A three followed by a zero, and it’s time to think. Time for introspection, or the attempt at least.
Thirty years is the longest I’ve been doing anything. Right or wrong, consistently doing it. As I give myself a slightly out of breath congratulatory slap on the back, I realize that the years have been many, but the living maybe hasn’t been enough...
I got some trophies I value, people I am glad to have met, and some scars. Those scars are what I am proudest of. The trophies were at worst not earned but given, and at best are simply the culmination of repeatedly falling, cutting my knees, and standing back up. They are an outcome but don’t necessarily tell tales about the struggle or about the worth of it all. Relationships have been part of the motor to stand back up, but I can hardly claim any of them as mine; I was lucky to find, and lucky to keep. Scars though, those are the experiences lived. Evidence that bad in the advent of good tilts the balance positive. Evidence that bad things happen and that living through and past them is life. Physical scars give you good stories to tell. But emotional scars… those give color to your stories; they paint the walls of your perspective. Like most things, they start accumulating when we’re young.
I miss being a kid. Eating unhealthy amounts of pizza. Not worrying about my unhealthy eating habits while my parents probably did worry but were too tired to put much of a fight. Learning through play. Playing to avoid learning. What I miss the most though, is the genuineness of it all. Don’t like something? You say it. You scream it even. Like something? Again, screams, happy screams. Have a question? You ask, right away, unknowingly insulting someone in the process. Like someone? You play with them.
Kids know how to live. Because life is too precious and short to put up with some shit and to not enjoy other shit. We know that as kids, but then we become used to living, because we get a new day every morning, and the wonder of it all is lost in its abundance. We prefer to forget that it can end at any point. The alternative is too much of a burden to carry. Denial is comforting. We focus on the routine and miss the unique. For the magic to be real you must believe in it, but we grow up and Santa isn’t real and you can’t fly and you need to study at school and work a 9 to 5 and just like that your daily planner has no space left for magic.
Possibilities were infinite. Consequences were either unknown or irrelevant. You acted, then (sometimes) you thought. You asked for forgiveness instead of permission. You did not have an agenda, let alone a secret one. You were as transparent as glass and as strong as metal, or so you thought. What people saw is what they got. No room for much planning or plotting.
Back then, as a kid, dreams were dreamt and pacts were made. That life would be an adventure. That life would be fun. That I would grow up as fearless as I was then. But dreams fade with the alarm clock, and pacts were abandoned to make room for a paycheck. I brought that paycheck to the negotiation table with future-older-me. “Security! Financial security and its allies are the new deal. Forget adventures”, I said. Adult-me had realized that it wasn’t feasible to live life under terms dictated by a 10-year old. We needed to get things in order. That’s what adult-me tells me. But little-kid-me, in its T-Rex pajamas and head full of curly hair and wild ideas, knows better: Adult me rationalized that it wasn’t feasible to dream the big dreams and walk the grand walks. But, what if it is possible? "Not feasible" really meant that most other people were not doing it. Fear is not at the bottom of why most people aren’t doing it, but it is smeared all over the crime scene. Complacency and the abandonment of childhood dreams is life’s ultimate bank robbery, where we are all holding each other hostage, fearful. A robbery stealing life to gain conformity. Don’t be too different. Don’t stir the pot. Don't, don't.
Not for a second would I place all blame on others and remove it from myself though. Oh I will hold myself with eyes wide open against that mirror and cast the grandest of judgements. But it takes two to know one, so let’s start with number two: others.
Most of life’s injuries are emotional, and social, and only some are physical. It’s unfortunate that our suffering is often an internalization of what others think or do, but it’s true. You look at the stars, contemplate the vast universe and think “that’s fucking dumb”. But those social ties that lift and hurt are worth a penitence. Ask any inmate battling the demons in his mind in solitary confinement. While social ties keep us from falling, they too often keep us from flying. Correction: we let them. Like that story of the baby elephant tied to a stake, who could have pulled it with ease once an adult, but stopped trying when she was little; we too are born brave, capable and curious. We see the blue above and extend our arms to find winds below. Then you accidentally hit Ernest there, standing next to you, with your wing. "My bad, sir” you say as you lower your arms and hide those now ugly wings. We don’t fly not because we’re afraid to fall, but because we’re afraid to take off. What if I hit someone? What if they see me fail? The road to mediocrity is paved with what ifs.
