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PAPER GIRLS and the Nightmare of Facing Your Younger Self

Sometimes a line of dialogue feels like it exists solely for you. Only it exists solely to punch you in the face. In that moment it’s as if a writer you’ve never met somehow took a piece of your soul—a part you try to ignore—and put it on display for the whole world. That’s how I felt watching Paper Girls when adult Erin told her 12-year-old self, “I don’t even remember what I wanted to be when I was your age.” Because getting lost in time and dinosaurs don’t scare me. But what does scare me is the thought of having to admit I lost hold of my dreams to the person I fear I disappointed most in life: my younger self.

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Paper Girls first season made each of its young heroes see futures they never could have imagined for themselves. That wasn’t a bad thing for all of them, just like not everyone would fear meeting their pre-teen counterpart. KJ learned she will grow up and “figure” things out. She’ll eventually accept she’s gay and find who and what makes her happy sitting in a dark movie theater next to the woman she loves. For a kid growing up in 1988 (or, unfortunately, 2022) that’s probably still terrifying for lots of reasons. But after the initial shock KJ realized living as the person you are, rather than who someone wants you to be, is a life to look forward to. And getting to tell younger you (even just by example) things will be okay sounds just as beautiful.

Things seemingly didn’t go as well for Tiffany when she met her adult self. Unlike KJ, who passed on business school, Tiffany learned she got everything she dreamed of: class valedictorian and MIT student. Only, once she achieved her childhood goals she realized they didn’t live up to her expectations. They didn’t make her happy or fulfilled. The place she longed for made her feel like she never belonged. Just as the person she trusted most made her distrust everything and everyone. The world turned out to be a very different place than what she had thought it was.

But while her future disappointed young Tiff, it was still a hopeful glimpse of what’s to come. The adolescent version can’t appreciate or understand it now, but “what ifs” will never haunt her. Tiffany achieved her goals, then wisely walked away when they didn’t give her what she really wanted. She wasn’t beholden to broken old dreams. Instead she’s living the life she wants and pursuing the new goals she believes in. Even if she can’t explain why to her younger self why that’s better than an MIT degree, she has no regrets. She’s content with her choices and where she ended up. How many diplomas would any of us trade for a life like that?

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Erin didn’t get any of that, though. The girl with big dreams of becoming a US Senator with a big family found she grew up to have none of that. Worse, she lost what she had. Older Erin has no one in her life, not even her sister. And those grand career ambitions never came close to materializing. She gets up everyday and goes to her job as a paralegal, a profession once unthinkable to herself. Then she returns home to an empty house where she recites mantras in the mirror so she can persevere for another unhappy day.

No one at the age of 12 imagines a future like that. No kid, even ones who dream small and fear what awaits them, thinks, “I’m going to fail at everything I set out to do.” But our dreams don’t always determine our paths in life. Many of us fall short or stop pursuing what we once wanted. Others take detours to unexpected places. And some, for a million different reasons, never even took a step on the road they wanted to travel. And then there are those who forget where they wanted to go in the first place. I know because that’s what happened to me.

Like older Erin I don’t remember what I wanted to be. Whatever ambitions I had as a youngster are nothing more than hazy shadows without form or memory. Somewhere along the way I simply lost track of my goals. “Life happened,” and it didn’t always go the way I wanted. Nor did I become the person I expected to be.

Did I want to be a journalist? A lawyer so I could then be a politician? Maybe I wanted to be a doctor at one time? Or was I was going to write famous plays and movies instead? Whatever the specific goal, all I remember is “knowing” I’d be really successful and make a lot of money. Neither of those things happened. I know because I’m not writing this from my summer home. And you likely don’t even know my name even though you’re reading this sentence I wrote.

It’s not easy admitting any of that. “I think I’m such a failure that I don’t even know what I failed to do.” My worst enemies couldn’t say worse than that. No surprise Erin’s experiences on Paper Girls hit me like a tank. I don’t want to think about the dreams I’ve forgotten. I’m (clearly) hard enough on myself without making self-criticisms even more specific. Whatever the young me wanted from the future is long gone and I’d prefer it to stay that way. So yeah, the thought of my younger self reminding me of those dreams is a literal nightmare.

