The howl and rattle of the wind through my dining-room storm window, just moments ago, heralded the return of arctic air to Grand Rapids. The approaching winter storm provides a perfect minor-key counterpoint to my mood of late. Last week, Michigan enjoyed single-digit temps; this week, we pushed into the upper 60s; in the next few days, we’re predicted to sink into the low teens with subzero wind chills. Meanwhile, it seems I’ve been the poster child for whiskey-induced introspection. Fitting, I think. In winter’s heart, both blizzards and brooding go better with bourbon.
It’s been a rough week at the office. Rough enough, that the storm-window barometer jarred me from exploring memories I hadn’t touched in quite some time. Memories of my sophomore year of high school, actually, when it felt like everything sucked and the worst moment of the week was bedtime on Sunday night because I knew I had a full five days of hell ahead and I’d give anything to skip to 2:35 on Friday afternoon. I know — in a mental sense, anyway — that my loathing of West Catholic stems merely from the echo of adolescent angst; I fit in maybe 85 percent of the way with my peers, but that missing 15 percent slices deepest when you’re a teenager with no sense of perspective. I concede that my high-school years weren’t really all that bad. Not really. But much distance lies between today’s considered judgment and yesterday’s painful memories.
I remember laying in bed as a 15-year-old and fantasizing what my life would be like when I was 30. Would I be married? Would I have kids and a nice house? Would I have earned a DVM or Ph.D? Would I be an Army officer or a business tycoon or an elected official? I just assumed, like a protean Underwear Gnome, that something undefined but surely magical would transpire between those lonely teenage nights and my inevitably glorious future — some Happily Ever After that would stitch all the pieces together into an elegant tapestry of contented prosperity.
But that’s not to say that as a 36-year-old, I’m full of rage over broken expectations. I’m not. It’s taken a while, but the intimate relationships I enjoyed in my early-to-mid 20s with my dear friends Envy, Sloth, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath and Pride provided an experiential framework that, recently, has proven astonishingly useful in my everyday life in the fullest Johnny Cash sense of the idea. Plus, I’ve got enough miles under my belt that the inner serenity I fought to cultivate just a few years ago comes easier now — to the point that I chuckle at the irony of fighting for serenity, even though I really did struggle with it. Experience puts meat on the bones of theory. Adversity makes for the richest experience. Thus, self-inflicted adversity in youth yields early-onset wisdom, through which prism one can say, “Been there, done that, it’s going to be OK.”
My friend Duane used to laugh at me because during our heyday playing World of Warcraft, I’d roll a dozen low-level characters and couldn’t ever commit to leveling one up. I’d travel a certain distance down the character’s path, then select a new one because I thought it might be better in some vague and usually inaccurate way. Years of casual playing, and the highest I ever got was a Level 45 Undead warlock named Elianna.
Duane had a larger point, methinks, expressed in his usual gentle and roundabout way: The only path that really matters is the one you’re on, so quit worrying about the trail over the next ridge. Just keep marching in your own boots.
Which brings me to my current introspection. I suppose it reduces to a single question: Which path provides the surest footing on the journey to my 70th birthday and the ultimate moment of truth, when I look in the mirror on a September morning in 2046 and ask myself if I have any regrets?
I know that having fairly unconstrained options as a 30-something is a luxury few enjoy. Still, as I survey my banquet of existential riches I’m left woefully undecided, paralyzed by choice. I have my bucket list and my annual goals list and whatnot. It’s not the long-term or even medium-term stuff that’s vexing. Its the short-term path. It’s tomorrow and next month, not next year or next decade.
You can fix one big problem in your life at a time, or three little ones. Try more, and you’ll fail; the enormousness of the challenge overwhelms. So you have to decide which problems you’ll tolerate and which you won’t while you rank-order your solution set. It’s like juggling with flaming tennis balls. If you have five balls and one is on fire, you can manage the one. You might even be able to manage two. When all the balls are on fire, though, you’ll end up with singed fingertips.
So which short-term problems to tackle first? Knowing, as it happens, that the decision you make today will shift your path to September 2046 in ways yet to be revealed?
Thank God for bourbon and blizzards.