A Letter from my Future Self


Дорогая…ceбя? Меня? Я?[1] Ah, what does it matter, you don’t even speak Russian yet. Heck, it probably took you ten minutes to read that Cyrillic. Wow, I know you so well.

Or is it “I know me so well”?

What can I say; it’s difficult to think about the correct pronoun to use when addressing my past self, of all people, when the silvery frost seems to have crept into my brain cells as well as into every other nook and cranny of Mainz. The harsh continental winter is especially a shock to the system if two days ago, as I was, you were by the still relatively balmy waters of the Mediterranean. But that’s a globe-trotter’s life for you. And you did always call yourself a world citizen.

In any case, I can easily put up with the brutal coldness of December in Germany thanks to the sheer Malerhaftigkeit[2] of…well, everything. I am writing to you from a postcard-perfect situation: wrapped up in a skin-hugging bundle of fur and cotton, on a well-loved old chair surrounded by roaring heaters and flickering lamps, feeling warmth course through my gloved hands, my throat and my whole body as I raise the steaming cup to my lips and inhale its swirling, dark contents. The coffee is, of course, perfectly bitter. Outside the café, a Christmas market is in full swing, the air ringing with the sounds of ebullient song and tinkling laughter and general merriment. Large snowflakes drift lazily down to settle on the buildings framing the square, an eclectic mix of colourful little merchants’ houses, whimsical boutiques and cafés and Mainz Cathedral, itself an elegant hybrid of Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic features. This square might just be my favourite of its kind in the whole of Europe, simply by virtue of its unassuming, yet effortless beauty. Above all, this is a scene of quintessential European-ism; a European-ism which manifests itself in everything from the festivities to the architecture to the almost fastidiously brewed coffee. My Europhilia never waned.

On the table in front of me is a saucer, a fairy-size teaspoon, two cubes of brown sugar – not that I need them – and a rather worn-out edition of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften[3], a 1200-page paving slab of a book that I have just finished re-reading, in German rather than English this time. Consumed by my studies (which only lasted 4 years, since I grew too bored of universities to do a doctorate), my writing and eventually my career in natural language processing, I had promptly forgotten about all of the literature which shaped me during my formative teenage years. During the most recent phase of my life, the lingering nostalgia and the simultaneous yearning for the future which  characterised my teenage years have become a distant memory which I preferred not to recall.

After all, while going through one of those mollifying periods during which everything and its progress seems certain, the last thing one feels any compulsion to do is remember a time when Dasein[4] itself seemed like a thick, sticky concoction of unanswered questions. My early 20s, when I was doing my degrees and starting work and collecting experiences as one might collect stamps, were a time of my life when all I wanted to do was power through my work efficiently, approaching every task in my professional or personal life as if it were a linguistic corpus I had to analyse. This is how I moved cities, shifted between relationships, and gained and lost friends with the functional passivity of a jaded side character in a Bildungsroman. But revisiting those epochal works of my teenagehood has awoken something in me. Not the same passion and burning determination that existed during those years; I don’t think that will ever return. Rather, a desire to fittingly close that chapter of my life. Because I don’t think I ever did that properly.

Let’s start with you. You’re 15 years old. You just came to the end of one of the most influential summers of your life. Perhaps it wasn’t so visibly influential – to everyone else, you just spent 2 months in bed, reading about sociology – but internally, it plunged you into the depths of profound confusion. Throughout your childhood, while the other children would play with toys, you played with identities: rummaging around in the box and pulling out an identity which caught your eye, working yourself up into an enthralled frenzy over it, whiling away long summer days and lamplit winter evenings in its company. And then, gradually getting bored of it and discarding it and letting it blow away like a petal in the wind, to be forgotten and replaced.

When you were 12, you discovered ideology. It was just like an identity, just like a toy, but it slotted more neatly into the ‘intellectual’ adult life you wanted to create for yourself. Adults never stop playing with toys; they just rationalise them and disguise them so well that they appear as structured, as deliberate, as the black-and-white paradigm of the adult world, and your toys were no exception. You spent 2 and a half years with this particular ideology: 2 and a half years as a Marxist firebrand, channelling your rebellious instincts and your fervent, all-encompassing hatred of ‘oppression’ (a word with a surprisingly fluid meaning) into every aspect of your life and relishing the psychological, personal aspects of being a revolutionary at least as much as the actual socioeconomic theory.

And then you got bored. There was no epiphany, no revelation, not even a process of reasoning which precipitated your change; you just got bored, and the ideology began to dissolve into the background as you preoccupied yourself with branching out and preparing for your interdisciplinary future. This is where you are now: at a daunting crossroads, unsure of what to believe, to whom to look or how to find where you fit.

11 years on, I would not advise you to do the impossible and abandon the toys, abandon the trappings of childhood which no human being has ever truly left behind. But I would advise you to adopt adults’ toys, instead of teenage ones. You are already aware of the benefits, even joys, of pragmatic, scientific, forward-thinking thought, and by all means keep that awareness – but remake it. Rediscover how it feels to strive to contribute to society, instead of perpetually seeking its destruction. Think of classes not as inimical, but as complementary: the lungs, brain and heart of a thriving social organism which overcomes its problems together. Redefine ideology, push its limits, make it your own. You have no obligations. You are free, and much more so than you think.

The seemingly endless stretch of confusion will open up into a sea of clarity, of possibilities. Not possibilities of utopia or dialectical totality, and not possibilities of fame and glory and living a ‘special’ life, but possibilities nonetheless. Maybe you won’t spearhead a revolution or become known across the world, but you’ll still watch the sun rise and fall in love and laugh and cry and live. You’ll still pursue your passions and see the world and experience this dysfunctional, idiosyncratic, beautiful thing called existence. And what more could you possibly need?



[1] Dear…(my)self? Me? I?

[2] Picturesqueness

[3] The Man Without Qualities (R. Musil, 1932)

[4] Literally “being-there”; the Heideggerian term for “existence”