Last night I was reading the New Yorker’s summer fiction edition, the theme of which is love stories. A passage from a David Gilbert story stopped me cold, “…in the end destiny seemed more like a gun pressed into his back leading him to who knows where.” The piece is about two unhappily married parents whose children attend the same school, and what happens when they run into each other at a public love-in (the year is 1967). It grips and explores exactly the themes on my mind as I’ve watched my contemporaries settle into “the middle”—marriage, kids, career, house. I’ve wondered if it’s possible that this many people want lives that follow the linear script, or if it’s that there seems to be no other choice. Is the middle a hostage situation? Once you’re a certain age, you feel the cold steel pressed into your kidney and you’re compelled to obey? Obey whom? Where are you taking me?
I reject the idea that we don’t own the choices in our lives. Every minute we’re making choices about the smallest things, and yet I hear people who have crossed over into the middle sighing in resignation over their lives. As though marrying their partner was something they had to do, and now they have to live with it. That having x number of kids was something that just happened and now they have to focus on raising them. And because of the number of kids, they had to buy a certain sized house, or car, or work a career at a certain salary with certain hours to accommodate the various demands of family life. It’s as though the choice to court happiness ended after the honeymoon, or when the first child was born. Because something “more important” came to be. Isn’t stewing in acquiescence, keeping one’s head down, nose to the grindstone, blinders on a choice? I believe it is.
Gilbert’s quote suggests that a sense of urgency and desperation propel us forward, destination unknown, journey unexamined. I believe the hostage situation begins when we stop being honest with ourselves, and stop owning our choices. Without some sort of contemplative self-reflection, I don’t know how it’s possible to live a life authentic to one’s needs. When I was twenty years old I began to realize that when I thought deeply about it, I didn’t want children. Of course, I had always assumed I would have children, because that’s what people do. But wait a minute…as a kid my imaginative games centered on marriage and couples stories. My best friend and I had a game called “husband and wife” and there were no children, just a lot of simulated sex. Because I tuned into my intuitive sense that spending my adulthood parenting didn’t interest me, I was able to connect back to my younger self and find evidence that perhaps the desire had never existed. Over the years, the certainty that I wish to live a child-free life has grown. But what if I had never checked in with myself? I may yet have found myself marching down a well-worn societal path, gun at my back, end point unclear. I suppose in such a case, resignation becomes a soothing tonic. If you had no choices, how could you feel regret?
I encourage everyone to check in with themselves at some point. It may not be comfortable, but it could be the first of a series of choices that lead you in a positive direction. And once you’re making choices, well, you own the path and the destination is yours.