The Uncurling of Fingers
If I could give parents new or old any kind of advice — without actually being a parent myself — it would be this: never, never let your child read Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.
When I was in the fifth grade, a friend lent me this demonic book, saying that the short stories were all written by young people like us. She’d enjoyed it and thought I might, too.
It was well-intentioned, but it was a trap.
The Amazon description for Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul describes it as “101 stories every teenager can relate to and learn from.” I’m sure Chicken Soup would have been really helpful if I had come from a broken family, dealt with a serious illness or injury, or was in the midst of a heart-wrenching breakup. As it was, however, my parents were as happily married as people can be after a decade together, the worst injury I’d sustained was the unprompted attack of a ceiling fan, and — well, let’s be honest, I was nine years old and my gym teacher affectionately called me “Scarecrow.” It was still going to be a good long while before I could mourn a relationship by listening to Simple Plan on repeat.
The book likely contained some stories about embarrassing first kisses and painful moves and divorces. I don’t remember those, though. I remember only one story, a horribly depressing tome about a girl who had argued with her father one day right before he left to work. She had resorted to giving him the silent treatment, and just as he exited the front door, he said his usual, “Bye, I love you” — to which this girl said nothing, because she was a typical angry teenage girl in stony silence. He then, however, died in a car accident on the way home, and to this day — or whatever day she sent her story in — regretted her actions.
It was a harrowing read. Especially for a kid like me. For a long time, my temper would ignite a faded birthmark in the middle of my forehead which Mum affectionately (fearfully?) dubbed “The Beacon.” When I grew out of that, I could hold my silent treatment for so long that I occasionally forgot what I was even angry about in the first place. Which just made me more angry.
But while Chicken Soup didn’t cure me of my temper, it made me realize that things could be taken away from me. I hadn’t really considered that before. So I started adding “Love you”s to my goodbyes when talking to family and friends, almost believing that something bad would happen to them if I didn’t.
(Let’s just take a step back and remember that I never said I was a normal kid.)
It wasn’t just that, though. It was this backwards logic that seeped into large parts of my daily life for a long time: If I held onto things tightly enough, I could keep them. I thought that if I never got bad grades, I would always be seen as smart. If I agreed with everything friends said, if I did everything they wanted to do, we would always be close. If I adapted to a guy’s personality, we’d be a good match. If I worked hard, I could get the job. I just needed to tighten my grip.
Most of the time, though, what I had my fingers wrapped so tightly around was the idea of those things. And inevitably, the ideas evaporated. I passed up travels to India to stay at an internship I hated. I stayed with boyfriends who didn’t fit my lifestyle far longer than I should have. I took classes I had no interest in other than thinking they had impressive names, and I invested too much time in people who I knew would never be great friends.
It’s not easy to let go of the things we can’t control. But I’ve realized: the best things that have come to me in life have all been unexpected. A couple of years ago, I weighed the costs of a few aspects of my life — a job with more cons than pros; friends who would never become close; a relationship that drained me — and I let them go.
Afterwards, quite honestly, I did spent a lot of time wondering what the hell I was doing with my life in a basement suite in the middle of a rainy winter (usually with a best friend and some wine). But letting go of those things that weren’t right for me, even when it was scary, freed up my time and energy for the people and things that came along next. And what came next was one of the best chapters of my life.
Rewind to the last hard change you made, letting go of a place or a person or a situation that you knew wasn’t right for you. As shitty as the transition might have been, you likely wouldn’t still want to be thumbing through that previous chapter. The transition is the storm before the calm. Things usually work out — and usually due to curveballs you don’t see coming. If you had still been entrenched in that previous scenario, you wouldn’t even have seen that curveball as an option.
So I try not to hold onto things too stubbornly — even the ones that make me smile. I’ve said goodbye to some of those before, but I always stumble across more good things. There’s a whole world full of amazing experiences and people, and you’d have to be really down on your luck to get only one chance at them.
The most important thing I’ve learned about letting go, though is that when it comes to the people, the places, the passions that stick around? You’ll find you never have to tighten your grip on those at all. So let go and see what comes your way. For your sake, I hope it’s not a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul.