As part of Park Road's summer series focusing on our stories, church member Daniel Miles, shared this letter from his 38-year-old self to his 18-year-old self.
Daniel is Assistant Director of Spiritual Care at Carolinas Medical Center. He has a Masters of Divinity from Wake Forest University Divinity School and is both an APC Board Certified Chaplain and an ACPE Supervisor.
He is married to Sharon ("the red head from Erwin"). They just celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary. They have a 6 year old daughter who shares Daniel's birthday and is named after her Uncle Andrew.
Daniel's brother, Andrew, died in July 28, 1996, at age 15 of a brain stem tumor after a 10 month valiant fight.
Dear 18-year-old me,
Hi there. This is weird, I know, but this is a letter from your 38-year-old self, written twenty years in the future.
I have timed this letter to arrive to you on August 14, 1996, which is a Wednesday during your first full week of classes at the University of Tennessee. You have a roommate you’re still not sure you can trust, and suite mates you knew from high school that you’re glad to have. Flip your expectations, buddy. Let this be the first of many lessons not to judge before you have experience. That roommate, with his chains and piercings and Marilyn Manson CDs is one of the nicest people you’ll have the privilege of living with.
And your suite mates? Well, get used to being unable to sleep at night.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Why would I write to you from the future? I have some things I want to share with you, things I wish I could have known, and things I now still struggle to know. I also am writing to you because I know you’re lonely and afraid and hurt. I know that you feel like no one understands what you’re going through, because two weeks ago you were at your brother’s funeral. Now you’re on the largest college campus in Tennessee where you only know a handful of people who you feel are treating you like your grief is contagious. I know this the hardest time in your life so far, and I want to offer you some wisdom.
What lessons from twenty years of experience are essential for you to carry with you?
There’s lots I could tell you, but it all boils down to this: please, please honor your story. It’s the only way to heal grief and to find meaning and to make your life worth having. I know what your faith is doing right now: that it’s crumbling beneath your feet and giving way to something uncertain and unstable and unknown. I wish I could say that goes away, but it doesn’t. You will slowly become more comfortable with this, but in the meantime, the thing that will ground you is not the doctrine that the church taught you, but your stories.
You grew up in that little college suburb in Johnson City, TN and you had a happy, good life. You can see that a little more clearly now that you’ve moved away and experienced the sacrament of loss. You have wonderful parents who always loved you. You’re like both of them. You have your father’s determination, his love for music, his commitment to doing what is right. You also have his temper.
Remember in sixth grade when you kicked a hole in the wall because you got frustrated over something? Then Mom and Andrew came home and saw it? Andrew thought the cat did it. You didn’t realize the damage you’d done until Mom saw it, and you confessed, because it’s what was right. You didn’t get an allowance for months to make up for it. You got all that from Dad. You have your frustrations about Dad’s temper, but he never got violent or broke anything or threatened you, and you should be sure to learn from that.
From Mom you got compassion, sensitivity, and a deep need to connect with other people. On the surface, you maybe feel more like Mom, but that’s only because you’re feeling so many things so deeply right now. I know how sensitive you are. I hate to say it, but you’ve been in the process of walling that part of you off from the world. I get it; I remember how hard it was to be a boy in the South who isn’t athletic, stands a head taller than every other kid, and feels everything to the core. It’s terrible, and it made you a lightning rod for bullying, which you could not handle.
You’ve been numbing your sensitivity for years, and the grief you feel right now is perhaps the final short circuit. I wish you could hear me and let yourself just feel it all, but I know the shock is too great. You’ll feel it again soon. In the meantime, I want you to remember all the ways that Mom has given you the space to be who you are. There was that time in first grade when you and several classmates made stuffed dinosaurs out of butcher paper and cotton. Only one of you could take it home, and your name wasn’t drawn. You really wanted to hang that dinosaur in your room, but April Moseley got to take it home. You came home and you burst into tears in the foyer and Mom sat down in the floor and hugged you and didn’t say anything about how it was okay or you could make another one.
That moment will forever be your touchpoint for what it means to sit with someone who suffers, to climb into the ditch when someone who is bruised and bleeding, and to honor their pain by not offering cheap solutions.
And then there’s your brother, Andrew. He was like your polar opposite. Outgoing when you were shy, gregarious when you were moody, athletic and active when you were inside reading books. He had more friends in fifteen years than you have still had. He was also a tattle-tale with a sense of morality slightly skewed to favor his perspective, and he was rarely satisfied by himself.
Remember when he pitched a fit because Mom asked him to take the trash out and then, to spite all of us, he vomited all over the floor because it smelled bad? You have to admire him for committing to that one.
Last summer, when he started complaining about double vision, you had no idea. Why would you? You were just seventeen and everything was good and simple. You were in love with Sheila, your girlfriend, and you had your small but loyal circle of friends at church. You wouldn’t have said this out loud, but you breathed the air of assurance of one who just assumes life is going to work out, because you were living the life you knew God wanted. You judged your peers who had sex and drank alcohol.
You had the answers, you knew the way.
