Don't Forget What You Didn't Know

When we moved from Florida to Nashville last April, we split our drive up a bit, stopping first to stay at my parents’ house. We wanted to say our goodbyes, and my mother planned to join our caravan for the rest of the journey. But she’d also made it clear to me that, now that we were moving out of state, it was time to finally take care of the boxes that had lingered in my childhood bedroom for years. So I spent an evening digging through old notes, forgotten trophies, high school essays, hundreds of photos in bright yellow Kodak folders—and journals. So many journals.

I first began keeping a diary at five years old, when I still regularly added too many lines to my capital Es, making them look like frightening animals tipped on one end. From that time until college (when I finally got a computer), I consistently poured everything into some small notebook. I never held back from my journals. I filled them, cover to cover, year after year.

That night last spring, I spent hours reading through this chronicle of my youth. And it was humiliating. Oh, sure, at times it was cute, maybe even profound—I knew even then I hoped to be a writer one day, and I worked hard at it. But many entries, especially as I entered adolescence, were cringe-worthy. It was difficult to believe how much time I’d spent obsessing over stages of puberty, over this boy and that friend, over her hair and his decision, over nothing at all. Once I came upon the pages written in my later teens, the embarrassment was too severe. As I sat on the floor in my old walk-in closet, I decided: They weren’t going with me. Not all of my journals would make the cut to travel with me and my husband to our new life and home. I saw no point in holding onto the less admirable, less articulate, more petty versions of my former self. So a handful of notebooks, along with a number of other items deemed as garbage, were taken in a can to the end of my family’s winding driveway, never to be thought of again.

Until the next morning.

I bolted awake, as the sky was still hazy, and panic seized me. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get rid of those painstakingly recorded entries, in spite of how awful or silly some of them now seemed. Out of respect for the younger me and my memories, but also out of concern for my someday-children who might face similar experiences, I couldn’t send those journals to rot pointlessly in a dump somewhere.

I ran barefoot down the driveway to the trashcans, frantic, knowing the garbage truck would be on its route. Just as I’d felt relief the night before as I piled those notebooks in the bag, I now was grateful each time my hand withdrew another one I’d flippantly discarded. I walked back up to the house, panting and still in my pajamas, clutching the (now somewhat damp) stack. My mom laughed and hugged me. I told her, I don’t really want anyone to read them—in fact, should anything happen to me, I really don’t even want anyone else to have them—but I at least want the option of stewarding those sentences and stories, no matter what they contain. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about that morning lately, picturing myself on tip-toes and bent over into the green trashcan. I don’t want to forget that unique feeling, a need to reclaim something I wasn’t even altogether proud of; in fact, I want to channel that feeling into other conversations and transitions. Because I’m realizing the alternative is a disturbing trend, one I recognize both in society and in myself: a desire to ignore our former ignorance.

Of course, today this trend is most often manifested online, which is still significant, given that it’s where people now share much of their lives, meet significant others, secure book deals, find jobs, gather news. But it’s also where we can be tempted to project very careful, polished versions of ourselves. We often have the option of editing what we’ve said, even after we’ve said it. We post only the final draft, the perfect shot, the link or thought or idea that best supports our image. We delete less-than-flattering status updates and photos of yesteryear. We talk to, retweet or promote those who “look good on us” and complete our strategic profiles. This isn’t new information; you’ve read the think pieces.

Meanwhile, the Internet is also where people are quick to vilify others—peers, public figures or strangers—for even the smallest perceived misstep. I see it every day. Here’s where you should direct your outrage today … a celebrity unworthy of their platform … a non-expert blogging less-than-ideal theories (!) …  an inferior leader and their doomed organization … a trailer to a movie that I will probably see, but will definitely tell you is problematic … a politician who is clearly malicious to the core … an article/song/show/T-shirt that seems benign, but is capable of ruining us all, let me show you why …

I’m not trying to say we should consume and converse without discernment. I’m all for learning lessons, making amends, thinking critically, acknowledging wrongs. Our health and peace, as individuals and communities, often depend on it. When there is injustice, malice or some harmful cycle at work, it is smart and necessary to appropriately draw attention to it, deal consequences and enforce accountability.

But I think it’s ridiculous to pretend progress occurs without process.

To require forward motion of others, you should also be ready to look backward and be honest about what you see there—even when it’s embarrassing or seemingly undermining to your present persona. It doesn’t help anyone to pretend you’ve always been informed, “right,” generally on top of everything—that you just emerged into the world as knowledgable and accomplished and wonderful as you are in this moment. It’s not fair to expect everybody to be at the same point in life, looking to the same influencers, equally ranking the same priorities. It’s unreasonable to demand every person be able to consistently, perfectly communicate a flawless perspective of the world and its people. I have to hope there is at least some room for grace, patience, a learning curve. When people trying their best show a sliver of the ignorance they’ve not yet had opportunity to overcome, the first response should not be to humiliate them or dismiss them entirely. Online and in-person, we would all benefit from a willingness to interpret situations and statements within context and community—and with the humbling, often quieting memory of our own former ignorance.

Here, I’ll go. I’ll read from my journal.

Today, I am a devoted, happy wife, even though I used to indecisively lead guys on and thought love would just “happen.” I am a good editor, even though I’ve made unfortunate choices along the way about words, writers and when to read the comments. I am a Christian, even though I’ve also dabbled in chic cynicism, hyper emotions, consuming doubts, hypocrisy and legalism. I am a feminist, even though I remember blindly accepting common sexist stereotypes (“Women aren’t funny.” “Men are better leaders.” “My looks matter more than my intellect.”). I love to run and am mindful of my health, even though I once shrugged off exercise and battled to eat anything that grew in nature. I deeply care about mental health issues, even though I used to view mental illness as either “a bad phase” or a product of weakness and selfishness. I am a writer, even though I have a collection of journals that show I once had to put a lot of effort into penning drivel.

Thankfully, I am not who I was, and I am not who I will be—but I like to think that “Alyce” is better and more complete in light of both.

There is no point at which we have arrived to a full and perfect understanding of any one thing. Collectively, our ideas and the language we use to express them are always evolving, and this progression will look different for each group or individual. I think the best way to help each other along is to be open about the spaces we once occupied, the mistakes we made, the beliefs we abandoned. Take inventory of, sort, even stow those hidden boxes—but don’t throw them all out.

There’s a verse that says, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” This act of putting away is necessary; when you become aware of an immaturity or blind spot, you should seek to improve in this area. 

But how freeing, to ourselves and to others, to still be ready to say, “When I was a child … ” 


[I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now, and there are a few stories and people who have motivated this. Props to Roxane Gay for owning her “bad feminism,” to the Start Up podcast for this great episode on owning mistakes, to this article on embracing failure and to Ashley Ford for being a thought-provoking presence on Twitter who often talks about these themes. ]