“What advice would you give your younger self?”

Recently here in Sydney there’s been a competition on public radio that was very popular. Listeners were asked to phone in and respond to the question, “What advice would you give your 16 year-old self?” The theme of talking to your younger self has been popular recently, with media, competitions, social media and even interest from the arts.

At a modern art exhibition that I attended a few years ago, kids were given pencils and activity cards to complete as they went around and participated/created/viewed the exhibits on show. This was partly to engage and partly to amuse them as the exhibits were aimed at differential levels of engagement from gallery visitors. Some of the exhibits and installations had post-apocalyptic themes which I found very disturbing as an adult. But at this point of the exhibition on the activity cards my kids were asked a similar question: Imagine your future self. What advice would you give your younger self? Having just viewed the exhibit my kids were being asked to reflect on their own lives, on what really mattered as the exercise was aimed at getting to a truth, a reality about what was important in life and this truth needed to be conveyed from a future post-apocalyptic place to a current, younger self. My little one responded with, “I would tell myself to have more sleepovers”. The older one said, “I would say, don’t worry so much”.

Some of the responses to the radio competition have been predictably amusing, “Buy stocks in Apple”, or “Buy Sydney real-estate”, while other responses, indeed the winning response, was more thought provoking as the answer included thoughts on body shape, sexuality, tolerance, acceptance and relationships. What’s going on with these kinds of activities? On the one hand we’re giving sagely advice to our younger selves often about the very things that have bothered us extensively throughout our lives. This is the insight that we’ve developed through maturity. On the other hand, we’re seeking to recreate, or rescript our lives with our new knowledge of these essential truths, “If only I’d known that..”

One woman said to her younger self something along the lines of, “If you think you’re fat now, well let me tell you that you’re not!” But the experience for this woman, and many like her would have been that she’d lived her life imagining herself as fat. In comparison as an older woman looking back, she could now see that objectively, she wasn’t fat as a teenager. But her lived experience as a young woman was that of someone who was fat.

Medical anthropologists talk about the shaping of illness and this includes our perceptions and lived experience of our bodily states. In constructing ourselves as fat, (or skinny, or moody…) we construct our lives accordingly. We view our lives through our prism, through our identity of ‘fat’ and include or exclude ourselves from a variety of activities, pursuits, relationships or situations because of this.

Should we be sharing essential truths based on our own experiences of life with young people now? Would they listen? Would they be insightful into the conditions, dilemmas, lies and unrealities of their own lives?

I always get a sense that there is a feeling of wistfulness attached to competitions like the one on the radio. There is an aspect of truth-telling that we all adore, as with the jester in the medieval court who was the only person who could speak the truth to the Court. We love listening to people list the truths that we all wish we’d known when we were younger. It’s a bit like reality TV only across time spans and generations, “wake up younger me and look at what’s really going on”. There is that ‘aha’ experience from the development of insight and wisdom about the human condition attached to our very personal and individual experiences of growing up. Our youthful naivety is crushed by the release of the contents of our mature time-capsules which seek to convey more real truths than the ones we actually experienced.

However, while the radio competition was fun and insight provoking, I find the art gallery experience with my children more disturbing. At what age can children conceptualise a future self who has feelings, intentions and regrets? Can these really be passed back through a game of imaginative construction, or reconstruction? What are we to do with the knowledge that children gain through this technique? By this I mean that we could ask children directly what they would like to change about their lives right now and they may not be able to answer because they don’t want to admit to the truth of their experience or simply cannot articulate this directly. But through this imaginative form of play and participation in art they are asked to do this.

A similar projective technique is used in Gestalt therapy where subjects are asked to pick up an object from around the house, bring it in and talk about themselves as if they were that object within the Gestalt group session . When you’re one step removed from talking about yourself, it’s much easier to talk about intention, desire, wishes, wants, needs, fears and hopes than it is to do so directly. This is a type of projective identification that we undertake in order to identify a truth about ourselves that we would not ordinarily be able to see, or admit to. I participated in this activity. What did I pick? Why a light globe of course.

As a light bulb, I have a bright future, but may suddenly become dim and die suddenly. I have the ability to light the way for others but rely on a constant and very powerful other worldly source of energy for which I need a constant supply in order to fulfil my role. When I’m on, people may take me for granted, often not noticing my presence until they no longer have a need for me. I’m constructed of a material that makes me extremely fragile, and before I’m put into use I exist in a safe box, the same sort of box that I’ll probably be put into when my light goes out. Inside, I have delicate structures that form my core and allow me to perform my illuminating function.  I’m very useful when I’m switched on, allowing ongoing activity well into the night. Without me, it would be difficult for a lot of things to happen and I literally light up people’s lives. Unfortunately my life is black and white as I only have two states: on and off. However, as a light globe I realise that I’m part of a continuum, that I’m not so unique and that were I to go out, there would be many more who could replace me.

So what advice would I give my younger self?  I’d probably say, “… count yourself in”

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