I heard a song tonight— doesn’t really matter which one—that put me in a nostalgic mood. Although this song wasn’t around ten or more years ago, when I was in college, it perfectly captured the way I remember feeling back then—the whole picture, not just one aspect of it. Nostalgia being what it is, that particular mood isn’t very useful for anything; it’s an indulgence, but like all indulgences, if taken in moderation it can be pleasant. It’s only when you overindulge that you end up regretting it.
I can hardly remember high school. Some moments stand out, especially those involving my closest friends, but overall it’s a blur to me now, and has been for years, pretty much since graduation. I’ve often reflected that the teen years—with the nearly lethal combination of puberty and stupidity—burn through a person like a fire, and when it’s gone, what’s left is a completely different person. I don’t know the guy (the term “man” is not applicable here) that I was back then; he thought differently, acted differently, looked at the world differently than I do now. So, for me, life as I know it began in college.
I should say up front, my college experience was nothing like any of the stereotypes. I attended a Bible college. The rules were strict by anyone’s standards (no, I take that back…I learned while I was there that there are even more conservative people out there, who thought we were the embodiment of evil for our “lax” stance on…well, anything really. Who knew?). We were not allowed any physical contact with the opposite sex, and not allowed to be alone with a member of the opposite sex until our junior year. Obviously drinking, smoking, and other vices were forbidden—and this was strictly enforced. I knew people to be expelled for having a beer. We had curfews that were both strict and early. Living on campus was required for the first year (maybe two, I can’t recall). There were other rules that might be equally shocking to you. Anytime this comes up in conversation, I get a mix of shock, revulsion, and disbelief—but the truth is, it was good. Our campus was safe, the students even at their worst were respectful and considerate, and we knew where the boundaries lay. At a time when I could easily have been doing things that destroyed my life for years to come, I had both stability and clarity.
It isn’t possible to sum up the way I felt back then. Everything was still new, but at the same time, I never stopped to think about that; I just lived. I had great friends, people I still respect today; I had good role models (although no college kid thinks about it in those terms!) who set me a great example to live up to, and I still honor them for that today. Life was hard, because it was all so new, and so challenging; and it was easy, because I had no real needs. Issues of payment aside, everything was provided for me—room, board, and even scheduling. Despite the restrictive rules, it was the most free I’ve ever been, because I was free of any serious responsibility. There’s the responsibility of the classroom, of course, but that responsibility is contrived; you’re not, say, doing it to sustain your own life, or someone else’s. It’s artificial, in a sense. We used to refer to college life as living in a bubble, because we knew it wasn’t the real world.
There are a lot of things that I miss about those days, of course. I miss my friends; I still see them sometimes, and keep up by way of Facebook or email or telephone, but it’s nothing like the day to day interaction with them that I had back then. I miss the academic life—I always enjoyed it, even when I was not exactly at my most dedicated. Most of all, I miss the fact that my future, my options, were still wide-open. I had yet to make my major choices in life, or to face the consequences of those choices.
None of this is to complain about my life as it is. I am the person I am now, and I am in part a product of my choices. If things are to be different for me, they’ll be different beginning now, based on the choices I make now, because the fact is, you can’t go back. I miss the past, but I can’t change it.
Over the weekend I watched two recent movies, “Looper” and “Men In Black 3”. Both movies are built around the same idea: An older character (Boris in “MIB3”, Old Joe in “Looper”) goes back in time to confront his younger self and change something. On the surface, the movies appear to be about the past, but in truth they are both about the future: How can I take this future that I’m dissatisfied with and make it better? The answer, the REAL answer, is to take responsibility for your choices from this point forward—to figure out what you can change, no matter how large or small, and change it. It was individual, minor choices (coupled with a few major ones) that made your present what it is; it is the same way with the future. But what if we COULD go back? What if we COULD confront our former selves? What would we say?
