woman in black coat sitting on concrete stairs

How You Tread The Earth At 21

I don’t know if you have lived to be 41. Twenty years from now seems so far away. But then again, so does 16 years ago. Yet I still remember losing my favorite pink hat walking home from grandma’s house at the mere age of five as if it was just yesterday. Maybe you have lived to be 82. Maybe longer.

I often wonder about the people you have loved, the coffee shops you spent your summers in, the lives that left their imprint on your soul, the dreams you breathed to fruition, and the hard days—the days you thought you weren’t going to make it. Did you make it out? Are you happy at 30? How about at 50? Maybe 70? I can keep asking, but the phone line will always stay silent. You can’t reassure me. Separated by time, I am only left to hope that your footsteps led you to the life I imagine for you today.

But you don’t have to imagine. You can know me. I might be replaced by a different version of my circumstances tomorrow or in two years or five. So I write this letter in case you forget who I am today, who you once were, and how you tread the earth at 21.

At 21, you have learned to love people without expecting their reciprocity. You love them as you struggle to understand their intentions. You love them in action. You love them by being present in moments that matter to them. You do it despite how much of your own time it costs you. You love them in words, in compliments, in advice. You love by listening to the things that inspire them. You love people physically holding them in your arms as they wallow in their grief. You love as you share the skills you have spent months and years perfecting so that others can experience the joys of learning too. And above all, you love people as you forgive their shortcomings. I think that is what I love most about you today. Despite the fiery emotion of hurt pulsating out of your ribcage, you forgive because in forgiveness lies healing.

Yet, despite how much you love people, sometimes you grapple with wanting to separate yourself from them. Because of that, you struggle with thoughts of being selfish, of not giving enough, of taking relationships for granted. So you write. You write often. Sometimes in text messages to those dearest to you. Sometimes in letters that end up in the trash can seconds later. Sometimes in poems that you hope will resonate with others on social media. It’s hard for you to accept that you can love people without giving away every part of you, that the energy held in batteries does not last forever. It too needs to recharge. But that is who you are today—loving at times and not at others.

At 21, you value belief systems. You believe in science that causes birth effects, that life can be modified through minor revisions in thoughts and physical matter, that giving energy can never be lost but only changed into other forms. But despite how much you believe in science, the tangible world is not enough for you. You believe in celestial beings. It gives you perspective. It gives you hope that the atrocities of this life aren’t meant to last forever, that a forever exists even if you can’t understand its “why” or “how”. You believe that true love existed long before humans did. You believe in impossibility, in wishing on stars, in the butterfly effect, in the curing powers of taking the placebo. You understand that your beliefs may not be accepted by others, so you try to listen to the perspectives of others. You believe that you do, in fact, not know everything, that you are not error-free.

At 21, you try to leave gifts for strangers. You buy them coffee in drive-thrus, leave them books on coffee tables, and stop to compliment them on the way they smile. You claim that when people receive gifts, their existence in this world is validated by someone other than themselves. You claim that for a moment in time people allow themselves to exist without the looking glass effect shattering the windows of their souls. The looking glass effect explains that people base their sense of self—their identity—on how they believe others see them. It starts with “How do I appear to others?” and then “What does that make them think of me?” and finally “How am I going to change my identity so that they can like me better?” This theory intrigues you. Only recently you have accepted it to be true for yourself, which leads me to explain why you did.

At 21, you dance wildly on your way to work and in the middle of your workout. But you don’t dance in public—it feels both foreign and frigid. Cold brews and Americanos are your fuel, but you have no cares for matcha lattes or smoothie bowls. You love watching trash TV—everything that is predictable and comforting—but you hate reality TV. You feel both too old and too young. But maybe souls aren’t held back by a timestamp. Maybe you don’t need to identify with something forever. Maybe you need to let the cyclical nature of life carry you to explore things you haven’t before. Maybe by the time you are reading this you have discovered who you truly are. Maybe your identity has finally solidified; maybe you stayed a chameleon.

And finally, I hope you remember that at 21, you are a romantic. As much as you try not to, you romanticize everything. You romanticize loneliness. You romanticize healing. You romanticize studying at dusk and running at dawn. You romanticize the arts—sometimes it’s Raphael, sometimes it’s Van Gogh, sometimes it’s Vermeer. You draw in pencil as if they were your mentor, even though you are aware that your veins don’t naturally bleed in creativity. You do it anyway. You let the peace of creating art overwhelm you. You romanticize reading, that you too can be a heroine. You romanticize listening to Ted Talks, the knowledge held within the experiences of other human beings. You romanticize taking care of plants. There is this unexplainable feeling that bubbles over you when you see that your love literally gives physical life. Maybe new leaves mean little to others. To you, they are everything.

And you romanticize traveling down memory lane. If today a higher being gave you the power to stand at the crossroads of the past and the future, without a doubt you would choose the past, simply because there were versions of you in the past you wish you could comfort. I wish I could hold her vulnerabilities and tell her that despite the tears trickling down her cheeks, she would be okay. You, on the other hand, I believe have made it. I hope that you are thriving, because at 21 I am finally okay. I became strong for you, but you don’t owe me anything. Please remember that.

At 21, I leave you with my favorite words from Alan Watts: “Love is just an act of surrender to another person.” In this love letter, I am surrendering to you. I am entrusting you to take care of us—all the different versions of me that live within you now. I hope you do. I hope you take care of us. I hope you take care of yourself—your heart and your peace.

About the author
I am always discovering tenderness in strangers Follow Karolina on Instagram or read more articles from Karolina on Thought Catalog.

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