What’s even scarier than that, though, is the idea of young me asking, “What went wrong?” Forget not achieving my dreams, how could I explain how I forget about them entirely? How could I justify decades of decisions and choices to a younger, dumber, more hopeful, more naïve version of myself? I was so optimistic back then, and I was so d*mn sure of what awaited me. It would crush that kid to see what didn’t happen to us.

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It’s easier to simply not think about any of that. However, I’m not exactly good at that ignoring those feelings of failure, as if you didn’t notice. That’s why it was impossible to ignore them while watching Paper Girls, because I’ve said that exact line to myself countless time. But if a writer I’ve never met wrote it, I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. And seeing someone else go through that made me realize something that seems so obvious now. I would tell a stranger who feels that way that they are being unfair to themselves. Life is complicated! And it’s hard! Sometimes it’s so hard it seems unbearable, and getting up and facing another day is an achievement unto itself.

I’d also tell that person that who we are, and who we become, rarely line up with who we wanted to be. Especially since the universe so rarely cooperates with our plans. In fact, sometimes it actively works against them. There are moments we can’t control and we aren’t responsible for that fundamentally shape us. Combined with our own personal failings, they assure none of us grow up without changing. Sometimes that’s “good,” sometimes that’s “bad,” but most often it just “is.”

What’s important is remembering it’s okay if you didn’t achieve all your childhood dreams. Most people never do. You can forgive yourself for not having everything figured out before you hit puberty. And you shouldn’t hold your happiness hostage to the whims of a child, either. The world need paralegals more than it need senators, anyway.

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Besides, no matter how much I might feel like I’ve let my younger self down during my worst moments, I’ve done things that dumb kid never could have imagined. I’m not rich and famous, but I wouldn’t trade my life for any bank account. For one, I’m getting paid to write about a TV show right now and that will never not be cool to me. Even young me would be impressed that we’re a professional writer. Far more important, though, (with apologies to my editors) is my life outside of work. Somehow I married my favorite person in the world, a woman who sees in me all the things I don’t. She loves me and sees in me all the things 12-year-old Michael hoped was inside him while he was busy making grand plans.

And while young Mike, dealing with his parents recent divorce wasn’t sure he’d ever get married, he definitely would never have imagined he’d become a dad. One thing I do remember is how that kid didn’t want kids of his own. However, he’d have to find out himself why that’s the best plan he ever abandoned. I wouldn’t even attempt to explain to younger Mike why his son’s laugh is better than any level of acclaim he ever hoped to attain. It’s a sound that wipes away regret and fills the holes life has poked in his heart. Even if I could explain all of that to him I’d rather he just experience it for himself.

There are some things I would tell him, though. Things he wouldn’t come to appreciate both for a long time and yet all too soon. I’d tell him whatever goals he has are not as important as the people he shares them with. But I’d also let him know someday he’ll lose some of those people, so enjoy every moment you get with them. I think he’d also like to know that, unlike childhood ambitions, he’ll never forget those he loved. The most special people in your life stay with you even when they’re gone.

And before I sent him back I’d remind him that even a life full of regret and disappointment is better than what Mac was promised – no future at all. Because, like older Erin, so long as you’re around you can have new dreams. You can move past old mistakes and prove to yourself that all those things you never did don’t have to define who you are. You can be nobody today but a hero tomorrow. And you can realize you’re so much more than you think. Your failures don’t have to stop you from being who you want to be today or tomorrow.

So yeah, that line hit me in the stomach and it hurt. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it reminded me I know things 12-year-old me never could have. And I definitely have something he couldn’t – perspective. That’s how I know getting the wind knocked out of you makes you appreciate your next breath even more. And I know some of the best dreams that come true are the ones you never had. So my younger self can keep his, for his sake and for mine. His dreams helped him get to a place I wouldn’t swap for anything.

But all the same, I hope no one ever invents time travel like on Paper Girls. The thought of facing young Mike still terrifies me. It’s a lot easier having this conversation with myself than it would be having it with him. I’m a lot smarter than he ever was. And I remember that kid foolishly thought he had everything figured out. But someday he’ll realize why it’s okay he didn’t.

Editor’s Note: Nerdist is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks

Mikey Walsh (who never thought he’d be known as a “Mikey”) is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. (A sentence 12-year-old him would not even remotely understand.) And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings. (Again, young me wouldn’t have a clue what that means. But if you do travel back in time, warn him about the last two seasons of Game of Thrones. It can’t hurt to know somethings about the future.)

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