A Letter to My Present Self

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Dear Nate, 

Happy Veterans Day. 

It’s taken far too long to be able to tell yourself that.

To allow yourself to appreciate the sentiment. To give yourself permission to love yourself and to let others love you as well. Ever since you were a kid you felt guilty for being loved. You’d ask yourself….

“What did I ever do to earn it?” What about those that have nothing? No family, no food, no home, nothing? They need love, they deserve love. They’ve earned it, not you.” 

Even when you lay your head down at night and said your prayers, you wouldn’t pray for yourself, because God had already given you so much compared to the rest of the world. You’d look in the mirror and hate every single thing you saw. The ugliness within — the ugliness without. Not ever feeling empathy for that kid looking back at you, only shame. Hating him, berating him, beating him the hell up. You escaped into sports, escaped into the movies, the only things that made you feel something, the only things that could bring emotions out in you, the things that weren’t real life.

You told yourself….

“Nate, you do not deserve to win, you have not earned love. You are worthless. You’re no quitter though, so the only thing left for you to do now is be a hero to the rest of the world — a world worthy of love. Go save them, young man.” 

And that’s what you spent half your life trying to do. You tried to save the world all by yourself. Which was lonely, exhausting and impossible.

You tried to save the world all by yourself. Which was lonely, exhausting and impossible.

Welcome to the Special Forces. Welcome to Iraq and Afghanistan. Welcome to real life and death. Not the kind in movies.

The world “knows you” as Nate Boyer, the Green Beret who was inspired to serve from his time as a relief worker in the Darfur region of Sudan, in the midst of a genocide.

The 29-year-old walk-on at the University of Texas who taught himself how to play football while still on deployment. 

The 34-year-old rookie for the Seattle Seahawks, running out of the tunnel with the American flag, living the American dream.

The world “knows you” as the all-American success story, feeding your soul off the roar of a crowd or the chaos of a battle.

But every time you looked in the mirror, you still hated your reflection. Every step of the way, you felt like a fraud, a phony, a fake. From the outside, people looked at you and thought, What a guy, huh? Such a great human. But you didn’t feel human. You felt like a shell of a person, combat-ready, in full body armor — going through the motions — looking through people and not at them, refusing to really see them and never allowing them to really see you.

Deep down, no matter what you did, no matter what you accomplished, it was never enough. Even now, as you write this, you’re still battling those fears. 

Courtesy of Nate Boyer

For 39 years, you deprived yourself of all that you really wanted in life, the same things that every human being wants, what every human being needs

Love. Belonging. Self-acceptance.

To you, that was a hell of a lot more terrifying than the thought of dying in Iraq or Afghanistan. And every time you went overseas a little piece of you didn’t want to make it back, so you’d leave that piece behind, leaving an empty space. Becoming a man harder and harder to get near when you’d come back home. You believed that if you avoided close connections with people, there would be no way that you could ever hurt them. You unintentionally sought a complete and utter disconnection from anything real, including the people in your life who refused to quit on you. The harder they loved, the harder you fought it. In your mind, you were just protecting them. But you hurt them so much more by shutting them out, pushing them away. Once in a while, they would break through, especially the most persistent ones, the closest ones. They would see glimpses of the real you through the cracks in your armor. It gave them hope, kept them going long enough to still fight for you, even though you wouldn’t fight for yourself. They were the real heroes in your life, Nate. Always hurting much less for themselves and much more for you.

But I gotta give you credit. You can be incredibly strong. Stubborn and strong. So, when the armor wasn’t strong enough to protect you anymore, you created a monster. That monster was never you, but he became a big part of you, filling in those spaces from the pieces of you left behind overseas. Always lurking, waiting for you to let your guard down and allow just a little bit of love in. That’s when the monster would breathe his fire. Vicious. Combative. Negative. Insecure. Self-hating. Toxic. Ugly. Inhuman. Mean. Fire. You became so angry at the world. So angry at the world.

His voice in your head sounded something like this: “You cannot fix what is broken in this world and also be a good husband or father — it’s just too much work. You have not earned love and peace therefore you must run toward hate and war. Push everyone close to you away so that you can live this life of fighting for others. Alone.” 

The irony in all of this is that you spent your entire adult life on this quest. A “hero’s journey” to the ends of the earth, trying to slay dragons. But after all those thousands of miles, and all of those battles you fought, you’re now realizing that you didn’t have to travel a single step to face your deepest enemy.

You weren’t the dragonslayer, Nate. 

You were the dragon. 

That’s a lesson that many warriors learn the hard way, after a lot of searching and a lot of pain. For you, that journey took 39 years. And it’s not over.

And now, through a heartache and struggle that you can’t even begin to put into words, you’re finally starting to understand that your greatest achievement was simply being loved. Purely, intensely, selflessly, unconditionally loved. I’m sorry, but you just can’t fight love, brother. It’s the most powerful force in the universe. You’re now open to it, so surrender to it, embrace it. It’s crazy to think that you’re now prepared to give up everything you were for just one opportunity to let them really see you, while also searching for peace in the possibility that you may never get the chance to.

