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Questions for the End of the World

Like most people, I've taken a class I was teaching and moved it online.

It's a writing class for teens, and one of the ways we look for writing prompts is to talk about what's on our minds.

As you can imagine, right now, the only thing on their mind is the state of the world and the fear that's permeating it.

It occurred to me that many of them are the same age I was on September 11th, and when we started discussing that time, I mentioned all the wonderful adults I knew at that time who were able to give me guidance, and how I hope I can be that for them right now.

Then, I pulled out the tried-and-true write a letter from your future self to the person you are right now and give them whatever advice you think they need to hear.

It's kind of an impossible assignment, because it requires insight you just don't have yet, but I've found that when I assign it in the past, the teenagers I teach are able to come up with some truly remarkable bits of wisdom.  It's as if they really can go forward in time, but then again--they can.  That's why we teach storytelling.  To show people that nothing is impossible and that everything you need you already have.

Because I have a rule that I always do the same assignments I give my students, I said I would write to myself as well, but they asked that I write something to the person I was all the way back in 2001 instead of writing something as my future self.  I think maybe they wanted some of guidance I mentioned, and I don't blame them, but I hope I don't screw it up.

Here's what I wrote--

Dear Kevin,

First of all, you have to do something about your clothes.  We're about to talk about some very serious stuff, so before we get to that, I'm begging you, throw out...nearly everything you own.

Thanks, okay--

Deep breath.

Greetings from the Future.

I know that as someone from the past, at this particular moment, you have a lot of questions, and many of them are--

Is the world going to end?

I'm happy to tell you that it hasn't ended...yet.

I'm not some great genius--you don't become some great genius as you get older, I'm sorry to say--but I have lived twice as long as you, and that means I've just witnessed a lot more, and that means I can give you some things to think about.

One of those things is this--

Great tragedy reveals how things really are.  It rarely sets in motion something new.

The new way of living you think just started?

It's always been there.  You just weren't aware of it, because other people were living it instead of you.  Welcome to that world.  I'm afraid you can't go back to the old one, but within this new one, there are great opportunities for service and the chance to step out of the darkness and live with a greater capacity for compassion and gratitude.  That's a fancy way of saying "Knowing is terrifying, but not knowing makes you less human.  Choose to know and then do something with what you know."

You are a high school senior and you are about to make a lot of decisions when it comes to your future.  You've never been particularly brave, but now it seems like being scared might have been the right choice all along.  After all, people who don't go places and do things can't get hurt, right?

But you were also a freshman when Columbine happened, so you know that's not true.  Bad things can happen anywhere, at any time, and so I'm going to ask you not to the voice inside you that's telling you to tailor your life according to fear.  There is no safe and there never was; there's just the illusion of it.  Know that it's an illusion, and act according to that.

You're nervous.  That's okay.  Everyone else is nervous too, and everybody has different ways of showing it.  At this point in your life, you still believe that anger is strength and vulnerability is weak.  One of the best things you can do for someone else is to say "I'm scared" because it gives them permission to confess that they are too.

People are going to lose their temper.  People are going to cry.  People are going to regress.  All of this is normal and it's normal if you do it too.  Don't fight doing what you feel compelled to do.  You sleep when you're upset.  You sleep a lot.  That's okay.  But keep checking in with yourself to see if you're ready to wake up and walk back into the world, because you know eventually you'll have to.

Write down what you believe in and repeat it to yourself every day.

Even simple things like "Mom loves me" and "I'm going to be all right" can strengthen you if you keep going back to them.  I don't care if you repeat "Grass is green and the Backstreet Boys are awesome" over and over again, as long as you believe that those things are true.  Change is hard.  Change is really, really hard.  For everyone, but you seem to have a really hard time with it, and so it's important that you adjust to it by reminding yourself of the things that haven't changed.  "All my clothing is awful and needs to be thrown out."  Stuff like that.  Repeat that.  It'll help.

While we're on the subject of writing--

Write.

Write every day.

I know you hate writing long-hand, so type.  Type everything out.  Type out how you're feeling.  Type out what you're doing.  It'll get you faster at typing and it'll take all those massive demons in your head and turn them into centimeters on a screen.  It will make the manageable.  Nothing is manageable in your mind.  Things have to become tangible for you to deal with them, and when you're dealing with things like anxiety and grief and loss and fear, writing is how you make the intangible tangible.  This will save your life a few years from now.  This can help you now.

