January 2006 - Volume 10, Issue 6

A Letter To My Sister

By Margaret Olivieri

Photo of gold flowers

I was very depressed at your age. I feel like I have had two "conversions" in my life. (Slowly being brought to God, nothing sudden.) And the first was at your age. I have already told you how lonely I was. But the thing I found out about loneliness is that it opens you up to something greater than yourself. This is a great paradox because when you are lonely you feel like there is only you and no one else in the world who can relate to you. So you can go one of two ways: you can either close in on yourself and collapse (become VERY depressed) or you can open yourself to bigger things and therefore not become so centered in yourself. I was lucky because I read a book that truly spoke to my heart during one of these bouts of loneliness. Through it, I found that loneliness can be beautiful. Classical music also helped me, believe it or not. Beautiful things help. Somehow, in a way that I don't even quite understand now, loneliness helps to open us up to beauty and goodness and truth. And then you suddenly realize that you have wanted those things all along.

I think that being a teenager is one of the hardest things I have ever done. You are trapped: not a child, not an adult. You are changing. You are misunderstood. And all of this has a direct effect on a girl's relationship with her mother, once her closest ally. I often thought that my hormones were devouring me, and was convinced that the mood swings would eventually kill me. I was deeply sad and never knew why. I would suddenly get really depressed. Sound familiar? I felt like I was the only person in the world who was going through it, but it is funny now to look back and see that we all go through it (every woman that is). That fact doesn't make it any easier, however. It is funny because when I felt this sadness all wanted to do was be alone, retreat into myself. I remember secretly crying in my room on many occasions.

I don't think that all this is purely biological. I think there is more meaning in the pain that teenage girls suffer than we give credit for. We always try to explain things by science, but what about the meaning of it all? Where is the lesson to be learned? How can science explain God's plan for mankind? Scientific explanation can tell us what is happening on a very obvious level, but it remains a level that is an expression of some deeper process: our inner growth or our blossoming into who we were meant to be. I have never (not then or now) accepted the fact that what I was going through as a teenager was strictly biological. What happens is our entire person crosses over to womanhood during our teenage years. And being a whole person includes our body, mind, and soul. They are intrinsically connected they are me. It was an insult for someone to reason away what I was experiencing at the time with scientific explanations. The pain was mine. The suffering, mine: body, soul and spirit. Bodily pain is also spiritual pain because I am a whole person.

Therefore, I know the suffering of being a teenager is a physical pain, probably caused by hormones, but I also know it has a deeper meaning. I think the pain of being a teenager has something to do with Mary's suffering. Don't ask me to explain it. I had a revelation once when I was in high school during a "bout" of sadness. It suddenly occurred to me that, somehow, I was sharing in Mary's suffering. I can't fully explain it but I believe it to be true. We all suffer because of sin in the world, but women are chosen to suffer in a special way, a privileged way. Mary suffered with her son Jesus twice (during his birth and his death) and she never even sinned! It is no coincidence that both her major trials were connected with bringing new life into the world. We share in this suffering for the sins of mankind and ours is also connected to our ability to bring new life into the world, God's greatest and most honored gift. What I am trying to say is what you are going through is not pointless or meaningless.

My only advice is to accept it and confront it head-on. And try to find the meaning. Many teenagers try to numb their senses so they don't feel the pain by drinking, drugs, and just in general trying not to think or feel. There is a reason why some people never mature. The real and true way to "lose yourself' is to open yourself up in your sadness to bigger things: beautiful things, good things, truth and God. Take your pick, they are all connected. You have to go through it, everyone does, but the question is what will you learn from it? How will you deal with it? What will you take out of it? Being a teenager is about making a fundamental decision. And like all great decisions, it will shape the course of your life. Will you collapse in on yourself or will you take the chance open yourself up to something more?

Adolescence is fundamentally a question of moving our being into a new realm of life, and new life comes into being with suffering. The change comes naturally, instinctually to our bodies, but it still requires our consent. What we don't realize is that God gives us this choice. We can choose the beauty of new life and live out (in true freedom) what we were meant to be, or we can choose a spiritual-emotional death. The latter choice causes divisions within us, because while our body is maturing, our spirits remain undeveloped; our soul has not yet expanded to the eternal but has closed in on itself.

My favorite poem, by Sir Thomas Browne, helps to make sense of this:

If thou coulds't empty all thy self of self,
Like a shell to be disinhabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, "This is not dead,"
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity
That when He comes He says, "This is enow
Unto itself - 'twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me."

This was my favorite poem at your age, and still is now. I love you, Theresa and I pray that this helps you even just a little bit.