'I'm So Far Behind!'
Smash your clocks and breathe.
Tidelands (1987) by Helen Lundeberg
First off, I love you. Your column has been the closest thing to successful therapy I had in the last few years and the source of most of my positive self-image interventions. Calling me out for things I hadn’t even realized needed calling out. In some ways my letter fits the theme of many of your latest publishings, but maybe it will help me actually internalize the advice if it's specifically aimed at myself.
I turned 24 approximately 37 days ago and have been doing nothing but deliberate the horrific well that age entails, before I turned it and after.
I have a little less than a year left for the point in time in which my still middling and flexible frontal lobe neurons arrive at their fixed state of growth and apparently solidify for the remainder of my life rendering me into an Adult™. (I know learning and thus the development of neurons is a life-long process — at least according to the latest findings I know of, but also I stopped reading neuroscientific research a while ago. Please bear with the metaphor, my brain is in panic.)
I know the threads that are complicit in knotting my stomach and muscles:
I just started university this year, while my immigrant parents believe I’m finishing my bachelor’s in a year. (It’s a lie that afforded me my move to Berlin. No regrets, but I should have started last year.) I will finish when I’m 27 the earliest.
I have wasted time I could have worked on my voice, my guitar skills, learning to dance, trying my hand at one of the 300ish film scenarios in my head at any given moment, re-learning Mandarin or finally becoming fluent in French.
I’m now slowly but surely approaching an age where I’m not the youngest yet adequately skilled/experienced person in a room despite my age. People have caught up to me. I am at an age where people, even if only for a given time-frame, are honing their thing or things — or actually have done so already — and are now showing the world the wondrous fruits of their labor.
I’m still catching up on my teen years where most of my opportunities at experimentation faltered in the face of my strict and demanding father, and the depression that resulted from that upbringing. I know that time is relative and doing something at 20 or 30 is not less impressive than doing it at 40 or 50. But my brain decided these rules don’t apply to me.
Where is time going? My days are disappearing like smoke and the last Blood Orange Album is already three years old. If this is the rate at which things are happening I’ll be 40 in a year and lose my mind from the inability to grasp how and when I got here — if it doesn’t happen even earlier that is.
I used to be so so brave. I just tried things, now I also do, and judge myself less while doing so for the high-stake things (anything music, creativity-related). I was so ballsy and just went for things more, I don’t know where that girl went, but I miss her every day.
Why do I always need to be special in order to feel worthy? Why can’t I feel good about myself, if I’m not amongst the best or the better than those around me?
I can’t continue living like this, because this blame keeps me from trying harder at the things I want to do and using my time to actually pursue them instead of wasting it even further and continuing this cycle. I listened to Alex G’s “Blessing” on repeat while writing this letter, it’s my current mantra right now, because the future and the past are a curse and every day and looking for presence in the moment, are the only lifeline I possess right now.
When did I get here?
Time Is Moving Too Quickly
No one is ahead or behind. No one is best or better. Every day you’re alive, you have a new opportunity to enjoy existence on this strange planet.
Unfortunately, right now you’re tripping. You’re confused about reality and time and it’s panicking you. And nothing will make you more special than learning to appreciate the perfect ragged textures of this moment, right now.
You are very, very young but even if you were 94 instead of 24, I’d tell you the same thing: Your focus needs to be on how well you can soak up the small satisfactions of this day – the little connections, the movement of your gorgeous mind from one thought to the next, the brilliance of your body’s motion in space, the light from the window, the sounds from the street below. You’re living in Berlin, you lucky motherfucker! You get to focus on your education until 2027, four luxurious years of learning, like a vast green pasture stretching out in front of you. DELICIOUS. Think of all the people you’ll meet! Imagine those hours in the classroom, sponging up new ideas, new facts, new perspectives! If I write about this long enough, I’ll end up going back to school myself.
Take a sledgehammer to your tiny little anxious window on the world and let some air and some light in. There’s no race and no finish line. You’ve escaped the depressions and oppressions of the past and it slowed you down, sure, but now you’re here, free from those burdens, and you can sing and dance and learn guitar. There’s no hourglass running out. No alarm will go off if you don’t learn everything in time or win all of the awards quickly. No one is watching and measuring. No one holds a secret key to happiness. Success doesn’t make everything perfect in every way.
Our job is to luxuriate in the present. Everything good starts there.
In the moments that we’re luxuriating in the present the most, that’s when we’re the most special. Why? Because we’re letting the divine beauty of this world show itself to us. Because we’re open to the people around us. Because when we’re fully present, we’re smarter and more full of love than at any other time we’re alive.
Presence makes us special because only when we’re completely present can we see other people clearly and love them for who they are with all of our hearts. That love transforms us into something brighter and bigger, when we feel it. It makes other people brighter and bigger when they feel it and let it in.
Being present makes it possible to love other people the way they deserve to be loved. It also makes it possible to love (and respect and honor) yourself the way you deserve to be loved and respected and honored. When you’re fully present, you can set aside the trippy, anxious measurements of our short-sighted culture and see yourself for what you are. You can feel, in your cells, how incredibly lucky you are to be here.
