Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. ~Soren Kierkegaard
Have you ever wished you could communicate with yourself at a different time in your life? Perhaps you would tell your teenaged self not to worry so much about what others think. Or remind your happily coupled self how you once thought you would never find someone.
The impulse to provide that reassurance to oneself is a very loving one, and doesn’t necessarily require time travel. For one thing, we can share our stories with others, offering them some “been there, done that, it gets better” perspective. Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project and Ellen Spraigins’ Letters To My Younger Self do just that. I imagine the authors wish they could have offered themselves this counsel at the time, but barring that, did the next best thing: offered it to the next generation.
Often I would like to communicate with myself in the more recent past. At the moment, I wish I could have communicated with myself last Monday, when I hit a wall and found myself glued to the couch. I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and paralyzed. Weighed down by my anxiety and an utter lack of space, which seemed not only solid, but permanent. I lost all perspective. The following day I felt completely differently and wondered to myself, “what was that all about?”
If the more neutral me could have communicated with the paralyzed me, I would have said, “Take the day to sit still. You are recuperating from a big move and changes at work. You’re also preparing for the next chapter in your life. Relax and don’t stress about needing to relax.”
Recently, after a particularly shocking loss of perspective during which I completely freaked out on my boyfriend for pushing some ancient button he didn’t even know existed, I had the idea to write myself a letter. The letter read:
You are overreacting. You are not a bad person. You are a good person with some bad habits. [Name of innocent boyfriend] loves you and (like you) is doing his best. You should do something to make yourself feel better – exercise, get a pedicure, go for a massage, go for a walk, or all of the above. You will feel better tomorrow.
I gave the letter to my boyfriend with the instructions to present it to me (with my blessing) the next time I overreacted in this fashion. But he really hasn’t had to do that. Just knowing that that letter exists has helped me navigate some of my most confusing moments; knowing I had the presence of mind at some point to write it reminds me that there is space even when I can’t seem to detect it and that whatever I am feeling at the moment, it will pass.
In The Places That Scare You, Pema Chodron writes about training in the three difficulties:
- acknowledging our neurosis as neurosis,
- doing something different, and
- aspiring to continue practicing this way
Whether we get the message in a letter from ourselves, from someone else, or by practicing sitting and looking at our minds, noticing our thoughts and feelings allows the space necessary for change.