Our church’s fall sermon series was on letters to our 16-year-old selves, and I was asked to write one to poor little 16-year-old Kari. After a lot of tears, this is what I ended up with. I can’t decide if it replaced years of therapy or caused me to need more.
Portrait of a 16-year-old nerd with some other nerds.
Dear 16-year-old Kari,
It’s hard work, being you. You try to be good, but nothing you do seems to catch the attention of God, or your teachers, or the people at church. It seems like following the rules (which you do very well, despite your tendency to question authority) should make you happy. You are not happy. You are angry and afraid. There is a dark chasm inside your chest, and you don’t know any way to fill it. All your hard work is ignored, and you are overwhelmed by that injustice.
A lot of your frustrations center around the idea that, despite trying so hard to be good, there are things that are happening to you and there is nothing you can do about them. You are told that God is writing your story for you. Men are the ones who make the decisions at church. The boys are the ones who should initiate. Your own decisions are made in order to make the people around you happy. You think this is what God is asking of you. You respond to this by turning all your fear and anger inward. It turns, as you probably know and can already feel, to bitterness. It is not a good way to live.
I wish I could tell you that the world seems more fair 16 years later. That I always feel good enough and safe and secure. That my heart has been healed and all that pain is just a memory. That would be a great, redemptive story to tell. But it would be a lie. I still struggle with feeling left out. I still wish many things were different. I still wonder, sometimes, if God is ignoring me.
What you need to know, 16-year-old me, is that your story is really just beginning. It feels that way even now, 16 years later. The difference is this: Instead of things happening to me, I am learning how to be a more active participant. I am learning how to write the story of my life.
God does not want you to let other people write your story for you. He wants you to write your story — together with him. Yes, even though you are a girl. Even though you are awkward and nerdy and don’t have a lot of friends. Even though you are left out and angry and alone. God is not going to fix these things for you. He wants you to make choices that help you tell the story for yourself.
One of the many advantages of being an adult is that, though things still happen to me, I get to be part of making things happen. I get to be part of God’s work in this world, to fight injustice rather than simply fuming about it. It is easy to focus only on the injustices I see in my own life, but God wants me to be part of something bigger. You can start that now. You don’t have to wait.
There is redemption in this story, too. Not like a book or a movie. No grand, sweeping gestures that erase what has happened. The redemption is, instead, in the small common graces that we are all given. Look for them there. Be proud of the first time you speak up in a meeting and offer a different point of view. It’s okay to be angry about injustice. Take that anger and speak up for someone who does not have a voice. Make choices that other people don’t agree with. Have confidence in your own ability to reason. Make mistakes, but make sure they are your own and not someone else’s. Don’t worry about being good. Focus on being yourself.
It seems, sometimes, that it would be nice to be able to fit in easily. I know you wish for that at times. I do, too, even now. But this can be a powerful gift if only you will let it. Take your voice and your opinions and use them. Tell your own story. Tell the story of a girl who is learning to find her voice, who is learning to believe in a God who cares for her even though she doesn’t fit into any particular mold. God is listening, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. You will find people who want to hear what you are saying. It will not always be this hard.
P.S. In about a year, you will think it is a good idea to bob your hair. Please do not do this. Just get a trim. No need to do anything drastic.