Here’s a thing I wrote 10 years ago this month.
One of the most memorable days of my brief tenure as a social-studies teacher started when one of my sophomores raised a hand in the middle of a lesson on the Populist Movement and asked, “Why do we have to learn this?” As a believer in the concept of the teachable moment (and with some wiggle room in the syllabus for the semester), I decided to toss the lesson plan for the day and turn the question around: “Why do you think we have to learn this?”
We ended up talking about whether human choices affect the course of history. Several of my students were convinced they do not. The students recognized that their choices had an impact on their lives, but they didn’t believe the same thing about the choices made by others—everyone else’s actions were fixed and immutable. History is a river and humanity is in a boat, but there’s no pilot—we’re just floating along with the current, and it takes us wherever it’s going to go.
(At one point, I asked them what would have happened if John Wilkes Booth had decided not to shoot Abraham Lincoln. In the front row, a hand flew up instantaneously. “If Booth hadn’t done it, somebody else would have, because Lincoln had to die.”)
I forgave my students their perspective, though. Not until one reaches geezerhood does one completely understand the potential impact of choices, even little ones. It doesn’t take a great deal of imaginative effort to visualize a whole range of other lives you might have led: if you hadn’t taken a particular job, gotten involved with a particular person, done something you did, left something else undone—if you’d only steered the boat on a slightly different heading. It’s not exactly making a map of the roads not taken—a map shows where you’ll end up, but with visions, how can you tell? Nevertheless, conjuring with what might have been is a pastime we can’t resist. And in October, a month when time runs in reverse, it’s a greater temptation than at any other time of the year.
But here’s the thing: Even if we’d sometimes like to be someone else somewhere else doing something else, that’s not the boat we’re in. And it’s not automatically a bad thing to simply float along for a while. If we work too hard at steering the boat, we’re going to miss the scenery. Or, as Mary Chapin Carpenter puts it:
No one knows where they belong
The search just goes on and on and on
For every choice that ends up wrong
Another one’s right
A change of scene would sure be great
The thought is nice to contemplate
But the question begs why would you wait
And be late for your life
Perspective From the Present: When we were kids, Mother used to say to us—and I have heard her say it in more recent times too—“you should always have something to look forward to.” I lived by Mother’s wisdom until I was deep into adulthood, until it occurred to me that if you are always looking forward to something, you’ll miss what’s happening today. Although you won’t always succeed at it, it’s better to be here now. Don’t spend all your days focused on the future. Be here now. (Stop looking at your phone—be here, now.)
My mother’s advice is meant in the kindest, most benign way—look forward to a birthday party, a day spent with friends, that kind of thing—but some people twist it by focusing on a goal and excluding all else. Get a diploma, get a degree, get a job, climb the ladder, and 10 years from now, or 20, or 30, you can start living.
But if you work too hard at steering the boat, you’re going to miss the scenery.
“Late for Your Life,” from the 2001 album Time*Sex*Love, might be my single favorite thing by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Over the years she’s done a lot of baby-boomer philosophizing, but it strikes me that more than anything else, “Late for Your Life” is an agape love song. You may have learned in Sunday school about agape love: pure, selfless, unconditional, given without expectation of anything in return. Her kind, open-hearted concern for her listener’s happiness is clear, and the tenderness of her performance is remarkable.