To fifth-grade, 11-year-old Laura,

Yes, I’m talking to you, the sweet girl who has her nose buried in books about coral reefs, who cries when her grandpa ate chicken hearts (those poor chickens!) and who recently did a school project on the Great Barrier Reef. I remember when you shuffled into the class that day fully decked in a swimsuit, fins, and a snorkel! You are a girl who loves marine biology so much that you got into a fight with your older brother while playing a game on your clunky family desktop computer called “Odell Down Under.” You LOVE that game, the one where you can choose to be a marine animal, from a sea cucumber to a great white shark, and swim around eating other reef creatures. 

Looking back at it now, it honestly wasn’t that exciting of a game. But it was so important to you that when you didn’t give up your turn, your older brother was so frustrated that he slammed your head into the metal corner of the desk, coming very close to crushing your eye. I still have the scar as an adult. That’s coming up in about a year or two. Consider yourself warned.

A new Pixar movie comes out in theatres when you’re in 9th grade called Finding Nemo. Nemo is a clownfish, and the film is set in the Great Barrier Reef. After watching this movie, you will immediately decide that it is your favourite movie. You won’t tell anyone this, though, because 9th grade is a little too old to have a Disney Pixar movie as your favourite. But trust me, it’s incredible. Clearly, your dream is to experience the Great Barrier Reef for yourself. You plan to study marine biology and research the coral reefs in the tropics. 

But as I sit here in real-time, living as an adult woman in a city and state hours away from oceans and reefs, I will try to explain what happened. Just be reassured that even though you didn’t end up as a marine biologist, I can honestly say that you ended up happier and more fulfilled than you’ve ever imagined.

How did we get so off track from our coral reef research goals? When the state school offers you a full-time scholarship, you will get paid to go to college. It was that good—and please, do NOT turn that offer down! But when your state university is in the land-locked state of Tennessee, your options to pursue marine biology are somewhat limited. There are always options to study abroad, right? Finally, a chance to go to Australia, the country on the other side of the world. Finally, a chance to see the majestic Great Barrier Reef in person!

Well, unfortunately for your wanderlust, there was one thing that happened that you didn’t quite expect, and that is that you fell in love and then got married when you were crazy young, too young, in fact. I’d advise you against that now, but I’m also happy to say it’s worked out great. Instead of Australia, you studied abroad in Costa Rica because it was closer and cheaper, and you could go for three months instead of six. It was a life-changing trip, but you were so naive and simple. I wish we could go back and do it all again, really soak up the experiences you’ll have. You will get to canoe through Tortuguero, snorkel in a Pacific reef, absorb the language and culture of a new place, and fully live a Costa Rican, pura vida life. 

But I can’t go back in time. So instead, here I am, in my mid-thirties with 13 years of marriage and two kids under my belt. I have learned a few lessons in all my years of living that I hope you can benefit from. So here is some advice, in no particular order: 

First, you are an emotional and intuitive soul. Don’t suppress that to try to be someone you’re not. These emotions are a gift, and by emoting, you can empathize with the struggles of those around you. Instead of letting your empathy turn into guilt (“I’m never doing enough! I’m not good enough!”), use these soft skills to help and reassure others. Society will make you feel guilty all on its own, and in fact, it’s a common marketing technique for businesses everywhere. 

It’s also essential for me to stress that we all get sad– it’s a natural part of being human. Some people burden others with these nasty emotions, externalizing them as anger, abuse, and violence. Others feel all that guilt, yet internalize it and punish themselves via self-sabotage in drugs, drinking, procrastination, disordered eating…pick your poison. You fall into that second group, those that burden themselves with guilt and shame. Both groups need therapy to get through the struggles of life. May I suggest starting meditation, therapy, and antidepressants a little earlier in life?

You’ll listen to your gut at the beginning of college and switch your major from engineering to ecology. After crying through the first two weeks of your first-year physics class, you will dig into your course catalogue and circle classes that interest you, like aquatic ecology and conservation biology! You’ll be so glad you made that change early in your college years. Despite being intensely emotional, you will still make a good scientist. Science and emotion often conflict, but it’s not just logic and reason that is important in the sciences. Even though you can’t spout off genus and species names like some walking encyclopedia, nor are you super detail-oriented, this will not make you a bad scientist. You excel in soft skills and can intuit what other people need. You will thrive in whatever you choose to do. Don’t be so hard on yourself, Miss Perfectionist. Your inner critic will run circles around your head, making you think you suck, which you don’t.

My second advice is to listen to your convictions by connecting to your spirit, body, and emotions. I know this sounds a bit woolly. But hear me out. You’ll fall in with an overly religious, very fundamental church in college. They’ll use emotional manipulation to love-bomb you into feelings of safety and security. You’ll hurt many well-intentioned people by being closed off and exclusive, all while thinking this was how to live a spiritual life. While it’s not ideal, it’s all part of the journey you’re meant to go through. I say this because they’ll tell you to distrust your intuition, instincts, and even yourself. It will curse you to constantly second guess everything. Your mental health will deteriorate during this time, which will be terribly confusing since this ideology/religion was supposed to be the answer to all these problems. 

