Thank You, Next: A Letter to My 21st Year
I turned 22 yesterday.
When it comes to birthdays, people will say many things amongst the chimes of well wishes and ‘have a great day.’ Do you feel any different? Do you feel older? Wiser? Did the Universe flood your brain with the answers to your burning questions as soon as the clock struck midnight?
I woke up and I felt the same as I did yesterday and the day before that. Nothing had changed.
If you’re anything like me, you often treat birthdays like a deadline for the all the milestones you were hoping to accomplish. A few years ago, I remember texting a friend in the lead up to my Birthday and telling her that I felt so upset because I hadn’t done anything noteworthy or awesome yet. “This isn’t where I thought I’d be,” I texted her while in the midst of any ugly cry.
I’m willing to bet that you’ve probably felt this sentiment too. That this isn’t where you thought you’d be at 17, 21, 28 or 30. But that’s what happens when we place a ton of weight on a day that only asks to be celebrated for the glorious fact that you’re alive. When the clock ticks over and things haven’t unfolded the way we wanted them to, we end up feeling crushed by the weight of unmet expectations.
At 22, I woke up and felt like nothing had changed.
Yet everything has.
A whole year has passed since 21. The world has almost made a complete orbit around the sun. And it makes me wonder how many beautiful moments have happened that I’ve discounted because it didn’t happen the way I wanted.
So in honour of the year that’s gone by and the events that have unfolded, I wrote 21 a letter.
21 begins with you huddled under a green quilt in your flat in England wondering how the next year will unfold. Little weeds of discontentment will start to grow rampant in your heart, but you’ll shrug it off as pre-travel jitters and continue to chase after the wrong things.
The next month will be filled with you jumping from country to country, blurred memories, first dates, meeting friends who make you laugh till your stomach hurts, and moments where you wonder if loneliness will always be a companion. Turns out, everything you’ve clenched your eyes shut and wished for at 16 and 18 will be fulfilled by 21.You’ll have run the marathon, be in Law School, lived out a cute-meet and got to travel around with no parental supervision. After the past year of unmet expectations, you finally learn that some things take time to unfold.
Things crumble as soon as your plane touches down in Melbourne. You spend the first month back home wrestling with the familiar darkness that tries to claw you back down by questioning where exactly you fit in this world. You struggle through all five stages of Grief even though it’s unclear exactly what you’re grieving, and your favourite writer will write to tell you, “You’re in the valley. Welcome to it.” The valley is something we all go through. For so long, you’ve worshipped this idea of jumping from mountaintop to mountaintop and having one victory after another. But no matter what it looks like online, nobody has that. The valley is the rocky, cavernous space in-between each mountain that we have to navigate through before reaching the top again. You might know it as the low point in your life when depression came back or when things felt stagnant, no matter how much you tried to move. It’s that place where you feel like giving up every two steps and you’re unsure if you’re ever going to see sunlight again. Believe it or not, the valley is golden. It’s the sacred space that stretches and refines you so you are ready for the next big thing in your life. When you do find your way to the top again, you’ll be able to take in the breathtaking view and say, ‘It wouldn’t have felt as spectacular if it’d come easy.’
Your valley was necessary for God to break and rebuild your foundation. It shattered the cardboard scaffolding of flimsy lies and false beliefs that you used to stand on. It forced you to decide whether you wanted to continue basing decisions off the lies you tell yourself or on truth. Anything that you seek to build,whether it’s a relationship, a career or a community, will require a foundation that won’t break at the first signs of a storm. Soon you can say with absolute certainty that you’re building your life on solid rock.
The community comes first. You pick up right where you left off with the people who know how to speak life over your wounds, and you begin the hard work to go even deeper with them. You’ll meet people who let you dive into their passenger seat and listen to you patiently while you stumble over the words to ask for help. The same ones will pick up the phone, let you snooze on their couch and will ask if there’s anything they can do to help you with your walk with God. They’ll wander into your life unexpectedly and it’ll feel like they’ve been there all along.
