Maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun. – Alain de Botton
I was hit with a pang of desperation as I boarded a streetcar in Toronto. I had just left my grown-up baby brother’s apartment and was on the way to meet girlfriends that I hadn’t seen in over a year. My brother would be at family celebrations two days later, but beyond that, we had no concrete plans to hang out again before I went back to London. The first time this feeling hit was a week earlier at a best friend’s wedding. I should have been enjoying myself, and I was, but I couldn’t shake this underlying and overwhelming sadness. I hadn’t been in Calgary for six years. A lot of life can happen in six years. Many of the guests at her wedding had been through the day-to-day of my girlfriend’s adulthood, and I hadn’t. The thought of moving back there crossed my mind but it would not make up for lost time.
Missing out isn’t new to me – I spend more time missing many loved ones than I spend around them. By my own making, I’ve lived far away from home for over a decade, and each visit back has been greeted with a lot of “So, are you ever moving back for good?” Giving a definitive answer to that question never concerned me but as more friends secure their futures locally in marriages and mortgages, the question weighs a bit heavier. As we grow older, how do we reconcile what we miss with everything else that we’re present for?
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips theorises about how our unlived lives guide the ones we actually live. Using the example of “the one that got away,” Phillips explains that by viewing “The One” as a prize lost because the odds weren’t in our favour, we might begin to compare our own life path with the “myth of our potential, of what we might have it in ourselves to be or do.” If we are more content in the mythical version of our lives, this can make our current circumstances seem less desirable and lacking something that could give us more pleasure.
Those privileged with the means to choose between viable alternatives can be haunted by this “What if?” feeling for a lifetime. “What if I were to do what I love instead of what I think satisfies my family members? What if I let him/her know how I really feel about them?” Sometimes perceived priorities materialise while dreams whisper in the background. The tension between our real and imagined lives contributes to our ongoing pursuit of happiness, whether the alternatives play out or not.
Borrowing Phillips’ missing-out theory, my leaving home may have been subconsciously motivated by a desire to compensate for others’ unlived lives: grandparents whose twenties were surrounded by war, a mom ‘settled down’ before realising her dreams of travel, friends who stay in jobs they resent because it’s easier than starting again, and those who do the same in romantic relationships. A father whose children I used to babysit confessed to me, “I love my family and I wouldn’t trade them for the world, but I did everything the right way. I graduated school, got a job, bought a house, started a family. I might take a trip to Africa one day, but it will be different from how I would have done it then.” Meanwhile my brother has told me that by observing me in my twenties, he’s learned a lot about what not to do. Rather than overspend his funds and himself, he saves. Instead of indulging in the whims of others, he can say “no.” Sparing himself from messes that can be created by impulsive decision making, he deliberates before acting (or not). The stuff that fills our lives is a reflection of that which we lack, and who we are is shaped in part by who we do not wish to be.
In a letter to his 24-year old son, writer Ted Hughes proposes that our childhood selves are always present in us, and the truest part of who we are. How we demonstrate maturity is through a “whole armor of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances,” which takes over around the age of eight.
Growing up, I was one of only a few visible minorities in our school and was always the shortest kid in class. Coming from a less affluent household in a highly affluent town, my clothing and possessions were also slightly downstream from the mainstream. I was, however, often one of the highest achievers in my year. This pleased my teachers and parents to a degree, but it didn’t quite make me popular amongst my peers. Introductions in my secondary school hallway went something along the lines of, “Oh! Are you the brainer? Didn’t you get like straight A pluses?” By the age of thirteen, I’d had enough with my reputation. I wanted to be liked for my personality, not identified by my report card. In classic teen-movie style, I ditched my glasses and began to view my siblings and our childhood friends as separate from my social life. Associating with them risked people knowing too much about who I really was and revealing my inner child. I tried less in school and focused on all areas social.
Before the awkward tweens, my brother and sister and I had shared no concept of ‘cool.’ We had no image to uphold; only our imaginations. Long afternoons were spent together playing ‘house’ and ‘school’, cycling and playing dress-up with our best neighborhood friends. The living room rug was our post-dinner dance floor where we boogied and cartwheeled to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album until we were wiped out. At bedtime we gleefully soaked up our dad’s repertoire of funny voices for The Hobbit and Asterix, even though both were too advanced for our infant minds.
At eighteen I left home for university, as many of my peers did. My confused identity and idealism simultaneously deepened, and I decided to go even further away in search of greater knowledge and purpose, to figure out how I’d help to ‘change the world.’ I relocated from place to place, transferred schools and jobs, loved and lost, and made plenty of mistakes. “What are you running from?” my mom sometimes asked. “There are plenty of problems to solve in your own backyard.”
During my second year of university I remember calling home from across the country and asking the stranger on the other end if I could talk to one of my parents. I had completely missed my brother’s voice changing. That same year, my then 16-year old sister mailed me a long, handwritten letter that I recently uncovered when clearing out belongings at home. This time I gave it a careful read. Enclosed is a cry for help following a traumatic incident that I realized I’d never properly absorbed or responded to. There is also this: “We never hang out and do things together unless we’re in the house (which is rare to have us all together) or when we’re forced to. Just seems like your friends are more important than anything else in your life and family to you is time wasted. I hope it’s not.” Hindsight is cruel. Much of what I don’t do now is informed by what I did do to hurt loved ones.
We don’t always get to say goodbye or make peace, and there will be situations we could have handled better, and that’s okay. Whenever life takes us by too much of a surprise, Ted Hughes writes to his son, “that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears.” In order to continue growing he advises that we awaken the child within by regularly opening ourselves up to such unnerving challenges. Each gain will inevitably have its gap, but perhaps if we confront the truth about ourselves, we may be present where it matters most.