Courtesy of Nate Boyer

That’s probably a surprising message from a big, tough Green Beret on Veterans Day. But maybe it’s something that your country needs to hear right now. Or maybe it’s just something that Nate needs to hear right now. The universe works in mysterious ways, my friend. Don’t try to figure it out all at once. Just keep listening to it, exploring it. 

At this point (and forever) the most important person in your life to be honest with is yourself. And finally for the first time, you’re ready to do that.

And here comes the real honesty, bubba….

You are not the illusion that people see on the outside. You are not Captain America. You’re just a human being like everyone else — no better, no worse — full of demons, anger, guilt, shame, regret, just trying to understand themselves a little bit better every day. Trying to be better. You’re the same as the millions of other people out there reading this right now who are grappling with those same feelings in silence.

You are something even better than a comic book hero.

You are a person who is capable of love.

You are something even better than a comic book hero. You are a person who is capable of love.

And honestly, that’s an even better feeling than being Green Beret, or a Longhorn, or a Seahawk, or even a humanitarian. Those were incredible moments in your life. You should be damn proud of those moments and of your service. But those were just things you accomplished, things you did. They were fleeting rushes. They were the “big” things.

The secret to life is hidden in the small things. That’s what nobody tells you when you’re off trying to be a hero all the time. The secret to life is simple. Being human.

All your life, you ran toward danger because you felt like you didn’t deserve safety. Your biggest fear wasn’t getting shot, or not coming back home from Iraq or Afghanistan or Darfur. You felt like that might’ve been an easier and more deserving fate. 

Your biggest fear was not being at war, it was being at peace. 

Your biggest fear was being loved.

And that starts with loving yourself.

Elaine Thompson/AP IMages

One of the greatest days of your life was when you accepted that. It was also one of the hardest days.

Well, like others tried to teach you, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to do everything alone. In fact, you can’t. Love does not work like that, and life does not work like that. You can reach out your hand and ask for help. In fact, you should.

Of course, as in real life there are no fairy-tale endings here. Even now, as you settle into finally feeling and accepting love, you still gravitate toward beating yourself up about the mistakes you’ve made, the things you didn’t say, the little things you refused to do, the people you repeatedly hurt. I know it sounds confusing, but just let yourself feel confused for a while. Feel all of it. The regret, the sadness, the hollowness, the fear, the pain. Also the hope, the peace, the compassion, the courage, the love. The heaviness of love, the wholeness of it, the pain of it. Feel everything.

Just let yourself feel.

And cry. Let yourself cry, man. The thousand tears that fell while you wrote this letter are just the beginning. They aren’t even an ounce of what is to come, but they’re necessary. Let them happen.

I hope you believe that deep down you always loved those closest to you as much as they loved you. You just didn’t know how to access it, so you stowed it away in a hidden compartment just like you hid the people you loved the most. If that compartment or those people were ever exposed to the world then you’d be held accountable and that scared you, because you know how “all in” you are once you truly commit to something. So in a sense you quit before you even started. The same guy that everyone said “didn’t know how to quit.” Well, it’s time to un-quit. No more hiding, Nate. 

And please let go of control. Let. It. Go. Submit. Finally allow the universe to teach you a thing, or two, or 300 hundred million.

You do not have to save everyone. You couldn’t do it anyway if you tried. Life happened exactly as it was supposed to happen. It may not feel like it at all right now, but you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, amigo. It couldn’t have gone any other way.

Sometimes the only way we can learn is to lose what matters most to us.

Elaine Thompson/AP Images

But don’t think for a second that the life you’ve lived was completely in vain. You helped a lot of people, inspired a lot of people, did a lot of good for the world, too. And in the end, you don’t have to let go of that warrior spirit — you should keep fighting for people, especially fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves. But start with killing off the monster of your manufactured self. The one you spent half your life creating. You were always the first to tell people, “Follow your fears,” but the last to actually live by those words.

Sometimes the hardest thing for us to follow is our own advice.

It’s taken you 39 years, but you can finally say this and really mean it. Truly believe it: You’re a good person, Nate. You are. No, no, don’t gimme that “I’m trying to be” crap. You are. You can be a good dad, a good husband, a good man, while still doing a whole helluva lot of good for those less fortunate. And you are never alone. This is how you live on in their honor — those that didn’t come home and those that are lost right now. But don’t just live for them, love for them.

Happy Veterans Day.

Now go slay the dragon.

And P.S.

Never forget who saved you, and how.

They did it by simply sticking around and loving you, even when you didn’t want to be loved. They waited, and just kept on loving you, with patience and kindness. They’re the reason you’re still here. They’re your hero. It turns out that what ultimately saves us all in the end is in fact love, not war.