Find the friends who aren’t afraid to talk about all of the deep and hard things with a side of pancakes and maple syrup. You’ve always had people in your life who know how to stay for the sparkle. It takes a longer, deeper process to find the ones who aren’t afraid to set up a tent with you in the mud and help you unravel your feelings. But take heart- at 17 you never thought you’d find anyone who’d stay during the tough times. Now, your tribe is full of people who are fluent in the art of showing up. Better yet, you’ll have learnt to be the one who shows up for others.
When the calendar flips over to June, you’ll have coffee with a boy an hour before your exam. He’ll sit next to you while you’re sipping on lattes and speak breathlessly about his new business venture and how taking a risk changed his whole life. As the words rush out of his mouth, you’ll finally realise what true passion looks like. His words and support will push you to start forging your own path and investing in a craft that fulfills you.
You’ll land a job in an office that will make you feel more and more in your spirit that this is not the way you’re going to help other people. While some serve the world best by distance between themselves and others, your sweet spot has always been to sit with people in the thick of their everyday messes and tell them they’re ok. Words have always been the life raft that’s kept you from drowning and stories will keep you paddling even when the waves beat you down. Now it’s become the secret stuff that gets you out of bed – to speak words that will help people through their storm.
Let me say that the words you tell yourself and the words you speak over someone matter. Gosh it matters so much more than you know. The things you tell someone will either empower them to embrace who they are OR it’ll be another strike on the list of why they’re not enough. Be conscious when you tell someone that ‘no one cares.’ Be extra cautious about the lies you’re repeating to yourself about not being good enough.
Every storm you’ve ever weathered, every dark pit you’ve fallen into, the way you feel things so deeply, and how you used to scribble stories in the margins of notebooks, will come together to form the pieces of a bigger picture. Everything will click into place and it’ll make sense what you’re here on this world to do. For anyone that’s currently wandering aimlessly in a fog and confused about the direction their life is going, trust me when I say that the fog is a good thing. It’s the first step to making a breakthrough. The fog forces you to ask if you really like the direction you’re headed or if you’re just following someone else’s journey. Perhaps this is the opportunity you’ve always needed to chart a new course for yourself.
Fear will fight hard to pull you back whenever you’re about to be a victor. He’ll wrap his bony fingers around your wrist and whisper things like, ‘Who do you think you are?’ and ‘No one will care.’ He manifests himself in the forms of other people’s opinions, failure and risk of rejection.Sooner or later you have to decide who gets to call the shots in your life. You or Fear? I’ve done the research and spoken to the people who are 5 and 10 steps ahead of me. They all say the same thing: fear doesn’t go away. It’s going to be up to you, brave one, to push through. Fear shrinks every time you step forward so just commit to one step. And then another. And then another. Soon you’ll realise that fear’s got nothing on you.
Take heart though, because our hardest battles really do become the launching pad we need. Every ballad you’ve ever written about overcoming fear becomes the fight song that opens new doors. Every heartbreak, anxious thought and tear you’ve ever shed will form the lines of a map that will help someone else come out of their storm.
On a warm Spring day, you’ll spontaneously accept an invitation to skip Uni and drive to the middle of nowhere. You’ll watch as a group of singers reduce an auditorium full of restless teenagers to tears after telling their story, and it’ll hit you that your experiences are important. The stories that make up your life are sacred and golden, and you need to stop discounting them as too trivial, messy or boring. Afterwards, you’ll sit on the grey carpet with one of the guys who shared his comeback story. He’ll look you in the eye tell you that he can see joy written all over you. “In fact, Joy will be one of the key pillars of your life,” he says.
You’ll cling so hard to that because there was once such a dark period in your life that you thought you’d never feel happiness again. Now, if there’s anything you want to dedicate your life to fighting for, it’s to help other people feel joy as well.
21, you were a fight song and a love story all wrapped up in one. Society places you on a pedestal because it’s the year of ‘real adulthood,’ but I say this was the year you could proudly say ‘I’m in my element.’