Why Giving Advice to Your Younger Self Is Dumb

Posted: November 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

I obsess about time.  (I’m not alone: “time” is the most used noun in the English language.)  Time in general, but mostly MY time–the short span of the earth’s revolutions while I’m still breathing on it  My recovery work lately is about trying to stop myself from mentally checking my “progress” against the arbitrary age clock set by our culture and our peers. 

Somehow, I’m disappointed to find that I have not been as successful as Savannah Guthrie, even though I don’t like Savannah Guthrie and actually know nothing about her.  But I’ll see her D.O.B. in a news article and do an automatic check against my own.  Unsurprisingly, I come up short when I measure myself against celebrities.  It irritates me that two of my bosses at work are younger than me.  I frequently feel unsuccessful and “behind”–nothing new in my alcoholic life, except that I don’t have my liquid time machine to help me forget the winged chariot and its habit of reminding me that it’s not just death hurrying near me, but the reckoning that comes with it.  I’m quite convinced I won’t measure up then, as I continually fail to do now.

I also have the bad habit of imagining going back in time to my younger self and giving her some well-meaning advice.  Things having been what they’ve been, she clearly could have used a piece of my mind!   I’d make my point about the booze VERY clear, for one.  For another, I’d recommend she break up with that college girlfriend before her sophomore year.   ….THAT would solve some problems….  A different grad school might have been a good idea as would more regular dental check ups.  I’d let her know that the grass isn’t really greener on the other side; it’s just more grass.  And I’d tell her that all the good things she believes about herself are definitely true.  Half of the bad stuff is as well, but not nearly as bad as she thinks, and the other half is just shit she picked up in school or from her Dad.

By the time I’m finished setting my agenda for Building a Better Me by Bending Time and Space, I recognize one very simple fact:  there’s no way I would listen to me.  I know me, and I know I think I know it all already, and there’s no way I’m listening to a Future Me who probably fucked up my life anyway.  I would know that I could do a better job than me with all this “life choices” stuff, so I should just shut the hell up.

So, there this unproductive fantasy typically ends:  with my recognizing that there is no Flux Capacitor powerful enough to change my past, or at least my personality.

This fantasy is a little unusual, just because it’s not the way I usually fantasize about the past at all.  I’m talking history history, not personal history.   You know the old party games… if you could have coffee with anyone from 19th century France, who would it be?  If you could live in any other decade, when and where would it be?  What moment in history would you most want to visit and why?  I never find myself wanting to pull an armchair up to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and say, “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but…”  I’ve never wanted to skip back in time to Nazi rally and assassinate Adolf Hitler or to Ronald Reagan’s staff room in order to convince him to start fighting AIDS in the early ’80’s.  Not really.  When I do fantasize about time travel, my motive is always curiosity.  What was it REALLY like to listen to Virginia Woolf chat idly with Katherine Mansfield?  What WERE those druids up to with that whole Stonehenge thing?  And what do dinosaurs smell like?  I only want to learn, to know, to understand.  I have never genuinely wanted to change any past except my own, and I’m reasonably sure I’m not unique in that respect–action adventure villains and comic heroes always excepted.

I don’t have fantasies about changing major historical events–presumably–because I’ve managed to be just fine with the way history has led to the present–the generic, historical present–in which I live.  I must also be comfortable with having the (admittedly limited) power of changing only the present and helping to shape the future.  Somehow, these things are okay when it comes to a collective past.  I just can’t seem to adopt the same stoic attitude to my own, personal history.

I also don’t seem as concerned about any “butterfly effect” about changing details of my own life, perhaps because I DON’T feel that I’ve done much–good or bad–that would dramatically change things one way or another.  Another sad truth is that, when I am deep in this fantasy, I think that almost any change would end in a better “me” than what I’ve managed to do so far.  This is not just sad; it’s not even true. 

I am trying,, therefore, to re-think this “younger self” fantasy.  Maybe what I should really do is to go back and listen, rather than talk.  Understand, rather than try to change.  She could probably teach me a lot of things.  One of the lessons of recovery has been that I often feel I am trying to get “back” some things about myself that addiction and other maladaptive behaviors have taken away from me.  At the very least, she (younger self) deserves a lot of respect.  She survived; she did the best she could with what she had.
  She even developed some skills and knowledge and refinement along the way.  Everything she did led to now, and now’s pretty good.  Now’s great most of the time–so, she must have done an ok job.  And I should really let her (and me) off the hook. 

I am a long way from embracing my past, but I am farther along than before on the path of accepting it.  If Younger Self really insisted on advice, here’s all she’d get from me now:

1.  Take more pictures.  I sometimes forget what people looked like and how pretty everything was.

2.  Write more stuff down.  I don’t always remember what it felt like or what I thought or what things meant at the time they meant so much.

and 3.  Go ahead and do what you’re going to do.  If you don’t make the mistakes now, I’ll just have to make them later.

And that’s good advice. 



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