Come Back Next Year

Come back next year.

Four simple words. Four simple life-changing words.

When I was in eighth grade, I told a girl that I would die for her. “Well that’s not healthy,” she responded.

In eighth grade, I was certain that my self-worth was tied to whether or not this girl could ever like me back as much as I liked her. I spent nights obsessing over it, lunches plotting about it with my friends, and many an AIM conversation trying to figure out how she really felt about me.

I think I read too many books for my own good. The large majority of young adult literature uses the romance subplot. It’s sexy. It’s interesting. It’s a lie.

Come back next year.

It’s summer. A lot of my friends from high school are getting married. Other friends are getting engaged. At least half a dozen of my Facebook friends entered into a FB official relationship in the past week.

It seems that my obsession from eighth grade has become a cultural one.

If you are semi-active on-line and you are in your twenties, chances are you will see an article or a blog post at least once a day that lets you know that it’s okay if you are single. Or maybe it helps you survive wedding season. Or maybe it tells you how to find a partner.

It’s sad that we need articles about how being single and being lonely are two different things. But we do need them. Desperately. Because everyone is telling us that being single is the worst thing that can possibly befall us. If we are religious, we are supposed to pray every night for a mate. If we aren’t, we are supposed to date as much as possible. Go get ’em tiger.

Come back next year.

The trouble with the culture of coupling is that we are complex people. I think almost everyone is single by choice. If you really didn’t want to be single, you would put everything else on hold and find someone. At least that’s what I would do. But there are other things that we devote our time to. Other important things.

For a lot of us, I think the myth that you are either a family-oriented wonderful person or a career-oriented cold-blooded bastard is completely misguided. If you do something that fulfills you and maybe makes a difference, why is that any worse than spending a life in a quaint suburb with a 2.5-kids-family?

Come back next year.

Love is not just a thing between two consenting adults. Defining it that way already limits it. Love is so much bigger than that. We should be practicing love with our coworkers, our friends, our neighbors, our parents, our children, our bosses, our teachers, and our students.

Come back next year.

Almost eight years after telling a girl that I would die for her, I taught a group of ninth graders for a summer. My conceptions of love were tested. I loved my students with a teacher-ly parental love. It was different than romantic love. I didn’t care if they loved me back. I cared if they grew. If they hated me but were learning and growing, I was happy.

And somehow, this was all-encompassing. It was fulfilling. It made me happy everyday to wake up and love something the way I loved my students. I was content with this.

Then the last day came. And it was hard. And I hated it. They passed out yearbooks of the summer. Students rushed around, getting their peers to sign; others found teachers and asked us to sign. I stood in a corner, letting the students interact with one another for the last time.

An eighth-grade girl came up to me. She politely asked if I would sign her yearbook. I hadn’t taught her. I barely knew her. We had interacted once or twice. I had told her and her friends to be quiet during assemblies and told her to walk in the hallway. But she knew I taught ninth-grade English. I asked if she would sign my yearbook as well. She did. She wrote a simple message, and it changed everything.

Come back next year.

When I was in eighth grade, no one told me that those four words would mean more to me than “I would die for you, too.”

To the Woman Who Stared at Me at Exit 38

I think maybe you were once very pretty. You are, still, in a tired way. But like a sunflower in fall, it is clear that you have seen better days. I look at you because I like looking at the cars that I pass. They seem like self-contained worlds to me. You look as if you understand that.

At first, I’m flattered that you are staring at me. I do look good with facial hair, highway wind whipping through my closely cropped hair, and black shades on. But you hold your stare for too long. I make eye contact with you and hope we will share a moment. I hope you will wave or turn away and laugh with your friends. But you don’t. You keep your eyes on me, and as much as I try to look away, I can’t.

Your eyes are empty. That’s the best way to describe them. And I’m terribly scared of them. I’m scared of them because they don’t seem self-aware. In fact, they seem the opposite of it. They are empty. They are shells. And they warn me that most people have souls that look similar.

The woman who waves or laughs is no more self-aware than you are. She is simply better at acting. She knows that a well-placed laugh can make it seem like she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She knows that a well-timed wave goes well with her personal aesthetic.

The scary thing about your eyes is that they show that you have given up. As I try to cut away every opinion, every action, every thought that is not my own, you realize that it is not an achievable goal. You have given into the cookie cutter. You have allowed it to rule your sunflower face. Nothing in the world can make you more or less than you are now because you will be gone by winter.

A Letter to Sixteen-Year-Old Me

To the sixteen-year-old me:

I know you read through your journals and you don’t see progress. You feel like you are wrestling with the same things. And mostly, that’s true. But that’s okay. You’ve only been writing seriously for a couple of months. Change, maturity, resolution – those things take time.

Right now, you believe in God. That’s important. Keep doing that. But don’t think God limits. God expands. Keep your open mind. Ask the questions you don’t hear other people asking. Make your faith yours. Make it personal. But don’t give up on God. He won’t give up on you.

You think you’re in love. I can’t tell you if you are or not. It will happen a few more times. Each time it does, really think about it. Really dive into it. And if you decide that you actually are, treat the girl as if it’s true.

But, in the mean time, be in love with everyone. Respect everyone. Be selfless to everyone. And rejoice in it. Don’t walk around with a nice-guy chip on your shoulder. Good men aren’t good because they don’t curse. They are good because they¬†always put others first.

Don’t be mad at the people who party and drive fast and sleep with each other. Be mad at the people who say “faggot” and use female¬†genitalia as insult. Be mad at the people who are convinced that the funniest humor is the kind that is necessarily insulting. Be mad at the people whose main source of socialization is exclusionary.

Stop thinking you are smarter than the people around you. Life is much more fun when you live it outside of GPAs and SAT scores.

In a related way, stop believing that you hold objective reality. Your instincts about people are good, but they are based on your own personality. Just because you don’t get along with someone doesn’t mean they are a bad person.

But don’t take any of this criticism too personally. You are already perfect. after all. Not because of anything you have done, but because God is pulling you into His Kingdom. And I know that feels weird. I know that feels like a free pass. But really, all it is is freeing. If you don’t turn that assignment in on time, you won’t be any less great. If a girl breaks your heart, your soul will still be whole. If things don’t go your way, you are still on the right path. And that’s freeing.

With love,

Your 21-year-old self who is still a lot like you.