I remember riding the bus to work in the Pacific Northwest at 18 years old and thinking how shatteringly beautiful and strange everything was. The distant volcano, Mt. Saint Helens, making its way through overcast clouds. The way Douglas firs stood upright, with no apologies whatsoever. Everything felt possible and overwhelming and exciting and forceful, and I was as overwhelmed and confused by my body as I was by my surrounding landscape. I hadn’t totally known how to stand up for myself, how to fall in love, how to balance a checkbook (LOL) or how to feel OK with myself, by myself.
When I think about the last decade of my life, I think of how wildly fun, terrifying, bizarre, confusing, sad, empowering and invaluable that time was for me. As a 28-year-old, I of course wish I had known a few things back then that I know now. It isn’t a matter of looking back so much as learning how to stretch my limbs out and absorb all of the small and enormous details life presents you with, the sobering truths that you stumble into, that can only be found in all that happens in ten years. And it’s a lot: my parents divorcing after 30 years; being in an all girl band; living in the desert, then the northwest, and then the east coast; being in an abusive relationship; getting straight As in college, despite almost flunking out of high school; adopting Matilda the cat and Vern the angel baby pup from the shelter; learning I loved avocado after a lifetime of never trying one (I know!).
Though my heart is brimming with a sense of ability unlike any other time in my life, I am still stumbling through other parts. That’s the beautiful thing about life: you just keep learning. Still, there are things that would have made being 18 a little easier on me. I’ve read lists before that are incredibly insightful and sweet, but these are a few things that, instead, hit you hard at first, but ultimately make the topography of life just a little bit smoother:
1. It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger
Life gets messier, harder and more complicated as we age. We lose friends, begin careers, have bills and begin to take care of our parents. All of these things feel hard, and truthfully, they are. But as you grow and learn, your heart becomes your strongest muscle. Things that send you spinning at 18 will one day become things that hurt, but that you know you can get through. You’ll pick up some bad habits of coping, and you’ll get rid of them when you realize they just don’t work. You will have to fight to believe in the universe and yourself, and trust that you will make it out OK.
2. Speak up for people who aren’t able to speak up for themselves
All of us are born with certain privileges, and some of us are born with tremendous privilege. You need to be vigilant about how you occupy space. Remember that just because you feel comfortable does not always mean everyone else does, too. Always be aware of your privilege, and never ever use it as a universal measurement in gauging what you think is “good” or “bad.” If someone is being harassed or bullied, be his or her ally. If someone is crying, comfort him or her. Don’t allow the spots in your life that make things easier for you trick you into believing that everyone is created equal. Fight against inequities, and know when to stop talking and start listening to others.
3. Not everyone will like you, and they don’t need to
You know that thing you do that your best friend loves so tenderly about you? It probably annoys someone else. You can’t spend your life worrying about all the someone elses. The more you pump energy into having everyone’s approval, the less momentum you have to strongly and bravely be yourself. People won’t like you, and that’s OK! You don’t like some people. The moment you feel that everyone likes you, be concerned about all that you’ve expelled from your raw and authentic self in the process of trying to gain the world’s approval.
4. Be humble, be a boss bitch
You don’t need to constantly prove to everyone how smart/pretty/informed/cultured you are. All of those qualities will speak for themselves, and actually can be lost if you’re constantly expressing how much you know about (insert random topic here). Be open to hearing other people’s opinions, and learn to take constructive criticism from people you respect. In the same breath, know when to talk about your own abilities. Learn to speak from genuine authority, and never underestimate your own talent. If you try your hardest to have equal parts humility and boss bitch, you’re going to do just fine.
5. You’re not bound to your mistakes
You’re going to make so many mistakes. Mistakes that punch you in the gut and make you feel like a burnt-out lightbulb. Mistakes that hurt people in ways you can’t imagine. You have to know that guilt and shame will never help you grow. It is only when you accept true accountability that you will have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes. If you are able to take something useful and powerful from your errors, you will not be bound to them.
6. You’re in charge of your happiness, but you can’t control life
Life will hurl awful things at you, things that are unfair and things that compromise your comfort and happiness. That will never stop. Ever. But what you’re able to sculpt from all those terrible pains will be what you’re ultimately left with and that matters. Don’t accept mediocrity. Don’t settle. Push and push and push through the dark spots, because the sadness and happiness in your life are ultimately up to which lens you wish to see things through.
7. Don’t hide yourself
It’s gonna be hard: people are going to make you question your ideas, and they should. Don’t hide yourself from the world. Show them who you are, be brave in your feelings, and even if you’re wrong, or misguided, or maybe even sometimes sound “stupid,” you will be so much freer if you just let yourself out. Trust that people who love you will be gentle with you, and know that some people will be harsh. Hiding will only dull your feelings and your mind, and the world misses out on a truly beautiful and totally unique person if you’re hidden away.
8. You’re not who your friends are, but you can be
That old adage “You are who you hang out with” is kind of true and kind of not. You will inevitably have a diverse group of people you grow close to as you age. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be exactly like them, but be careful with people who pull you down or dull you. You are not invincible, and eventually people who only take without giving in return will begin to change you. Contrarily, when you spend your time with kind, intelligent people who help you grow, you have endless opportunities to learn from their tenderness, and become a better person because of it.