Monday, October 19, 2015

Letter to My 20-Year Old Daughter

Several years ago a friend sent me a link to a site where the author wrote a letter to her 20-year old self.  I loved that idea--and I plan to do it sometime.  But as I've contemplated having a daughter, and have found myself observing her, thinking of womanhood and life, I've been drawn to write a letter to my 20-year old daughter first.  I initially wrote this letter in 2012, and here's a slightly-revised version.

{The photos are of various ancestors. My darling mother is in the above photo and in the fifth one.}

Dear Annie,

I love you, which is the first thing I would ever want to say to you in a letter.  God loves you--the next thing I would say.  Both loves are unconditional, which is the only way to truly love anything or anyone.  I hope and pray that the unconditional love you have received from your parents will allow you to comprehend the unconditional love that is offered by God.  It is vast and wide.  It is endless.

So here are my nuggets of advice, hard-earned wisdom, many points on which I am still a work-in-progress.  I write these so you may know them intellectually, but like most of us you will have to learn a lot of them through experience.  That's okay! That's good.

1. As my mother would tell me, and as Shakespeare would tell us all, "to thine own self be true."  You were 'fearfully and wonderfully made' and that means you are created uniquely, intentionally and particularly to be the one and only you in this world.  This is no excuse to let your faults just ride--always identify and fight against your faults!--but rather just embrace who you are as a person.  Be true to yourself. 

2. I can tell already that you are independent--and I'm glad!  Be an independent thinker--think for yourself.  Don't let culture spoon-feed you some idea of what you are supposed to be or do.  Frankly, I believe our culture is very difficult for women.  It is full of extreme expectations of women--in how to act, in what to wear (or not wear), on what a girl's goals for the future should be, etc. These images can be dangerous and even poisonous. They are cultural creations.  You should look to timeless truths to determine what to think, believe and how to act.  Don't be a cookie-cutter and don't be content to simply follow the crowd.  Be your own person. The Bible gives some great examples of women who are to be admired and who are *not* cookie-cutters.  Read that book. Don't read someone else's interpretation of it.  Read it yourself.

3. Find your self-worth in one place and one place only: in God.  Don't look to culture, to other people, to your boyfriend, to your spouse, to your children, to employers, to teachers, to your parents, to your church leaders, to popular culture icons. If you rely on others' opinions of you or definitions of who you should be you will always be disappointed, you will always fall short.  God doesn't disappoint.  His opinion is the only one that matters and He's given us the workings of the Holy Spirit to figure out what He would have us do in our lives. That's it.  So simple.  So challenging!

4. "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."  (Romans 8:1)  Amen.  This goes along with the above points--my advice to ignore culture.  Of course we have to obey certain social customs (for instance, please do write thank-you notes, it shows gratitude and is polite...but sometimes you can't for whatever reason or sometimes other people don't so don't get hung up on it--extend grace!!) Mainstream culture is rarely a beacon of goodness and light. (Just watch some TV to determine how true this is--it's so junky.)  Live in this world, understand and be savvy about the customs that need to be followed, but don't look to the general culture for guidance on how to live or who to be.  It's just flat and lifeless.  Seek these things for yourself.  Which brings me to a practical point, and I know some people disagree, but by now you know I believe that....

5.  Television is rarely a quality use of your time.  That's all I'm saying! Take it or leave it--but you know my stance. :) 

6.  Take care of your physical self. Try to eat healthfully and exercise, drink water, eat plenty of vegetables, get enough rest.  It just makes you feel better.  Physical health helps us have mental health.  Stay active and be kind to your body.

7. Have discernment. Be savvy. People are not always who they say they are or who they would lead you to believe.  Try to avoid falling for the 'image' or the 'veneer.' Use your discernment, listen to your gut instinct, and study a person or a situation carefully in order to determine where their heart is and what their intentions are.  You don't need to be scared of people, but you should be savvy about the fact that not everyone has your best interests in mind.  And just because someone is religious....or a community leader...or a professor....or a 'friend'....unfortunately doesn't automatically mean they are trustworthy.  Be smart.  Use your head (and your instinct). 

8. Cultivate a love of beauty.  Beautiful things--flowers, music, artwork, film, literature.  Be discerning in your tastes. Don't settle for whatever is the current rage--so often that is just drivel.  Art is a subjective thing, it is true--and my own tastes run to the eclectic. But remember that underneath the subjective nature of 'genre' there is a greater theme, an objectivity of beauty that you want to seek. Remember "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things."  (Philippians 4:8)  Seek beauty and enjoy creativity. It is one of the most wonderful parts of being human.

9.  One of the biggest things I think we have to do as Christians is to identify and flush out pride.  There is NO self-righteousness. I'm just going to turn to C.S. Lewis on this point "Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind." And the test for pride: "Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good--above all, that we are better than someone else--I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil." Lewis goes so far as to write that the center of Christian virtues does not rest in the more obvious 'action-based' virtues but in this one internal vice--that "the essential vice, the utmost evil, is pride....unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil."  Be on your guard against an attitude of pride.

