What can we learn from the letters of a young man?
In the case of nine letters written by President Barack Obama to then-college sweetheart Alexandra McNear, quite a lot. The letters, set to be released by Emory University on Friday, are cerebral, precocious and extremely fluent. They foreshadow the man — and president — that Obama would become.
But they also reveal the struggles of a young man who must cope with feelings of isolation, identity, raging hormones and an undercurrent of both hope and melancholy. To McNear, Obama writes of feeling “sunk in that long corridor between old values, actions, modes of thought, and those that I seek, that I’m working towards.”
He writes of growing up and finding himself, and how very hard that journey is — especially when what he wants from life does not quite reconcile with where he has come from.
In a 1983 letter sent from Indonesia, where he is visiting his mother and sister, he writes, “I’m treated with a mixture of puzzlement, deference and scorn because I’m American, my money and my plane ticket back to the U.S. overriding my blackness. I see old dim roads, rickety homes winding back towards the fields, old routes of mine, routes I no longer have access to.”
But in addition to offering insight into the man Obama would become, these letters offer invaluable insight into the mind of any late adolescent — and the swirl of emotions and hormones within.
As adults, it’s easy to forget how confusing it is to be a young person, and young people aren’t always good at articulating those struggles. That’s especially the case today. And it’s not just because kids these days no longer write handwritten letters.
Though that fact is significant: Written letters between friends or family members are not just therapeutic; they are also instructive. When it comes to relationships with others and with ourselves, they’re a way to test out thoughts before committing to them.
What’s more, research has shown that the act of letter writing can come with benefits that include fostering a more positive outlook on life and an improvement of brain development and cognition — even more so if the letter is handwritten.
Whereas Obama spends several pages lamenting his incompatibility with McNear — “I think of you often, though I stay confused about my feelings… It seems we will ever want what we cannot have; that’s what binds us; that’s what keeps us apart” — today’s young man might simply stop responding to her texts.
Just as notable as the shift away from letters and toward texting culture is that kids these days have changed. Years of helicopter parenting have resulted in a generation that’s far less mature than the generation before it. According to research by generational psychologist Jean M. Twenge, today’s average 18-year-old has the maturity of a 15-year-old some 20 years ago. Reading these letters, it’s not hard to think that Obama at 21 might be this generation’s Obama at, say, 27.
And, of course, that we have these letters to read is a privilege getting rarer by the minute. People don’t save letters like these anymore, and that’s assuming they even took the time to write.
And while it’s illuminating for us to read a young Obama’s thoughts, it’s perhaps even more so for him. Personal history is something that’s easy to forget as life goes on, but establishing a relationship with our past can help us connect more effectively, and empathetically, to our present.
Looking back on our adolescence, a time when most people are extremely hard on themselves, helps us display some compassion for ourselves in the present. It’s one way to see clearly: Life was hard, but we got through it. And we can get through whatever is facing us now.