Answering a letter from my 23 year-old self to my 40 year-old self

Last week, an envelope arrived in the mail with a post-it note attached:

I’m sending this early because I thought you might want to read this on your own. This has hung in my office for 17 years, waiting for this birthday. Hope you are pleased and enlightened.
Love,
Mom

A little backstory

In case it’s not blazingly clear yet: When I was 23 years old, I wrote a letter intended to be opened by my 40 year-old self.

I hadn’t forgotten about this letter, but I’d forgotten what it said. As I unsealed the envelope, I vaguely remembered that it contained a list of some sort — maybe a check-list of accomplishments: “Millionaire by 30, award-winning novelist, 6-pack abs.” That sort of thing.

Turns out I was wrong.

Here’s the letter, along with responses from the 40 year-old version of me.

“Some questions for you to ask yourself on your 40th birthday, from yourself at 23:”

Here’s something I remember about you, 23 Me: You were exactly the sort of 23 year-old who wouldn’t think twice about dishing out advice to someone twice their age.

But it seems that you’re just going to ask questions here. No advice. That’s a relief. I was prepared for worse.

Okay, let’s continue.

“1. Are you making music? If not, why?”

The answer: No.

Like many things in our life, music-making has ebbed and flowed. The most fruitful period came just a few years after you wrote this letter, at around 26 years old.

Recently divorced (yeah, I know — I’ll get to that in a minute), I was pursuing an MFA in design and trying not to fall in love with the woman who would later become my wife.

I wrote a lot of music during that time. It was a tumultuous, exciting, heart-wrenching time. Here’s one thing I made:

I’m putting that here partially to placate you, 23 Me, and partially to remind myself that I did make music, but that music-making is often attached to emotionally trying situations.

At 40, I’ve gotten much better at avoiding emotionally trying situations. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s not.

I suspect that at 60, I’ll be better at learning to sap the emotion from everyday life, and maybe I’ll once again make music. I don’t know.

For now, music-making and I are taking a friendly break.

“2. How many hours a week are you working? If more than 40, why?”

Answer: In a typical week, I work almost exactly 40 hours. And it is a constant challenge.

I love work. It’s fun for me. You clearly understood this and were worried about our future.

Here’s the honest truth, 23 Me: For the rest of my life, I will struggle to be present with the ones I love, to give them the attention and warmth that they deserve—and that I need.

There have been times in my life when I’ve thrown myself head-long into work. When I emerge from these semi-manic flights of self-indulgence, the withered relationships and sense of loneliness I encounter on the other side are never worth whatever achievement I was chasing after.

So yeah: I’ve gotten good at putting limits on work. I stick to a strict 9 to 5 schedule.

I take the constant threat of overworking as seriously as an alcoholic would take a 12-pack of beer sitting in the corner, softly calling their name.

“3. Do you go to the art museum? The theater? The movies? Read any good books lately?”

Yes to all the above — although in Austin, the art museum scene isn’t so hot.

We just purchased season tickets for Broadway in Austin, I’m a Captain level member of Alamo Drafthouse’s Victory club (translation: I watch a respectable number of movies), and I’m reading one or two books at any given moment — usually one fiction and one non-fiction.

“4. Are you taking any classes? If not, why?”

You’ll be pleased to know that I’m wrapping up a summer-long, full-time, very demanding course in web development (something that couldn’t have existed 17 years ago).

And when I’m not taking classes in person, I’m usually taking them online. So there. Take that, 23 Me.

“5. Are you exercising? If not, why?”

I thought this was supposed to be a list of questions. This sounds like thinly veiled advice—or even criticism?

Sorry. Seems you touched a nerve.

All right. At the moment — no, I haven’t been exercising, because I’ve been taking the aforementioned software class.

Here’s something you couldn’t have understood, 23 Me: I have a child now, a beautiful 4-year old boy. (I’m kind of astonished you didn’t think to ask any questions about that possibility.)

So after I’ve put in the 60 hours each week that my coding class demands, I typically spend any leftover time at home with my wife and kiddo, not at the gym. It’s a choice I make every day that I don’t think you would have been able to imagine.

That’s okay. But it does mean I have love handles.

“6. What do you and Julie do on a typical weekend? Are you spending enough time together?”

Oh boy, where do I begin with this one?

Look. Julie and I are no more. We didn’t last much longer after you wrote the letter to which I am now responding.

The end was a bit messy, but the cause was simple: We were too young to be married.

Yep, that’s right, I just told you the very same thing that many other older, wiser people said when you and Julie announced you were engaged. The truth is hard, buddy.

Here’s the good news. In 2006, you/I went to graduate school and met a wonderful woman named Lu. You quickly became friends, and over time, that friendship grew into something much, much more.

In two weeks, you’ll celebrate your 9-year wedding anniversary. Your son will be there to celebrate, too. Everything about this relationship and this family feels right — deeply right.

So take some comfort in that. I know I do.

“7. What are your dreams? How have they changed over the past 17 years?”

Dreams.

Hmmm…. dreams? Really?

I thought you and I abandoned the traditional notion of dreams a long time ago, like when we were 15.

Dreams are a fantastic way to disappoint yourself. They encourage a “when I do this, I will be happy” mentality that is responsible for so much misery in the world. So dreams aren’t a big motivator for me these days.

