Dearest EXPLORE reader,
Sometimes I wonder about the answer to a most simple question: When will I get it ALL right?
I have learned that after you are done making a myriad of poor decisions and sending your life off in some wild directions, you will take a moment to sit down and say to yourself, “Um, you’ve clearly got some issues to work through.” After taking jobs you shouldn’t, and career paths you’re not suited for, and having major relationships go sideways and a whole slew of other things that can happen to a person, many people will stare at their cup of coffee and think “Maybe the root of my issues is between my own two ears.” Sure, a lot of people can just blame things on bad timing, bad advice, bad spouses, and bad bosses…but I think that many of us ultimately have to sit down and come to grips with the fact that the only common denominator in those situations is: YOU.
So like many of you, we head to Amazon and type in “How to stop being selfish” or “How to control your own destiny” or “Why you make bad decisions” and you are presented with an almost endless offering of books covering every topic imaginable. How to fix broken relationships, how to set boundaries, how to handle emotions better, how to be a leader, how to follow better, how to chase your dreams, how to be satisfied with where you are…there’s a book for everyone.
Which means that there are a lot of people trying to “figure themselves out.”
Want to know what they should teach in college instead of Philosophy or 18th Century Literature? They should take those same students and get them to sign up for a variety of courses that could really have a positive impact on kid’s lives:
How to Choose a Spouse 101
Ways to Cope with Stress 301
Why Money doesn’t Matter Much 802
What’s Really Important in Life 401
How to Take Responsibility for your Stupid Decisions – Semester 1
…and on and on.
But we don’t. I know that it is our parent’s responsibilities to teach kids life’s biggest lessons, but as a parent myself, I can’t even imagine all the ways that I have failed my kids. Yes, I’ve done my best, but there’s no way my kids know a fraction of what they’ll need to know before they go off and make some gargantuan stupid decisions. Just like their dad did.
I have a theory that the Mid-Life Crisis isn’t just a bad joke about balding men who buy corvettes and chase 20 year old women. Yeah, that happens…but I truly think that it’s a season where men (and women) realize that they don’t know a damn thing about anything. They find themselves in their mid-40s (typically) and they gasp in horror when they realize that they are in jobs they don’t like, with marriages that are soulless, and they have a really good golf drive, but dammit, they are tired of trying to make everyone happy only to find themselves miserable inside. So they lash out in the only ways they can to try to turn back the clock and rediscover their youth and perhaps reset the clock in some way. I’m not defending these situations – just saying that I can empathize with it.
No, I’m not corvette shopping. That’s not my point. But here are a few things that I have personally heard spoken by my friends in the past month (most of them in my age bracket – 40s):
“I’m just not happy.”
“I am trying to control too much.”
“I’m terrified of failing.”
“I have so many hang-ups.”
“I just don’t care about those things any more.”
“I married the wrong person.”
“I’m not getting any younger.”
“When will I just be happy?”
And so each of them has struck off on a journey of self-exploration and understanding so that they can hopefully understand their situation better, make some decisions, and finally, finally, FINALLY find the peace that they seek. Maybe they’ll use Amazon Books, maybe they’ll just pray a lot, maybe they’ll buy a Corvette and chase a 20 year old blonde. I am not sure, but they are all clearly at points of “Something has to change” and so they are seeking that change.
What I suppose I wonder is: Do we ever figure it out?
I watched a show a few weeks ago about some mythical time where a computer picks who we date. You are with this person until the computer tells you to break up with them, and you do so because the computer has told the population that it will ultimately spit out the PERFECT mate for you. So people go through these endless relationships, and finally the computer says “Here’s the perfect match.” The problem is that what the characters learn is that a previous person was actually the perfect relationship…but people got so tired of the game, they would accept who the computer picked just to make it stop.
If we endlessly chase self-perfection, do we actually find it or do we just finally settle for who and what we are? Do we improve ourselves with amazing effort, or do we just find someone that will accept us, warts and all?
I’m guilty of the book reading. I have lots of them. I can read chapters of some of them and think “Oh man – they just described me PERFECTLY!” and I’m aware of the situation and issue and I agree with it and I know I should change some things – but do I? Maybe a little. Maybe I can see things more clearly, but I certainly can’t read a book, slam it shut and exclaim: “Whew!! Glad that problem is behind me!”
Nope. I have to wake up and think about it and remain aware of the issue and when confronted with a situation that involves the issue, I have to try to handle it in the most healthy way possible, due to my new book knowledge bestowed upon me by Amazon. But I surely fail, time and again.
We all know the saying “I wish I knew then what I know now” and maybe that’s the only thing we can really tell ourselves. I know that if I was magically transported back to being 22, my life would look COMPLETELY different today. I could have avoided some dumb situations, and I would have made some far smarter decisions, but alas, that’s not real life.
However, those lessons and that knowledge I possess isn’t because of things I read – it’s because LIFE taught me things. I had to go through it in order to learn. So on a sleepy Sunday afternoon as I’m typing this, I have to wonder: perhaps the single most powerful question you can ask yourself is: what do you think that YOU would say to yourself 20 years from now?
Should you stay in the crummy job? Struggle with the marriage some more? Keep the same friends? Live in the same town? Talk to your kids the same way? Keep the grudge with your parents? Put up with your asshole boss?
The stumbling we do early on in life is due to lack of knowledge and life experience. We regret those things in mid-life and facepalm at our poor habits and decisions we have formed. Yet we are still learning and there are still experiences that will shape us. And 20 years from now, we will face-palm at the things we are doing right now. Books and self-improvement can assist you with clarity and putting explanations to things we feel and struggle through, but at the end of the day, we are left to simply do the best we can…for right now.
I’m not sure about you, but 20 years ago seems like about 10 minutes ago. I was 23 and I pretty much knew everything there was to know. I blinked my eyes and it’s 20 years later and I realize that I didn’t know a damn thing. I know that I should have sought more info, asked for good advice, researched more, forecasted better…but instead I just took the path of least resistance and continued my journey.
Since 20 years flew by, I trust that the next 20 will do the same and then I’ll be in my mid-60s. If I apply the same thinking, am I actually learning or am I just bumbling along trying not to rock the boat too much and just keep the wheels on the ground?
As I always say in this letter, I rarely have answers to the questions I pose. I just see so many people that are so busy kicking themselves for past decisions, even though those decisions were based on the best information that they had at the time. Sure, some were flat out stupid decisions and had consequences, but even stupid decisions can have the hope that they turn out ok.
Maybe, just maybe…we’re all just out there doing the best that we can with the limited info that we have. I wonder how our lives might change if we accepted ourselves a bit more, warts and all, and give the same grace to ourselves that we try to give others. But I do know that you have things that you know you should change right this instant and that YOU in 20 years would wish that you had done so.
Live the dream people. Sometimes it may be a nightmare, but it’s your dream and it’s the only one you’re going to get. Love yourself because somebody does, and strike out on those adventures your heart yearns for. Smile, laugh, cry…and pack those experiences into what time God has decided to give us.
You’ll thank yourself in 20 years.
Welcome to April. May you take some time this sun-baked month and just inventory your blessings, EXPLORE your past, and dream of your future. Then make it exactly the way you’d like to read about it in a book.
Benjamin D. Schooley