Dear Teen Me,
Too often, we lean toward writing to the general audience. I've rewritten this very letter at least three times, and had to scrap it each time because it did not accomplish what it needs to accomplish. It needs to be a letter to you, not to every teenage girl in America. It needs to speak to your heart, your dreams, and your faults. It needs to be about you.
Since we were able to comprehend compassion, we've used it as a shield to avoid ourselves. We've sympathized with the plights of the starving in Asia, the trafficked in India, the raped and tortured in Sudan and Burma. We've given to the Red Cross on behalf of hurricane and earthquake victims. We've spent hours coaxing the mentally ill out of suicide, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. We've given everything we have trying to help others. And it is noble and just and right and selfless to the point of being unhealthy.
You are a person, too. You need time and attention and care and space just as much as the downtrodden in Mexico or the orphans in Russia. You need to watch fantastic films, read poetry you don't understand the first time around, and take classes that are completely out of your element only to realize your elements can expand. You need to sneak into 21+ concerts, shove your way to the front of the crowd, and hold the hand of Matt McDonald while he sings right into your eyes. You need to make memories you will never forget because they were entirely about you.
The world cannot always be experienced through the suffering of others. It does not only taste of pain, of destitution, of criminal and victim.
It will take you a long time to understand why being a do-gooder is so damaging, and it is a lesson you'll resist learning because it means exploring territory that is foreign, dangerous, and has the ability to alter all that you are, all that you can be. But when you get there, embrace it. Open yourself to tears that pull themselves from a well of joy uncompromised by strife. Hold your nephew's newborn body close to yours and forget that there are children born in hovels instead of hospitals. Look into his bright, new eyes and understand that his life is going to be filled with love, security, peace, and happiness. And that is something to enjoy for the simple fact that it exists.
Your childhood was not so untainted. Abuse dogged you from the age of just three. Your entire community knew you were deflowered at just eight. Your parents split when you were ten. By thirteen, you will be awash in shame and open secrets and keeping up the appearance of normality despite all that is so abnormal. And to cope, you will focus on the needs of others. You will close off the part of yourself that needs to cry and be angry and demand answers that can never be given.
One day that door will burst open. One day you will not be able to hide behind your compassion for others. You will have to find yourself again, take her by the hand, and lead her back to health and confidence and a voice she forgot she could use. And on that journey, you will learn to accept suffering for what it is a moment, cushioned on all sides by opportunities for growth.
Promise me that you'll take advantage of them all, and I will promise you the same.
P.S. Don't worry. We never lose our drive to help others. We just make sure we include ourselves on the list of those in need.