Write.

If you didn't know it already, you now know that you are part of a broader community.  Being apart of a community means that you are now responsible for way more people than you thought you were.  You can start with your family.  Your friends.  Your class at school.  Your teachers.

All of these people are human beings with feelings and fears just like you are.

When I said you're allowed to yell and cry and shrink into a ball, I meant that.  But when you're feeling good, you need to check on the people who aren't.  Support is something that's shared between all of us.  Some of us can only offer so much of it.  You and I both know you can offer more than you sometimes do, because you're seventeen and you think the world began the day you were born.

If someone yells, ask yourself if you need to yell back, or if this person is just in pain and doesn't feel comfortable succumbing to it in any other way. 

If someone's crying, ask yourself if you should sit with them saying nothing or offer a kind word.  Believe it or not, usually they just want you to sit with them and be still.

If someone seems to need help but doesn't seem open to admitting it, sometimes the best thing you can do for them is tell them all the ways you feel like you need help.

You're a mess on most days, but even at a very young age, you were always pretty good in a crisis.  Sometimes people get back on their feet by helping someone else get back on theirs.

You have no control over anything.

Just like safety, control is not real.  Some people are addicted to control.  You're going to become one of them.  Finding yourself in a situation where you have no power and no agency and no information with which to make decisions, but you have to make them anyway is, in many ways, your worst nightmare.

But hear me out--

Some people work their whole lives at nothing but letting go of control.

I know you can't be one of those people.  It's not in your nature.  But maybe, every day, think about at least one thing that isn't in your control, and try to make peace with it.  It'll make it a lot easier when you find yourself feeling like you have control over nothing at all.

You have your health.  Never take that for granted.

It's okay to walk away and--

Deep breath.

--Catch your breath.  It's not your job to calm anyone down, and you should never tell anyone to relax.  Demonstrate the behavior you want to see, and even then, unfortunately, panic pulls towards panic, so sometimes you need to excuse yourself if things are spiraling.  No leader leads all the time, and some people just need to run out of steam before you can talk with them.  It's frustrating, but it's what has to happen.

Do not believe everything the news tells you, but don't believe anybody who isn't the news.  This is a great time for you to practice judgment and discernment.

If you see someone saying something that gets people upset or irate, ask them where they heard it from and then ask to see the source.  Misinformation is a problem where you are, but it's going to become a very big problem as you get older.  Let people know that if they're going to say something in front of you, they better damn well be able to back it up.

Hug the people you love.  You might not always have that option.  I know Mom hugs for a long time, but hug her back, you little jerk, it won't kill you.

This is a bad time, but it's also a time for you to figure out who you are and who you want to be.  This is a time when people can show the best of who they are.  It's when you are laser-focused and hyper-aware of everything, and there aren't going to be many moments in your life when you have that kind of clarity.  Use it.  I know you have questions for me, but ask yourself questions too.

Most of all, you're going to live through this only to experience other lows, and some pretty awesome peaks.  All of that gives life texture, and while it would be amazing to have a flat life with nothing but highs, you're trying to be an artist, dammit.

You need the texture.

A new friend recently reminded me that collective travesty is actually preferable to the personal kind, if only because you are constantly reminded that you are not alone, but it's funny how loneliness arrives anyway despite logic telling you it shouldn't be there.

Pick up the phone.  The, uh, landline phone--and call somebody.

Talk.
Communicate.
See if you can make somebody laugh.
You've always been good at that.

You are so much braver now than you were when you were younger.  I know nobody who knows you now would believe it, but you used to be the kid who was scared to raise his hand in class or speak up or ask for what he wanted or go against the grain in anyway.  Look how far you've come.  And you're going to go even farther than that--maybe too far sometimes, but don't worry about that now.

Be the person the sky kid needed and let others see you be that person.

It's not about being a superhero. 

It's about never saying you have the answer when you don't.
It's about never thinking you need to be everyone and do everything.
It's about never doing the easy thing because you've convinced yourself you don't have time to do the right thing.

You're about to learn a lot about yourself, and some of it is not stuff you want to know.

But ask those questions, go after that knowledge, and be a little bit afraid every single day if you have to be, because I promise the alternative isn't just less interesting, it's less of a life entirely.

And when you get older, and you get to where I currently am, all you're going to want is more life.

Good luck, and please--

Buy some new clothes.

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