Last year about this time I gave myself a “halftime” grade on life through the lens of a sports journalist: offense, defense and special teams. Well, now I’m going to review my midlife point from a different angle. Now that I’m on the downhill slope of life – assuming I don’t get a fatal disease or run over by a truck, I have less than half my life to go by all statistical estimations – I feel I can pass on my vast wisdom (which I do in this column every month, you’re welcome) on what I’ve learned so far. Which is not much. One of my dad’s favorite jokes at birthday time is to say – for example, I just turned 39 – that I’ve started my 40th year. For whatever reason he gets a kick out of it, and while true, it is a sobering reminder that I’m not getting any younger. One of these days (hopefully not terribly soon) I’ll be starting my last year. Shiver.
I work with college-aged kids these days and I’m often befuddled by their apathy, laziness, lack of clear direction, aloofness and general bummish behavior. Then I remember that I was exactly like those I find most loathing. Essentially, I’m getting my just desserts. Then I look at those that have a clear path to victory; those who are making the most of their time and making me feel as if I’m doing something to help them. They don’t remind me of any previous version of myself. Then I reflect on my college professors from undergrad and think how they must have hated me. Not that I was a distraction per se, but more that I was largely worthless and didn’t try to add to the conversation, and certainly didn’t try to take anything away. I was an anemic student. I was lifeless in the classroom. I wholeheartedly embraced the “C’s get degrees” philosophy, and while later on in college I did a little better than that, the ethos still applied. Now when I think about that period of time I just shake my head. I could have done so much better and got so much more out of the classroom with just a little effort and attention. But hey, I did alright outside of the classroom. I was more in it for the fun then, right or wrong, but at least I did that well. One of my crowning achievements my last semester on campus was that I went out to the bars every night (literally) for the last two months of the semester. I had a leather liver back then. These days two hours in a bar once a week is about all I can stomach. Those days of 15 Busch Lights a night are long gone. Probably for the better…
Sometimes I wonder why everyone is so worried about what they are doing through the lens of others’ expectations. It makes life so much harder. I know I couldn’t be happy working as a barista or a pump jockey at a gas station my whole life, but that doesn’t make those that do that for a living any lesser for doing so, does it? I’ve had a ton of jobs in my life, most of them didn’t measure up to what I wanted – and to be fair, I probably didn’t measure up to what the bosses wanted in a number of them either… We spend our whole lives defining ourselves through work when in the grand scheme of things that is the last thing you should measure yourself by. Now, if you find something that is truly rewarding, then you’re one of the lucky ones. I’d say from the time I graduated from my undergraduate program (roughly 23) until about the time I applied for my second stint in graduate school (roughly 33), I wandered aimlessly and was less than impressed with this thing called life. That was in large part due to the jobs I held. I still managed to have a good time socially, but the job was always limiting in some capacity. I never felt as if I worked up to my potential but I also felt I never really got a great opportunity either. Of course, I never created one for myself either…
So suffice it to say that graduate school round two and what was to come held a lot more promise in terms of my self-definition through work. However, I (well, we all do) measure ourselves through multiple lenses, so my own self-critique still goes on even if I feel fulfilled in one area (it should be noted that now within my career I know I am being evaluated on many standards, and while I care now, it makes it no less easier), there are others to attend to… I try not to look into other people’s lives because that is the surefire way to feel like you haven’t done all that you should. But sometimes it is just hard to wonder how someone else got it so right for so long and others didn’t (me). And when I’m able to suppress those successes of others (which, let’s be honest, I’m too vain to care about what others’ have done for too long anyhow…) and look to the future, I’m reminded that I’m on the short end of the stick. If I’m still measuring anything, it should be days left, not notches carved.
So do I make a plan for the future to make sure I seize the day on what is left? I’m a dreamer by nature and steeped in wanderlust so I have fantasy-ridden daydreams that envision impractical scenarios where everything turns out like a fairy tale. But I’m such a cynical bastard that those balloons are quickly popped. I prefer to see it as being realistic. I also like to say that I’m a cynical optimist, not just a cynic. In my delineation at least I confess that I hope it’ll all come out alright in the end even if I know it never will.
So the question that everyone asks at some point in their lives beckons: if I had the chance, what would I do again, and what would I do differently? Would I do everything differently? Just start over from scratch as if it had all been a failure? Well, there are several things I would change, that’s for sure. But if it were all or nothing, boy, that’s tough. I’ve had some pretty rewarding experiences and met some pretty great people. If all that had to vanish for a do-over, I don’t know that I could do it. Having said that, if I just pulled the bandage off it’d all be over and my new life would start again and I wouldn’t know about any of those people/experiences. I guess that would be a pretty crappy thing to do though, at least from the perspective of friends and family. That I would intentionally just leave them all behind because I wanted to start the game over? Well, who knows? I guess they wouldn’t know me in that scenario either. But if they knew I was at least considering the option, well, then they’d probably hold a grudge into eternity. I guess if we’re to be the master of our own fate then we have to be willing to crush all that gets in our way. Otherwise, we’re just deferring to someone else’s will. Too harsh?
I guess at this point there’s no looking back. But what’s there to look forward to if you can’t ever predict the future? Maybe it’s all about the present. The moment. That ephemeral pinpoint of life that changes before you can think about it. From that perspective, my life is never half-over, but always just beginning….