Talking Back to My (Older) Self


Of course young me can't just take the advice of old me lying down. Even though at 22 my tendency was to be far more respectful of authority than most young adults I meet, by the time I reached my early 30s, that had worn off. When it comes to insolence, I was a late bloomer, but bloom I did. And when I talked back, I did so with all the rhetorical powers I had honed as a preacher, taking on whomever I was pissed at point by point, not stopping until I had immersed every argument a would-be mentor might make in a bath of boiling logical scorn.

So now, without further ado, I project myself back nineteen years. Young Mark holds in his hands a letter from the future filled with the typical platitudinous valedictory advice middle-aged men cannot help dishing out to adults young enough to be their sons and daughters. He pores over it, highlights flimsy arguments, feels his blood boiling at the Hallmark Graduation Book quality of the thing. He sets it beside his keyboard--it's a hard copy, and his scanner's text recognition software is too primitive to digitize the letter--so he'll have to retype all the points he's about to dissect. He's furious, but also strangely thrilled: there's nothing quite as satisfying as taking down a father figure, even if it is your own balding, wrinkling self.

Don't take yourself so seriously. Of course I take myself seriously. All around me is pain, suffering, injustice. My first wife threw me out, my son has epilepsy, my daughter isn't adjusting well to the divorce, my father had a stroke that was blamed on the divorce, the Bishop and the Cabinet are challenging the Conference's decision to ordain me--how can I laugh at a time like this? Worse, how can you laugh at what I'm going through? There's nothing funny about this.

Listen to your parents. (And your supervisor, your professors, your pastor, your rabbi, that older guy at the gym, the waitress who knows you better than you know yourself, and on and on and on.) You have got to be kidding. My parents and, come to think of it, my family have been completely consumed by Dad's stroke. Nobody in my family has ever been divorced before, and they don't know what to do with me. As for my supervisor, see above: he doesn't think I should even be in this field. He also called me down to Salem to tell me I should take megadoses of vitamins. No, the people I'm listening to are younger, maybe not as young as me, but young enough to have fresh memories of what it's like to lose a relationship. And they're here for me, as nobody in my parents' generation is.

Family matters. See above. My family hasn't got time or understanding for me. They're as traumatized by the fact that I'm getting divorced as I am by the divorce itself. Maybe in a few months, they'll remember I'm here, wonder how I'm handling this shock, but for now, family has to be whatever I can find.

Friends matter. You actually have a point here, though the part about high school and college friends does not, unfortunately, hold water. Everyone I knew in my youth is, as far as I know, still happily married, and from what I've seen, married people of my generation really don't want to let the specter of divorce into their wheelhouse. It terrifies them that they might be next. On the other hand, the friends I've discovered in my community save my sanity several times a week. I've had more lunches with more people in the last few months--meals where I just picked at my food, but somehow found myself nourished by the company--then I can count.

What doesn't kill you really does make you stronger. I'd like to say you have a point here, too, because I keep telling myself this. Unfortunately, I'm still not convinced I'm going to survive this, no matter what the divorced people I meet tell me. I look at them and see that they're still single, years after their marriages end, and that scares me. I don't want to be alone that long. I'm afraid that might kill me. Which is why I'm really going to ignore the next point you make, old man.

Look before you leap. Yeah. So you say. But I'm terribly lonely, and when I'm by myself, the demons of this hell rise up and dig their claws into my soul, dragging me back into the pit of despair where all I can do is wail and gnash my teeth. I want someone in my life so badly that I will leap at anyone who takes an interest in me, even if she has too many problems of her own for me to handle. A couple of years from now, I'll leap right into a marriage even less advisable than my first. And this career that's treated me so badly: I'm going to hang onto it for dear life until it finally falls away from me. I took this plunge, and I'm riding these rapids for the duration, until they hurl me onto the shore, broken, half-drowned, barely alive.

Be patient. Patience is for Zen masters. That's not where I am. I want a relationship, want a new TV and stereo to replace what I left behind in the divorce, want a better car as this one passes 200,000 miles, want the esteem of my community, want to publish a novel even though I've barely begun writing fiction after a fifteen year drought. And I want to feel better. More than anything else, I want to be over my grief, moving on with my life. I'm losing so much time to this pain. Can't I please start enjoying my 30s now?

Be happy. I wish I could. Instead, I'm going to be tragic, broken, wounded. I'll build up my body with running and bicycling, head off on pilgrimages to the coast, the mountains, the desert, juggle parenting and work as best I can, try to teach myself how to date (something I never learned in my teens and 20s), convince myself I've found the right person to be my second and permanent wife. Along the way I'll have some experiences that thrill and delight me, help me forget for a few minutes or hours or even days just how unhappy I am; but finding joy in every moment will elude me for a very long time.

30-something me pauses here. It seems he's had much more insight into the coming years than can be rationally explained. Perhaps receiving a letter from the future caused some of that future to leak into his awareness; who knows? Time travel is a dicey thing. Whatever the source of these glimmerings, these glimpses of difficult days yet to come, he is a stubborn young man. He will do this his way, not the way recommended by some future version of himself, because that is how young adults learn: getting knocked down by reality, picking themselves up, and trying something different. Or not different; sometimes it's "fool me thrice" that finally leads to "shame on me."

The years ahead will be harder than he can imagine. The separation from his children will expand despite all his efforts to keep them close by. The work of ministry, already starting to lose its interest for me, will become a burden. His second marriage will be disastrous. He will be without work for three years, and when he finally does settle back into a new/old career--teaching music--it will be many more years before he is confident enough to consider himself truly competent. It might even take him until he's 53. There will be many more failed relationships before he finally meets the real love of his life.

In fact, it will be fifteen years before things really start to look up.

To a 33-year-old man, fifteen years is nearly an eternity. That's almost half the time he's been on the earth. How can he hope to be that patient, to find happiness in the Sisyphean drudgery of rolling the relationship boulder, the career boulder, the parenting boulder, the ex-spouse boulder up the mountain again and again, only to see it tumble back into the valley just as the summit appears to be in sight? And yet, somehow, he'll survive those years, emerging from them a new man, centered, focused, present, content, frequently joyful.

So I'm cutting the younger Mark some slack. Whatever mistakes he made in the hubris of youth, he paid the penalties, suffered the consequences, learned the lessons, and bit by agonizing bit, constructed a truly adult self with a future more wondrous than he ever could have imagined. I'm grateful he hung in there--even though at times "hanging in there" meant knowing when to give up. Thanks to that stubborn tenacity, I'm here now, a happy man in a transformative marriage and a challenging, rewarding career, who finally knows how to live well, and has set about intentionally doing just that, for the rest of his years.

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