I can think of specifics, of course, decisions I made that I would make differently. Surely you can do the same. But as you don’t know the details of my life, those decisions would be meaningless to you. So, in a more general sense, here’s what I would say to the younger me:
- Be (more) true to what you believe. I say it that way because I did, indeed, try to be faithful to what I believed. I did it in a juvenile way, though—I treated it like a game. I didn’t think so at the time, but that is exactly what I did. I have since learned that your worldview and beliefs are what define you. Rich Mullins’s “Creed”, his take on the Apostles’ Creed, says in the refrain: “I did not make it, no, it is making me,” with reference to what he believed. He was right. The things we believe are the things that shape us, and we should take them seriously.
- Challenge what you believe. This contradicts my first point, right? Not at all. I could say it like this: Be true to what you believe, but know why you believe it. Search it out. Make sure that you can back up what you believe. Christianity especially is often accused of “blind faith”, but that should never be; remember that the Bible says to always be ready to give an answer to those who ask a reason for the hope that you have. Investigate your beliefs! They aren’t really yours until you understand them and are convinced of them.
- Hold on to the people around you. I had more opportunities for friendships in college, good quality friendships, than I have had at any other time in my life. I squandered most of that opportunity. Some of the people I wasn’t close to back then, I have had the privilege of getting to know since then, but mostly, the chance is lost. I would tell myself to reach out more, take advantage of what was around me. And further, I would say, don’t let those people slip away! Keep in touch. If I had known that Facebook, with its ease of communication, was just a few years away, maybe maintaining contact the old-fashioned way for a few years might not have seemed like such a burden. Anyway, I would tell myself to hold on tightly to the people I knew and loved; someday, I’ll need them, and someday, they’ll need me. Friends are a great privilege.
- Buckle down. I can’t say this enough. The primary purpose for being there was to get an education, and frankly, I was not fully committed to that. The repercussions are endless: My first two years, I had a scholarship that paid every last cent of my college bills. In my third year, my grades started to slip, because I wasn’t taking it seriously. (Academics are easy for me, and always have been; but that gave me a false sense of security, and I stopped trying.) So, I lost thirty percent of my funding. Ten years later, I’m still paying on the loans that resulted. Also, I missed opportunities to do the very career for which I trained, because it is a field that can’t be entered with any debt. My lack of dedication to my studies essentially set the path for the rest of my life, at least to date. So, buckle down! Study! Take it seriously!
- Have fun. Another contradiction? No! Fun is absolutely necessary for a good life at any level. But, like anything else, in moderation. Balance is really what I’m getting at; life should be balanced—work vs. fun, sleep vs. waking, eating vs. exercise, and so on. More than just moderation, though, I would also say this about fun: Be wise about it. While everyone sows a few wild oats sometime, you have to ask yourself: What’s the point in fun that can get me killed, or otherwise destroy my life? There are much better ways to enjoy yourself than doing things that can cause such massive problems. Obviously I mean drinking/smoking/drugs and so on, but it’s not just vices I’m thinking of. Essentially, stop and think before you do anything. Don’t do it “just because”. Use your brain!
- Think about your life. This is not the same as the thinking I referred to a moment ago; and it is the one piece of sentimental advice I would give myself. Slow down. These years are going to fly by. You, my younger self, think you know this, but really you have no idea. Tomorrow you will be thirty-three years old, with two children and a pending divorce, and you will have no idea where the time went. How long after that before you’re forty-eight, and the youngest is graduating and moving on? How long after that until you are old—and then you die? Life is not just short, it’s fast and relentless. You only get one chance, so take a minute every once in a while and think about that. Realize, really recognize, that these ARE the good ol’ days. They may be your preparation for the future, but when you become me, you’ll be nostalgic for them. Appreciate them now. And contemplate where they will take you. Your future is my reality. Don’t just let it happen—make it happen.
He probably wouldn’t listen, that former me. He though he had it figured out. He didn’t Neither do I, but I know a little more than he did. I know, right now, that we can’t live in the past…nostalgia is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. So, since I’ll never have the chance to give that speech to my younger self, I’ll leave it here for you—maybe you’re young enough to need it. And if you aren’t If you’re my age, or close to it, or older? Well…the past is there, in your memory. Never too late to learn from it. The future is waiting. Make it good.