Despite being a blockhead, or because I was a blockhead, my best choices weren’t obvious in my younger days. Decades on, in the rear-view mirror certain things stand out as great choices. (Yes, I have a long list on bad choices).
1 – Didn’t Want Marriage. I know: hate the word, love it, ‘mheh’ it. Weddings have risen to a cult-like status while the actual marriage can be a terror. (Samuel Johnson called 2nd marriages: “The triumph of hope over experience.”). But I never really thought about marriage. No, I was very pragmatic. I had a plan: college, career (BIG!), a someday marriage to someone like me End of story. Then I was proposed to a good 7-10 years before planned. Though I hesitated, it dawned on me that this guy was probably someone I’d not meet again. Plan in the trash bin: no big career, an early marriage and he was not like me. We are contrary, opposite in nearly every way; not soul mates. We were the perfectly incompatible couple and still are, in nearly every way. For the last almost 4 decades what little we had in common, we have built on, and what we didn’t have in common are sources of misunderstanding and sometimes of pain. Yet, neither of us is wrong most of the time—we’re just different. We chose to turn those points of misunderstandings into bridges; to re-form the marriage rather than break it. Martin Luther said, “My temptations have been my masters (professors) in divinity.” following his pattern rather than throw out the baby with the bathwater, we have tried to turn issues which hinge on our incompatibility into opportunities for personal betterment. Maybe it sounds nutty but it’s pragmatic.
Marriage can it be fulfilling, yes; and mind-bending, now and then; and frustrating, absolutely! I do realize that few people have a marriage that is this good: it is a rarity. Yet it didn’t come naturally for either of us: a good marriage is not guaranteed, automatic nor an inheritance. If you have selected a decent mate, then you both need to work hard at it, for weeds sprout daily in the garden of love. But, in the end, there is something priceless about being with someone who loves you, not because of blood, nor duty, nor money or other benefits. He or she loves you period.
Still, a good many marriages fail—despite hard work and kindness. If it fails, forgive—no matter who was at fault. You’ll do both of yourselves a favor.
2 – Didn’t Want to Be A Parent. I’m ashamed to admit I never cared for babies (it seems inhuman): I wasn’t drawn to them as many are. I never thought I had the skills to have a child (I still think I am right about that). But there I was: already with child (even though we’d taken precautions). When the doctor asked me about abortion: we thought of the plans laid before us for the next five years and how they would be altered if we had the child. I told my husband “Love is never convenient.” so we trashed our plans in exchange for the best, most transformative and horrifying experience in the world.
Horrifying, not merely because we were raising a person in a perilous world, but because that new person acts as a walking, talking reflection of us or our life at home.
Transformative only when and if we chose to listen closely to the little people—and now and then, the big people who blurt out the truth.
The best because for the first time you understand the unselfish side of love: your child what you would go to your death to save.
More than 3 decades since having the first child, when I think of my 25 year old self and wish to slap her out of her dreams of grandeur without children. Why? because the status career, jobs, highly influential “friends” have circulated in and out of our lives. They have forgotten us, and they in turn have faded in our memories. Wealth and possessions have sailed in and out of our life. In contrast, though, written in bright colors set in a brilliant background of our life is our family, our children, and their spouses, and their children. Yeah, we did nearly everything wrong raising them (with the best intentions!). But, not to have had children once given the opportunity, would have been to have a white-knuckle grip on the pole when the brass ring is in my face on the merry-go-round of life. Headaches, hassles, backaches, empty pockets, sleepless nights, messy house, and broken furniture: worth it, no doubt!
Family is dearer and more precious than is possible to measure. Keep them as close as possible, agree with them as often as possible, try to hear what they say—whether they say it out loud or not, cry and laugh with them, play and work with them…give to them what is necessary and more, hold back what they want but should work for. Yes, give them grace, space, respect and dignity, but hold them tightly, and this includes your spouse. You might come to like them.
