I wonder about the point of writing letters to one’s younger self. Have you come across it? This fad of passing advice backwards down the years; bestowing the benefits of hindsight to the younger you, to the he or she who no longer exists? I came across a selection of snappy one-liners from a broadsheet newspaper series of backdated missives, where various time travellers told themselves: “comfort zones are for wimps”; “don’t rush into anything in your 20s”; “believe in your own quirky vision”; and (this is a good one, albeit confusing, as it seems to break the, ‘it’s all going to work out just fine’ mould), “you’ll have no money and live in a squat”. It seems to be, what these days we ineloquently call, a ‘thing’; a modern day phenomenon to provide retrospective reassurance to your 18 year-old self that, ‘everything’s going to work out just fine.’ The premise assumes that every 18 year-old was worried in the first place, anxious about what the future had in store for them; and now, from your senior, elevated status of wisdom, you know so much better. But isn’t it odd (other than the s/he who was bound for the squat) how you only ever read letters from those people who have made it?
Yet, our teenage self is long gone, so why all this neck straining to look backwards? Is it an indulgent nostalgia trip? Or is it a useful pat on the back to review and accentuate the positives, to congratulate yourself on how far you’ve tramped long life’s laneway? I suppose it’s a way of recalling the vulnerability, confusion and humility that comes with starting out, as well as the energy, expectation and hope of youth. Perhaps it’s a reclamation of those feelings and qualities that can become buried with age. Maybe it’s something people have been doing for millennia, but I am going to contest that it started in 1998 when Baz Luhrmann released his narrative record, spoken over a chilled out drum beat, with its edifying message to, ‘wear sunscreen’. Do you remember it? It was on played on the radio constantly that summer. Written by a columnist from the Chicago Tribune called Mary Schmich, it was her imagined commencement speech to students beginning their first year at university. That crucial time of starting out; of beating on, ceaselessly into the future (to steal, and butcher, the words of another). It is a time in one’s life when advice is dispensed in spades (and probably unheeded, then wasted in equal spades) while we get on with the business of making out own mistakes. Schmich’s guidance includes: keeping old love letters and throwing out bank statements; stretching; being kind to your knees; and, of course, applying sunscreen. She finishes with the lines: “Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia; dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth. But trust me on the sunscreen.”
I have always thought her brutal honesty about the dubious merits to be had in fishing from the past is worth heeding. Not that nostalgia doesn’t have its place; I’ve had great sing-alongs with large groups belting out Mary Hopkins’s, ‘Those were the days my friend / We thought they’d never end / We’d sing and dance forever and a day.’ I’m sure that each person was conjuring up their own personal memories as they sang. But the past is not a place to live; it’s somewhere to pay brief visits. After all, an eye to the past, and an eye to the future could leave you cross-eyed, and this exercise of writing to our younger selves might just be a way of avoiding the present. If this is the case, wouldn’t it be better to sit down and write a letter to our 2018 self? Shouldn’t we benefit from telling ourselves what we know to be true about the here and now: how we are getting on; what we need to do; what and who to avoid? Might we benefit from the still, quiet, honest instruction; the very best advice on those things we don’t necessarily want to hear, supplied by that person who knows you best. You.
‘Meeting My Former Self’ by, Norman Cameron (1905–1953, schooled in Fettes College, Edinburgh)
Meeting my former self in a nostalgia
Of confident, confiding recognition,
Offering him an island in the Atlantic –
Half-way, I said, from Tenerife to England.
Great cliffs of chalk slope from the fishing-village
Up to the lighthouse. Rum sold free of duty.
Only the fishermen and the lighthouse-keeper
Besides ourselves. Drinking the rum, card-playing
And walking in the wastes of stone and cactus
And meeting the mail-steamer once a fortnight.
– But these inducements pitifully withered
At his embarrassed look. Turning to welcome
A friend he had acquired since our last meeting,
Not known to me, he spoke of other matters;
And I was weeping and humiliated.