Excellent advice from Emily, who has been re-reading letters she sent home years ago from architecture school to her family:
Of all the amazing moments in the fascinating and weighty American Beauty, it’s Lester Burnham’s last words that I recall most often: “Man, oh man. Man, oh man, oh man, oh man.” He’s looking at a photo of his family that seems untouched by the psychosis and pain that’s haunted them throughout the film. They are young, happy, united. His words are at once a meditation on the depraved and surprising nature of humanity, and a simple inability to express one’s feelings about said nature. In this state of transcendent meditation, his life is cut short, and the movie effectively ends. This is its thesis statement.
I feel something similar when I look at my own life, or at least at the period about which I wrote so much in those letters I republished last month. It’s hard to read them, in part, because I see so many failings in them. Failure to see things as they really were: I was foolishly optimistic about the situation there for far too long. Failure to see almost anything beyond myself: I wanted to leave the letters untouched, but couldn’t bring myself not to edit out the most navel-gazingly offensive passages. Failure, above all, to see that what mattered most was very far from what I spent most of my time trying to do.
… Two things inspired me about this experience. The first was the similarity of my seventeen-year-old self with my only-very-slightly-younger students of today. As the age gap between us grows (I am now roughly twice their age) I find it harder and harder to relate to them, and I can be especially unforgiving of shallow self-centeredness. But reading my own entries from that time has reminded me that this is how teenagers are, and I was like that too. So if I don’t rush too quickly to judgment, my own students may follow a similar path to a greater understanding of the world.
I needed to read that today.
You know what I love most about getting older? The gift of perspective. If I had had half as much passion, and only a quarter more perspective, my teenage years and my twenties would have been far more bearable. But some things you only acquire with the passage of time.