I’ve never gotten around to having children, and being an only child myself, I have no nieces or nephews of my own to play surrogates. Nevertheless, I occasionally find opportunities to insert myself into the life of a younger person and act vaguely dad-like for a while… or maybe it’s more like a half-assed Dumbledore. I’m never entirely sure.
One of these opportunities popped up recently when a friend of mine solicited people to write down some “words of wisdom or important life lesson” — her words — to give to her son on his upcoming 13th birthday. I said sure, no problem, figuring I’d just toss out a few pithy bullet points that would fit nicely on a 3×5 card. Instead, I ended up writing a two-page letter to the boy. To borrow a phrase from the irrepressible Han Solo, “Hey, it’s me.”
I’ve vacillated over posting that letter here, fearing that (a) my Loyal Readers wouldn’t be interested, and (b) it’ll come across as self-serving or pompous or maudlin, or just plain lame, but I’ve decided to go ahead and do it anyhow. I believe in what I wrote in that letter, and I think it’s fairly good advice, if I do say so myself. Perhaps someone reading this right now knows a teenager they could pass these words to. Perhaps someone reading this actually is a teenager, although why one of those those would be reading this old-man’s blog, I couldn’t begin to fathom. But you never know, do you?
In any event, here’s what I wrote:
Sunday, March 04, 2018
As a present to you on your 13th birthday, your mom and Mike asked their grown-up friends if they would give you some words of wisdom and important life lessons. I don’t know that I’m particularly “wise,” but I am almost half a century old, and I’ve got the white beard to prove it, so I must’ve learned something in all that time, right? Well… we’ll see, I guess. Here’s what I’ve got:
- You’re about to become a teenager, and I won’t lie to you, being a teen can be pretty tough sometimes. Nobody takes you seriously, your feelings are all dialed up to 11, and everything seems like it’s going to be the end of the world. Trust me, though… it’s not. You’ll get through it, whatever “it” is. Also, don’t overlook the bright side of being a teen. At your age, you’ve got a universe of possibilities in front of you, and you’re about to start doing a lot of things for the first time. That’s exciting, or at least it should be. Cherish that feeling, because the “firsts” get a lot farther apart when you get older.
- On a related note, don’t hesitate to sample the possibilities. At this time of your life, you have the freedom to try out a lot of different things, so do it. Get a weird haircut, wear some flashy clothes, eat some bizarre foods. As you get a little older and move out into the world, try out different jobs, and if you go to college, different majors, to figure out what you’re really interested in and what you really enjoy. My biggest mistake as a young person was always thinking everything I tried was going to be permanent. I ended up paralyzing myself because I put so much pressure on myself to get it right the first time, for fear that I’d be stuck someplace I didn’t want to be if I chose the wrong thing. Don’t do that. Experiment. Look around for what makes you happy. Not what other people think will make you happy, but what makes you happy
- If something’s making you unhappy—a major, a career path, a relationship—don’t just hunker down and put up with it. Find a way to fix it, and if you find you just can’t fix it, then move on. I’ve wasted a lot of time and energy on situations I hated because I thought I just had to endure them. The old “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it” thing is nonsense. You only have to lie in it if you keep lying there. I’m not saying you ought to spend your life bouncing around from one thing to another and never settling down, but don’t think that you have to stay someplace you don’t want to be either.
- Be decent to other people. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them, you don’t even have to respect them, but there’s really no reason to be unkind or hurtful to them. You don’t know what they might be going through, what kinds of things might be hurting them already. Besides, people tend to give back what you put out there, so if you don’t want others to be a dick to you, don’t do it to them.
- Here’s a big secret that grown-ups usually try to avoid admitting to kids, and often even to themselves: nobody knows what the hell they’re doing, and everybody is just trying to do the best they can. Everybody. Celebrities, athletes, the president, your parents, girls, even old guys like me. So don’t be too hard on yourself when you start thinking you’re clueless. We all are. We just get better at dealing with our cluelessness as we grow up and grow older.
- Learn some history. See old movies. Listen to old music. Talk to older people and really listen to what they have to say. Understand where things came from and how we got to where we are now. That may seem really boring and pointless to you right now, but it will become more important as you get older. Really.
- It’s a big world with a lot of wonderful, crazy, beautiful stuff in it. Explore it. Travel as much as you can. Experience as much as you can. Don’t let yourself live inside a safe little bubble surrounded by people who look and think and talk just like you, and where you see the same damn scenery all the time.
- Life is always worth living. Always. There may be days when you wonder what’s the point, and why should you struggle on and keep banging your head against the wall. On those days, you might find your thoughts going to some pretty scary places. But I guarantee you that there’s always something worth living for, whether that’s Buster Keaton movies (some of the funniest things ever filmed) or warm spring days or the taste of your favorite ice cream. Never give up, never surrender. And never be afraid to ask for help if you’re having days like that.
- Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t beat yourself up too much when you do. Just try to improve the next time out.
- Don’t be afraid of other people. It doesn’t matter what race or religion or political party we belong to, we all want the same general things, to live a good life, to find love and good friends, and to feel like we matter to somebody. But you only learn that if you’re willing to talk to other people.
I’m almost done… bear with me…
- Seek out an old song called “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” It’s from the 1990s, so you’ll probably think it’s ridiculous and cheesy, but listen to it anyway. Pay attention to the lyrics, because there’s a lot of good specific advice in them that I haven’t covered here.
- And lastly, print this letter and put it somewhere safe; in the future, you will wish you’d kept things. Trust me on this.
Happy birthday, Sam. Thirteen was a pretty awesome age for me; I hope it is for you too.
(some weird old guy)
I hope the boy I wrote this for will read it and find something of value in it. If he doesn’t, maybe somebody out there in Internet-land will. Hey, anything can happen, right?