At the time I am writing this, I am 42 years old (for another 2 months). To people my own age, I am 17 years old – even though I grunt when I stand up now. To people 10 years older or younger than myself, I am “still young”. To people at least 15 years younger, I am old. To people at least 15 years older than myself, I am still a baby. That is just how it works. Talking to people significantly older or younger than ourselves is like being a time traveler.
My oldest child, my daughter, turned 16 years old this week. My baby girl, daddy’s girl, the soul whose arrival on the planet changed me from thinking about “me” to thinking about “us”; the bringer of the most intense mixture of joy AND fear that my wife and I had ever experienced. 16 years old.
My thoughts have, naturally, drifted to what kind of advice I should be preparing to give her. Now, I have never been a 16 year old girl! So I asked myself what do I wish I had been told as a 16 year old boy. Aside from being a mixture of hormones, bad decisions, abs, and unruly appendages, what do I even remember about being 16 years old? I remember being sure that I had this whole life thing figured out. I remember wondering why all the “old” people seemed so clueless. Whew, I sure do wish I still knew it all!
But what if you were standing in front of the mirror and 16 year old you was staring back? What if you did have the chance to give that kid some pearls of wisdom that you have discovered as you have met and overcome challenges? What would you say? What would have stuck in your adolescent brain deep enough to overcome the fog created by a newfound freedom to explore the world?
I grew up and turned 16 in a very rural part of North-Central Pennsylvania, United States. My “town” had a grand total of two stop signs, zero traffic lights, and a grand total of around 80 people (most of whom I was related to in one way or another). The year was 1994, but in those days it took about 5 years for any pop culture trend to reach us, so if you grew up in a city it would have felt more like 1989-1990. Until you could not drive, you were limited in friend selection to whoever was within walking distance. No cell phones, no Facebook, no Instagram. The closest you could get to any of those technologies was AOL chat rooms and a MySpace page, assuming you could be online long enough without anyone needing to use the telephone.
Respecting authority was a given because we didn’t want to get in trouble with our parents. If we got into a fight and won, that was the end of it. If we got into a fight and lost, your friends laughed and touched whatever hurt, and that was the end of it. Oh, in case there are young people reading this let me explain. A “fight” was a time when boys would shove each other, try to be the first to get a headlock on their opponent, land a few punches on the nose or eye, say something witty like ‘You had enough yet?’, and then get up and leave with their friends. The only lasting effect was the look of disappointment on our father’s face if we came up on the losing end.
A girl fight, on the other hand, was freaking brutal! They immediately went for handfuls of hair, winging wild punches in the general direction of the head of the other girl, kicking, biting, scratching were all on the table. It was like the early UFC! While boy opponents may be sharing a beer with each other an hour after the fight, girls held onto their ire for…well…I’ll let you know when I see some of it subside. It has only been 27 years.
So it is from that 1994 point of reference that I am trying to advise the 16 year old me.
The Pearls of Wisdom
Relax – Although it seems like everyone around you is miles ahead in terms of planning, they are just as screwed up and scared as you are. The dirty little secret people are supposed to keep quiet is that none of us actually know what we are doing – we are all just making it up as we go and doing the best we can. So that sneaky voice in the back of your head that says you are alone trying to catch up to everyone else is not true. Just relax and breathe.
Innovate Instead Of Assimilate – It is easy to just fall in line with expectations, to assimilate, and to fill your role as a cog in the machine. But it is a trap. Going with the flow and trying to just skate through quietly will never make you feel fulfilled. Dream. There is no such thing as impossible, so if you want to see it – be it.
The Only Constant Is Change – I realize you are tired of flannel. Don’t worry, it won’t last much longer. I realize you are sure that world politics is not worth your time. That will change too, unfortunately. I realize you are convinced that Alicia Silverstone from the Aerosmith video “Crazy” is your soul mate. That will…never change actually so forget I said anything. My point is, if you are unhappy with a situation, change it. It is natural and bending the world around you is actually a very useful skill to develop.
Computers! Who Knew! – Yeah so it turns out computers are not just a passing fad. Pay attention.
Livers Have A Shelf Life – Although it may seem to you right now like there are no consequences to what you are ingesting, there are. You are going to be invited to a lot of parties. And you are going to have a lot of fun at those parties. However, the amount of alcohol and illicit drugs you take in at these parties “might” eventually lead to problems with your liver and kidneys. While it may be fun to party it up at bonfires and pass out in random cornfields, it turns out that your organs are not having nearly as good a time as you are. Maybe, just take it easy on the Aftershock and Bacardi 151.
Above All Else, Be Kind – The world will try its best to turn you grumpy. It will try to snuff out the innocent light that burns inside. The trick is to be kind to those around you. Smile. Be nice and courteous to others, regardless of whether they are initially kind to you. Within the universe, like attracts like. To receive kindness, give kindness.
Seek Love Not Sex – I feel like this is the one least likely to find a foothold. Listen, sex is comparatively easy to find throughout your life. Love, on the other hand, is like finding a unicorn in the forest with your eyes closed. So, stop lying to women in the desperate and obvious attempt to “trick” them into bed. Learn how to form actual relationships instead of just running around like a slave to your genitalia. Just because you can barely focus when talking to a female wearing a bodysuit with jean shorts, or a cap with the ponytail poked out the back, does not mean they are just lands to be conquered. Try actually getting to KNOW a woman.
Step Away From The Aquanet – It turns out that hair doesn’t last forever and what does may become more salt than pepper. I understand you feel it necessary to turn your hair into a shield capable of deflecting hurricane force winds, but calm down with the Aquanet!
Throughout this journey of reflection, I have realized that I really wouldn’t want to change 16 year old me drastically. All of the things he is going to experience are what make me who I am today. And I may not be exactly who I want to be yet, but I am far from who I was. I think that may be the key. To never stop growing, learning, and appreciating life for the journey that it is. I wouldn’t want to know how things play out – what decisions cause joy and what decisions cause pain – because we need to experience both to fully understand our humanity. As spiritual beings, we need to walk through some patches of darkness to fully appreciate the light.
What would you tell 16 year old you? You might want to leave out the part about Bruce Jenner – I wouldn’t have believed it anyway!