I just laughed a little to myself as I said the words out-loud, “If I knew then what I know now.” I don’t like that phrase. It doesn’t really make sense. The word “then” is more associated with the future tense. For instance, “If we can’t play outside then we’ll stay in.” To use the word in the past tense it needs help, “back then.” Yes, yes, I realize the word “knew” implies past tense but it’s not quite the same, is it? When we use the phrase, “if I knew then” it almost sounds as though we’re hoping for the scenario to change sometime soon. In our mind’s eye, at least. It’s an errant mix of nostalgia and regret to utter that phrase.
Last week I turned thirty-six years old. It didn’t bother me. Birthdays now are really just another day and when you have kids, most of the attention stays with them anyhow. It’s not a big deal. I could’ve turned forty-five and I would probably feel the same. Maybe a little more achy. The most I can hope for when it comes to birthday celebrations is spending time with people I love, doing things I enjoy. I mean really, what else is there?
Fortunately for us, social media doesn’t allow us to let things go. Reminders and “memories” pop up, citing posts and photos from years gone by. In my case, some of them were ten years old. A very, very different time of my life. Usually the reminders that show up for me are very happy. For example, one photo showed up today from five years ago, when my son was only four. I think about the changes he’s experienced in those five years, and the experiences he has yet to encounter. Remarkably on this same day, seven years ago, there were terribly negative reminders that popped up. It just goes to show that no matter what year, month or day it is, our decisions continue to impact us as we tumble forward into the void.
If I knew back then, what I know now, things certainly would be different. But that all depends on when I would choose to bestow all this pent up wisdom on myself. Fifth grade? High school? That summer between my sophomore and junior year of college? I would have studied more. A lot more. Some of the arguments in AP English I would have let go. (Sorry, Parker) I would’ve visited Brian more often. I would have been smarter about going to grad school. I probably would have gone on to get a PhD. I think I would have liked to steer myself into anthropology, I definitely wouldn’t have gotten married the first time and I would have made damn sure I fought harder for the girl I loved in high school.
But, we can’t change the past. We get the good with the bad. It’s the greatest consequence of living. All we are left to do, is move forward. We have the option of looking at our decisions and regretting them, or learning from them. Sometimes a little of both. If I had made different choices would I have avoided a lot of the painful moments? Probably, but they probably would have been replaced by different, maybe more painful events. Without my choices I would be without so many people I call friends. The house I now call home might be owned by someone else that wouldn’t appreciate its character and history. I would not know the joys of winter in Denver, the feel of sand between my toes at Hatteras in October and I might not know the beautiful sound of a sleepy boy saying “goodnight, Daddy.”
Is it really fair to regret more and more, as we get older? I say nay.
The average male life expectancy now is 76 years. I’m not quite half way. As I sit and prepare myself for another trip around the sun I think about what will happen. This year will be the end of some things and the start of others. Perhaps the social media reminders I get will show more good than bad. (Or, if I’m lucky it won’t show anything at all because I will have finally left it behind completely.) I will continue to make decisions based on past experience and hope the outcomes will be better for it. I will endeavor to leave the space I occupy better than when I first entered it. At this point in my life I don’t want to waste any more energy on being caught up in stuff I simply don’t have time for. Rather, as Tom King puts it: “Life isn’t so long. There’s not that much time in it for doing what you don’t need to do.” By this time next year, if I know then what I know now, I might just be okay.