Straying From the Path

People are so blind to their own flaws. Through certainly no bastion of saintliness, I try to at least remember to listen. It’s better to be wrong and learn, than remain steadfast in my ignorance. And there is always so much left to learn. May there be so many mistakes yet to come.

On the cusp of my 41st birthday, it’s inevitable that a certain amount of melancholy or nostalgic regret seizes my attention. At least, that’s the cold and clinical way I’d normally frame it, given my disposition. In reality, being 40 wasn’t so bad. My life is decidedly not perfect, but perfect is the enemy of good.

It’s hard not to consider though, the path that led me here.

1998 was probably one of the hardest years of my life. The first woman I’d ever really loved had essentially tired of my oblivious selfishness and cut me loose. Hindsight being what it is, I can’t really blame her for that. And in that same regard, it’s trivially easy now to see that we were truly awful for each other. Give a starving man a buffet, and he will gorge himself until he dies.

The improperly socialized don’t even know the mistakes they’re making. That’s probably the hardest lesson to learn, that looking back shines the harshest light of truth. I hurt so many in my floundering for meaning, even if unintentionally.

And there’s the rub. If I tried really hard, I could adapt my perspective and see the rose beyond the thorns, the lessons borne from the failures. But that isn’t—and never has been—who I am. I’m the eternal pessimist, the watcher who strives to see the bigger picture. The witness of an experiment I yearn not to taint by participating. It’s why I practice everything to a fault, mull every sentence until the inspiration and opportunity has passed, and live in a carefully cultivated life free as possible from chance.

Rather than fail and try again, I strove to be flawless. I was my own worst critic, because I believed the world would never tolerate imperfection. A mentor could have perhaps warned me of my folly, that experience and consideration of the situation are far better teachers than I believed. But youth is famously wasted on the young, and my impatience was fueled by an unwavering persecution complex. I wove a cocoon where I would finally be safe.

So I can’t help but feel like a failure most of the time. Despite how good my life is, it could always have been better. I could have done things differently. Perhaps been a better friend, or made good on my early dream of being a novelist, or have done it all by 30. Instead of enjoying my success, it’s damnably hard not to see my life as a litany of various catastrophes ending in utter mediocrity.

Since I started meditating two years ago, another obvious truth has emerged. Even were that my ultimate fate, would that be so bad? Why must I strive to be highly regarded? What do I seek to gain through unmitigated success? Why care so strongly, when driven by their own concerns, few are even so cognizant to see or even acknowledge my shortcomings? And why do I see things this way in the first place? No life is perfect, and even if through some miracle someone out there could claim such, why is my first reaction one of envy? Why must I regret so much?

I have no reasonable answer for those questions, except that I don’t. I don’t have to eternally yearn for some mental image of what could have been, but derailing nearly 40 years of momentum feels insurmountable.

Had I a chance to speak with my younger self from 20 years ago, I’d say very little.

Have patience, and be kind. Care not for the past, but for the lessons it teaches. Live not for the future, nor carelessly disregard it. Calm your mind, lest your perception rob life of its succor.

I would probably have seen it as maddeningly cryptic and complained about a lost opportunity at cheating destiny, but it’s also the truth. It’s always been there, had I stopped to consider rather than hyper-analyzing every situation or endlessly projecting hypothetical scenarios. I can’t prepare for every potential eventuality, nor should I attempt to do so. It’s a hard habit to break, and I’ll inevitably do it anyway, but every day it will happen just a bit less.

And that’s OK. Maybe one day I’ll even reach a point where I would impart no advice at all to my younger self, except perhaps a wink and “Strap in, kid.” That would not affect my life one whit and my misadventures would remain, but that could be for the best. Doing otherwise is still wishing life turned out differently, and that’s ultimately the same trap as before.

Ultimately I hope to escape the melancholy that seemingly defines my perspective. If not that, then at least accept it as merely another card in the hand I was dealt, rather than the trump card it became. I’ve never really been happy, and that’s much the reason why.

Mistakes are part of life, and the only direction is forward.