As for my 25 year-old self, I understand she was pressed and continually re-sold on the ultimate importance of money/career/ status. She almost ignored the age-old advice: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends…”(Samuel Johnson, 1750). That young Me was somehow saved from her own gullibility—she almost bought the lie and was close to becoming a slave to a job, a career, and other “things-of-value.” Perhaps I suspected that, as Bunyan put it, “It came burning hot into my mind, whatever he said and however he flattered, when he got me home to his house, he would sell me for a slave.”
3 – Didn’t Want Change. I hate it: hate, hate, hate. It’s pain, pain, pain. I loved where I grew up in the country, I loved my home, I loved my area. Yet, I have been repeatedly forced to find new jobs, live in new type of environments, and move to new countries. I’ve lived in remote areas, cosmopolitan cities and the suburbs. I’ve dealt with people from the poorest in American to the wealthiest and most influential in America, with maids and street-sweepers in the lowest classes in the poorest countries, and moguls and heirs of billions in many countries. I have had to learn 3 foreign languages—an African, a Romance, and an Asian language. Change, struggle and pain and why is it the best what I resisted? There are things I learned firsthand I couldn’t learn any other way. First, pain does not equal something bad. Second, every place has its interesting people, clever people, and an interesting heritage. Third, every class of people has kind and generous, greedy (yes, poor and greedy) and cruel. Some people love others, while others don’t know what love is. Four, I count as friends many kinds of people: they are diverse (all meanings of the word) and represent a broad spectrum. I’m friends with devout atheists and agnostics (a belief in unbelief), devout pantheists, devout animists and devout people of every major religion (as well as many sects within them). Some of them are lovely people who treat me with respect and kindness, and some are not and do not. No matter what the label, the true person shines through. (The downside is that I am less tolerant of artificiality.) I still hate the pain of change but I enjoy the benefits–in some intangible way, it’s improved me.
4- Didn’t Want Chronic illness. Of course I didn’t want this, and don’t. Many people think of chronic illness is something that besets middle-aged people but I was lucky enough to get it at 14. 14 is a difficult enough, but getting ill then changed the course of my life. I had to grow up a bit more quickly—I had to think about what was important to me. Chronic illness is the perpetual lemon in your life, and you have to become creative in the ways you make the lemonade. I gripped the steering wheel of life and chose to move on: there was too much to see and learn allow illness to stop me from living a full (if short) life. It was the 1960s and most of my friends were chasing the moon and wasting their minds and their time. Chronic illness made me wiser about how I was going to spend my short life. If for no other reason, I am thankful that my teens, 20’s and 30’s were well-spent (See Number 5)
5 – Didn’t Want Religion-Especially Not Christ. Yawn! Being religious (especially, Christian) is too counter-cultural, particularly in New York. Not welcome. It’s no secret that educated Americans and the postmodern world are snobs about religion. It was in part due to my chronic illness, that I focused early, and kept searching: “…when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”(Samuel Johnson). I, like so many others, had been the subject of the best work of state, commercial and educational institutions in deriding, decrying and disputing the worth, the value and need of religion. An overplayed hand is always a tip-off: I chose to ignore the strident, vacuous, always cynical and ever-critical voices. Like an “economic bubble” I knew eventually the end would come to the secular chatter and criticism: you cannot stave off eternal realities forever.
But when it came to changing horses: trading the best in this world for what seemed to me a loss at the time, I admit that it was hard for this over-educated person to pray to Christ in real humility. Prayer can be two opposite things: it can be both the hardest and easiest thing to do. I was held back by fear of the people who wouldn’t understand me, or even hate me. Jesus Christ’s words on this resonated in me and kicked down the wall: “Whoever tries to preserve his life will lose it, and the man who is prepared to lose his life will preserve it.” Once given over, the return was immediate and ongoing: I had spiritual peace, deep and permanent. Christ, for me, in these past four decades has been faithful and present—not a dream or wish fulfillment but a reality.
When I come to a new day, I am refreshed by re-choosing Christ. Doing so the first four in this list: marriage, family, life changes, illness, as well as all other things, are then properly ordered. Once ordered, I comprehend their true value in God’s kingdom rather than some hyped, exaggerated value.
So, we all have our own lists—now or in the future. And perhaps your top 5 at 55 don’t look like mine does. Still, in this moment of looking back I agree with Lewis: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” ( C.S. Lewis)