A Love Letter to Myself: Wisdom from a Younger Me

I was going through my stack of old documents this morning, looking for tax forms, when I stumbled upon a letter I wrote to myself three and a half years ago on New Years Day. It’s a love letter. I had forgotten about it entirely, but as I looked at the card, I remembered vividly finding it at the bookstore and wondering who to give it to and finally admitting that I wanted to give it to myself. I felt foolish and debated the merit of spending money on the card, and I felt embarrassed and self-absorbed when writing it. In fact, I confess that I feel those things ten-fold sharing it here with the world. But here’s the thing: it’s not a crime to love yourself; it’s a necessity. And when I stumbled on this letter this morning, it turned out to be something I really needed to hear.

I think a fair amount about words I would like to write to my younger self. But I’m so grateful to realize that my younger self had wisdom to share with the woman I have become. Three and a half years may not seem like a long time, but myself and my life have changed immeasurably since then. With all of that growth, I have continued to struggle with the idea of loving all that I am. We live in a society that manages to encourage selfishness without encouraging self-worth.

One night this summer at an end-of-day staff meeting, I asked my staff to name one thing they are proud of about themselves. It was an exceptionally difficult conversation for all of us because we are so used to self-deprecating and shirking compliments. It shouldn’t be that way. So I share this letter with you now for two reasons:

1) I’m proud of that 23 year old me for daring to write these words and this is me loving her like she asked.
2) We need to create a world that encourages self-love and that can only happen when we do it and admit to doing it so that others know that it’s okay. We don’t write enough love letters to ourselves. If you’ve never done it – both 23 year-old me and 27 year-old me recommend it.

So here it is:

The quote on the front of the card reads:

“Go for long walks, indulge in hot baths. Question your assumptions, be kind to yourself, live for the moment, loosen up, scream, curse the world, count your blessings, just let go, just be.” – Carol Shields

The letter inside:

January 1, 2010

Dear Layton,

First things first: you are definitely worth the $2.55 it cost to buy this card – and don’t even tell yourself different.
So… it’s the beginning of a new year—a new decade—and the perfect opportunity for a new start with yourself. You are 23—you are a successful, healthy adult and it is time to let go of all of the self doubt, self-loathing, and guilt that you allow to drag you down. Love yourself. Forgive yourself. Be yourself. People love you in spite of and in light of the things you criticize in yourself. As I write this, there is someone falling for all of those things that you’re afraid make you so unlovable. Let him. Accept and love who you are so you can let him in. Allow youself to change through growth and opportunity rather than self-restriction.

Here’s the truth:

You are an awkward, short-tempered, obsessive worrywart with a tendency toward self-destruction. And you are also an intelligent, honest, aware person with an enormous heart, a talent for writing and communicating, a passion for other people and a deep, unconquerable love for everything about life and the world around you. All of these things—good and bad—make you wonderfully human. Make you Layton Williams. You are a light in this beautiful world and you shine brightest when you lovingly allow yourself to be the person you are intended to be.

So be you. And be happy and let the joy within yourself brighten the world around you. And let yourself make mistakes and let them go. It’s okay. I forgive you and I love you… and I will never not love you again. You are beautiful, you are worth it, and you are good (even when you tell yourself you’re not).

Love always,


PS. stop apologizing, ok? ☺

Why Quiet Tolerance Isn’t Enough: The Danger of Anti-LGBTQ Bullying in Youth and the Church’s Response

* First, I must mention the compelling recent essay by John Russell Stanger about the silence around LGBTQ youth in the church–my rumination on which ultimately inspired this post.

Her name is Hannah, and she is thirteen years old. What she knows about “being gay” is what she’s seen on TV and that part of town her parents grumble about when they go into the city. She doesn’t know if she’s gay. “How do you know for sure?” she wonders. But it doesn’t matter because everyone else at school seems to know for her.

She wakes up in the morning from a dream that terrifies her because it’s about a girl. She counts the steps it takes to walk from her mother’s car to the doors at school, and every step is resistance against the urge to run away. 72.

She’s barely inside the door when it starts, just like she knew it would–just like every day. The whispers, the laughter, the looks. They call her “dyke” and “faggot” as if they’re pronouns—sometimes behind her back, but often to her face. The bathrooms are the worst—no cameras and no teachers. She doesn’t even know what started it, but by now it feels like it’s always been this way.

After school she goes to youth group with her best friend. Things have been weird since someone accused them of being a couple last week, and she wants to make it better. When another kid in the youth group tells his friend that she’s a “dyke from school,” the youth pastor glares at him and says, “We don’t talk like that here.” Hannah can’t tell if it’s more of a warning for the boy or for her.

When her mother asks what’s wrong, the words curdle inside of her. How can she talk about any of this with her mother, who’s never even said the word “sex” in front of her? She wonders if her mother would cry if she came out. Or disown her. She resolves to never find out.

That night she cries instead of sleeping and drags her fingernails deep across the skin of her arm to distract herself from her thoughts. It hurts, but she’s pretty sure her body deserves it. She counts the days until she turns eighteen and wonders if she’ll make it till then. 1,615.

Imagine that Hannah is a teenager you know. And then consider that—statistically speaking—she probably is.

Countless youth face intense, chronic bullying every day. At their heartbreaking worst, these realities far too often lead to suicide and violence. This child-on-child abuse is disturbingly problematic in all of its forms, but there is particular danger in the abusive bullying rooted in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and harassment.

In 2012, the Human Rights Campaign released a comprehensive study of 10,000 American LGBT youth. It revealed that more than twice as many LGBT youth reported being verbally or physically harassed at school than their straight peers. 1/3 of those surveyed disagreed with the statement, “there is at least one adult I can speak to about my problems.” The Trevor Project reports that LGB youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, with a quarter of all transgender teens having made an attempt. Moreover, “each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.”