And then slowly doctors’ tests don’t turn up the answers that they should and all the other answers you thought you had start to seem a little slippery. And cracks began to form in the foundation of what you’d always called faith.
You’ve been in church your whole life. A good, middle-of-the-road, suburban Southern Baptist. You were one of those babies in the nursery, you got a little children’s Bible with your name on it from the pastor, you were in Royal Ambassadors and Sword Drill and you did puppet ministry even fifteen years after it was not really a thing anymore. You went on mission trips and washed cars for fundraisers and wore cheap t-shirts with Bible camp dates on the back and once a year you went to the flagpole at school with others just like you thinking that you were somehow being faithful to Christ by silently displaying your spiritual superiority.
If someone asked you, you would have said the Bible was literally true, although you honestly didn’t think about it much. Jesus was real to you in the same way Ronald Reagan was real to you: someone you believed was real because you’d seen and heard of him, but had no idea what he said or thought or did. You couldn’t articulate how anything Ronald Reagan had done had had any effect on your life beyond saying that he had been President and Presidents were to be respected.
Then came that grim, interminable weekend between the words “brain tumor” and “inoperable.”
This past year has been lonely for you, I know. Remember all those fights you used to have with Mom and Dad – well, Mom mostly – about your curfew? You just couldn’t get home from Sheila’s house on time. Standing out there on her porch, kissing goodnight for nearly an hour, knowing you were going to get it when you got home an hour late and not caring one bit. You were late so often that they rescinded any offers of grace, grounding you for every minute past curfew.
And then remember last fall, when Mom and Dad took Andrew to Duke for treatment and they left you at home alone? You stayed out nearly all night and no one cared. You would have loved it if it wasn’t the loneliest you’ve ever been.
Grief is a peculiarly self-centered experience.
I know you walked to class today and passed hundreds of people and thought to yourself that no one knows the pain you’ve been through. That’s kind of true. No one else has lost your brother Andrew. It’s also not true at all. Hard as this is for you to believe, there are people who have suffered more than you; people who have lost more and people who never had enough to lose.
You will come to realize this, but when the grief is yours, no one else’s experience matters. And it’s lonely. So I’m writing to you as the only person in the world who knows exactly what you’re experiencing to try and tell you that you are not alone. You will need to remember this when your depression claims you three years from now.
There is a lovely story in the Bible about Elijah fleeing to a cave and bemoaning that he is the only one faithful to Yahweh and everyone is out to destroy him. There are thunderstorms and earthquakes and flames fall from the sky, but Yahweh isn’t in any of those things. It is what the narrator calls a “still small voice” that says to Elijah, “What are you doing?” And Yahweh tells him to go and find someone who will anoint him because he is not alone. Daniel, there are going to be so many times when you will ask yourself, “What are you doing?”
I want you to always answer that question by finding someone.
Good news: you are in the process of making some very dear friends. Your years at college will be among the best of your life, in no small part because of the relationships you make. I know you’re seriously thinking about breaking up with Sheila. Do it, please, just rip that bandage off and move on. You will make such good friends in these coming weeks as you get more involved in the Baptist Student Union on campus. After this year, all of your college roommates will be friends you meet there.
Oh, and that redhead from Erwin you met last week? She’s going to be a roommate too.
You still think you’re going to major in Mass Communications and go into publishing, but that notion only has about two more weeks left in your brain. You’re going to follow a truth that your Mom told you during Andrew’s last week alive.
Remember, sitting outside on the front porch? You had a date with Sheila and she told you she thought it was best to stay home because Andrew didn’t have much time left. “Relationships are the only thing in this world that matter,” she said to you. You were angry that she was telling you that spending the day with Sheila would be a mistake you couldn’t get back. And you were ashamed because you knew she was right. So you stayed home with your family and you spent time with Andrew while you still could.
Relationships are the only currency in this world worth anything, Daniel. You will build a career out of this calling to be in authentic, healing relationships.
You haven’t heard of chaplaincy because, strangely, no chaplain ever came to see you when you were with Andrew in the hospital. It will be a little while before this occupation comes across your radar. You will go to seminary to pursue this occupation because you will think it is a perfect fit for you, that being a chaplain will come naturally and easily.
You’ve got a lot of growth you need to do, buddy. You’ve got a clinical depression in a few years that you will have to sort through. You’ll also have panic attacks and anxiety disorder in ten years. You’ve got lots of therapy to undergo so that you can rescue the feeling part of you that you buried. It’s okay, you buried it to survive, believe me, I understand. You built a solid wall of sarcasm and detachment to protect your emotions from other people. But the consequence is that it blocked you off from other people. It’s preventing you from earning that most precious of resources: relationships.
Hopefully, you’re asking yourself: what do I do, twenty-years-older version of me? How do I open up and build more authentic relationships with people? This brings me back to where I started.
Listen to other people’s stories and honor the ways they resonate with your own. You will be fortunate enough to live in the south of France, and when you do, you will discover that one of your coworkers is being beaten by her husband. Listen to her story. You are about to find out that your cousin is gay. When she comes out to you, listen to her story. You will meet so many people who are suffering or growing or learning and they all have a story to tell.
