I work with the youth at my church, specifically I work with girls ages 12-18. I love this for several reasons. 1) I have two sons whom I adore, but it’s nice to have girls to play with! 2) These girls are amazing. They’re sweet, smart, beautiful, and they honestly want to help each other. 3) There are so many things I’ve wished I could go back in time and tell myself when I was that age. This is getting to do it vicariously.
What I wish I’d known when I was younger is a topic that seems to be required of all parents, teachers, writers, and everyone else who passed through the fire of adolescence and survived. Not unscathed, but stronger. So here is my list of things I wanted to know, and these are all themes of my books, too. Working with the youth helped finally push me over the edge to start doing what I’ve always wanted to do, because there are millions of people out there who I want to talk to, to hug, and to comfort. (My nurturing instinct is way off the charts.)
Get out of your head this weird idea that life is fair. Life on Earth isn’t fair, it can’t be. Otherwise we’d still have dinosaurs because how is it fair that they went extinct? If one person got sick, everyone would have to get sick. That’s fair. And awful. Life is about survival and some people get breaks and some people don’t and that’s fine. If you spend all your time trying to work out what’s fair and what isn’t and who got what that you didn’t or who has more to do, you will end up depressed, bitter, and annoying to anyone who talks to you. Don’t be that person. Do be the person who can accept and move on. I’m talking about little things, here, cars and toys and chores and houses and clothes. Dealing with big things is the next paragraph.
In life big awful things will happen. Someone you love will die, or get really sick for a long time, or you’ll lose your home, or all your money, and this is a big thing. Anyone who tells you here to just accept it and move on is not being either helpful or realistic. And if you encounter someone who has had one of these awful experiences under no circumstances try to make them feel better by telling them about someone else who has it worse. THIS IS A TERRIBLE IDEA AND COMPLETELY UNSYMPATHETIC. If you’re just trying to get them to count their blessings, do it by helping them count their blessings. Telling someone who is in pain about someone else’s pain only shows that there is even more pain in the world. This is a pet peeve of mine. So my advice to someone who has undergone something terrible and heartbreaking is, I am so sorry, you do what you need to do to deal with it and someday the pain will ease and your chest won’t feel so tight but for now just know that there are people who love you. My advice to everyone else is DON’T BE AN INSENSITIVE JERK who says things like, “At least you’re not so-and-so who has this much worse thing,” or “Just get over it and move on,” (variations of which are “buck up,” “suck it up” or “you’ll be okay”). If you feel the impulse to say any of those things, give them a hug and walk away. That’s it. No more talking for you.
Don’t wait around. Four of the young women I worked with left for college recently. I was asked to give them advice about college, and this is what I told them. Don’t wait in your dorm or apartment for someone else to call you and plan something fun. Pick up the phone or open your email and invite people to do something with you. Friendships are built in two main ways: talking and spending time together. If you want a friend, pick a few likely candidates and set something up with them all. Invite them over for a make fun of terrible movies night or go ice blocking or tray sledding. Find clubs you’re interested in and join them. If they’re too much work or you don’t end up enjoying them, drop it and find something else. The warning with this is sometimes you’ll get burned. Sometimes you’ll throw a party and no one will show up, or everyone you call will be busy. That sucks. But it’s also okay. Because the risk of putting yourself out there is getting burned, but getting burned sometimes to find a best friend or a circle of best friends is worth it. Absolutely 100%.
Be yourself. Is a terrible piece of advice. Most of us don’t really know who “ourself” is, and if we spend the whole time worrying about whether we are being disingenuous or not we’re not going to have fun or be very much fun. What people mean with that advice is relax. Not everyone is going to be your friend, not every member of the PTA will like you or think you’re the best person ever. It doesn’t matter. Them not liking you doesn’t hurt you unless you focus on it. If you ignore it and find people who do like you, then the only person it bothers is the person who doesn’t like you. And really, what better revenge could there be? Calm down. Take a deep breath. And go have fun. Make fun, if you have to. Don’t worry about being funny or well liked, because everyone else is worried about that. If you can relax , you can laugh, and everyone else will want to be around you because they wish they could be the person who was relaxed.
Eventually, you will like yourself. This takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight, either. I remember being in my late 20s and still not feeling comfortable with who I thought I was. Then after I turned 30, I was getting ready one morning and realized I liked the person I’d grown up to be. Maybe it was not having the social pressure of being in my 20s anymore, maybe it was because I finally felt like I was starting to be successful, but mostly I think it was because I finally spent enough time with me.
My last advice is this. Everything will turn out okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end. Humans have an endless capacity for adapting and the world is constantly changing. Whatever awful thing is going on in your life right now, it has an end date. Sometimes knowing that doesn’t make it hurt less, but sometimes it does. I have a laundry list of medical conditions, some common, like rheumatoid arthritis, and some less common, like narcolepsy. These are things that I will have my whole life, but I’m okay with that because I have learned how to cope so they don’t interfere with my life. You will be okay too. Just give yourself the time, and take time out every day to do something you love. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, maybe ten or fifteen minutes, but in those minutes just be with you. And you don’t have to take them all consecutively, either. Steal a minute away from all your young children and read a paragraph of a book you love or listen to a song that gets you pumped. Go in your backyard or your closet or somewhere you can be alone and just breathe. It’s important. More than you’ll ever know.
There’s something you should know about my advice. I don’t care whether you take it or not, or listen to me or not. But it is what I think and how I feel and it informs how I view the world. So my young self, you made it, you grew up, you found friends and loved ones and you’re a person that you would like. Keep your chin up and fight through it. The bad stuff is easier to believe, but the good stuff lasts much, much longer.