I have an email here from Matt in Texas. Matt writes:
“I’m confused about my future even though I thought I had school all figured out before the virus happened.
“I missed my graduation because of the pandemic and I’m thinking of dropping out altogether now because I don’t even know what I want to do. Maybe you can help me figure it out? When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
Matt. This is not an easy question. I have wanted to “be” many different things in life. When I was a boy I wished I were big. That’s pretty much what all little kids want. I just wanted to be like my grandfather. He was a big, tall man that neighborhood dogs used to always follow around.
And I wanted to do what big people did: Play fast-pitch baseball, drive cars, pay bills, outrun IRS attack dogs.
When I got a little older I wanted to have a skill. During the middle-school years everyone is figuring out who they are. Some kids show promise as artists, writers, or athletes. Others are math-wizzes and grow up to be billionaires.
Me? I never figured it out. Besides, even though I didn’t realize it, all I really wanted was to fit in. This is a basic need young people have, just like the need to laugh, or the need to rupture their own ear drums with loud music. There is no worse suffering than loneliness.
So I just wanted to blend. I wanted to wear the same Chuck Taylors everyone else wore. I wanted the team captain to choose me for touch football.
After my father died, when I was a boy, my aspirations went out the window. All I wanted to be was safe. Plain and simple. I just wanted to feel secure and not be afraid of life.
But people grow up. Over time, I quit caring about security, or fitting in, or Chuck Taylors. I just wanted to be a regular guy. I know that sounds ridiculous, and it probably is. But being average is fantastic, and filled with unspeakable pleasures. During childhood I was the son of a suicide victim. I couldn’t wait to just be a run-of-the-mill guy.
Then, something changed in the aspirations department when I was in my late 20s. I was taking community college classes, and suddenly the world became much bigger to me. I started to get the sense that Earth was a richer place than I’d thought. And I wanted to “be” a part of it.
I remember driving home after a stirring lecture in—no kidding—earth science class. We had talked about the universe, and how big it was, and how vast. I decided right there that I wanted to do more than just pay bills. I wanted my life to mean something.
It was during this exact moment, in heavy traffic, that I saw a bumper sticker that read: “The meaning of life is to give life meaning.”
That bumper sticker spoke to me. So do you know what I did? That’s right. I went home and did nothing, and forgot completely about the bumper sticker for many years.
Time marched forward, and pretty soon I was feeling crummy again. The worst part was, I didn’t know what I wanted out of life. Life always seemed to confuse me, and the more it confused me, the more I blamed myself.
Looking back, I think I was just trying too hard. Maybe you are, too.
I don’t mean to be Johnny Downer here, but life itself involves a whole lot of striving. It’s in our drinking water. From the moment we’re born our parents are showing us how to strive to be better. But one day, it sort of takes you over, and pretty soon you’ve forgotten what you were striving for.
Some people never quit striving. They strive to find a good job, or a decent house. Others strive to do something great in the world, or be the best parent they can be. But no matter how you look at it, the striving itself is downright exhausting.
If you can believe it, just recently I saw ANOTHER bumper sticker in traffic that spoke to me. This bumper sticker read: “Be nice to your kids, they’ll choose your nursing home.”
No. I’m kidding. I actually did see a bumper sticker like that once, but that’s not the one I was going to tell you about. The one I saw read: “Life got easier when I gave up.”
I loved this sticker so much that I jumped out of my car at a redlight, knocked on the guy’s window, and asked where he got it. I will never forget when he rolled his window, smiled, then pepper-sprayed me.
The truth is, I have wasted your time. I can’t answer your question because I am not you. I can’t even articulate what I want. I am middle-aged, which means I still have a lot to learn. And each day I’m realizing that I know less than I did yesterday.
But, I suppose that if I had to put into feeble words what I’d like out of my own life, it would be pretty simple.
I want to be less selfish. I want other people to feel like they matter. And in this tense world, I want to be the kind of guy who neighborhood dogs follow around.
Even after all these years, I’d still like to be a bigger man.