10.  In a similar vein, avoid being judgmental.  Now, I think you have to use your wisdom to discern between being judgmental and identifying ungodly behavior, because there is a difference. When we are judgmental we are puffed up with our own sense of pride; *our* way of doing things (anything-- cooking....raising is Obviously the Best.  And Why Can't Everyone Recognize That?  Avoid this type of attitude.  Humans are all inclined to judgmental behavior and we all engage in it; all the more reason to be on your guard against it.  Identification of ungodly behavior is kind of like discernment.  Develop the gift of discernment and understand that it is true that human beings will act in an ungodly fashion (we all do it--every single one).  What I'm saying is this: know that we all have planks in our eyes.  Don't be oblivious to them.  So work on your own planks and don't judge someone else for their splinters.  (But don't pretend that the splinters don't exist--they do. And a 'splinter' that is immoral, evil, or unethical can be forgiven, but need not be quietly tolerated.) Which leads me to....

11.  Know what you believe and stand up for it.  Don't be content to let injustice pass by in front of your face.  How many times do I wish I'd been brave enough, as a teenager or young adult, to speak up against wrongs that I saw?  There's a saying that is so true--"if you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything."  Be a person who stands for something.  The current news is full of descriptions of the trial of Jerry Sandusky who allegedly molested many children under the guise of being a 'good guy' who helped underprivileged children--it's a horrifying case.  (Classic example of the wolf in sheep's clothing--be discerning!)  One thing that is most appalling about the situation is that there were several people who knew of his abuse and yet never raised brought it to light in the way that they should have raised.  It's unthinkable, I know! But I think that we never know how we will respond until we are in a we have to gird ourselves with our principles, so we are not swayed by circumstances.  In an age of moral relativism, we have to think clearly and reject the idea that there is no 'right' or 'wrong.'  We also have to be bold in proclaiming right from wrong.  There are plenty of ways to be a good person.  Christ spoke strongly and boldly against injustice--against oppression.  Be very clear and seek for yourself what this means, and don't let the tide of culture be the driving force in your life.  Don't 'fall for anything.'  

12.  Gossip is unhealthy.  Avoid it.  One yardstick of what to say is to ask yourself three questions--is it true? Is it necessary? is it kind?  I have had to learn this one the hard way on both ends. The words of our mouths can wreak havoc--watch them carefully.  "For with the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be." (James 3:9-11)  The words that come out of our mouths are often a reflection of our hearts.  And if someone is gossiping to you about someone else, they are probably going to gossip about you later. So be careful how much you reveal if you don't thoroughly trust your listener.

13. Live with passion. Identify the things that you're passionate about doing and do them!  If you love to write, paint, sing, cook, whatever--just do it and enjoy it.  We all have our gifts and passions; one big favor you can do yourself is to try to live with some awareness of who you are.  Also, don't think you have to be 'perfect' at something in order to do it.  That's a trap to keep you from even getting started.

14. Cultivate contentment.  Materialism will never, ever bring you lasting happiness or joy.  Cultivate a sense of contentment not only with your possessions (home, car, clothing, etc) but with your life and yourself generally.  Remember that even the humblest of abodes in the USA is a palace to much of the world's population.  This is not to make you feel guilty--it's to give you perspective.  Be content with what you have--whether you are in a season of plenty or of little--and most of us go through seasons of both all throughout life.

15. Avoid drama.  Don't be someone who is always reactionary, stressing out over things in life (especially things over which you have no control!).  Being a stressed-out person is not fun for those around you, it's not fun for you, and it's just plain not worth it. 

16.  Cultivate selflessness.  Whether you're single, have children, whatever--try to cultivate selflessness. That is not to say that you can't do fun things for yourself. It is a fact of life that I need some down time, alone time--it's how I'm made, as an extreme introvert--I love people and socializing but I need to be alone.  But don't expect it all the time.  Get out of your comfort zone--it's healthy.

17. Enjoy the gifts of everyday life....little things.  Birds.  Clouds. Breezes. I know this sounds trite, but it's true.  The best things in life *are* free. Learn to see how your day is full of treats and delights.  Embrace them even in the midst of hard times. *Especially* in the midst of hard times.

18.  Don't have too many expectations about 'how life should go.' I am an observer of people, a watcher.  My observation of people over the years has been that the more someone relies hard on circumstances to make them happy, the harder they fall.  Ultimately people end up embittered, disenchanted, unhappy, all because they have all these expectations about life! When Finn was a tiny baby I realized that expectations lead to frustration.  So I stopped 'expecting' him to sleep through the night.  Don't expect your vacation to be perfect, your day to go seamlessly. Don't expect everything to be 'just so.'  Thank God it's not--where's the adventure in having everything the way you plan it?  There's no way to see the silver lining in any cloud of life if you are too busy wishing for sunshine.  There are people who will have a day that is otherwise wonderful but get too fixated on the fact that x, y or z happened and suddenly they are all gloom-and-doom.  Don't set yourself up to be this Eeyore person.  Be flexible.  It's okay to have hopes and dreams, but don't let circumstances dictate your mood. I have learned and continue to learn this over and over again--it's making me a stronger person.  There's no perfection this side of heaven--just accept that and get on with life!

19.  If you are single, know that you can and should use that singleness to do 'kingdom work' for God.  If you are married, enjoy your relationship and make it a priority.  If you have children, do your job and order your time so that they know they are of great importance to you.  They grow up quickly, and once they're's prioritize your life properly.  Invest in the work God gives to you, wherever you are, right now--"May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us--yes, establish the work of our hands."  (Psalm 90:17.)

20.  Don't think that having written all this means that I can say that I live it out perfectly or that I'm a finished work.  I'm a work in progress and will always be one.  C.S. Lewis states it beautifully when he notes that "very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God.  We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven."  If someone acts like they do everything perfectly all the time, run away from them!  We are all learning. We are all in progress. 

Love you always, sweet Annie. 

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