Lately, I’ve been thinking about my younger self, who she was, what she would say about where I am in my life these days.
She liked to think of herself as radical, that younger me. Radically vegetarian—sometimes vegan, aspiring always to veganhood—radically political, radically bodied. She found and formed new identities with each trip to the library, took as many college classes as she could to expand her knowledge, spoke often in class, visited her professor’s office hours regularly. She was passionate, full of energy and idealistic beliefs, full of desire to live her life fully. She had thousands of dreams, imagined thousands of possibilities, careers, places to live and visit. She laughed so loudly people turned to stare.
But she also believed in perfection, that maintaining a 4.0 GPA was incredibly important, that making the world a better place was only possible if she fought racism and sexism and classism and homophobia perfectly. If she never made mistakes. If she held others to the same standards to which she held herself. She thought in black and white, never shades of gray.
And she was constantly anxious, nervous. She was sick from stress, barely sleeping, quizzing herself with stacks of flashcards while she ate breakfast, walked to work. She was judgmental, lecturing her father in restaurants about his food choices, lecturing her step-mother about racism, lecturing strangers in the supermarket about their religious beliefs. In her mind, there was right and there was wrong; there was nothing in-between.
She was lovely in many ways, that younger version of me, although she never quite believed she was saying or doing or being the right thing. But she was also rigid, inflexible, unwilling to seriously dialogue with people who didn’t agree with her beliefs. Sometimes she belittled in order to prove her point.
And I feel, lately, like it’s important to remember the negatives of that younger self, not just to idealize her energy, conviction, all the truths she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. Because the older I become, the more complicated everything seems, the more I understand the world in overlapping systems, constellations of choices with constellations of consequences desired and unintended. And sometimes I worry my younger self would have nothing but disdain for the current me. After all, I buy most of my clothes new instead of used, I drive three hours to get my hair cut, I didn’t volunteer a single minute for the last election, sometimes I wear make-up, sometimes I smile at sexist jokes instead of screaming.
When I remember only my idealistic younger self, I’m overcome with anxiety that she would think I’ve sold myself short. As a student told me recently, “Complexity is just something 30-year-olds tell themselves to make them feel better about selling out.” I laughed. And walked away. Because lately, I’m trying to be gentle with myself, the choices I’ve made, continue to make, the paths I’m choosing in a world of complexity. I’m trying to be gentle with others, too. Understand their choices, see them from many angles and possibilities. I’m trying to maintain my younger self’s enthusiasm, laughter, passionate beliefs, while moving forward with less judgment, more kindness, less right-or-wrong thinking.