There are a lot of articles out there that are framed as “letters to my former self” or “things I want my son/daughter to know in life.” These letters often reflect on the lessons that we’ve learned since entering adulthood and becoming parents. They are full of thoughts and reflections on what we wished we’d known before we began our journey into parenthood and things that we hope our children will understand.
In essence, they serve as simple guides to help our children navigate the treacherous waters between childhood and adulthood – without making the same mistakes we did.
So I thought about it. What would my letter to a younger, less cynical me look like? Turns out, it’s pretty simple. It goes something like this:
Dear 20-year old me,
PLEASE make better choices. You are behaving like a moron. One day you will have three children and be more exhausted then you thought humanly possible. Get it together now – there will be no time later.
40-year old me
This, however, is not particularly helpful. And something tells me that 20-year old me would have laughed it off anyway. I mean, how many times did our own parents give us advice or share their own lessons learned? Did we listen? Did it make a difference? Or did it just sound like a lecture?
I’ll answer that for you. It sounded like a lecture. That’s because when we’re young, we suffer from the idea that we are invincible. We believe that our parents are ancient idiots and that we will not make the same mistakes because we already know better.
So what can I say to make a difference to a younger me or to my kids where they are now? I suppose if I had to boil it down to one thing – one thing that I wish I had known about growing up, growing older and having kids, one thing that I wish I could have my children understand now before they enter adulthood – it would be this: Stop trying to make things add up. Life is all about fuzzy math.
All too often in life we assume that things will add up. And that’s how we approach parenting. We tell our kids that if they do this, then this or that will happen. We envision life as a neat, tidy package that is a simple matter of action and reaction, assuming all the while that the reaction is a clear conclusion rather than a vague variable. But that is not how life works – that is only how good math works.
I have avoided math at all costs for most of my life. I mean, I can add and subtract and sometimes balance my checkbook. But I cried a lot in Geometry. I wrote notes to my boyfriend in Algebra II. And I made it all the way through college without a single math class thanks to the “Math or Science” credits loophole.
Math contains far too much objectivity for me. It removes emotion and feeling. An answer is either right or wrong. Simply put, math is all about closing the brackets. (I am sure there are mathematicians out there who would argue this or correct me, but please don’t. You’re missing the point. I DON’T UNDERSTAND MATH.)
I simply don’t believe that life ever offers us a closed bracket. And that means that, while ambiguous, the answers and possibilities remain infinite.
I’ll admit, ambiguity can be a terrifying thing. It is part of human nature to seek answers. There’s a part of our brain that always wants to know the future and so we often desperately try to read the last page of our own stories. Who will win? Who will lose? Where will we go? What will we do?
It’s that part of our brain that makes us so tired during the day. When we fall into bed while exhausted, it decides to wake us up so that we can re-evaluate our entire lives, usually from birth on.
And so we try to quantify everything. If we do this, then we’ll get that. It’s simple, right?
No. It isn’t. Let me me break it down for you. I can be defined by numbers, as can most of us:
I have 2 parents
I have 4 siblings
I have been married 1 time
I have given birth 3 times
I have moved 19 times
I have visited 10 countries
I have lived in 4 states
I have lived in 2 countries
I have been divorced 1 time
I have 3 people who make my heart infinitely happy
But really, all I have is approximately 49 reasons to be infinitely screwed up or infinitely happy. And that’s only if you add up the obvious stuff and it’s not that easy. There are certain parts that have to be multiplied and sometimes they get divided. I have a few I would like to subtract. And at least two that should be plotted on a graph.
When I was younger, I thought that if I did everything in a certain order, it would be a clear story. So I went to college, I graduated, I got a job, I got married, I had kids and so on. I thought if I did these things, then my life would be simple and happy and perfect.
But nothing has gone the way I thought it would. Nor does it. And yet, my story is all the more interesting for its ambiguity. Parts of it read like a fairy tale, parts read like a horror story, but it’s those parts in between that are the most fascinating. It’s in the gray space that I have done my most interesting living. The best stuff happened in the places where I went off the grid and defied the laws of mathematics.
To date, my autobiography looks like the messy diary of an angst-ridden teenager. It’s full of doodles and scribbles and scratched out words. It has hearts with arrows and unicorn stickers and daydreams. It’s ecstatically happy and tragically sad. It lacks definition at every turn, but it is anything but boring.
And maybe my story will have a clear conclusion one day. Or maybe it won’t. Either way, I’m still telling it. I am telling it through my girls and my family and my friends. I am telling it through the pages I write and in the photos I take. I am telling it with the sad tales and bad jokes I tell and every phone conversation that goes on too long. It won’t ever be mathematically clean, because I assure you, my numbers do NOT add up. But it’s interesting. It’s debatable. It’s arguable. It’s open to interpretation. It’s a love story. It’s a comedy. It’s a tragedy.
It’s fuzzy math.
And that’s really all I would want for my younger self and for my kids to know. I want them to understand that it’s ok for things to not make sense. We are who we are because of all of the many bits and pieces and parts that make up our life and every piece counts– even when those pieces are shattered shards picked up off the floor and glued back into place, ruining our picture perfect ideas.
You may never understand the why certain things happen or why certain things didn’t happen. But let go of those clear little columns. Embrace the ambiguity. In the end, your story will be all the more interesting for it.