This post is a companion to the previous two. Afterward, this website is going on a brief early-summer hiatus. A previously scheduled post will appear this Saturday, but otherwise I got nothin’ until late next week. Go play outside.
I have a longtime friend who is a lot more practical and a lot less sentimental than I am. Not long ago he said to me about something I wrote (paraphrasing), “I sometimes wonder why you still think about this stuff, and why you don’t just let it go.” He’s not wrong to wonder. I’ve asked those questions myself. Why do I still think about this stuff? Why don’t I just let it go? Isn’t it a little silly for a guy my age to spend so much time remembering stuff that happened when he was 16 or 18 or 22?
But then there’s this, from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity:
I had kind of hoped that my adulthood would be long and meaty and instructive, but it all took place in those two years; sometimes it seems as though everything and everyone that have happened to me since were just minor distractions. Some people never got over the sixties, or the war, or the night their band opened for the Rolling Stones at the Marquee, and spend the rest of their days walking backwards; I never really got over Charlie. That was when the important stuff, the stuff that defines me, went on.
He’s talking about a broken love affair, but it doesn’t have to be only that. Doesn’t everybody have a period “when the important stuff, the stuff that defines me, went on”? Perhaps not. Maybe you have spent every day of your life constantly moving forward in a perpetual process of growth and change toward some sort of idealized perfect self. I can see the results of a similar process—the person I am now is more accomplished, wiser, better than most of my younger iterations—but I also recognize that to the extent that change took place, it was always shaped by “the stuff that defines me,” a beginning of things, a long time ago.
In the spring of 1978, writing about the ending of things in a journal long since lost, I hit upon the metaphor of a door, which I elaborated on a few years ago:
Change often takes us unawares. Disaster comes with little or no warning. We get fired. Loved ones die. Very rarely in life does a major change loom fixed within our sight, like a door in the distance, one we knowingly walk up to and through, entering into whatever lies beyond.… the one between carelessness and responsibility, between young and not-quite-so-young … between today and tomorrow.
The stakes on the other side of the door seemed pretty high. Go to college, work hard, get your degree, get a job, work hard, climb the ladder, find someone, make a life for them and you and your children like the one your parents made for themselves and you, and don’t fk it up. I was willing to take it on—given who I was and the kind of person my parents had raised me to be, there was no other path—but in retrospect, it seems like a lot.
For some people, the weight of trying to make a life never goes away. It can be a struggle in terms of the concrete stuff—find a career/prosper in it, find a partner/stay together. But it can also be a metaphysical one: why am I doing this? Should I want to do this, or is there something else I should be doing? How does one navigate this life of randomly dealt fortune and tragedy without falling into denial or surrendering to despair?
What I learned back when “the stuff that defines me” was going on is this: dealing with the concrete stuff—the what—came easier to me than understanding the metaphysical stuff—the why. And so the latter will always be of greater interest and concern to me.
I saw the door. I knew what was behind it. I knew my friends and I had to walk through it. But why we had to walk through it, why the stuff behind the door is like it is, and what is the best way to make peace with it and find some sort of meaning in it—43 years later, I’m still thinking about that, because I don’t know any other way to be. The half-assed armchair philosopher I am today was born out of the half-assed armchair philosophizing I did in the spring of 1978, at a beginning and ending of things.