Tuesday, April 15

Expect That Life Gets Better

Dear Jacob,

When I was in high school there was a girl who was determined to set my hair on fire.  In my sophomore year, the second year of what my family remembers as my Black Period, she would glare at me on her way out to the smoking section and hiss as she flicked her lighter. As much hairspray as we used in the 1980's every hallway in my school was highly flammable, so I wondered if she had a death wish.  She did.  Mine.  My hair was in its glorious Cure season.  Everyone else succumbed to the spiral permed ratted-to-the-ceiling trend.  She chose to sport the latter; just as much hairspray with far less death-before-dawn results.

I endured her hostilities that entire year. Fortunately I didn't have to venture into "her" hallway often and I could usually cut through the commons. One day, however, she caught up with me. That day when we came to blows was frightening to say the least. She jumped at me from behind, firmly tugging at the collar on my buttoned-to-the-neck black vintage shirt.  I heard the flick, flick of her lighter and clued in to what was happening.  She was nearly a foot shorter than I was so when I elbowed her away I'm pretty sure I connected with her face, though her hair could easily have been that hard thing I felt.  She didn't touch me ever again, but she took to swearing at me from a distance.  When she graduated I was free.

There are some ridiculous things we have to endure when we're young.  When other people are insecure and self-preoccupied, when they're clamoring after success and identity and ever so carefully creating their container they sometimes respond to people around them with selfishness and cruelty.  It's a classic marker of adolescence (even if they're adults).  It's a classic sign of fear.

I'm hoping to help alleviate some of that fear.  I'm here to guarantee something for you:  life gets better.  There won't always be teachers who want to reform you to the nth degree for an off-the-cuff comment you make.  There won't always be guys six inches shorter than you who get in your face and swipe your glasses to the ground.  There won't always be random insults and course gestures thrown around in public places.  There will be, at some point, maturity and decency, gentleness and respect.  There will be mutuality and cooperation, faith and trust.  There will be a point when, at the very least, the adults around you will go to great lengths to hide their crazy.

I found this quote by a man named Richard Rohr a couple of years ago. I don't jive with all of his writings, but I enjoyed this:  The first half of life is discovering the script, and the second half is actually writing it and owning it.  I've worked with infants and toddlers, children and youth, college-aged young adults and seminary students.  I've been around first-half-of-lifers a lot; I was one of them myself.  I can attest that this statement is obvious, proven and true.  The problem is you won't identify this kind of wisdom when you're young. You're too busy striving.  Rohr also says that from your own level of development, you can only stretch yourself to comprehend people just a bit beyond yourself.  So when there's an older person telling you ridiculous things like "life gets better" you will always think they're witless.

Here are the things that I love about life as an adult:

You get to worry less about your wrong choices.  You'll still make mistakes; still call yourself stupid sometimes.  You'll continue to wish you'd never said that, sent that email, or tripped in front of those people.  As you go along you realize that these things never cease but if you're moving toward maturity you recover more quickly and accept the consequences more nimbly.  No matter how catastrophic the situation may be, you can take a deep breath, give yourself some grace and move into the inglorious place of trying again.

You have more room for generosity.  At your age, your resources are pretty limited.  Your benevolent parents helicopter in all of your supplies, determine the hours and rate of pay for allowances, pick you up, take you home, veto purchases and movies and nag and hover (so I'm told). There's very little wiggle room if you were to decide that you'd like to give part of your stuff, or part of yourself, away.  But giving begins with loving and loving begins with yourself.  As life goes on, with faith on your side, you learn to be okay with who you are and you begin to move out of that place of scarcity and into a reality of abundance. When you can maintain a posture of having and being more than enough, you begin to see the joy in giving away your time, money, and skills.  And even your heart.

You can reject haste.  Adolescence has one speed: fast.  Everything is urgent.  All problems are crises.  All complications apocalyptic.  The phrases of youth sound like, "Mom, I need this book by tomorrow!"  "I forgot to get that project done!"  "If I don't show up on time I'll miss everything!"  Meanwhile, from my vantage point I see that planning is a friend, it's better to complete the project and turn it in late than to turn it in on time incomplete (at graduate level we don't give do-overs), and being fashionably late leaves less room for me to say something stupid in that awkward empty space before everyone arrives.  Adults know that when you slow down you see what's important, hear your kid's questions, discover your world and increase peace.  It's a truism that speed kills.  We can choose a different way.

You get to play a supporting role in other people's lives.  In the first half of life there is a great deal of jockeying for position.  There's the desire to be noticed and notable, to get things right, and to feel secure.  I have found, since I rounded that corner into life's second half, that one of my greatest pleasures is to journey along with younger people and cheer them on as they figure out their script. Once you guys could tie your shoes, get in and out of the car unattended and prepare your own breakfast I proceeded to change performances.  I became more of a coach than an architect. I moved into an assistant role rather than a starring one.  More and more I get to say, "It's your choice, choose wisely."  And when I see you (and my mentees) choose well, it is all the reward I need.

You get to express your convictions with composure.  When I was in high school I took a spiritual gifts inventory and "mercy" came up off-the-chart at the top.  I was determined to change the world, or burn it down trying.  Nothing made me angrier than injustice.  I went to Hands Across America on a bus with all my hippie friends and I bought the record for We Are The World by USA for Africa.  I had a t-shirt with Reagan's cartoon face on it saying "We begin bombing in five minutes" and I wore black for two weeks straight starting on February 22, 1987 -- the day Andy Warhol died.  Don't judge. I was passionate. The problem was that if you weren't as passionate as I was, you were an unfeeling imbecile.  The older you get, the more you can allow for other people's perspectives.  Instead of fearing them, you learn to respect those who don't believe along your lines, defend your causes or radiate your level of passion.  In essence, you learn to love people more than  movements and you find that you get along much, much better.

I can think of a lot of other things that I love.  As an adult you can freely appreciate your parents without feeling like you're being corny and embarassed.  You can truly have friends that know you, that see who you really are and who let you express appreciation for life instead of constant criticism.  As an adult you get the priviledge of changing what you think is admirable and priceless and good because you don't care if others look at you funny.  You don't care what others think at all if its a matter of your integrity or faith or parenting.

What I think I love the most is the fact that the past becomes a treasure that I get to dig into to find its worth. Rather than being panicky about the future, I get to reflect on the life I've lived, to remember your young tender faces on the day you each were born, to giggle at all the beautiful ways you learned new things because none of it, none of it, is remembered with exasperation or anger or fear.  The older I get it's all gratitude and pleasure.  The older I get everything is grace.

Keep searching for the script.  You'll find it.  And one day, I'm convinced, you'll own it.