I always wished my life had been different. When I was in elementary, I didn’t start out shy and crusty. My first through third grade years I was very popular, and even had a “girlfriend.” In fourth grade, my parents decided to put me into a different school, where I had to start over with new classmates. I had one friend at the new school, Gabe, and other than that… I was considered a big dork.
The year after that, my parents switched me back, but most of my friends had joined their little cliques. I don’t know what changed between 3rd and 5th grade, but whatever it was, it was major. I no longer had any confidence. I no longer knew how to talk to people or make friends.
And to their credit, most of the guys were nice to me even though I was a dork with no confidence. They couldn’t understand what had changed either. And no, I still don’t know to this day. The girls were a different story. They were openly cruel and insulting… but I suppose girls were designed to be cruel towards dorky guys at that age.
As I went through junior high and high school, I managed to make a couple of friends, but I could never manage the confidence to ask a girl out. I decided a way to cover up my insecurity was to say I didn’t want to date in high school. I said it so often I think I started to believe the crap I was selling.
It wasn’t just dating. I never hung out with friends outside of school. When I graduated, I never talked to anyone from high school again. I started college, and still… I never went out with friends, never partied, never did the normal things that college students do. I told myself it was because I was a non-traditional student. I just didn’t have time between school, work, and church responsibilities.
Responsibilities. Another word for “excuse.” When friends would go out after school, I’d go home because I had to work early in the morning. When work friends would have parties, I wouldn’t go because I had church responsibilities. When church friends would have events, I’d skip them to do homework.
Yes, I dated a girl briefly when I was 18. I dated a girl briefly when I was 22. I dated one briefly when I was 24. That’s it. And each time I dated someone, it was because we were friends and it just accidentally worked out that way. I was incapable of asking someone out… Along the way, there were opportunities, but I was blind to them. They weren’t even in my field of view because I was too busy living in the mental “box” I had created for myself.
When I was 24, I really liked a girl. A lot. But I was busy… 60-80 hours a week at work, 18 hours of classes, plus playing in a church praise band. Responsibilities were again an excuse for not letting myself get “too involved” with her… whatever that means.
I saw people my entire life having so much fun… partying, dating, going out with friends. And my theory that people who partied too much would never end up in a good, solid long-term relationship was at odds with what actually happened. It turned out that a lot of people were wild when they were young, and then settled down and acted like adults when they were… well, adults.
Am I saying I acted like an adult my entire life, not at all. But I do know that I excluded myself from a lot of things that I didn’t need to. I missed a lot of opportunities to build friendships and memories that I’ll never have again. Now, I’m at an age when people expect me to act the way I act. It’s not “normal” for someone my age to act like an idiot.
I guess one of the things that made me realize I’ve missed out, was I started thinking about my eventual wedding. Who would be groomsmen? Well, there’s my brother, obviously. But I could only think of one other person I would be able to ask. Say what you will, that’s pathetic.
Hindsight is 20-20, and now it doesn’t seem quite so important that I acted “responsibly” all those years. I did things backwards… delaying gratification, and then discovered it doesn’t work if you do it backwards. You have to play by the rules of the system, or the system is going to beat you.
In talking with friends about this, I think what dawned on me was that I avoided a different kind of regret. As Kierkegaard said “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.” People who were wild and “fun” have regrets, too. But still, many of them get to move on to lives very similar to what I have now…
I have an almost impossible time believing that people can change to be more responsible and mature, yet the proof is all around me. Perhaps the reason is that I don’t want to believe it, because it points out the folly of my own decisions.
The truth is, much of life is built on path dependency. You begin in a direction, and each decision more firmly embeds you in that direction. The longer you persist, the more difficult it is to change directions. I see this every day in business… businesses run themselves into bankruptcy by “doing what they’ve always done.” It’s the path of least resistance.
Now I have an opportunity to do things differently than I’ve done before. I have a job that has MUCH more reasonable hours of operation than my old one. (albeit a much more mentally demanding job) I take far fewer classes at a time than I used to. I’m not involved in church music anymore. I don’t have the stigma of living at home.
I have a wonderful girlfriend who seems to think very highly of me. I have made some new friends in the last year, and I’ve got a couple that I’ve had for several years. I’m ready to abandon my philosophy of “responsibility over happiness.”
The responsibility illusion has created a great deal regret… not for the things I’ve done in my life, but for the things I haven’t done. Don’t let the responsibility illusion keep you from living your life to the fullest.