Dear 16-year-old me.

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.

32-year-old Kari

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.

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  1. Is it me, or does the 16-year-old version of us never seem that far away? I could be wrong, and it could change as I get older and (hopefully) wiser, but mostly: I think 16-year-old me is trailing along behind me, curious to see where this life takes us both. Parts of your letter sound like they could be written to that version of me, or to the me now. This idea that we won’t always fit, and that that’s okay. And that our story is still worth telling. That sometimes it’s okay for rules to be broken. This all makes sense to me. It’s hard, but it makes sense.

    And now I wonder: What would I tell 16-year-old me? I’m not sure, but I’m going to be thinking about it. I may write a post of my own… We shall see…

    Posted 10/3/2011 at | Permalink
  2. @Annie: Please do write one! I would love to read it.

    I really struggled with writing it, because many things still seem the same. Instead of high school, we have the internet, but I am still the girl snarking in the corner, still the girl watching from the edges. I really did wonder if I could write that it gets better, because it does not seem that much better sometimes. But it is, and I needed to force myself to see how things are better and different.

    Posted 10/3/2011 at | Permalink
  3. thanks so much for sharing kari. i can relate to so much of what you wrote. i would have to really think about what i would tell my 16-year old self…it was a difficult time for me. i do know i would like to tell a younger version of myself to appreciate my parents more. having lost both of them now (my mom passed suddenly this past february and my dad 7 years ago from cancer), i wish i hadn’t given them such a hard time (and i wasn’t that bad). i also have a hard time saying that it gets better when i think of the pain i have endured in recent years because of losing my parents, among other things. i think, for me, it just isn’t so much being wrapped up in me as it is the things that happen in life that make it not so great…if that makes sense? i’ll have to think about writing a letter of my own.

    Posted 10/3/2011 at | Permalink
  4. It definitely makes sense, and I often feel like life’s stuff is just … too much. I have felt like that lately, actually. For a lot of reasons.

    I am very sorry for your losses. I hope you do write a letter to your 16-year-old self. I would love to read it.

    Posted 10/3/2011 at | Permalink
  5. Kari I love this letter. You are such a great writer and have such a beautiful way of expressing things.

    Posted 10/3/2011 at | Permalink
  6. Those high school years can be so tough on our young hearts, can’t they? I can’t say that I had it particularly rough; it seems I was blessed with the absence of much angst during those years, though being painfully shy during my elementary school years more than made up for it, I think. :~)

    I do, however, hear you on the lack-of-friends. We have lived in our current location for almost six years now, and it still seems all our close friends live far away. As a new mom, sometimes, I just cry out of loneliness, and contrary to what well-meaning people say, “turning to the Lord” doesn’t always help. I used to think that I was lacking in my spiritual maturity/faith in some way because of that, but now I know that those yearnings for deeper, meaningful, supportive relationships are from God. We were never meant to journey through life alone.

    Thanks for sharing your letter and for writing in general. We don’t know one another personally, but you bless my heart as you share yours. :~)

    Posted 10/4/2011 at | Permalink
  7. I’m always so glad when I see you’ve written something new. I think this one especially was delightful — since we got to anticipate what was coming. I relate in so many ways… I was certainly a nerd, watching from the sidelines, following other people’s rules.

    But in so many other ways, I feel I knew more then than I do now. I’m sure I didn’t. But rules were black and white. I may not have known who I was, but I THOUGHT I knew who I was. I miss 16-year old me, in some ways.

    But then I agree with Annie too. I don’t feel completely like 16-year old me is anywhere but confusedly inside the me that has a driver’s license that CLAIMS a much different age.

    P.S. – As a complete side-note, I doubt I could ever tell you about a book you didn’t know about, but if there was ever a time for me beating your yearly reading totals, it’s probably this year, since you spawned new life, and I did nothing of the sort, so I’m asking if you’ve read One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. I’m only about halfway through, but loving it. It’s exactly the hope/scolding I need to hear to remember to be grateful. And I don’t know… just something in her beautiful writing makes me think you’d enjoy it.

    Posted 10/6/2011 at | Permalink
  8. Thank you for sharing this.. seems that the 16 yr old me was similar to the 16 yr old you. Perhaps I will take a pen and paper or maybe just Microsoft Word and write a letter to the 16 yr old me.. It seems like good therapy.

    Posted 10/6/2011 at | Permalink
  9. oh sweet kari… if only we could know what we know now, back then… i love how tender and kind you are to yourself. and i love the PS 🙂 xo

    Posted 10/7/2011 at | Permalink
  10. @katie: Thanks, Katie!

    Posted 10/7/2011 at | Permalink
  11. @HannahBG: “Turning to the Lord” is so tricky, too. Like, what does that really mean? Does it mean I turned away from him? Did I do something wrong?! So stressful.

    I totally agree that we need so many people to help on this journey.

    Posted 10/7/2011 at | Permalink
  12. @Ginger: Oh, man. I thought I knew everything at 16.

    I do know of the book, but I haven’t read it. I am not a fan of her blog, so I have stayed away. I just tend to feel like she has pretty words that don’t say much. But I am such a straightforward person. Maybe it’s just a style thing. Let me know what you think when you are done, okay?

    Posted 10/7/2011 at | Permalink
  13. @Misty: I hope you do, Misty!

    Posted 10/7/2011 at | Permalink
  14. @imperfect prose: Somebody said that on Sunday, Emily. That I was so kind to myself. I love that you thought so, too. I don’t feel very kind to myself in general, but it’s hard not to be gentle with that sad girl I remember.

    Posted 10/7/2011 at | Permalink
  15. Judy

    Kari… have you heard of the movie “Higher Ground”? It is a touching, funny and pleasingly unresolved exploration of a woman’s faith walk from girlhood to a time perhaps around your age. It is a small film in the best of ways, well directed and acted – but probably must be now found on Netflix, since it was briefly in theaters while terrible movies seem to last forever. I so highly recommend it, for I think you would find “common ground”!

    Posted 10/11/2011 at | Permalink

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