One of my favorite stories in the Bible – and I’ll tell you now, get used to thinking about them as stories and not facts – is the story of Jacob at the river Jabbok. You know, when he wrestles an angel? That’s probably how you remember it, except the text never calls it an angel. You would know that if you’d actually read the Bible for yourself, which, thankfully, you will start doing in a year alongside several notebooks where you document your thoughts on every single chapter over the course of three years. So when you get to Genesis 32, pay attention.
As you may remember, Jacob and his brother Esau didn’t get along so well. Jacob was kind of a jerk: he defrauded his brother and, with the help of his mother, deceived his father. The last time Jacob saw Esau before leaving home, Esau vowed to kill him.
Now, fast forward many years, Jacob is traveling with his large family and entourage and discovers that Esau is coming to meet him. So he camps out and does another lousy thing: he sends everyone else ahead of him. His wives, his children, his servants – he sends all of them ahead to face Esau and Esau’s army of 700 men, and Jacob stays behind.
Scripture says, “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Because you know how men just wrestle you alone in the night. We have no idea who this man is, but Jacob seems to have the upper hand. So, according to the scripture, the stranger “struck him on the hip socket.” You will learn when you go to seminary that the Hebrew authors were delicate in talking about the human anatomy, and so when they say “hip socket” they don’t actually mean hip socket. So the stranger has employed what is literally a dick move.
But Jacob still won’t let go. Betraying his belief that this stranger is some divine creature, he demands a blessing. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” he declares. What a weird thing to ask of a stranger who attacks you in the night and fights dirty. But the stranger offers Jacob a blessing by renaming him, a powerful act of declaration in the Hebrew tradition: “Your new name shall be called Israel” – which means “struggles with God.” Then the sun comes up, and the scripture tells us Jacob was “limping because of his ‘hip’”.
Daniel, I know you are wrestling every night. And it doesn’t stop. I know your fears, and your anger, and your insecurities, and your doubts, and those deep dark shameful places of pain jump you in the night and they do no play fair. They will hit you where it hurts every time.
I am telling you: do not let go until you get your blessing.
Every blessing you have comes with a wound, that’s just how it works. Your story has wounds in it, Daniel; trust me, they don’t go away. But hear me: your story has blessings. You will have wonderful relationships and a beautiful family and a lovely child (I’m not going to spoil it with a gender reveal, sorry). You will have a career that regularly puts you in a position to witness others in their most tender, vulnerable, and God-filled moments.
And you will be able to do all of this precisely because of your wounds.
See, the story of Jacob continues. In the next chapter, Jacob goes out to meet Esau. He lines up his family, putting his least valued people in the front, and his favorite in the back. Seems like another jerk move, except he goes out first in front of everyone. For once, Jacob steps out and takes responsibility. He goes out and bows down, ready to accept whatever Esau has for him. But Esau runs to meet him, embraces him, kisses him, and they weep.
I tend to believe that seeing his brother approaching with a limp may have softened old Esau up a little bit. Our wounds will connect us to others; that’s the ultimate blessing.
A few weeks before Andrew died, Mom told you a story.
She told you about a trip early in Andrew’s treatment when she and Dad drove him across North Carolina to Duke for his weekly radiation treatments. He had a bag of Jelly Belly jelly beans he had gotten from a candy store in the mall; only his favorite flavors. You remember – we would eat on those jelly beans for days. When they finally arrived at the Ronald McDonald House, Mom told Andrew to stay put until they could help him out because the tumor affected his balance.
Of course, Andrew didn’t listen, because what 15-year-old wants to be helped out of a car? So he tried to get out on his own and he fell out onto the concrete. He was holding his bag of jelly beans, and it fell and spilled all over the parking lot. Now, Dad had done all the driving, and he was not in a patient or understanding mood. He snapped at Andrew for not listening while Mom helped him up. Mom, ever the peacekeeper, told Dad to get a load of bags and meet her in their room while she got Andrew settled.
Of course Andrew was upset for falling, for spilling his jelly beans, for losing control over his own body. Mom took him to the room and checked him in, waiting for Dad to arrive with the first load of luggage. But he didn’t. So Mom went out to the car to check. There in the parking lot she found Dad on his hands and knees picking jelly beans up off the ground, dusting them off, and putting them back in the bag.
This is what we are called to do: to collect the scattered pieces of others’ stories and hold them together. It’s the only healing available in this life and it’s the only healing that matters.
I love you, Daniel. I love you even more than you do because I’ve had the benefit of wrestling longer than you have. Do not let go of your story, Daniel. It will bless you and it will be a blessing to others. Relationships are the only thing in this world that matter, and the only way we can build relationships is to share and hold one another’s stories.
Love your story, Daniel. It’s the most precious thing you have.
Yours in love from the future,
PS: Do not get your hopes up about Star Wars Episode 1. There is an Episode 7 coming, and it is amazeballs.