No, I haven’t taken to writing self-help slogans for kicks – this is my entry in this month’s Journalism Carnival, where we are asked to write a letter to our younger selves, sharing “advice, things to look out for, things you wished you did differently, regrets, hopes, what you’ve learned about your life, choices”
Dear wee Brizzyc,
You are in for an interesting ride.
Believe it or not, soon enough people will be utterly flabbergasted at the notion that you possibly could have ever been shy, or that the people in the pizza joint you work at sometimes can’t hear your soft voice when you announce a new order to the kitchen. Hustle up and get over that already. College is going to be SO much more fun if you stop being so g-d self-conscious already, and your early stints as a reporter will be more successful if get some confidence and realize you are mostly an extrovert more quickly.
Speaking of college: You are already pretty nerdy, let’s face it, but I don’t think you fully appreciate the exquisite privilege learning is; someday you will muse that it is wasted on the young. To be able to listen to smart people share knowledge with you, to read fascinating books and articles, to think about complex issues and ideas and ask questions is pretty amazing; lots of people in the world never get the chance to do so. Right now, school is still something that, while you sort of enjoy it, you primarily conceive of as something to be achieved under constant pressure and fear of failure. When you are older and become a college teacher yourself, you will come to cherish opportunities to be in someone else’s classroom who is willing to share their thoughts and insights with you. Sure, there’s always a lot of extraneous BS involved in any institution of higher learning, but really, when you stop to think about its essence, school is damn cool. Professors are much more willing, even thrilled, to help you and any student with motivation and interest than you think, so stop being so afraid to ask.
Of course, that said, the best part of education, not to mention the future jobs you will have, is the friends you will make along the way, and all the people you’ll meet on your journey far away from your hometown to six other cities. You will always look back on time with them and your family as well-spent, no matter how tired you are the next morning or how many things aren’t crossed off your to-do list. Indeed, you will regret almost nothing in terms of your personal relationships. They won’t always be easy, but they will always be worth it. Don’t take them for granted.
You will learn that often, when you are trying your best to do what is right, people won’t like it, or you. This is incredibly difficult. You really, really want to be liked, as I think most people do. But if you aren’t pissing anybody off, you probably aren’t doing anything interesting, because there are a lot of people out there who don’t like new things and they especially don’t like bold women who do them. (Sexism still exists, by the way. Sometimes it’s not even subtle. I could give you a few examples of things you’ll experience you won’t even believe right now. Just, you know, don’t be naive.)
Finally, the last and most important lesson is perhaps the hardest one. That old cliche: “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention” isn’t just a pithy platitude. You will be outraged, I’m afraid, because you will be paying attention.
You will, as the years pass, engage regularly with people from a wide variety of backgrounds very different than yours, read voraciously, leave your comfort zone, seek out quality investigative journalism from around the world that exposes injustice and corruption, and take jobs and roles that require facing a number of messy realities, such as a broken education system and a variety of economic and racial disparities. You may end up in the so-called Ivory Tower, but you will not cloistered within its walls; if anything, it will be among the things you often see as wrong.
As a result of all of this, you will witness, firsthand, examples of bigotry and inequality, and read about many others in great detail as well. All of this will make you angry.
It should. But what it should never do is make you bitter.
The way to handle ignorance, adversity, and bad experiences from the tragic to the mundane, I have found, is to try to remember three simple things: “Be kind. Be curious. Be present.”
It is NOT to pretend bad things don’t exist or to chide yourself not to be such a Debbie Downer or to always try to put the best spin on everything. Positive people are great, but the world also needs those who see things for what they are and to have the courage and determination to fight. There are far too few of them.
The difference between confidence and arrogance is empathy, as Cody Brown wrote with eloquence. Kindness is what will keep you grounded, and prevent outrage from stewing into a sense that you are somehow better than others. Kindness is necessary because in one way or another we are all suffering.
Curiosity fuels magnanimity because even in failure or adversity, you are always learning. We can learn even from ignorance: About what fuels it, how to fix it, why it persists. Side bonus: A genuinely curious spirit will take you incredibly far in a knowledge-dominated world. For example, you are a natural-born curator who will bother your friends by sharing links to stories with email long before social media comes around, and while some people will dismiss these new media tools, you will learn to use them productively and get a great deal of satisfaction from them. (And yes, you were right about that whole “blogging” thing – you won that fight in the end.) And even better yet, curious people embrace experience over owning things, which leads to a very rich and never dull life.
Being present I stole from the yogis, but I think the ability, however fleeting, to be in the moment, is among the most profound gifts we can give to ourselves and others. You are terrible at multitasking, so don’t even bother trying – your gift is the ability to focus. Use it. Be there. And good luck.
Your future crazy self