I’m going to have to apologize in advance because I know the discomfort of feeling like you’re hearing something you shouldn’t be hearing or finding an intimate note that wasn’t meant for you. It’s embarrassing, I know. But I’m going to invite you to read on anyway. This letter, full of things I never want to forget, should not be mistaken for a set of commands for you or anyone else. Just a few thoughts from a lonely zoomer in lockdown.
You are the only thing that you can control. Be kind to yourself. You don’t have to control everything about yourself, but never forget that if something in your life is causing you pain, it is your responsibility (and yours alone) to do something about it. When you feel like your research partner’s selfishness has made your life more stressful than it needs to be, or a canceled internship has derailed your five-year plan, you’re probably right. It probably has. But the harder thing to hear is that you are likely being less forgiving of your classmate than you’d like to admit. If you were a little more flexible and patient, a change in plans would cause you much less stress. In uncertain times, become a master of focusing on what you can control.
The extension of that same principle means that you can’t control the lives of anyone else. You can’t save anyone else; you can’t help anyone who doesn’t want to be helped and what you think is best for someone else rarely matters. You’re certain that your best friend would be happier if he just applied himself a little more. You know your sister’s boy troubles are stemming from an unchecked lack of self-confidence. If they could just see it, their lives would be so much easier. Maybe. But those people are likely to have the same thoughts about you, about ways they could make your life better if you just listened. We’re all doing our best, so chill.
Be a learner before anything else. You, as a human, have the incredible gift of being able to observe, to learn, to empathize and to understand. Never let that tool slip further than your fingertips. When that guy you went on two dates with tells you that he’s so impressed that you listen to podcasts and says, “Just you wait until you get older and get over your learning phase,” let that give you an allergic reaction. It should. Always create more questions than statements. The day you start asking fewer questions and making more statements is the day you’ve closed your eyes to the world.
Don’t be afraid to make a couple of statements. And don’t be afraid of having those statements be questioned or even proven wrong. Even those in this letter itself. Nothing of yours is sacred, holy, or immune to scrutiny. In fact, make the decision to put yourself in situations where your statements do get proven wrong. Occasionally surround yourself with people who disagree with you completely. Learn to understand and love them not despite the disagreement, but because of it. It is an infuriating, painful, and humbling process. Thank them for it.
Your understanding of yourself and others is incomplete if you don’t understand your privilege. Privilege is not binary. It’s not something that some people have and others don’t. It’s dynamic, complex, and contextual. Moreover, some people do have more of it than others. The things in your life that do and don’t give you privilege are unique to you. Do you remember being a kid, holding tight to mom’s hand on a busy street in Bangkok? Do you remember telling her that you really needed to pee and watching her eyes fill with panic as she did the math of combing through a sea of people in suffocating heat and the bladder of an 11-year-old girl? We walked for almost 20 minutes before stopping on the marble steps of a luxury hotel. The elegant doorman led you to the facilities. The air was quiet and cool. Before we left, mom pulled you aside and got down to her knees to meet your gaze. She said, “Not everyone can walk into a place like this uninvited and be welcomed without question. We can, and we didn’t do anything to deserve it. You should feel grateful, but you should never forget what that means.” She was right.
Don’t treat your privilege as something that brings you shame, something to be embarrassed by when it’s pointed out. Do your best to understand it, be deeply grateful for it, and most importantly, use it as a tool to bring those around you up. It is an unearned gift and responsibility.
Finally, make other’s lives better as best you can. While you cannot save anyone who doesn’t want to be saved, if someone asks for your help, give it to them with your whole heart. Love, serve, and nurture every living being you touch with ferocity. Build things that need to be built; break things that need to be broken; heal things that need to be healed.
Before I sign off, a small but important final reminder: You’re going to mess up. A lot, unfortunately. You’re going to work your way through this list a couple of times, and you’re going to make big, painful, embarrassing mistakes that will force you right back to step one again. But luckily for you, you’ve had plenty of practice.
I first wrote this for The Gazelle, NYUAD’s school newspaper. You can go see it here.