I realized the other day that most of my favorite TinyLetters are written by people much younger than me. There’s a feeling of incipience and urgency that I enjoy reading but struggle to find in my own narrative lately.
There’s a way in which middle age—and if I’m being honest with myself, that’s where I should rightly place myself these days—seems to resemble the heat death of the universe. That is to say, one hypothetical fate of the universe is to reach an eternal steady state in which entropy is maximized and nothing happens anymore, and each moment is indistinguishable from the one just before or just after. This is how life feels sometimes once you’ve moved past your youth. Being young has a built-in sense of direction, of growth, of motion. You feel you are building toward something, even if you don’t know what that something is—at least, that is how I felt. But eventually you settle into a routine, and your life becomes what it is. From day to day, week to week, year to year, nothing much happens to distinguish the current moment from any other.
This isn’t true, of course. It just feels true, probably due to a short attention span. Mind you, this has always been true, but lately, reminders of this untruth have tended to smack me in the face.
My 20th high school reunion was a few weeks ago, and I had a surprisingly good time. For most of my life I’ve had a lot of social anxiety and the prospect of having to make small talk always makes me squirm, but the combination of having hosted an interview podcast for nearly two years, and the realization that I was legitimately interested in hearing people’s stories made the night quite enjoyable. Now, I had expected to hear a lot about what my classmates had been up to for the past two decades—and that did, indeed, happen—but what I wasn’t prepared for was hearing so many recollections about myself. Especially ones I had forgotten.
I wrote about this a couple of years ago for my blog, how people can have such different memories of an event, and how the meaning of those memories shape our lives. It’s jarring, to say the least, to realize that the story you tell about yourself is incomplete. I tend to see my adolescent self as fundamentally self-absorbed, usually well-meaning but sometimes petty or cruel—which is to say: a teenager—and generally unremarkable. That so many people not only remembered me, but remembered specific kindnesses I’d shown them or specific times I’d helped them or done right by them, it shook me. Not just because the edges around the holes in my memory have the same texture as the edges of my existence, but because it forces me to reevaluate the things I want to believe about myself now.
One of the most freeing realizations I’ve had in my life was how comfortable mediocrity is. This epiphany came after failing the first exam I took in college, which was shocking but also felt a bit like flying—to this day, I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed harder or longer than the day I got my score back on that test. Excellence has its comforts, too, but it comes with responsibility. Mediocrity places no demands. And if unimportance takes the shine off of my achievements, it also takes the sting out of the harm I’ve caused. You have to matter to someone in order to hurt them.
After the party I drove a friend back to his hotel room, and on the way he told me stories about how good a friend I’d been to him, back in the day. I wanted to argue with him, to tell him that I was nothing special, then or now. I wanted to insist, and by insisting, to take away something from his story, something which he treasures. What would I take from anyone to keep myself comfortable, to avoid the responsibility of living up to being something? I kept my insistence to myself, and sat and listened to his stories, and gave him a hug before we parted.
This isn’t ending where it began, which I suppose is appropriate. I’m learning. At least, I’m trying.