A Letter to Myself, Age 23

Tomorrow marks another trip around the sun for me. This time I’ll be twenty-four years old. That’s kind of a cool number: 24 hours in a day, 24 elders before Christ’s throne (Rev. 4:4)—and growing up, Jeff Gordon was my favorite NASCAR driver in his #24 DuPont Chevrolet.

As I thought back on the past year, I realized how much I’ve experienced, how much I’ve learned, and how far I’ve come. I’ll be honest: Age 23 was a tough, trying year. I asked myself questions I never thought I’d ask because I felt things I never thought I’d feel. (Welcome to the real world.)

But I came through the darkness back into the light. I am in a much better state of mind as the meter rolls over once again. And I’d like to think I learned some things along the way.

As a way of recollecting, I decided to write my 23-year-old self a letter. It’s the letter I probably wouldn’t have expected at the time, yet it contains everything I would need to know to get through this rough patch of life.

And instead of journaling it and tucking it away to get musty on a shelf, I am writing it publicly in the hopes that perhaps it will help you, too.

Without further ado, here it is.

Dear Matthew,

Congratulations on everything you’ve accomplished so far. You’ve worked so hard to be where you are today, and now you’re starting to enjoy the fruits of your labor after all these years. Having a job and a stable income, with some spending money to boot, is a birthday present all on its own!

For your birthday, I want to give you something more important than money, and that is wisdom. Not just any wisdom, but some lessons I’ve learned that you’ll do well to keep in mind as you go through this next year.

You see, for better or for worse, you’re about to enter what is going to be the darkest time of your life so far. I don’t mean to scare you, but I’m not going to sugar-coat it, either. I know you’d rather have someone tell it to you straight. I know—I do, too.

But you’re not going to go into this blindly. I’m not going to tell you everything that you’re going to experience, but I am going to tell you what I’ve learned after coming out on the other side. This is by no means the ultimate guide to life, but I think it’s the guide you’re going to need for this season that God’s about to allow you to be in.

The first thing you’re going to feel is a sense of helplessness. Even though you’re well-off financially, you’re going to feel that your life—your career, your future—is out of your control. You’re going to feel like someone else—a man, The Man—is running your life. You’re going to feel trapped in a job you don’t want to be in, doing things you don’t want to be doing. And being the independent-minded individual you are, you’re not going to like that feeling. You’re not going to like it at all.

As a result of this helplessness, you’re going to start feeling that God has abandoned you. You’re going to call out to Him—cry out to Him on many an occasion—and you’re not going to hear an answer. It’s going to make you question your life and your faith up to this point. You’re going to start to wonder whether He led you to a stream of water that’s suddenly dried up—and now He’s nowhere to be found.

To quote a Styx song, you are going to feel like a man in the wilderness.

The good news is, there’s hope—both in this life and in the next. You confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and that guarantees you eternal life with him. Just remember that one day, all this pain is going to be washed away, and he will dry every tear from every eye.

“That’s great to know,” you’re going to say, “but I’m still living in my earthly body! I’m dealing with problems in this life, not the afterlife!”

And you’re right. So let me offer you what I’ve learned from the wilderness so that you can survive it, too.

First, the question is not whether God has abandoned you, but whether you have abandoned Him. I’m not going to speculate—you know where you need some work. Start by getting on your knees and rededicating yourself to Him. Do this daily, every morning right when you get out of bed. He wants to be number one in your life, so put Him first—and don’t even have anything else on the list.

Second, understand that life is full of pain and suffering. You don’t need to look very far to see this. It’s a result of The Fall, of sin entering the world and corrupting God’s very good creation. Until Christ returns and sets things right, this is a fact of life.

Along that line, don’t try to find some deep meaning in life except for God. Nothing else will satisfy. It might fill you up for a bit and make you feel good inside, but before long it will leave you feeling empty and depressed—longing for more, for something else. The wisest man in the world said so himself: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!”

But that same wisest man also said that to fear God and keep His commandments is the end of all things. In other words, that’s the meaning of life—of every life, including yours. Fear God and keep His commandments. This is the duty of all mankind.

