When I made the transition from confident young person to self-conscious twenty-something, I remember feeling an urgent temptation to delete all evidence of my past transgressions — a millennial rite of passage if there ever was one. I was so embarrassed by the misguided lists on my old Tumblr about “how to be happy” (ugh), outdated essays I’d posted about what I believed, conversations I’d had, ways I’d acted. I felt totally paralyzed and ashamed of those formative post-college years when my convictions changed or revealed themselves to be problematic.
Something clicked for me, though, when I discovered a writer I respected who refused to delete her archive of inferior (and even embarrassing) online work. At the time, it struck me as brave and novel. I still feel that way. The older I get, the more charmed I become by those willing to own up to or even broadcast their past rather than rewrite it. Maybe because doing so takes some guts in a society so hell-bent on flattening characters into a single dimension.
Calling out injustice and contradiction is imperative, maybe tantamount, to progress. But the current obsession with sanding off all of the nuance and complexity of emotional evolution troubles me. We live for the drama of old offensive tweets and misguided comments, attack at the faintest whiff of hypocrisy. We hold others to standards we ourselves cannot live up to and, in doing so, we set up a paradigm wherein even minor public transgressions can be tantamount to social suicide.
I’m compelled by the challenge of mixing vigilance with compassion. It’s so tricky and delicate considering our love affair with uncomplicated characters. Lovable or evil, fun or boring, smart or stupid. Everything’s so much more palatable inside the comfortable confines of a label. We even shape our own identities to appear solid and without holes, as though we’ve had them forever. But we are all so much more that. We’re confused and passionate. Determined and conflicted. Confident and self-conscious! Maybe if we let each other be more inconsistent, we’d feel less shame about our own inconsistencies.
The arc of growing up is long, cringe-worthy and great material for public fodder and reflection, if you ask me. When we leave it all out there and let others do the same — the old, embarrassing blog posts, the opinions we no longer agree with, the 1.0 versions of our personalities that send a shiver down our spine — we normalize the messy and necessary journey that precedes a better version of ourselves. It’s a different kind of acceptance, but one worth considering.
Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.