Maybe you meant goals? I do have some of those:

  • Write a novel
  • Live overseas for a bit
  • Spend more time in Mexico
  • Learn how to make cookies that don’t turn into flattened, flavorless pancakes

I’d probably give you a different list next week. The cool thing about goals is that as I check them off the list, others fill in behind them. They multiply. They branch. They diverge and converge.

Unlike dreams, goals are not mountains. They’re sand dunes.

I’ve learned to enjoy surfing those dunes much more than busting out my climbing gear and strapping spikes on my shoes.

It’s still conventional wisdom that pursuing dreams is what leads to greatness, but don’t fret, 23 Me. I’ve accomplished a lot in 17 years.

I’ve just done it bit by bit, dune by dune, enjoying the ride more with every passing year.

“8. Have you been to Greece yet? Been back to New York? What about Ireland? If not, why?”

This one made me smile.

I don’t remember an obsession with Greece. That one fell off the “Places I Must Visit” list a while ago, I guess.

But New York—yeah, I went back. Lived there. Twice. Wrap your head around that, 23 Me.

Ireland’s still on the list. That’ll be a great family trip once Julian’s a little older.

“9. Are you involved with a religion of some sort? If not, why”?

More than any other question in your letter, this one caught me off guard.

I’d forgotten how much you struggled with this, 23 Me.

I’d forgotten how, during high school, you threw off the Christianity you were raised with but then felt a deep pressure to find some other system of beliefs that would help you “fit” in the world.

I’d forgotten how all through college, you researched the world’s religions, trying many of them on like costumes. But, like costumes, they always felt a bit silly, a bit fake.

Here’s the thing: After 17 years of living without religion—including some very difficult years with heavy losses—you’ve found a deep peace (perhaps paradoxically) by giving up the search for religion.

In your 30s, you made a discovery: Deep within you runs a cool river. You drink from it when you’re thirsty for peace. You dunk your head in it when you need perspective. And you splash around in it with your friends and family when you need to feel joy and love.

You’re still annoyed by the insistence of religious people all around you who believe that only they can know the treasures of this river. (After all, that’s what their book says.) But you’re getting better at letting them wallow in their arrogance alone.

“10. Is this who you wanted to be? Or have you turned into your parents?”

(Ouch, sorry if you’re reading this, Mom and Dad.)

If this question had merely been “Is this who you wanted to be?,” I’d say it was a fitting final question for your letter, 23 Me.

But by tacking on “Or have you turned into your parents?”—well, you’re making things a little difficult.

The answer to both questions is this: Pretty much.

Let’s deal with the second question first. It turns out that becoming your parents isn’t so terrible. They’re good people. Loving, fun, supportive. You could do a lot worse.

But you haven’t exactly become them. You’ve taken some crazy turns in your life. You’ve traveled a bit, lived in some weird places, spent lots of time with an insanely diverse bunch of friends and married a woman who knows how to call your bullshit very well.

These things have had a huge impact on you. They’ve helped you diverge from the templates of your parents and become a unique individual. (Your parents, by the way, are proud of this accomplishment.)

I don’t remember what your hangups were about Mom and Dad, 23 Me. I suspect it had to do with all the issues of identity that concerned you throughout most of your 20s. Thankfully, that dust has settled.

So yeah, I’m pretty much who I wanted to be. But there’s so much room for improvement:

  • I could be calmer.
  • I could sleep better.
  • I could get less annoyed when Julian refuses to go to bed.
  • I could be more affectionate towards Lu.
  • I could be more accepting of other people’s dumb-ass beliefs.

As a zen priest once said:

All of you are perfect, and you could use a little improvement.

I’m no exception to that. At 40, I’ve learned to accept who I am while always trying to smooth out the rough bits. I hope I never stop.

This brings us to the end of the letter. After all the questions, here’s what you wrote, 23 Me:

NOTE: If your response to the “If not, why?” questions was “not enough time” or “too busy,” I suggest you seriously rethink your priorities. Look how fast 17 years have gone by. Think how fast another 17 will go by, and another 17 after that, and another 17 after that…
The grave is always close at hand, my friend. Carpe diem.”

Carpe diem? Seriously?

You just couldn’t help yourself, could you? You had to jab in some “sage” advice. Man, I must have been annoying.

I hate to break it to you, but the last 17 years actually haven’t gone by all that fast. They have been filled to the brim with Technicolor experiences: love, loss, excitement, growth, surprises and more joy than you can shake a stick at.

I read a book recently that contained a beautiful passage on this subject:

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.
You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next — and disappear. That’s why it’s so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories.
Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

The way Lu and I live, we don’t plan on settling into monotony anytime soon.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not all Burning Man and impromptu trips to Paris. But together, we’ve managed to mix a refreshing cocktail of sweet novelty and salty responsibility that keeps time moving at a satisfying pace.

Yes, I’ll be dead soon. Thank you for reminding me so eloquently.

But I’m good with life at 40.

The next 20 years…

You know better than anyone that I tend towards self-absorption. I mean, I just wrote an essay to a version of myself that no longer exists. If that’s not self-absorption, I don’t know what is.

So here’s the challenge for 60 year-old me:

Make it less about you. Make it more about others.

More about family. More about friends. More about strangers, both near and far.

You’ve had it really good, 23 Me. Like, ridiculously good.

If you were religious, you’d say we’ve been blessed, but you’re not, as we’ve already discussed. Call it luck. Mounds of it.

Let’s see what we can do for others who haven’t been so lucky. What will that feel like?

I’ll check back with you in 20 years.

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