"Who put such a high premium on being typical?"
-Almost Famous, dir. Cameron Crowe
Those fraught and happy days. That's how I describe youth in an earlier post, and I stand by the words– and especially the word. Fraught. I recently woke from a dream in which adulthood hadn't happened yet, and I was back amongst my high school friends, jostling for self worth, wondering, like all teenagers, why I felt so unwanted. I'd forgotten how utterly high-stakes everything felt back then. Trying to be desired, respected; do you remember the desperation of those days, emotions pulling you toward a confused loneliness, a language it seemed only you could understand?
One of the many virtues of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is that it stresses how unhappy childhood is, in addition to how happy. In all parts of Life we stand there wondering Why, but in adolescence the questions have so much more to do with ourselves, personal and raw. My friend Paul is a father and once said, "almost all teenagers are incredibly beautiful people, and almost none of them know it." I know what he meant. It's just too overwhelming of a time.
What would I tell my teenaged self? Perhaps the same thing I tell other actual teenagers, with the likely result that it would fall on just as deaf a set of ears. I'd tell them they're already okay– already great, really– just as you are, and that you don't need to keep trying so hard.
We, they, I– won't like you any less if you just revert to being yourself, a thing you did so easily in childhood. They won't hate you, or put you down, or find you unattractive. Or they may. But the thing is....
Every grown person reading this knows what the rest of that sentence is, and how obviously true and therefore reassuring it should be to hear at a young age. But when I've said it to various teens, even the many whom I adore and respect, I notice a vacant look in their eyes, and in that vacancy I recognize my younger self. They, I, we– weren't ready to hear that yet, and when we did it didn't mean too much. It didn't land and how could it, stormy as the roiling sea living in our hearts was then? When we did everything we could to our bodies and psyches, and even still, we weren't rewarded with quite the love we so desired? So much damage. How would I tell my younger self that I was trying everything except the thing that works?
Being ourselves. A thing we did so innately, so beautifully, in the first phase of life; which we then completely forget how to do in adolescence; and after which in adulthood we bottom out somewhere in between. But if the best things in life are elusive, ephemeral, you've got to chase them all the more, and differently: by relaxing into the flow of things. It's okay, I want to tell the boy in my dream. You don't have to try so hard to be something else. Would you have had me turn into a cranky bus driver, just so I could fit in? The dividends of junking your own identity just aren't worth it.
If you stop being you, in favor of something superficial, you'll draw toward you people who aren't actually like you. You'll never get to meet those others with whom you would have a lot in common. You can't see them if you're hiding under someone else's concepts of popularity. Just continue being yourself, and watch them come forward. You'll draw like minds toward you. Be yourself– with confidence. Don't be cocky– that's gross– but do be confident. Figure out how to be confident and humble at the same time.
Because that's what friendliness is.
People think the big secret thing is coolness, appearance. It isn't. The answer is you walking into a room and you're actually comfortable with yourself. They're looking at you thinking, whoa. That person seems to know something about how to live life. I want that. I need to get closer to that. What they're awed by isn't clothing or makeup or attitude, but you actually being at home in your own skin. That's what's sexy, desirable, elusive. Confidence. Not suppressing your beautiful personality so you can be a shadow of someone else. Don't be a shadow. Be authentic.
Be you, and wait for the world to catch up.
Every one of them is just as insecure as you. At that age, that's half the reason for all their actions. Be kind. It'll hurt sometimes, but not as much as being unkind. Somebody's got to set the example.