What Advice Would You Give To Your Older Self?

The character Elena Greco from the television adaptation of the novel “My Brilliant Friend” looks in a mirror and sees herself as she looks in the future.

There is a scene at the end of Season 3 of the wonderful television adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s mesmerizing quartet of novels, My Brilliant Friend. In it, Elena Greco, one of the two female protagonists, looks at herself in a mirror and sees her image several years into the future.

That scene has haunted me ever since. Perhaps it’s because I will travel this week to my undergraduate alma mater, St. Peter’s University in New Jersey, to receive an honorary degree. That much-undeserved honor has spurred all sorts of memories of both my classmates and the rather awkward, uncertain young woman I was at the age of 21. Luckily, I no longer see her image when I look into the mirror.

What if I gazed in a mirror and envisioned myself, say, 20 years from now (as the character Elena Greco does)? What would I say to the person staring back at me?

Many of us have thought about the advice we’d like to have given to ourselves when we were younger. There’s a whole genre of self-help books on that theme. The Child Mind Institute in New York asked that question in a 2019 study. The responses ranged from “Be kinder to yourself” and “stay in school” to “don’t have sex with men until you know them well” and “the world is bigger than you think it is.”

Even Oprah Winfrey has weighed in, saying in a 2018 British Vogue interview that she would tell her younger version, “Relax, stop being afraid … everything is going to be all right.” I suppose that’s easier to believe if you happen to be Oprah.

Pink cover with dark pink text of the book, “What I Know Now, Letters to My Younger Self” by Ellyn Spragins, part of a genre of self-help books offering advice to the young.

But what advice might we give to our older selves, the person we can become in the future?

I drew up the following list for myself:

  • It’s okay to sometimes be useless. As the 20th century Chinese novelist Lin Yutang once said, “If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.”
  • Taking an occasional afternoon nap: totally acceptable. Just don’t do it too often.
  • Get to the hairdresser before those gray roots begin showing.
  • Ignore fashion trends and stick to classic looks that never go out of style.
  • When it comes to skin, moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.
  • Forgive yourself for acting stupid. That connects you to the human race.
  • Give stuff away.
  • Walk
  • Don’t ever keep a poem you’ve been wanting to write waiting, or for that matter, anything you’ve been wanting to write. Remember the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Think of all the years passed by in which you said to yourself, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ and how the gods have again and again granted you periods of grace … Use every moment wisely or it will be gone.”
  • Tell people that you appreciate them, everyday.
  • Wake up with the words, “I am blessed.”
  • Pray, especially for those who are hard to pray for.
  • Watch less Netflix.
  • Listen more.
  • Keep asking questions. As the spirituality author Christine Valters Paintner has written, “The older I get, the less sure I am about anything and the richer my life becomes as I make a space for unknowing.”

My list could go on. What might your list be?

The poet Mary Oliver offers good advice in a succinct, four-line poem titled, “Don’t Worry:”

Things take the time they take. Don’t

worry.

How many roads did St. Augustine follow

before he became St. Augustine?

Thank you, Mary Oliver. Need I say more?

Man and woman wearing straw hats sit on a wooden bench looking out at a body of water as a dog rests beside them.

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Judith Valente

Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.