Imagine you could go back in time and talk to your younger self. What would you say? It’s an intriguing thought, and becoming something of a cultural fascination.
In Dear Me, A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self, author Joseph Galliano asked everyone from J.K. Rowling to Yoko Ono to James Belushi what they wish they could tell themselves at age sixteen. This initiated a website, www.dearme.org. Now CBS This Morning has started a series titled “Note to Self” with Maya Angelou’s letter to her fifteen-year-old self inaugurating the feature.
It’s not hard to understand the popularity of such an exercise. Who doesn't have something she wishes she could tell her younger self? In "Dear Me," memorable words of wisdom included those from Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame on her teenage struggle with body image and boyfriends:
If you spent a quarter of the time thinking about others instead of the way you hate your thighs, your level of contentment and self-worth would expand exponentially.
PS: Follow your dreams, not your boyfriends.
Eileen Fulton, actress, wrote to her younger self:
Do not change your name. Margaret McLarty is a very good name. So what if people have trouble pronouncing it. They finally got Schwarzenegger, Zellweger and Bacharach right didn't they?
And novelist Jodi Picoult's advice for her younger self?
Calculus. Trust me: you will never use it.
Skipping the quips about buying Microsoft, Apple or Intel, think about what would have altered your life in the most profound and substantive ways related to mind and soul, trajectory and vision.
Here’s a few that came to mind that would have made a difference when I was sixteen:
Follow Jesus now as both Forgiver AND Leader. Don’t wait. Get serious about your relationship with Him. You believe, but it is all intellectual. You know about Him, but you don’t know Him.
High school isn’t a party, its preparation. Make the grades you are capable of.
Personal discipline is integral to everything you will want to achieve. Start forming it now.
Don’t waste time on superficial dreams. You will be tempted to give your one and only life to this world and your handful of years; give it to the Kingdom and your place in eternity.
Start reading the important books.
Develop a lifestyle of prayer that is as much a part of your life as breathing.
The arresting dynamic of such an exercise is that you see who you were then as integrally tied to who you are now. We see this clearly, so engaging in what we would tell ourselves is intriguing.
The irony is that we don’t think of who we are now as shaping who we will be in the future. As Kelly McGonigal writes in The Willpower Instinct, those who don’t have the incentive to do such things as eat healthy or save money to add to their retirement portfolios are those who think of themselves as being magically different, better, cured or resourced in the future without any sense that this new and different person will only result from choices made today. There is a disconnect between how we think of ourselves now and how we think of ourselves in the future.
“It’s not that you have to believe you’ll have all the same likes and dislikes you have now, but you have to believe you have the same sense of self,” McGonigal says. “The future you is just as you as you are right now.” If you don’t think of yourself in the future, you won’t be intentional about saving for something like retirement. If you do, you will.
This was fleshed out through a research project at New York University. People were taken into a virtual reality room where they could see themselves as their current selves, or in an “aged” image. When they left the room, they were asked a number of questions, including what they would do with $1,000 if they were given it right then.
Those who had seen the image of themselves as older allocated twice as much to a retirement account as those who did not see themselves as they aged.
So let’s change the game.
If you live to be ninety, what might you wish to say to yourself at the age you are now?
McGonigal writes that we can feel detached from our future self, as if they are this annoying person who wants to prevent us from having fun in the here and now. So we ignore our future self, or we foolishly believe that our future self will somehow have solved all of our needs and issues by magically becoming all that we are not.
The truth is that we must become keenly aware of our future self being our current self, and then take the steps needed today to have the tomorrow we desire.
Which means the most pressing question isn’t what you would tell yourself at sixteen.
It is what you should tell yourself today.
James Emery White
Joseph Galliano, Dear Me, A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self.
“#DearYoungerMe: What Would You Tell Your Younger Self?,” The Huffington Post, December 22, 2011. Read online.
“Bad Habits? My Future Self Will Deal With That,” Alina Tugend, The New York Times, February 24, 2012. Read online.
“Maya Angelou Shares Note To Self With 'CBS This Morning'.” Read online.
Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.