To me, at twenty, with love

Such energy, such determination, such inspiring plans! For a scant two decades of life, you sure are cocky.  You know you’re book-smart. You’ve known that since you won that homonyms contest in fourth grade. You are beginning to believe that you are beautiful. This, thanks to a campus full of testosterone-driven boys, boys who didn’t know your gawky, clumsy, yet brainy seventh grade self, towering intimidatingly above their skinny, pre-hormonal selves. You have a dad who has preached, from his perpetual preacher’s stance, that not only are you smart and beautiful, you can expect to accomplish whatever you want. All a recipe for cocky certainty.

The perfect life, defined by boxes to be checked off, is one you feel certain to build. Certain you will finish the current psychology degree and the next, to take you on your chosen path of meaningful, yet financially stable work. Work that will make a difference in the lives of others yet still allow that ever-important flexible mom schedule. Certain you can build a relationship with the ideal loving man and establish a home for children, another way you plan to contribute to the world. Certain that if you do all this in the Right Order: finish school and training, snag the guy, launch the career, then and only then produce that yearned for grand-baby; your life will be perfect. You will be happy. Fulfilled. Productive. Balanced. Parents proud. You will be in control.

I bite my tongue to stop the inevitable tsk, tsk from escaping my head. You are twenty and know it all! Yes, it will work out, though I really don’t need to tell you that. Most days, you simply, whole-heartedly, are certain fairy tales come true. Allow that belief to carry you far, quieting those doubts that bubble up in the still night hours, dark-thirty. Because even as you barrel on, the ruts of doubt deepen, parallel paths that die hard.  From a quarter century later, I see the undercurrent to your bravado, hidden depths of worry, doubt, full-fledged anxiety. Are  you really good enough? Lovable enough? Do you matter enough?

Drink and dance hard, do your homework, flirt with boys. Charm the professors, call home once a week, volunteer for the crisis hotline. Be on time, shelve stacks of library books, save your money. Be the good girl, do what smart girls do, and maybe that will be enough to fill those ruts, dam that undercurrent. Jump through the right hoops, and you’ll feel in control.

Control is an illusion, my dear. You think the grand design in your head will automatically come true, detail by precious detail, because it’s what you want and you’re doing the right things. Dreams come true. Yet, like constantly shifting clouds, the only certainty is that the dream morphs. You envision one prince charming; another is, in fact, the one you need. You imagine constantly adoring and adored children; the vehemence that can fly both ways at 2 and 13 is horrifying. You paint the picture of one life; destiny insists you’ve drawn this lot instead.

I know you’re afraid of heights, but this is not one of those dreaded fire towers that your parents dragged you up, open wooden steps with a shaky splintered railing. As the path you plan to forge diverges, step back, climb to the highest point, and seize the bird’s eye view–in spite of your fear.  If you’d taken the predictable, planned path, you would have missed this gorgeous vista.

Surrendering to uncertainty is not a concept you embrace as part of your grand life plan and it’s illusion of control. Surrendering to reality equates to loss. Grab the box of tissues, release the tears, this isn’t what you ordered. You are certain surrender looks like this: pain, suffering, anxiety to be feared: 

When in fact, surrender looks like this:


You think you know it all, and that, in true all or nothing style, the details are essential to fulfillment of the plan. You are certain that achieving the plan, unaltered, will bring peace and security. Failure, defined in that absolute way, means no rest from the worry and doubt. Give it up. Surrender is acknowledging the illusion that you are in charge. Simply, wholeheartedly, be certain about that truth, and allow life to delight you with surprising vision. That is, after all, exactly what you need.


This post is part of a BlogHop for a group of midlife bloggers called Generation Fabulous (GenFab for short).

17 thoughts on “To me, at twenty, with love

  1. Ann Dunnewold says:

    Thanks for the compliment, Melissa! In restrospect, it feels like it was blind confidence that shrouded much doubt and anxiety. And maybe if I’d been able to face that then, I could have come to terms with it sooner.

