This July is my fortieth birthday. Forty isn’t a little mile marker on the life highway, it’s one of those big flashing billboards reminding you not to text and drive on the interstate. You might notice it for a moment as you glance up from your smart phone…..the one that didn’t even exist twenty years ago. Forty is one of those birthdays that requires reflection: from where have I come and to where am I going? As I prepare to celebrate in a few months, I’ve been wondering what it would be like to go back and have a chat with my
twenty-year-old self, the one on the brink of jumping into life with both feet, a life full of unknowns but also brimming with promise. What would I say to that naive girl? What wisdom would the 40-year-old version of me impart to that ingenue? So, I decided to create a list of truths I’d like to share with that much-younger me:
Dear 20-year-old Me,
Look how adorable you are. Not a wrinkle to be found. Bless it, you haven’t even graduated from college, yet. I’m you at 40, and I’m here to offer you some advice that I hope will help prepare you for the next 20 years. I know you have so many questions. Yes, there is a Prince Charming, and he does all the laundry because he loves you and knows laundry is your least favorite! Trust me, that is a very important quality in P.C. Yes. One amazing girl and one awesome boy. And you can relax because that journalism major is going to work out just fine. No, no, you’re not the next Barbara Walters, yet, but let’s just say all the people who are currently questioning your wisdom when you get that dreamy, far-away look in your eye and respond to the inevitable “what do you want to do when you graduate?” question with an enthusiastic “Write!” then you continue to preach about the power of the written word until their eyes glaze over, ignore them. It may not be immediately after you graduate, but thanks to the Internet, you’ll have plenty of meaningful opportunities to write. Focus. I don’t have time to explain the Internet, right now, just trust me. Don’t listen to the naysayers, which brings me to my first piece of advice.
1. Stay true to the person God created you to be.
Don’t sell yourself short or change who you are to please that cute boy who sits behind you in Spanish or that English professor who claims to be a feminist but just excoriated your essay by telling you that your writing was “to put it in fashion terms Old Navy when it should be Banana Republic.” (You’re a blond; people assume things.) You are a talented, intelligent, beautiful child of God, and He has created you with a purpose and a plan. Don’t forget that truth when, after graduation, you find yourself drowning in an overwhelming sea of uncertainty, not sure what you want to do with your life. When you feel tempted to change who you are to please others or to fit in, remember Whose you are. Allow your faith to navigate you through these lonely years when you’re on your own for the first time. On those nights when you come home to an empty apartment and an empty bank account, when you crawl into your bed wondering why on earth you didn’t listen to your parents and major in pre-Med, pre-law, or any of the one thousand majors with a starting salary above $12,000/year, just close your eyes and fall asleep knowing that God placed individual dreams in your unique heart for a purpose. Stay true to who you are because there will be times when you will give in to the temptation to compromise your values in an attempt to feel loved or successful, and it will leave you emptier than before. I remember feeling just as you do now, and if I could hug your sweet neck, I would. Then I would place my hands on your shoulders, look you in the eye, and tell you to hang on, trust God, and I promise, you’ll navigate your way through these years.
2. Don’t be so afraid of failure.
You don’t have to be perfect. First of all, it’s impossible. Really, I promise, perfection is unattainable, so don’t even try. You might not believe me, but one day, you are going to say these exact words to your own sweet daughter: it is okay to make mistakes because it is in our failures that we learn how to become successes. I don’t remember when I bought into the lie that people will only love me when I am the most intelligent, most beautiful, most successful, most talented, or most athletic, but it’s a lie, and the longer you believe it, the more miserable you’ll be. Don’t spend the next twenty years driving yourself into the ground to achieve perfection or man’s approval. Sweet, young, me, not only is it impossible to achieve perfection, it is just as impossible to please everyone or to be liked by everyone. The beautiful truth is that Jesus is your perfection; He lived a perfect life so that you don’t have to, but your freedom cost Him dearly, so while I’m not encouraging you to abuse the grace He’s offered you, I want you to understand that the burden to live a life free of mistakes isn’t yours to bear. You will learn more from your failure than you ever will your success. The day I gave myself permission to fail, permission to lean entirely upon God’s grace and strength to meet me in my weakness, a load lightened and sweet relief ensued. It’s hard to explain, but when you grant yourself permission to fail, you live more courageously. That angst that overtakes your mind whenever you entertain the thought of trying something new dissolves when you accept the possibility of failure. The what-if I can’t, what-if I mess up, what-if I disappoint someone becomes what-if I grow, what-if I become stronger, what-if I attempt this and it changes my life forever. Don’t aim for failure, but don’t fear it either. Live fearlessly in the freedom of Christ!
