Dear 16-year-old Dani,
Happy birthday a day early! And let me just say right now that you completely and totally ROCK that hair cut. Seriously. Enjoy it. Don’t listen to people who tell you that they’re afraid that it makes your face look fat. It doesn’t. You look amazing. You won’t have hair that short again for a really long time, and you won’t find a style you like as much as this one for even longer, so savor it (even though you’ll get convicted in a few months that you’re disrupting God’s order by having short hair. I wish I could say don’t do that, but we both know that time travel doesn’t really exist).
This picture, twelve years later, embodies for 28-year-old-you all of the sheer awesomeness that you possessed at that time in your life. Sophomore year of high school was your year, though you probably don’t realize it. You have a group of friends with whom you hang out regularly. You’re almost popular — at least, the popular kids no longer make fun of you. You are at your musical height — I wish I had your vocal range, and man do I ever wish I was as fantastic of a pianist as you are. Your biggest regret is not-quite dating that loser who swore to you that his girlfriend wasn’t actually his girlfriend and you believed him. You’re doing pretty great. You will look back on this year of your life with tremendous fondness and longing.
There’s so much I want to tell you. Like your current crush really isn’t worth it. (Really. I promise.) And homeschooling is not going to be a good experience for you. Even little things, like don’t get your cartilage pierced at Claire’s…twice. Seriously. Don’t do it.
But if there’s one thing and one thing only that I could impart to you right now, it would be this:
Always. Choose love.
Things are going to get really rough for you, just like they do for everyone your age who is trying to Figure It All Out and Make Sense of the World (yes, all teenagers do this — and you in particular, you never really stop). You’re going to learn that things aren’t always the way you were taught they were. And that sometimes things just really, really suck. You’ll be hurt badly and often, sometimes unintentionally. You’ll probably hurt others, badly and often and unintentionally.
But stop and evaluate — and choose love.
You’ll meet atheists who aren’t evil anarchists desiring nothing more than the flesh of a new-born baby, people who are actually warm-hearted humanitarians who want nothing more than to leave the world (and everyone in it) better off. These people will respect you, even though you were taught that they wouldn’t and even though they don’t agree with you.
You’ll meet Christians who aren’t from the assemblies who love Jesus every bit as much as you do.
You’ll meet people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer — who aren’t obsessed with sex or the next conquest, people who share many of your likes and dislikes and personality traits. To your shock, some of these people will love Jesus as much as you do.
You’ll meet Christians who say they love you and forgive you and want God’s best in your life, but they actually cut you down and demean you and treat you as if you are less than human.
You’ll meet people of different faiths and (including those aforementioned people of no faith whatsoever), and you will share a deep common ground with them that rocks you to your core.
Let it all go, dear girl. You don’t have to be right all the time. The world is not black and white. You cannot change people, to make them love or accept you, no matter how desperately you want to.
But each and every time, choose love.
Sometimes choosing love will look like putting aside your preconceptions and learning afresh. I know how much you hate that, feeling out of your depth and new at something. But it’s worth it.
Sometimes choosing love will look like laying down arms in the middle of a fight in order to love the other person the way they need to be loved at that moment, the way that they will feel your love the best (even if you think they should feel it already).
Sometimes choosing love will look like removing yourself completely from toxic situations and loving yourself even when everyone around you is telling you that you don’t deserve love. I know you too well to think I have to tell you to love those people, because I know you will anyway. And I know that it’s a struggle to love yourself — it’s a struggle that never really goes away.
Sometimes choosing love will look like choking back words of anger, dissent, or even just innocuously offering a different opinion from someone because you realize that they are not yet ready to hear what you have to say (or you realize that your words aren’t nearly as important as you want to think that they are).
Sometimes choosing love will look like abandoning the faith to other people, when really you’re testing the spirits and perhaps finding them wanting, but at the same time finding freedom and authenticity and health for yourself.
And sometimes you’ll mess up. Sometimes you won’t mess up, but the situation will suck anyway. Sometimes there is no right answer, no resolution, no peace, and you have to come to terms with that somehow in a way that will allow you to keep living, to keep loving anyway.
You are so young. I am so young. We have much to learn, you and I, twelve years apart and still growing.
But in the face of all of the unknowable, unsearchable future, let’s you and I promise to always choose love — for ourselves, for others. We’ll find our way from there.
This is a repost of an old letter I wrote to myself originally on my 24th or 25th birthday. I try to read it every year, and found this year that it needed updating a bit.