"You remind me uncannily of me in my 20s," I texted my new colleague. We’ve been travelling together and creating short films for the past few months. I notice how silent she is and yet how eloquently she speaks when she is forced to. I am drawn to the seeming contradiction between the two traits. “Strong opinions, so many doubts, and an aversion to engaging with issues in a public way. And yet, you are deeply, personally engaged," I wrote to her.
“Has it changed for you now?" she asked in response.
“I have more faith in speaking up now," I typed.
“What advice would you give to your younger self?" she asked, adding a smiley.
I looked away from the smartphone and thought to myself, I’ll have to write a column on this.
Be a happy quitter. Be a runner.
Run away from clutter, dissonance and those who try to diminish you. Run away from people who make a virtue of sticking it out even when things are toxic and make you feel stifled. We all need to exercise our freedom to walk away a lot more than we do. Do not be afraid of disrupting systems by your absence. Systems are robust, concentrate on protecting yourself first.
Sometimes you won’t know why you are leaving. You will think it is because you can’t cope. It will appear that you are helpless in the company of others who have greater social, financial and political capital than you do.
You will realize years later that you had refused to cope. You defied the pressure to bend, to crumble, to become smaller than you are. You will look back and see that your anxiety was not a sign of weakness. It was your whole being reacting to what it knew wasn’t good or right for you.
Know that you will get better at making boundaries. You will learn to let go of your fear of alienating people. The ones who insist on feeling offended often find excuses for it anyway. Do not be manipulated. Choose your path and inch towards it, bit by bit. Or make a dash for it.
It will take you by surprise that the kind of people who you used to fear will suddenly seem a lot friendlier as you grow older. You will wonder who changed—them or you?
One part of you will always remain in the 20s. One in your teens. Another will keep ageing obediently. All of them are you. This will surprise and amuse you (it does get to be more fun.)
All your best traits will seem like your weaknesses in different contexts. Your workplace may not need your sensitivity, your extended family might exploit your empathy and your thoughtfulness will often seem like a liability that simply slows you down.
Be patient. Find clever ways to get to know yourself better. Pay attention to what you say to people when they ask you about you.
What is it that we tend to hold back as irrelevant? What is it that we almost brag about? Why do we reveal some details more than others? What do we reveal when we feel safer in a new context?
You won’t know the right answer immediately, but hold on to the questions. They will guide you towards recovering your wholeness.
Most of life is a journey to restore one’s fragmented self. It isn’t just family or bad relationships that damage us. It isn’t just dysfunctional school or workplaces either. The world is in a mess and your soul recognizes that. This is the nature of life in our times. There are too many claims on our sense of identity. The capitalist market wants to impact your sense of adequacy by pushing branded products and experiences towards you. Political parties want to offer a sense of belonging that demands a thoughtless loyalty. The media wants to overwhelm your ability to think for yourself by inundating you with persuasive images and sounds.
It isn’t a wonder that so many of us lose the confidence in our voice and find it hard to believe in ourself. We may know what we want, but are unsure of whether we deserve to get what we want. Often we won’t claim what is ours even when it is there for the taking.
Growing up means recovering the surety of your inner child. That child will guide you again and again. Her fears will return as your nightmares. The pettiness of the fears will astound your rational mind. See them as a puzzle that is asking to be solved. The maze of your own life must be mapped.
No problem can be solved by the consciousness that created it. You will understand what this means and begin to take risks. Explore the inner world with the same keenness as the wide world outside.
Distract yourself when you are hurt by looking for the teachable moment in it. Many things are meant to crumble so you can move on. Your life’s potential is beyond your grasp of possibilities.
Growing up doesn’t insulate you from loss. You will find yourself rejected. You will be asked to leave from places where you were determined to belong. You will learn how to toughen up. How to make your way through a crowd. Then through walls. You will become tired. You will taste bitterness.
Growing up means expanding your capacity to feel grief. To walk towards pain and isolation without disassociating. Slowly, surely.
But remember you will never lose your ability to recover. I know this from experience. You will lose your laughter. It will return. You will age irreparably. You will become young again. You will find ways of exploring pain and confusion to produce meaning and hope. Your imagination will always know ways to heal. It is within you. It will restore you.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.