Outside of that—listen to your emotions. If you feel strongly about something in your heart, pay attention to whatever it is. Especially if you feel it in your solar plexus—what one might call your “heart of hearts”.

But be sure to use some logic and reason before you go off and make a decision based on emotions alone. You could make a serious mistake and derail your life—your job, your career, your future—for years to come.

The exception is a “gut feeling”. If you feel something deep in the pit of your stomach, regardless of what it is, follow that instinct. It’s the strangest thing, but you’ve got to do it.

Now, aside from that, you need to strive for optimization in all four aspects of your life: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects. Being sick or out-of-shape in one will start to affect the others, and your whole well-being will deteriorate.

Exercise consistently. You don’t have to work out every day; two or three times a week will do. But be sure to push yourself so you can become stronger. Don’t stagnate—that’s a great way to become mediocre in any aspect of your life. And the neat thing about working out is that it stimulates the other aspects of your life. It’s also a natural stress-reliever!

Do things that mentally stimulate you. Read books—you enjoy doing that anyway, so carve out time to read. But be sure to read books that you enjoy, or that edify you in some way. If you don’t like book, stop reading it! There’s no law that says you have to finish it!

Oh, and keep your German skills sharp. You never know when they may come in handy. In fact, consider working on another language in your spare time. You’ve wanted to pick up some French—maybe even Koine Greek or Ancient Hebrew—so why not start now? There’s no better time than today.

In terms of emotions, one of the most powerful things you can do is to choose to be a glass-half-full person. Yes, you can choose to be positive. The lenses that you wear determine how you perceive the world. And you live in a vibrant, colorful, bountiful world that God has given mankind dominion over! Celebrate that! Celebrate life every day! Celebrate all the possibilities that you have!

Also, surround yourself with positive people as much as possible. That’s not to say that you should cut negative people out of your life completely—sometimes that’s not feasible, and even if it is, it’d be pretty rude to do so. But you have to look out for your own emotional well-being, and if that means spending less time with people who drag you down, then so be it.

On the flip-side, always be an encourager. Listen to those who, like you, are walking through the wilderness. Remember that each of us is fighting our own battle of survival every day. Have mercy and compassion, and show the love of Christ to everyone you encounter.

And I’ve already addressed the spiritual aspect somewhat. Pray every day, read the Bible every day, and obey the Lord’s commands. Live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord your God.

In all things, strive for balance. Strike a balance between work and play. Strike a balance between producing and consuming. Strike a balance between order and chaos. (Have one foot firmly planted on the shore of order while you dip your toes into the sea of chaos!)

Take things one day at a time. Live for the day while keeping an eye on the future. Again, strike a balance—between today and tomorrow.

Remember that you have only one life, and that there’s a unique place for you in the grand scheme of things. So, while I don’t advise you to make rash decisions, if you feel like you’re the square peg trying to fit into the round hole—make a change! Do something different! Take a step, even a small one, towards what you think you were made to do.

I’ll wind this long-winded letter up by saying that you’ve always navigated through life by finding out what you don’t like to do. There’s nothing wrong with that. On the cusp of age twenty-four, I still haven’t found that “one thing” I love to do above all else. You may never. And that’s okay. As long as you can find pleasure in your work, your play, and your people, you’re doing pretty well for yourself. In fact, if you can manage that, you’re already a wealthy man!

Oh, one last thing: Never let go of your dreams. They are what drive you when you’re down. I happen to believe that they’re uniquely yours, given to you by God Himself. Keep that boyish gleam in your eye, that roguish smile on your face, and don’t chastise yourself if you catch yourself looking out the window and thinking about what could be. Do what you can to make those dreams reality. Follow them, even if it will take years to get to the end of the trail. It’s better to wonder “What if I hadn’t?” (which you won’t) than to wonder “What if I had?”

That’s all I’ve got for now. I think this is enough for you to chew on and digest over the coming year. You’re young and you’ve got a big, bright future ahead of you. (Look at all that you’ve accomplished already!) Just don’t let a few black clouds obscure those silver linings.

Stand firm,

Matthew