How many times have you said, “If I knew then what I know now, I would [blank]…”? I have to admit I’ve thought about this sort of thing a lot. No, a lot. If I could go back in time to the ’80s and talk to 16- or 17-year-old Melody, what would I really tell her? Not just “eat your vegetables” or “finish college earlier,” but what would I actually share with her that could change the future for her?
So, I’m writing this letter to my 17-year-old self, and as I begin I’m not even sure of all the things I’ll say. I might not even finish in a single letter, really. And maybe it’s silly, since I obviously can’t invent a time machine and go back and actually talk to her, but I’m doing it anyway. Because I have things to say to her I really wish she had known back then. So here we go.
Dear 17-Year-Old Melody,
Hey, girl. It’s been almost 30 years since we’ve connected in person. It’s me – the 46-year-old version of you. Mel, we’ve got to talk. Pay attention to the things I’m going to share with you, and I will change your life. Seriously. Don’t be offended when some of these sting a little (and they will); I promise you won’t be sorry if you listen.
Here are 17 things that will change your life for the better over the next 30 years (perhaps even longer). Buckle up, and let’s get started.
- Know what you know and what you don’t. First (and sorry if this hurts a little), you don’t know everything. There are going to me many times when you think you know everything, but you do not. Recognize that now, and save yourself big-time pain later. Approach everything as if you have something to learn. Live with curiosity. In all things. Never assume you know more than others. About anything.
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain
- Trust God with your life, and get to know Him better right now. This is the most important thing you can do. I can’t stress that enough. Talk to God. Use Bible studies to learn more about scripture. Read favorite verses in multiple translations. Look for the intent behind the words. And stop listening to others when they say, “The Bible says…” before filling in something you or someone else is doing wrong. They mean well, but they’re often wrong, so go look it up for yourself. (Case in point, the Bible does not say “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” That was William Congreve in The Mourning Bride. And that’s just one example.) Your life will be so much more fulfilling the moment you learn to trust Him and listen to His voice in all that you do.
- For the love of goodness, stop thinking about “the one”. Just stop. That guy you’re seeing is not “the one”. In fact, no boy you’ve met thus far is “the one”. And further, stop worrying about it, because your validation does not come from the man by your side. “The one” is really the least important thing you can think about right now. Seriously. Meet some people, go on some dates, but save the spot on your left hand and the one deep in your heart for someone who comes much, much later. (Rule of thumb: If you wonder if he’s the right one or not, he’s not.)
- Wear sunscreen with the highest SPF factor you can buy. That’s probably about SPF 15 right now, but within 10 years you’ll be able to buy SPF50 or higher regularly. Use that. Tanning is terrible for your skin, and you will love the way you’ll look in a few years when others start to have skin like an old handbag. Premature wrinkles are no fun. Also, in a few years, you’ll discover something called a “spray tan”, and one session you’ll get a better tan than an entire summer baking in a tanning bed. Safely.
- Exercise a lot, but keep it simple. Walk, run, bike, canoe, kayak, surf, skate. Have fun, and keep moving. Just say no to fads like “step aerobics” that will be hard on your joints and will make you wear silly-looking, hip-baring ’80s-style leotards and sweatbands in neon colors. Especially just say no to the silly leotards.
- Dream big. So, this is super important and I know that no one is telling you right now: You can do and be anything. Seriously. Whatever your dreams are right now, go bigger. Don’t assume anything is out of reach. The world is bigger than you know right now. And don’t assume that your dreams will be easily realized. Everything Dad tells you about the need for hard work and a strong work ethic is 100% true. Avoid shortcuts. Take the tough road. Don’t give up!
- Be relentless in your pursuits of knowledge and adventure. Learn everything you can about everything that interests you. Your favorite class in college will surprise you (hint: it’s a science!). Ride a motorcycle. Study photography. Fly in a hot air balloon. Learn to paraglide. Regret nothing. Don’t be reckless, but embrace adventure in all things. You are going to have a great time.
- Ohwiththesmokingalready! I know you’re already playing with cigarettes – yes you are! Don’t lie. (I’m you, remember?) Stop monkeying with the stupid cigarettes. You’re going to want to smoke all the time when you’re 18 or so, and it’s stupid and stinky and you look ridiculous. Never start that disgusting habit, and save yourself countless dollars over the years… and more. Just don’t.
- Travel. As much as possible. Pay for it by saving every penny you would have smoked or used for something frivolous (like that white leather jacket with the fringe you’re going to think is so cool in a couple of years… It’s stupid. Seriously. Just don’t.) You’re going to study abroad in England later, but don’t stop there. See Europe and the Caribbean and Iceland and more. See every continent. Meet the people. Try the local cuisine. Avoid the guided tour. And stay as long as you can.
- Run from debt. (Your parents are right about this!). Buy your first car with cash and save the money you’d make in payments to buy a better car and better and better and better and so on. Never have a car payment. Never carry a credit card balance. Never take out a student loan. There are better ways. You just have to sacrifice. You CAN do it!
- Forgive. Forgive your mother. Forgive your dad. Forgive your friends and enemies and acquaintances and everyone else who has ever or will ever wrong you. It’s terrifically important. But also know that forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to let any person remain in your life. It’s okay if your boundaries mean someone can’t be around anymore; what’s not okay is holding onto anger or resentment toward them.
- Spend lots of time with Mom and Dad. Write down their stories. Laugh with them as much as possible. Let Dad teach you to play banjo and guitar and bass and everything else you can think of, and let Mom tell you as many stories as she will tell. Drink in every word and every moment. No matter how many years you have with them, it will never feel like enough.
- Your actions teach others how to treat you. Learn this now. Be kind and generous and assume positive intentions from others always, but understand that not everyone is inherently good. When someone treats you poorly (especially in relationships), pay attention. That little niggling feeling you get may be uncomfortable, but it’s there for a reason. It’s a warning, so heed it as such, and never, ever feel guilty for not allowing someone to treat you poorly.
- Eat the very best food you can all the time. Avoid fast food. Cook more often. Research recipes and take lessons on how to cook cool things. Have a sense of adventure about food. Explore the depths of your culinary palate. Become a snob about it and refuse to eat things that are just trash for your body. And stop with the sodas right now. They’re poison. You love ice water, so stick with that.
- And speaking of food – avoid diets. Seriously. And there are going to be some doozies that come your way, and friends and family alike are going to tell you how great they are. Grapefruit diets and cabbage soup diets and calorie counting and low-fat and low-carb and high-protein and high-fiber and nothing-bigger-than-your-fist diets. Ridiculous, all of them. Learn what the American Diabetes Association recommends, and eat that. It will never steer you wrong. Do that and stay active, and you won’t have to worry about “dieting” ever again.
- Volunteer. When you feel at your lowest, the best strategy you can employ is to take the focus off self. Go find an individual, a group, or a population of people, and do something small to make their lives better. When it’s not about you, you’ll feel better. And it will be some of the most rewarding time of your entire life.
- Speak the truth in love. Never be afraid to say “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know, but I will find out” or “I love you.” Also don’t be afraid to say no. It’s okay to stand up for yourself, and it’s okay to care for yourself first. (Actually, it’s imperative that you care for yourself first. If you aren’t a whole person alone, you won’t have anything left to share with others.)
That’s it for now, girl. I might have more to add later, but start with these few, and you won’t be sorry. Promise! Now don’t be afraid, go have a great time, and I’ll see you in a few decades.