My folks gave me this picture the other day and I can't stop thinking about it. This is me circa 1969. I was either living in Chadron, Nebraska or Gillette, Wyoming. I wasn't happy. That's clear in the picture. I was standing by the rear of my grandparents Pontiac. They were probably leaving after a visit, taking a last picture to develop so they could have a picture of their (then) only grandson. Also around this time my mom and dad were fighting. I don't really remember it-- my guess is that I blocked it out. But shortly after this we moved to Sioux Falls, my father was revealed as the monster he was, and I was living with my mother. At that point my biological father pretty much ceased to exist in my life.
Bottom line is that his kid doesn't look happy. He almost looks haunted.
I struggle to write this, but I feel as if I have something to say about this early version of me. I feel as if I need to speak to him, this poor kid.
He was unhappy. There will be more unhappiness in his life. He'll spend a great deal of his future years psychologically damaged by the existence of his biological father. He'll act out. He'll lash out. He'll have more than 50 stitches by the time he is six years old. He'll become a bully and be bullied in return. He'll discover that he needs human contact more than most people, but he'll also have his heartbroken over and over because of trust issues.
He was a good kid. He was four. He never did anything to anyone, except maybe that time where he bit the heads off of three goldfish, but then that was lashing out, wasn't it.
At that moment in time--and I can see it in his eyes--he felt lost and alone. He probably felt that this was going to be his life. He was too young to understand that he had his whole life in front of him. He was too small to know that he could eventually shape his own future.
I'd love to go back and tell him what happened. Here's what I'd tell him.
Dear Four Year Old Me,
Life sucked back then. Shit happened. But you're going to power through it.
You're going to grow up and join the army and learn about the joy of serving something greater than yourself. You're going to travel to far-flung countries like China and Australia and Romania and Thailand. You're going to learn to speak foreign languages and study to attain a Masters of Fine Arts Degree. You're going to have the joy of a son and a daughter. You're going to meet the love of your life in your mid-thirties after a couple false starts. You're going to write books and people all over the world are going to know you. You'll be respected. You'll be loved by people you don't even know. You'll be appreciated for the messages you try and convey. Bottom line is that although life sucks now, you're going to take that suckage and use it to fuel your rise through life. You will overcome adversity even as it reshapes you. You will become the sum of your experiences rather than the victim of them. And you're not going to do it alone. You're going to have an awesome mom and a new dad. You're going to have family and friends and leaders and teachers who are going to help you and inspire you all along the way.
You're going to have an awesome life, kid.
The problem is that I can't actually tell you that. Even if I had a method to time travel, perhaps a wormhole to the past, I couldn't let you know all of this. You see, I think it was the not knowing, the desperation, the driving almost biological need to overcome all the suckage that made you into me. This was something YOU did that made ME. Had you not, I could have been any thousands of versions of me. I could be childless, loveless and hopeless. I could be living alone in a house in the middle of Nebraska feeling sorry for myself. I could be in jail. I could be an almost fifty year old man with no education and no prospects working at a minimum wage job. I could be dead.
But you kept me from being that person.
Life sucked back then but you were strong.
Thank you. Thank you for letting me become me. Of all the versions I could have become this is the best one I know. And I owe it all to you. So as you stand there beside that old Pontiac in the black and white world of my youth, your face a study in misery, know that I am proud of you, and thankful, and happy.
Power through, kid.
Stay the course.
Life happens and it only gets better. I'm living proof that this is true because of you.