We cannot stand silent in the face of such a reality.

The pervasive shaming and stigma around sex and sexuality in our culture make the prospect of reaching out to adults about anti-LGBTQ bullying an added trauma to the abuse itself. The more intense the nature of such bullying, the more humiliating the idea of reaching out becomes. These youth are more likely to withdraw and repress, which—when it doesn’t lead to overtly self-harming behavior—certainly leads to lasting issues around self worth, identity, and trust.

It is not enough to pick up the pieces after a teen has been shattered. It is not enough to focus on the bullying itself. We must recognize that for LGBTQ young people, our whole society is a bully. Our culture is abusive when it teaches its children to feel ashamed of their own bodies and their own physical desires. We cannot be surprised when they don’t talk if we are teaching them that what they’re struggling with isn’t allowed to be talked about.

We need to build a culture where sex doesn’t mean shame or disgust and where thoughtful, mutual intimacy between people is celebrated. We need to create a society where being LGBTQ is a named and accepted reality and not an insult or a death sentence.

The Church can and must be a major force in this healing work. Nearly 6 in 10 LGBT youth say that the places of worship in their community are not accepting of them (HRC). Historically the church has played a major role in perpetuating oppressive social perspectives on sex generally and particularly non-heterosexuality. But our gospel imperative is to proclaim the God who loves—completely and without qualification—all of God’s children. If the Christian faith is about the sacredness of relationship, then tell me: what space is more appropriate for the celebration of joyful intimacy in its many forms than the church itself? If there are children in our pews or walking past our doors that still wonder if God loves them if they are gay or bi or trans, who wonder if the love and attraction they feel is evil, then we have work to do.

And this is important: We cannot accomplish that work by being quietly tolerant. Youth can only hear the voices that are speaking, and if we are not speaking then we are complicit in the status quo that tramples them and blinds them to the gift of their own life. If we want to liberate them from the shame that they’ve been forced to feel, then we must be unashamed in claiming them. We cannot be afraid to talk about sex and homosexuality because then we teach our children—the bullied and the bullies—that there is something to be afraid of. We cannot worry that it is inappropriate because what they hear is that they are inappropriate. Our silence tells them that they should be silent.

We must name and claim them and seek them out because God seeks them out. We must speak to their experiences because God speaks to their experiences. Not just every once in awhile either, because they are not just LGBTQ every once in awhile. We need to check our hetero-normative assumptions because they tell our young people that there is a certain way to be “normal.” And we need to do this, not just for our LGBTQ youth, but for all of our youth because if it is our job to teach them to reflect the love of God, then we must start by teaching them that love is diverse. That is its beauty. And ours.

We cannot stand silent. Our silence speaks, and we have better things to say.

“What Makes One Life Worth More Than Another?”

About two and a half years ago, I sat in a private meeting room along with about a dozen fellow educators working at the two middle school sites of Citizen Schools located in Austin. We were meeting with the Texas Executive Director who had informed us that morning that all last ditch efforts to sustain funding and keep our programs functioning had failed. The budget was cut and funds were being diverted elsewhere to other schools that had been determined to have greater need. My school was located in South Austin in a neighborhood made up primarily of low-income Latino immigrant families. We had the highest volume of recorded gang affiliation of any middle school in the city. As my mind cycled relentlessly through the bleak prospects remaining to my students for how they would spend their non-school hours, I felt a question burning within me.

“What makes these other kids worth more than ours?” I asked our Executive Director. We were both crying.

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, I walked past the Philadelphia municipal building, outside of which a number of signs and candles had been left to demonstrate the anger, sadness, and outrage felt in the wake of the verdict. One sign struck me in particular: it asked, “What is the value of a black body?”

It was especially striking because just days earlier I had seen an article that reported that black babies were cheaper to adopt than white babies. Statistical, monetary data suggesting that as a society, we value some lives—particularly white lives–more than others.

Again, I found myself asking, “What makes one life worth more than another?”

Days later, a well-intentioned citizen fretted at length over the wellbeing of the suburban youth sleeping in the un-air-conditioned Sunday school room at the church where I help run a summer youth mission program. “Think of the poor children.” She said. And I did.

I thought about the thousands of children, and women, and men in our city who would go to sleep that night on burning cement in the deadly heat, and I wondered what made the temporary discomfort of our mission groups more deserving of urgency and anguish. I wondered how we can weep over celebrities who die young, but sleep easy in a world where nameless teens are lost to violence, addiction, hunger, and suicide every single day. I wondered why a crime against a pretty, young, affluent, white woman like me would make headline news, but daily murders of women and men of color, or people living in poverty, often merit no mention at all.

“What makes one life worth more than another?”

I’ve been asking this question all summer, and even, I suppose, for years. But it occurs to me now that these are the wrong questions. We already know the answers.

What is the value of a black body? A Latino body? A queer body? A female body? A hungry, shelterless body? How much are they each worth?

Too much. Too much to settle, even one more day, for a world that compels us to ask:

“What makes one life worth more than another?”

We know that answer too: Nothing. Nothing at all.

There are better questions. Like:

Why do we accept a world that offers us arbitrary indices of human worth, when we know that it is a lie with inconceivable cost?

How can we ever expect the scales of justice in this world to find their balance, until we rub the scales from our eyes, and reckon with the imbalanced scales in our own hearts?

And what are we—you and I—going to do to tip the scales toward balance and justice and truth today?

Finally a question for which there is no “too much.”