3. Live humbly and graciously.
I’m going to shoot straight. Right now, you can be critical and self-righteous. And, that always-having-to-win thing you’ve got going is insufferable. It seems to be quite easy for you to point out the flaws and inconsistencies in everyone else and conveniently overlook your own. That job you turned down because you were too good for an entry-level position may one day be an incredible opportunity, opening the door to the career of your dreams. You will be humbled, Love, and it won’t be pretty. Whether it’s through your own stumbles, through realizing you’re not as smart as you think you are and that you don’t have all the answers, or through falling on your face in a very public way, the day is coming where you will not be so proud. I can’t spare you from this, and I don’t want to, but I can assure you that this fall will be a good thing because if humiliation leads to you achieving a better understanding of grace then bring it on. Listen, dear, “that’s not in my job description” need never enter your vocabulary. Never forget that the King of Kings washed the feet of His disciples, a task reserved for the lowliest servant because He came to serve not to be served. When your news director asks you to help clean the bathrooms or when you feel like you deserve a starring role but end up with the job of stage hand, perform your task as if working for the Lord. Humbly accept constructive criticism. Extend grace to others, especially those who don’t deserve it because just as grace changed your life, God can use your gracefulness to soften the hardest of hearts. I’m not recommending a tattoo, be warned aging is inevitable, ahem, but if you must Galatians 5:22-23 is a good one to consider: patience, gentleness, goodness, self-control, kindness, love, faithfulness, joy, peace. Strive for these and remember never do you resemble your Savior more than when you are extending grace and serving others.
4. Don’t get caught in the comparison trap.
Stop. Stop it now. Comparing your body, car, house, kids, career to someone else’s will make you miserable. There will always be someone taller, shorter, faster, thinner, richer, more talented, smarter, prettier than you are, and does it really matter? Comparison leads to discontent, which creates within a greediness that can never be satisfied. Apparently, this is such a problem, that God even addresses it in the Bible, Galatians, nonetheless. “Do your own work well, and then you will have something to be proud of. But don’t compare yourself with others.” Keep your eyes on your own race, girl. Otherwise, you’ll be so concerned with how you’re stacking up against everyone else that you won’t run well. God created a purpose for you, one that isn’t like the one He created for anyone else. Life is so much more fun when you stop worrying about what everyone else is doing and create your own beautiful, quirky path. So. Much. More. Fun.
5. Cherish your family and friends.
Developing deep friendships has often been difficult for you. Outside of a great relationship with your siblings, which fortunately, you still have, you’ve only had a couple of meaningful friendships. I’m here to explain why that’s been true. Don’t worry; you figure this one out and the rewards are tremendous. Honesty and vulnerability are the absolute keys to meaningful friendships. Because you’ve never really been comfortable in your own skin and confident in who you are, your friendships tend to remain shallow and surface-level. If you’re constantly concerned with whether or not someone will still like you once they get to know the true you, then intimacy is impossible. You have to be willing to risk people seeing the real you, quirks, flaws, and all, and then you must trust them enough to accept and even, love you just as you are. If you aren’t willing to reveal your true self to others then you’ll never learn to make friends.
Right after you have your sweet girl, you are going to need friends who get what it’s like to not sleep for 24 hours and who understand how distressing it is to leak milk in the middle of a business meeting. You are going to need friends who understand how harrowing it is when children meltdown in the middle of Macy’s and throw a tantrum at the checkout of Target. You need friends who will call you out when you’re behaving like a spoiled brat, who will bring you dinner when you haven’t had time to shower, much less shop for groceries, who will challenge you to attempt things you thought were impossible, who will pick you up when you fall on your first 20 attempts, who will celebrate you at your best and love you at your worst, who will meet you at Starbucks to listen as you grieve the loss of a loved one, who will baby-sit your children at the absolute last minute because you forgot to call your sitter, who will not allow you to settle for less than your best those days you’re feeling lazy, who will run half-marathons with you, who will attend Harry Connick, Jr. concerts without complaining, who won’t allow you to give up.
While your husband will be your best friend and do all this and more, he needs guy pals and you need girlfriends. I have just recently begun to understand the power of friendship. The Bible celebrates friendships with the story of David and Jonathan and with reminders in Proverbs of the importance of friends. Don’t limit yourself to friends who are your age, your denomination, your political party. You also need friends who are older and wiser, young and fun, who challenge your beliefs in a way that makes them stronger and allows you to weed out what isn’t true and dear. You are not only surrounded by the love of your husband, sisters, and brother, parents, in-laws,
and others who love you no matter what, you are also bolstered by dozens of amazing girls who truly love you just as you are. Don’t be afraid to be you; you are valuable simply because God says you are, so be willing to allow others to see the real you.
And last, but not least, don’t take yourself too seriously. Laugh and love because the greatest of these is love. Stop playing it safe to protect your heart. Take risks, risks that are wise, of course, but take risks for the kingdom. Jesus didn’t stay in the safety of the synagogue; he got out and got his hands dirty. He loved the unlovable, the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast. Risk a broken heart, loving others may hurt, but it’s worth the risk. Risk being real, risk starting a business, risk trying a new sport, risk loving those who are difficult to love and who aren’t like you, risk giving to someone who can never repay you, risk pouring yourself out like a drink offering for Christ. Get off the sidelines and get into the game. Live this life, girl. You won’t regret it.
While this is just a fraction of what I wish I could tell you, there are things you need to figure out on your own. Be aware that you will face heartache and tragedy, but you will also experience joy and love that you can’t even imagine right now. Don’t wish away the next twenty years, striving to get to the next stage. Enjoy the in-between times, the times when God seems silent or faraway, those times you feel stuck in a meaningless job or like you’ll never reach a goal. Remember that sometimes you have to wander in the wilderness before God brings you into the promised land. Live courageously, humbly, graciously, and joyfully. Before you know it, you’ll be celebrating your fortieth birthday, and don’t worry, you will come into your own, you will worry less about what others think, you will learn to be brave and selfless, and you will learn to do the hard things. The best part is you will do it surrounded by love.
You at 40