We’re clever demons though. Yes we are. At least me. I dress up and disguise that fear of failing, of “what will they say”, of “what next?”, in a costume of responsibility. “I will limit enjoyment now so future me can enjoy some”. I tell those lies to myself, then I believe them. I say it’s better to be safe and work for the man to get that retirement he’s been promising me since before I was born. I don’t trust the man, never have, but at least that way I’ll have something and someone to blame if it all fails. Someone who isn’t me, of course. Ah, yes, comfort again. Time passes, as it likes to do, and night after night I turn off the lights, cover myself with those blankets made of excuses and go into a dreamless sleep. When I wake up in the middle of the night I quickly force myself back to sleep. Thirty years later I'm 60 (I did the math) and I wake up for good. Now I can retire and do what I dreamed of. And what was it I dreamed of? I can no longer find it. The magic, the mystery, those went with the night. So did the impetus and part of my health.
This is what I probably did with my life. I got out of college and found a job. A decent, but not great job. Stayed there until I could not take it anymore, then stayed for a while longer because it was comfortable. Just five more minutes, I said. Then I met someone my family approved of, got married, bought a house because from all the places in the world, I am certain I want to be here in this zip code forever. Then we had 1.5 children and put my bucket list on hold because I can always do that later. I love my kids, so of course I immersed myself completely in their lives. That’s what parents do, right?
Thirty or forty years later though, I’m ready! But just like I couldn’t find those dreams, I can’t even find myself anymore. A wise man with a long beard sees me confused sitting in my minivan and approaches. He says “Every time you gave up agency, every time you gave up what was yours to control, every time you gave up a dream, you gave more of yourself than was yours to give”. Apparently with the freedom of being an individual comes the responsibility of preserving that entity. That starts with building ourselves up enough, then learning where the line is between giving from ourselves and depleting our self. Because how can I put to good use the infinite possibilities packed inside my head and heart if there’s nothing there? No wonder I was looking for external fulfillment all this time. After thirty years of wasting myself, I damn the old man for not visiting with his lessons earlier and forget to thank him for coming in now. Then I ask the universe "can I get a redo?” and it doesn’t answer. It’s almost like it doesn’t care, so I convince myself that it is laughing at me. What would I do without my insecurities? I now condemn the universe for its indifference and go to bed.
That life and that ending, I don’t want it. I cannot be 90 years old and look the kid I made pacts with in his eyes, he wearing a Superman costume under his shirt, me wearing a tasteless color-neutral oversized shirt, and say “That’s it kid. We did it, and it was... ok”. We did what? Survive? Lived a sedated life? We know we have one life because of that YOLO thing that went viral (it’s beyond me how people knew before then), and we mistake one to mean the same for everyone. We get one, but if we live it right, one is enough. Forget the “right” part. If we live it, one is enough. Yet we don’t live it anywhere near its fullest potential nor we live it in our terms. At least I haven’t. Part of that is the fear of facing others. Part of it is the fear of facing me. Yet another part is that I was never taught how to live. I knew it as a kid, but then it got buried in layers of senseless papers brought to your desk by life’s bureaucracy. Yes we hear all those things about how to live your life fully in Hallmark cards and bumper stickers and inspirational videos, but then we look around and the message isn’t consistent with the world. Monkey see, monkey do.
Homo sapiens, turns out, aren’t that sapien after all. If we were, we would actively dedicate our lives to the constant adventure of learning how to live. Instead we sit in the classroom of life watching an old powerpoint hoping to passively absorb some of the material while we get distracted looking at the window and envying those birds who learned how to fly. Want to learn how to fly? Go build yourself some silly wings and throw yourself from the nest you’re comfortably awaiting food from. What? It didn’t work and you fell all the way down and injured yourself? Good. Lesson 1. Now go seek Lesson 2.
Unfortunately, we see more people living as the average people than those living as outliers. Mathematically, that checks out. Then we feel like we are doing just fine by staying in that average. Hey, at least you avoided the below-average life! No. I would argue that average is below average when it comes to living. Mathematically, that doesn’t check out. But screw math. Who invented it anyways? A mathematician probably, and if that’s not conflict of interests I don’t know what is.
Either that or math is the means by which god and the universe communicate with us. So do listen to math. But whatever you do, whoever you listen to, live life like the Sinatra guy said he did: “I did it my way”. If you do that, always in the understanding that you aren’t an island in a sea but a node in a network and that you don’t exist if not because someone or something else acknowledges that existence, then be at peace to live life your own damn way. Don’t disappoint that inner kid. Love it or hate it, you’re all he’s got.