The Teen Disease

Dear Sixteen-Year-Old Self,

Have you noticed that the idea that teenagers are brain-damaged is passing into the common consciousness? I'm talking about the notion that young adults can't judge risks, don't reason the same way adults do, and aren't capable of making big decisions like whom to marry. It's like you're not fully human, but in a stage of development between larva and adult, sort of a walking pupa. Teens are creatures to be protected and tolerated. You can't help the way you are; it's biological.

In this view, when teenagers drive recklessly or take risks, it's because you're incapable of proper judgment. If you fall in love, it's hormonal. If you get upset about the environment or politics, it's just because you're trying to find your place in the world. You'll grow out of it. Teens always do. We were all idealistic and naive at that age. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I'm guilty, I confess, of dismissing the entire age group from twelve to twenty-one as endemically insane. That attitude started when I was you, and part of that age group. You are keenly aware of how unimportant your own problems seem compared to those of so-called adults in the "real world." No matter how many times you tell yourself to relax and get over things, you never can. Your journal for the next few years will be full of tortured lamentations about your social life, girls, the state of the world, and your own mental health. (Mostly girls, actually. Also, maybe you should consider writing something positive in it once in awhile.)

You can tell yourself that you have nothing to complain about. Your life is good, your health is good, you have friends and family who love you, and yet there are a few things that constantly bother you, and no amount of internal pep-talking will change that. It's important to learn to talk to girls, vital to get into Caltech, absolutely necessary to be well-liked and popular. Writing poetry will be like heart medication, and books like water. You'll try everything, sure that each new interest will be your life's work. In your dreams, you'll be a photographer for National Geographic, an astronomer, a cyclist, a theoretical physicist, a journalist, a computer tycoon, and a novelist. To others, they'll be the idle dreams of a child, but they are so much more important to you.

Someday you'll realize that it's all part of being a teenager. You'll forgive yourself for acting like a teen, but not because you couldn't help it. You see, at age 30 you'll realize something that will get you past the notion that teenage drama can be dismissed with a smile and a pat on the head. I'll tell you the secret:

Everything that seems so important really is that important.

You're in that painful, awful, wonderful, amazing age when you instinctively know this, but are conditioned to ignore it. The problems of adolescence might not be problems for us jaded old folks, but so what? We've crossed those bridges; we've screwed up our lives already. You are in the process of becoming the adult you'll be for the rest of your life.

There are a lot of people (adults) eager to exploit the sense of urgency that you naturally feel. Advertisers use your desire to find a place by telling you to look and act a certain way, or more specifically, buy certain products and services. Political movements offer easy targets for your idealism. The fact is that even though the decisions you make are very important, many of the things you'll choose to do aren't important.

What's so important about teen romance, though? With a few exceptions, romances form for the wrong reasons and fall apart for similar reasons. They can certainly be fun, but they're also painful. A broken romance will feel life-shattering at the time, but in the long run, does it really matter? Actually, it does. It's through such ordeals and mistakes that you'll learn how—and whom—to love. Let yourself feel deeply. Love and lose.

The same goes for failed classes and endeavors. In college, you'll fail a physics class—and it will matter, because you'll change your entire career path afterward.

I could tell you a lot about your future. I could say that someday you'll have a wife, a home, cute kids, and all sorts of great things that you want, but none of that will really help where you are, will it? You can't live in the future. You're stuck in the painful present.

It doesn't have to be all pain. When it is, look around and find someone to help. No, not to help you—someone for you to help. Even though you're not in a position of broad influence, you are in a position of great influence over a few people. Reach out to those around you. Help them. Serve them.

Before you find a pretty girl who needs and wants you around every minute of every day, you can still find love right where you are. Don't take your sisters and mother for granted. Allow yourself to be close to your brothers and father. They don't merely love you because you're related; they love you for who you are. And you love them.

When you make mistakes, forgive yourself. Take a deep breath, and forgive yourself. If there's one thing you remember from this letter, remember to forgive yourself.

Someday, you'll think back on these years in amazement. What you learn now will influence your life, your relationships, and especially your writing. You think you want to write science fiction for adults, but you'll fall into writing what you don't even know you know, about a group of people you don't think you understand. And maybe someone will understand what you write.

Let me offer you a bit of advice one of your characters might give to her friends, with the help of Robert Frost:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction, ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

May you use the desires of the world to melt its ice, and then use the water to put out the fire. Think big, act small. You'll figure it out.

With love and great admiration,
Your Thirty-One-Year-Old Self


  1. Very nice Ben. It's because of those teenage years that you're the great man you are today!

  2. Ben, you're amazing. That really was so profound--and true! You should totally like write a book or something!!! :) No, really! I'm not talking like another novel, more like an inspirational book--I really like your perspectives. thanks for the read!

  3. Dag... Um, I'm gonna go have another piece of humble pie. That was stellar.


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