A Letter from the Past

Today, I opened the mailbox and received a peculiar surprise:

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A relic from the past.

It was a letter from 16-year-old Lucy to her future self. I carefully opened the envelope as the memories flooded back:

11th grade, College Park High School. One ordinary day in AP Calculus, Ms. Merritt tasked us with outlining our “5-10-15-20 year” plans and prompted us to ask our future selves if we had accomplished everything we had set out to do as starry-eyed sixteen-year-olds. She promised to send these letters back to us four years from the date we wrote them. Seeing that it’s been almost seven, I suspect she must have forgotten that they existed. Perhaps Ms. Merritt had been cleaning the house when she stumbled upon the dusty box that housed the dozens of letters written by her ansgty high-school Calculus class…

Enclosed in the envelope were two colored sheets of paper (one yellow, one pink) and one half-ripped magazine page of a flock of birds:

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What do these birds mean?

An old friend (whom I shared Calculus class with) had texted me several weeks ago telling me that she had received her own letter from the past. Enclosed in her envelope was the other half of the flock. I spent a couple seconds contemplating the deeper significance of these birds… Did they symbolize freedom? Growth?…and then realized it was more likely that we were just trying to be quirky.

Then came the “rough draft” of my life–all the way up to 20 years out! These 20 years were separated by 5-year periods, each with distinct sub-goals.

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It’s hilarious (yet not surprising) that I’d organize my future life in such detail. Lol.

Then came the actual letter that I wrote to myself, which was filled with curiosity about the future life that I would end up living:

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It’s interesting to return to the mind of my 16-year-old self and recall what I had been preoccupied with; what I felt “success” meant at the time. While much has changed in the past 6.5 years, it’s reassuring to observe that the main themes raised in these letters– career, health, faith, family, and music–are still aspects of life that I care deeply about. With her lofty aspirations and eager questioning in mind, I wrote my past self a dutiful reply:

A Letter to my Past Self

Dear Past Lucy Lai,

I am writing to you from the future. Since you last wrote, I’ve graduated from Rice and ended up at Harvard for grad school. I think you’d be happy to know that I did end up studying cognitive neuroscience (though not necessarily the neuroscience of music), and am getting a Ph.D.! You can also check off TA-ing and doing research off your list, although quite embarrassingly, the draft of your manuscript is still yet to be submitted. And although I’ve yet to speak at the National Lupus Advocacy Summit and could only perform in a less-glamorous version of a concert hall (i.e. the CP auditorium…), I think you’d be content to know that I managed to accomplish the latter while fundraising for the former.

It’s funny, you didn’t give me much time to “be close to getting married.” I’m not too sure I’ll be able to hit that goal of yours within the next 3 years, but I’ll do what I can in the meantime 🙂 And to be honest, I can’t even remember who the “boys in calculus” were, but nevertheless, I’ll do my best to ensure you don’t end up marrying an “ass.”

While I no longer have aspirations to cure lupus (I have a feeling you were being sarcastic when you wrote that…) or to live near the beach (anywhere that offers me a job is dandy), I am thankful for your reminder that I’d someday like to relive all those years of competitive piano playing. Time to get back to the bench.

Now, to answer your prodding questions:

You might be surprised to hear that I no longer “hate” lupus. Rather, I’ve become grateful for it. While I might still have your same weak body and stubborn soul, I’ve come to accept lupus as my “thorn in the flesh”–one that serves to humble me and to grow my character.

I did date my best friend, and yes, I was quite happy. I do still go to church, although with quite a different perspective than you did, I think. I don’t know how many times I’ve been drunk, but (sorry to disappoint) it’s certainly not none. And FYI–the shot glass collection has since grown to 64…

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Based on what I remember about your expectations, you may think I’ve “made it.” But what I really wanted to tell you is that “success” will become much more than checking a couple boxes off your “rough draft” for life; that it will begin to include the journey along with the reward. That you will find it in the unlikely nooks of your deepest failures, and that it may only begin once you have let go of your pride.

The first time you experience real rejection will crush you and cause you to believe that maybe, just maybe, your plans were not destined to be fulfilled. Then there will be the times when you fixate so intensely on those very goals in your concrete timeline that you lose sight of what is truly important in life.

There will be times you fail exams and people and God, times when you watch your love and loved ones die, times when you thought you had already learned your lesson, only to find yourself, yet again, “wandering aimlessly in the wilderness.”

Part of me wants to save you from your future mistakes, yet part of me also knows that some things are learned best by fire, and some people (i.e. you) learn best by chisel and stone.

And so what I leave you with is something that both you and I need to remember: that the earlier you cease fixating on your obsessively-detailed plans and start to embrace the messy, absurd, and fragile thing we call life, the happier and more present you can be.

I hope to live forward, embracing your youthful passion yet holding fast to the perspectives I’ve gained. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It is through this lens that I hope we can create a future together.

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”

With much love,
Lucy

2 thoughts on “A Letter from the Past”

  1. Wow, many of your goals now seem similar to your 16-year-old self’s! “Cure lupus”—haha that’s awesome.

    It’s great that your 16-year-old self was asking about health, career, family, faith, etc. Those seem like the right things to be asking about, as you said.

    Liked by 1 person

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