  2. Robin says:

    I remember all too well that certainty you wrote about. I’ve developed a saying about life: You don’t get the life you planned.
    Some do. Most of us don’t. And I’m actually glad I got something other than what I had planned. I forgot to add in richness and depth and meaning. Life didn’t forget, though.

  3. Karen Taylor says:

    Life rarely works out as a planned and controlled environment as we think when we are young, but instead opens up to a world of unplanned possibilities that can far succeed our dreams. Great letter.

  4. Chloe says:

    Reading this it makes me think that maybe we’re programmed to think know it all when we’re 20. If we knew how much we didn’t know we’d probably never get out of bed, or leave home.

    I love your gentleness with yourself, Ann. I think those who are gentle with themselves are probably gentler with others. Which is good for a psychologist!

  5. Ann Dunnewold says:

    So true, Haralee! Even if they scare off some boys, it’s important, at any age, to embrace our intellect. It funds our power!

    Your saying and your comment are both so wise, Robin. Thank you!

    Thanks, Walker! It’s my mantra lately.

    Thanks, Karen. Trusting the richness in the unplanned is a challenge, but a worthy goal.

    Self-compassion is a good base for most any role in life! And Chloe, I think you’re right–Mother Nature protects us from realizing how little we know–so we can keep moving forward.

  6. Jo Heroux says:

    I also noticed how loving you were to your know it all self. I am also kind to my past self because she had a rough road to get to her 60’s and she did most of it with grace. Where the grace was lacking, passion was at the helm and her mothering nature may have turned her into an animal bent on survival, but it was necessary and good.

    I also love that life is not what we plan, but perhaps what He planned and we just sometimes take a wrong turn and then pay the price, but we learn something, always.

  7. Helene Bludman says:

    I wish we had been friends at 20. You would have been the wise, comforting person to turn to with a problem. I have a fear of heights, too.

  8. Karen says:

    You know, in many ways I’d far rather see a cocky, know-it-all 20-year-old woman than a shy, uncertain one who’s convinced she is now, and will always be, a failure! It sounds like having a supportive, encouraging dad was a big head start for you–something I’ve always felt is critical to self-confidence in young women.
    Thanks for the post!

  9. Lisa @ Grandma's Briefs says:

    Love, love, love the photos! Adorable little gal. This is such a blessing, one not all of us had: “You have a dad who has preached, from his perpetual preacher’s stance, that not only are you smart and beautiful, you can expect to accomplish whatever you want.” Beautiful post with many thought-filled phrases. Thank you.

  10. Lynn Forbes says:

    Control freak that I was and fight not to be today, I can totally relate to this post, Anne. But of course everything will go according to plan! How else could it possibly go? Surrender can be a beautiful thing.

  11. Ann Dunnewold says:

    We recovering control freaks need to stick together, and keep telling each other that surrender is, indeed, good. Thanks, Lynn and Carpool Goddess!

    Thanks, Lisa, for your comment and for adoring the pix! My first born at one–first challenger of my expectations as a mom!

    And yes, Lisa and Karen, I was blessed with the dad I had. Having four daughters, he was naturally a feminist!

    Helene, thanks for the compliment–though I didn’t always feel very wise.

    Jo, one of my favorite quotes from Caroline Myss is “human logic is not divine logic.” We do have to just defer on the plan, don’t we?

  12. Juile Danis says:

    Wait, doing the right thing in the right order doesn’t equal the plan working out? Oh, how that has been a ruling principle of my life until I realized I wasn’t going to have children or maybe even marry. I love your line: “Surrender is acknowledging the illusion that you are in charge.” Made me think of the Wicked Witch of the West writing “Surrender Dorothy” in the sky with her broomstick. Dorothy didn’t surrender. She took action and was resilient in a world in which she didn’t control much at all.

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