Hey Kid, You’re OK

Old photographs are magical – especially paper photos you hold in your hand. I have very old pictures of strangers whose histories have shaped my own. They stand like figurines in grayscale yesteryear, in front of houses, beside cars, holding babies, smiling, or not smiling. Now and then an old photo grips us and we peer intensely. We study faces, expressions, and clothing, straining to listen with our eyes. Every so often we catch them peering back at us through a tiny window in time, maybe wondering as much about us as we do them.

I have a favorite childhood picture. In it, I sit with my shirt buttoned clear to the top, hair combed over ever so neatly, glasses to magnify eyes caught between a smile and “is this how I’m supposed to look?” I wondered what kind of forty-years-later guy might be looking back at me. I felt like I’d met him already. My future self would visit me in dreams to tell me I was going to be ok. He was very cool, easy-going, laughed a lot, and I wanted to be just like him. I still do. I stare at this photo every now and then. It grips me and I can’t explain why.

I always buttoned the top button. Every day. It was a random rule that wedged itself into my little noggin. I hated the top button and always felt choked, but I felt worse without it fastened. I wished I could have parted my hair on the other side but the rule was if you started doing something one way then that was the way it had to be done from now on.

Babies seem to be born with little personality traits right out of the gate. Some are stubborn, others are docile. Some were just born happy and others are born immediately at odds with existence. I was born a rules-guy. I could blame it on birth order, being firstborn, or I could pin it on growing up in the Evangelical 70s. The thing is, I know rules-guys and rules-girls who were neither first nor religious. It’s just in the DNA. We spend our lives recovering from it.

I was a painfully shy kid. Extreme shyness, like tooth pain, is mostly a constant ache but the touch of just about anything excruciates the nerves. I felt different and out of place in the world. I didn’t know it was common to feel that way. Dreams and hopeful ideas of my future self comforted me the most.

Now, as my older self, I wonder what I’d say to that kid. He’s a likable, tenderhearted fella who just needs a little reassurance.

Hey kid, you’re gonna be ok.

You know that country you want to go to? Australia? You’ll go there! And a lot more countries too. That dream you had about playing guitar on a stage with colored lights and everything? That comes true. Well, everything except the bellbottoms. Bummer, I know, but you won’t miss them. I promise.

When you grow up you’ll still be shy but at the same time you won’t be. It’s hard to explain. Just trust me. You’ll have one of the most interesting lives you can imagine and make a thousand friends along the way.

One day soon you’re going to skip that top button and walk outside. You’ll be shocked when nobody notices. One day in school you’re going to put your hair over your ears like the other kids. Nobody notices that either. I know! Crazy, right?

In your teens you’ll feel like you’ll explode if you don’t find yourself. You know – figure out who you really are. That never really goes away. I’ll tell you a secret. Finding yourself starts with discovering who you aren’t, not who you are. Right now you picture who you want to be and it feels impossible because it’s like turning into somebody else, somebody you’re not, and you’d have to fake it. But look, I am you. Everything I am now starts with what’s inside you. There’s just some stuff covering it up, that’s all. Here’s the real kicker. You don’t find yourself. You become yourself. And that just takes time. You can’t rush it any more than you can rush winter.

Some of the stuff you decide you’re not any more, you’ll decide you are again later. You see, sometimes we let go of too much and we don’t see the good parts till they go missing. You’ll come to understand God in your own way. That’s all any of us have anyway – our own understanding of anything. That thought makes other rules-people really uncomfortable but don’t sweat it. God seems to like a totally honest try more than a right answer so just be honest.

I need to tell you this too. Some of your life is gonna hurt pretty bad. A lot of it is stuff you do to yourself but don’t worry. Most of that stuff turns out to be the best stuff in your life. You’ll see.

You’re gonna turn out just fine kiddo. Hang in there.

Try it. Grab a picture of yourself at six and tell that kid how it worked out, and a little advice, out loud. It’s hard not to get choked up. It’s like talking to a lost loved one or maybe like talking to the child we still are. Probably a little of both.

Maybe now isn’t a great time for that kind of thing. You might take a photo for the next forty-years-later you to peer at then try listening through that window in time. There is always hope. That is one of just a few things I know for certain.

I keep a childhood picture in the living room. Now and then I look up and say, “Hey kid, you’re gonna be ok.” Gets me every time.