I wonder if I’ll be sixteen years old forever?
I’m walking into my son’s new middle school. It’s the school I attended as a boy, in the town where I grew up—the town I left because I thought I needed something more and the town I returned to when I realized I already had everything worth having and always had. I’m delivering a cross-country uniform that was forgotten in the kitchen, when I open the main doors and almost bump into a woman about my age.
I don’t know if she recognizes me, but I recognize her.
And suddenly, my tongue is tied.
Back when I was a junior in high school, she was a senior and a cool kid—and I was decidedly not. Here we are, decades later, back in a school together, and instead of saying “hi” to her like she’s an actual human being—an ordinary person like myself, with kids and stress and a mortgage and hopes and dreams and fears—I lose the power of speech completely and we pass each other silently.
Sixteen years old forever.
And what exactly does that mean? It means some part of me—the part I think of as my ego—still looks at the whole world like it’s a ladder, with everyone contending for the higher rungs.
What the Ego Sees
Adolescence is brutal. You walk around all gangly, suddenly thrust into somebody else’s body. And that body comes with a bad case of acne. Some parts change shape. Other parts grow hair. And you have no control over any of it.
Anarchy at a cellular level.
Yet, far worse than the physical freak show you see in the mirror is the emotional wreck you see in your heart—insecure about who you are, uncertain who you belong to, and, if you’re honest with yourself, at a total loss as to why you’re on this big rock.
It’s chaos at a spiritual level.
So, every kid tries to make some sense of the confusion and find some stability within the pandemonium. The result is the human ego—our loyal psychic defender, the protector of our heart, our inner bodyguard. And almost every human ego will use a shortcut to achieve the sense of order we so badly desire.
The shortcut is hierarchy.
The ego sees the world as a ladder, and it thinks the people on the higher rungs are somehow better. It categorizes people and then strives for membership in the loftier categories. It sees tiers and levels everywhere, and it sees all of life as a competition. The ego is young, naïve, and ambitious. It thinks growing up is about moving up.
As if there’s anywhere to really move up to.
In the process, people cease to be people, and they become something less—they become a marker for our own progress. Are we ahead of them, behind them, or neck-and-neck? Above, below, or fighting for ground on the same tier of existence?
And we become something less, too.
Sometimes, we become tongue-tied.
What the Soul Sees
So, I walk by her in the hallway, rendered speechless because my adolescent ego keeps taking over when I’m not looking. I get in my car and I head for home and I wonder: if my heart untied my tongue and spoke to her with it, what would it say? What would it say to all the people I knew in those days and may come to know again in this town? I listen for its whisper, and I hear it say this:
I’m sorry for the times I thought you were better than me, so I acted like I was better than you. I’m sorry I tried to survive my own internal anarchy by making order out of it with hierarchies. I’m sorry for the times I put you on a non-existent level above me and hid from you or competed with you. And I’m sorry for the times I put you on a non-existent level below me and acted like I had won a game that never really existed, either. I’m sorry my made-up games and imaginary ladders led me to treat you as anything less than an ordinary person, just like myself.
It’s good to see you again. It’s good to be a human being with you. No pressure to be more. No fear of being less. It’s good to know we’re on the same level because in this fleeting life and in this fractured world, there is only one level to be on. It’s good to know we probably share some of the joys and pains of parenting. It’s good to know we share some of the aches and pains of aging. It’s good to know we’re both a little closer to the end, so we have less and less time for our silly little games.
It’s good to know we don’t grow up, we grow equal; or, rather, we grow into the awareness we were equal all along. It’s good to know we both have an ego to contend with but a soul we can see with. And it’s good to see you again.
Actually, it’s good to truly see you for the first time.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.