Advice to My Younger Self
Recently my twenty-two-year-old daughter asked me what message I would give to my own twenty-two-year-old self if I could travel back in time. I instantly had two responses, one helpful, one not. On the one hand, I would tell my younger self that she should stop listening to anyone who wanted to smack her down, that she was smart enough, resourceful and hardworking enough, pretty terrific in general. On the other hand, I would have to break the bad news: that she knew nothing, really, about anything that mattered. Nothing at all. Not a clue.
You don't know what you don't know when you're young. How could you? People who are older nod sagely and say you'll learn — about love, about marriage, about failing and falling down and getting up and trying to stagger on toward success, about work and children and what really matters, in general and to you. It's not, they'll say, what's on your business card, at a moment when you don't even have a business card. I recall hearing this message constantly when I was younger, and thinking that I was getting older as fast as I could. In retrospect this seems a bit of a shame as well as a vainglorious task. You're like a cake when you're young. You can't rush it or it will fall, or just turn out wrong. Rising takes patience, and heat.
It's nothing short of astonishing, all that we learn between the time we are born and the time we die. Of course most of the learning takes place not in a classroom or a library, but in the laboratory of our own lives. We can look back and identify moments — the friend's betrayal, the work advancement or failure, the wrong turn or the romantic misstep, the careless comment. But it's all a continuum that is clear only in hindsight, frequently when some of its lessons may not even be useful anymore.
Maybe that's why we give advice, when we're older, mostly to people who don't want to hear it. They can't hear it because it's in a different language, a language we learn over time, the language of experience cut with failure, triumph, and tedium. We finally understand childrearing when our children are grown. We look back on our work and know now how we would have altered plans and strategies, realize that some of what seemed inevitable at the time could have been altered, different.
We understand ourselves, our lives, retrospectively.
There comes that moment when we finally know what matters and, perhaps more important, what doesn't, when we see that all the life lessons came not from what we had but from who we loved, and from the failures perhaps more than the successes.
I would tell my twenty-two-year-old self that what lasts are things so ordinary she may not even see them: family dinners, fair fights, phone calls, friends. But of course the young woman I once was cannot hear me, not just because of time and space but because of the language, and the lessons, she has yet to learn. It's a miracle: somehow over time she learned them all just the same, by trial and error.
From Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen. Copyright 2012 by Anna Quindlen. Excerpted by permission of Random House.