Now that I’m dead, I want to tell you a few things.
I see you there in that big school hall, wearing your Guns N’Roses T-shirt and your fake bravado, waiting for this final day at school to end. I remember what it was like to sit where you sit, and I thought you might like some advice. So here I go. Try not to roll your eyes too much.
Here’s the first thing: chill out. This is a useful piece of late-nineties terminology that you haven’t encountered yet. It means: calm down. Stop taking things so seriously. You’re a clever, interesting, perfectly acceptable person. It’s true that not everyone likes you, and that’s really all right. You can’t make everyone like you, unless you try to turn yourself into something you’re not – and you’ve tried that, and then maybe everyone else likes you, but you hate yourself. So be yourself.
Remember, this is a world in which people steal from their own families. Some people kill other people for money. Some people hurt and abuse tiny children. You don’t do any of these things. You’re not dull, or pathologically self-obsessed. You can work a computer, you can hold a conversation with a stranger, you can match a top with a pair of trousers. You can swim, ride a bike, walk in a straight line, and you won’t believe me, but one day you will even be able to reverse park.
You will make mistakes – a lot of mistakes. You will do things you don’t want to, in order to fit in, and you’ll regret it. But you’ll learn from it, every time, and maybe one day you’ll even stop doing it. You will meet a man who loves you, and you will discover that you are capable of loving him back, more than you ever thought possible. It won’t be a fairytale: sometimes you will infuriate each other, and sometimes you will go through hard times and you won’t know how things are going to turn out. I know that frightens you: you like certainty. It helps you to pretend you know what’s going on. But do you know what? You know that script that you’re constantly looking for? That Guide to Life that you’re certain got handed out when you were in the toilet?
No-one else has one either. The whole busy, teeming, improbable, frightening, wonderful world is being improvised. There is no fate, there is no masterplan. There’s just eight billion people making decisions from one moment to the next and hoping like heck that they turn out not to be too stupid. And your decisions are just as likely to be good or bad as everybody else’s.
I can’t promise you it will all be fine.
It won’t be.
Sometimes it will be very far from fine, and you won’t be able to sleep, and you’ll wake up in the night feeling sick and the warm person next to you whose shape is as familiar as your own won’t bring you any comfort. There will be horrible moments when the people closest to you die, only slightly less horrible moments when those you love get ill and you don’t know if they’re going to get well again, moments when you’re scared and alone and you don’t know what to do. And those moments will shape you, probably more than the carefree happy moments that you will also have, in bucketloads. You will learn, and you will pick yourself up from the floor and gather those around you who care for you, and that number will decrease all the time but the amount that they care for you will increase as you learn not to waste your time on those who bring you down or suck your goodwill or just don’t bring you anything good. And you will keep on going. Keep on walking. Put one foot in front of another, and take one breath in and let another one out. Good things will pass and bad things will pass, and you will still be you, even though you will grow and change your mind and learn something new and forget something important even though you wrote it on the fridge. You’re all right. Stop worrying.
And here’s something else. Never underestimate the importance of your own thoughts. You will grow up and grow old in a world of constant distractions. If you want to, you need never be alone with your feelings. You will always have a book, a tune, a film, a phone call, a TV programme, a podcast (you’ll have to wait another few years to find out what these are. Dawn and Drew probably haven’t even met each other yet). You can fill your mind entirely with thoughts that someone else has thought and written down, recorded or dramatised. Resist that temptation. Take time to sit quietly. Fulfil that Buddhist saying: Don’t just do something, sit there.
Maybe you’ll never make a scientific discovery or found a new creed – in fact all things considered, it’s probably best if you don’t. But your thoughts are your own, and you know that constant inner voice that bothers you and never gives you any peace? It’s one of your best assets. It will let you imagine, and write, and create, and figure out who you are and who you want to be, and when things are right and when they are wrong, and what you should do and what you should let go. Give that voice time to speak and space to be heard. Feed it silence from time to time, and then sit quietly and see what grows.
Take time to imagine, but also to observe. You’re a dreamy little thing, aren’t you, and you can quite easily walk through a crowded train station without noticing another soul. Try to look around you sometimes. Other people can be scary, but they can also be fascinating, and you can learn from people without ever speaking to them.
And above all, remember, you are alive. You were not born in a country destroyed by famine or war. You were not born to parents with terrible addictions or in desperate poverty. You were not born fifty years ago, when you would have lived amongst bombings and watched your male friends and relatives march off to die. Your choices, privileges and possessions are beyond the imagination not only of most of those who’ve ever lived, but most of those who now share the planet with you. Your parents love you. You have a sprawling family who you don’t see much, but who turn out to be the people you can really rely on. You have a roof over your head and shoes on your feet. You will be educated to within an inch of your life. You have a house full of books. You love music, and if you practiced a bit more often you could play it, too. You have the BBC and the NHS and a home town and eventually an adoptive city both more full of culture and life and variety than you could ever have hoped.
Pick yourself up, kid. Poke out your chin, lift up your head, rest assured that one day you will get a grip of your hair and stride out. There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s everything right with you. Smile, accept that you’re never going to learn to whistle, and walk out of this big stupid hall with your head held high.
Where you have been is not where you are going. Who you have been is not who you will be. What has been said to you does not define you. Live each day anew, and don’t let the past prevent you from having a wonderful future.