I was still 14 years old when I wrote the letter, but I sound older than that. How many ninth graders sit down and type a long and serious letter to an unknown future spouse?
The letter is an attempt to explain myself and where I came from to this future wife. It tried to explain how my confusing childhood had made me feel different from others — and I found myself assuming that the only sort of woman who could fit me was someone who could understand that.
“I figure you will have to be someone who has [been] hurt and been lonely just like me for you to understand,” I wrote.
Most of the letter is happier. It’s filled with joy at the prospect of finding someone who‘s enough like me — and shares enough values — for me to love. It describes in very clear terms what I want our marriage to be like.
I went though a box of unexplored things Tuesday night and found a number of interesting artifacts from the past, but two of them are on my mind tonight. One is this letter and the other is a handwritten application to a private school which asked what goals I had set for my adult life.
I was 15 years old when I filled out an application to attend Indian Springs School near Birmingham. It was the leading private school in Alabama and is still in the top two today, maybe still the best. I was accepted to the school — and was given quite a bit of scholarship money to help us afford it — but I decided on the day I was supposed to move there not to go.
When I filled out the application, though, I was trying to explain to them who I was and the sort of person I wanted to be. The photocopy I have is hard to read in places, but I can still read much of what I said I wanted to do as an adult.
Part of what I said has changed radically, because at the time, my real ambitions were for political success. I said that I wanted to go “as far as I can go” in politics, because my real ambition at the time was to become president. We’ve talked before about why that changed.
But I wanted something more than just success for the sake of success.
“While I wouldn’t pretend for one moment that money is meaningless to me, I can say that what I do in life will not be influenced greatly by it,” I wrote. “I very much want to have a happy home life when I am married and have children.”
I finished it with a section that could have been meaningless coming from some teens, but I know myself well enough to know how sincere these words were for me.
“Even though I do want success and happiness, just like any other person, I will never compromise my beliefs in any way,” I wrote. “I may be forced to compromise on an opinion, but I’ll never compromise on the question of right or wrong. This goal is above all else; it is the highest dream for me.”
In the letter to my future wife, I talked some about how my father had tried to turn my mother into “a junior version of himself” and how I didn’t want to do that to my own wife. It talks about my desire for us to able to communicate about everything and to work out ways to handle our inevitable differences in loving ways.
I also talked about how I wanted to marry the right woman or nobody at all.
“So many people seem to think that you are supposed to get married — just because you’re supposed to and not because you want to — and then just grit your teeth and pretend that you’re enjoying it,” I wrote. “If that’s what being married is all about, I’d just as soon stay the way I am.”
I had a very clear vision of what I didn’t want in a marriage. As I read this section, I’m a little dumbstruck, because it seems to describe many marriages that I’ve seen around me during my adult life. (This next sentence isn’t well-constructed, but I’ll forgive my 14-year-old self.)
“But I have this feeling that there is a lot more to it than going to work every day and coming home too tired to argue the latest conflict,” I wrote, “and then going to stupid parties and trying to pretend that you’re having a good time because everyone else says they’re having a lot of fun and then going home and arguing and taking it out on children and shouting at each other and on and on and on and on.”
As I read all this, I know that I’m more mature than I was then. I know that I’ve learned a lot and changed a lot. But I can’t help but be struck by the fact that I am still the same person on the inside. Even through the unpolished writing and the lack of life experience, I still see the same heart and the same idealism.
I still long for the things that idealistic teen longed for. He wanted someone to love — and to be loved by. He wanted to know he was doing the right things and that he was doing things that mattered. He wanted a mature and happy relationship with a woman who was committed to going against the grain of a dysfunctional culture.
That might be the most mind-blowing thing about this for me. I saw the culture around me — the culture of marriage and family — as being messed up and unhappy. I was very clear that I didn’t want that. I was very clear that I wanted something that was more difficult and more satisfying.
And as I look at all these things I said about myself — who I wanted to be and what I wanted my marriage to be like — I still think the same thing that I thought at the age of 14.
For someone to be willing to ditch the patterns given to her by the dysfunctional culture, this woman has to be “someone who has [been] hurt and been lonely just like me.”
I’m surprised that I had the insight to know that at 14, but I see it more clearly than ever now.
If you’ve lived a perfect life, you won’t understand me. If you haven’t experienced heartbreak and disappointment, you won’t understand me. If you haven’t seen the emptiness of what routine success and cultural compliance lead to, you probably don’t want what I want. And you probably don’t want what I am.
I’m glad the idealistic child inside me has survived. I just hope I can still find this wife he saw for himself all those many years ago.
I really like that young man. I hope he likes who I’ve become.