If you feel angry, it’s okay to be angry, but please take the time necessary to figure out why you think that. Please don’t take it out on people who don’t deserve it. Understand that others might take out their anger on you, but it’s misplaced. You are a fighter. You will keep fighting for what’s right, sound, and authentic. Don’t let the world get you down. You’re doing good things, little Laura. Keep at it.

Third, it’s essential to know that getting infuriated and doubling down on your beliefs does not solve problems. It solves absolutely nothing by getting mad at people who hold different political opinions than you do. It’s so easy, I know. You’ll hear the right-wing talking heads spout off their controversial BS. You will feel infuriated at the lies they come up with (excuse me, “alternative facts”). But that’s just it– they want you to get mad. Not mad, furious. They want to rile you up. They want to divide our country and our world even further.

Instead: let’s point out the good where we see it. Don’t get thrown into the fray. Don’t double down on your most extreme thoughts, but instead find room, any opening for common ground. When people want to argue about climate change, take a deep breath and stay open to the discussion. When anti-vaxxers spew misinformation, remain calm and ask probing questions. Understand that we are all just doing the best we can with the information presented to us. Of course, we interpret information differently based on our backgrounds and histories. But still, I recommend limiting your time on social media. 

How do I explain social media to you in 1999? Hmm…

It’s like AOL Instant Messenger on steroids, and everyone can communicate anything at any time with a push of a button. Instantly the world can know what you think because we all have tiny computers in our pockets now. If it sounds scary, it’s because it is. You’ll soon see how this is just the system, the hands pulling us like a marionette to all stay fearful, hateful, divided. Don’t play that game.

The world is unfathomably messed up, but there is still good. The good comes from living your most authentic life: truthfully, wholeheartedly – when you are the most fulfilled, happiest version of you. There is beauty in watching your boys (you have children now!) laugh so freely, free of burdens. You can spread that joy, love, and sunshine around to others, too: your kids, husband, and the world need that. So let go of the guilt of never doing enough because you are. You are enough!

My next piece of advice is that it’s not up to you to save the entire planet. Let me emphasize: It is not up to JUST you! Since you love conservation, you’ll get your Master’s in Environmental Science and then teach at the local university for a few years. You’ll hold yourself to a higher standard than everyone around you. It makes sense because you care enough to think through each of your life decisions, ensuring no undue harm comes to our wildlife and planet. But this gets very challenging once kids enter the picture. Unfortunately, you’ll suffer extreme anxiety and postpartum depression, made worse because you’ll judge every action you take. Panic attacks over not using cloth diapers or buying excessive plastic will become prominent during this time, and I don’t want you to suffer like this.

Depression sucks. There will be days, weeks, even where you can’t get out of bed, and no amount of “just suck it up” pep talks will help. The motivation has to come from within you. But don’t worry: you’ll find it. Truth and beauty always prevail. Reducing our impact is not a journey meant to be taken alone. Good ol’ society will say, “You should be doing more! Eat vegan, bike everywhere, never shower for longer than 2 minutes or else…you are KILLING the planet single-handedly.” Yes, our individual actions do matter—but this is used as a very effective distraction technique for the problems that corporations and politicians can solve. The burden is placed on the individual, all while corporations shirk responsibility. We don’t need people who already care a LOT to do even more. We just need more people to care.

As I close this letter to you, my younger self, I think that maybe being a marine biologist wasn’t our true calling and mission. Perhaps it was, and if so, boy did I mess that! But I don’t think that’s the case. Despite this optimistic letter, I am sad to report that we haven’t yet been to the Great Barrier Reef, but I hope we get to go soon. I, as adult Laura, still really want to see the reefs before they are all dead. Yup, the reefs, actually, most of our ecosystems, are still suffering and highly vulnerable, and it’s coming to a crashing point. But we shouldn’t ever give up. I am glad to share with you that you have not one but many beautiful purposes in life. You will educate and bring awareness to conservation issues to help people; you will find more sources of income for wildlife conservation through authentic ecotourism, you will uphold ethics when others would just look at profit, and you’ll live out your passion for travel and experience voices and perspectives across the world. 

You are standing against the fold in a world that would say, ‘Give in, get angry, and let fear and guilt dominate’. Instead, you are doing the hard thing and constantly refining your thoughts, ignoring your inner (and outer) critics, and pursuing your values. These values and behaviours are more important than any career, salary, or “dream life.” 

To me, this is the dream life. I’m proud of you, and I’m proud of us. The world needs to hear your voice, so speak it loud and strong.

Love, 34-year-old Laura

Written by Laura @native_marsh

Illustrated by Daisy Buckle @naturalcuriositystudio