    • Stephen September 18, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

      Really appreciate your kind words, JB. Sometimes I’ll vaguely think about what I’d go back and tell myself at a particular age, but doing the actual exercise is another thing altogether. There’s a strong tendency, as you learned in writing your own letter to yourself, to say something short and sweet like: “Don’t be such an idiot!” But all those mistakes and bad decisions we make are crucial. It’s the main way we learn, as long as we’re making time to reflect on those experiences.

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