You need to smash that replica of your father’s exacting standards that lives inside your mind and start living on your own terms. Reinvent your expectations of yourself from the ground up. Don’t recreate the oppressive world you grew up in. Invent a new universe where you can breathe freely and explore and treat every new year as a blank slate, a new era to explore and play and learn.
I don’t know how you manage the lie you’re telling your parents about when you’re going to graduate, but I can see clearly how much anxiety it’s causing you. I’m sure there are plenty of good reasons for keeping them in the dark, but if you can, I would make it a goal to come clean as soon as you can. You have enough to manage without having to manage that lie for the next few years. You wouldn’t think one lie could drain your energy and generate untold panic and stress every day, but that’s how lies work. They’re bad for your body, your outlook, and your ability to enter each day with a spirit of openness and discovery.
Learning to be honest with yourself and others, even when they don’t understand, will give you more room to live by your own standards and values. This is also the map to spending more time on the things you love, something it’s very hard to do when you’re filled with the sense that you’re messing up and running out of time and you keep lying to cover your tracks.
If the big lie seems too hard to address or remedy, I would get a therapist and find a path forward by talking through it. Don’t underestimate what a big piece of your pain and struggle this is. Clearing that piece of deception out of the way will make it easier for you to get the most out of the next few years and make honest, open connections with the people around you. Embrace the challenge of getting out from under that lie permanently.
Some piece of that work involves disappointing other people. So let me say this right now, loud enough for the ones in the back: When you commit to honesty and commit to slowing down and savoring the luxury of being alive as much as you can, when you commit to drinking in knowledge and embracing beauty and delighting in the unpredictable weirdos around you, you will be misunderstood regularly. You cannot, in fact, be open to the world exactly as it is, let it into your pores, breathe it into your lungs, and also be appropriate and clear and perfect and right on time. When you’re open, you aren’t constantly glancing at your watch and policing yourself and telling little lies to excuse your behavior. You show up and tell the truth. You don’t have to mold yourself into a shape that makes you comprehensible to others. You take the risk of believing in who you are and what you love, and you don’t apologize for those things, even when no one gets it.
I say this because so much of what you’re struggling with right now is wrapped up in external expectations and timelines and shame. Right now, you’re tripping on this punishing storm outside your door that has nothing to do with you. It’s time to figure out what kind of a space you want to create INSIDE, safe from all of that noise.
Step into the storm for a second and feel the shame and disapproval, and ask yourself: Is it really so bad? Sometimes when you face what you’ve been avoiding, you realize that the actual storm outside is much less devastating than what you imagined in your head.
Don’t let your neurotic habit of overanalyzing everything squat on your life permanently. Give up on getting everything perfect and being approved of by everyone. Your sensitivity is what’s making you less daring: You’re more aware of the high stakes than you were when you were younger. This is natural and there’s no reason to beat yourself up for it.
This is your year to be exactly who you are, where you are, without a clock ticking down. Feel the hours of this day stretch out before you. Everything sublime in this world was formed from patient hands that knew how to take their time. You didn’t waste years getting here. Those years led you to this spot. They were necessary, because now you know how hectic and panicked and imbalanced and rushed life can feel when you scramble and cover your tracks and break yourself in half just to meet other people’s standards and measurements. Now you realize you can’t live in your head all the time. You need a deeper, slower connection to yourself and the world around you.
This is your year to slow down and feel where you are. Don’t become someone better. Don’t hurry. Don’t make lists. Let these long hours guide you toward the soothing center of who you are.
I give advice two days a week, and I’ve been doing this for ten years. I have all kinds of good ideas about what it takes to thrive. But nothing I’ve ever believed or written about has made more of a difference than my firm commitment to move away from our culture’s panicked stories about time and age and success and locate myself on my own planet, where time moves slowly and each moment is worth living no matter what’s going on around me.
This morning I walked out into the yard and took photos of the sunrise, and I thought, I’m so lucky to be here, to walk right out into the day and see so much beauty. There was a mist hanging over the grass and the color of the sky kept changing from coral to light pink to faded blue, and the morning light kept shifting the palette, creating a strange new painting in every direction. I didn’t have to decide to feel good or think my way into a new state of mind. I surrendered to the morning and my core animal self reminded me that I’m right in the middle of a truly great story.
I have to slow down a lot to remember that, to feel it, to run my hands over the smooth surface of my life and believe in it. And once I’ve slowed down and felt it, I have to slow down even more, and feel it even more.
When you’re moving very, very slowly – much, much slower than anything else around you – that’s when you can feel every little sensation, the prancing of your lithe mind, the unbelievable miracle of your body in space, the absolute gift of sunlight on the floor of your apartment, the glorious noises from the street below. You’re young and you’re living in Berlin! You lucky, lucky, lucky motherfucker! Eat it up. Breathe it in. Don’t rush to catch up. Stay exactly where you are and feel every golden second of it.
Happy new year! My only resolution this year is to create interesting things from the slowest place possible. Okay, fine, I’m also going to be less of a nag. I did a lot of fault finding last year and this year my motto is LET IT BE. What do you want from this year? Tell me in the comments. This feels like a good day to give everyone a 20% discount on yearly subscriptions, as a great big thank you for being here.