“I know enough of the world now to have almost lost the capacity of being much surprised by anything.” –Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
“But better to get hurt by the truth than comforted with a lie.” –Khaled Hosseini
Watching the news lately is a horrifying experience for me. A couple nights ago, I was listening to the anchor detail the skyrocketing number of hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 all across America, leading some states to begin to place restrictions on schools and businesses, as well as announce mask mandates and recommendations for gathering sizes. The next story relayed the pushback from the new restrictions, including the angry, sometimes-gun-wielding protesters refusing to wear masks, claiming their rights are being violated by having to cover their nose and mouth before entering places like the grocery store (or the hospital where their loved ones are dying from COVID).
My first reaction was to wonder which story was more sad. Because seriously, a quarter of a MILLION dead Americans is a truly depressing thing to consider, especially when you know it didn’t have to be this way. But how about those anti-maskers, demanding the right to harm their community members because they don’t want to be inconvenienced? I couldn’t help but be captivated by these folks and their line of reasoning, such a sucker am I for a peak into how others view the world we all share.
So I started thinking of other things these folks probably do in the course of their daily routines that are the same as you or I do, none of us ever wondering why or protesting the oppression of it all. I am guessing most of those people who won’t be shackled by the oppressive mask probably put on a shirt and shoes before they enter a store. They probably cover up their genitals with a swimsuit or other clothing at the public pool or beach, even on really hot days. I would bet that they stay reasonably close to the speed limit when they drive, or at least slow enough that they keep control of the car and not hurt themselves or anybody else. They probably even wear a seatbelt, follow the rules of the road, and have auto insurance, all things designed to protect oneself and the people around you. I do all of those things, and I am guessing you do, too. I haven’t seen any protests about those fascist speed limits lately. No gun-toting folks storming the state capitol building about those pesky indecent exposure laws. Not even anyone plotting to kidnap the governor over that dictatorial “No Shirt No Shoes No Service” policy the stores continue to enforce.
And yet, that mask. That thin layer of cloth covering the nose and mouth in a global pandemic of a respiratory virus. Yes, that is a bridge too far for these folks. That is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, the hill they choose to die on. The utter absurdity of this is staggering to me.
REALLY, PEOPLE? REALLY??????????
This whole thought exercise, besides just making me sad and angry, serves as an unpleasant reminder of how, despite myriad examples over the years, I am continually floored by how petty and ignorant grown folks tend to be throughout their lives. I say it floors me, but it shouldn’t, because, as I said, I have seen it over and over as I have aged. I think its power to shock me must be in its historical place in my mind.
You see, growing up, like most kids, I was taught to respect adults and do what they say. I never wanted to disappoint a teacher, coach, principal, neighbor, or even a friend’s parent. Somewhere in that superstructure of respect, I guess I unconsciously bestowed upon all adults a lofty presumption of maturity and moral superiority. I believed that with all of those years under their belts, they must be highly evolved beings, sure to make the wisest decisions, with everyone’s best interests at heart.
It seems that most generations, as they seek out their independence and navigate their late teens and twenties, begin to question those who came before them and attempt to buck the system a bit. I had some of that in those years. However, it is only as I have aged, especially as I moved into my thirties and forties and watched my own generation move into full-fledged adulthood and my parents’ generation move to senior status, that I have come face-to-face with the frightening reality that folks don’t really mature all that much. There is a suffocating normalcy to pettiness and small-mindedness. Ignorance persists. I find myself often comparing people in their forties, sixties, even eighties to high school students or elementary students. Stunted. (Sadly, I have also been amazed at how much mental illness is out there, and I know that plays into some of this stuntedness.)
Even after studying adults for decades, this immaturity is still hard to wrap my mind around. It has probably been my single biggest surprise about this thing called Life. I totally had it wrong from how I thought things worked when I was a kid. It may be the biggest, but it’s not the only thing that has come to surprise me. And I don’t mean about my own life; I definitely had that journey mapped out wrong in my head, too, though. I mean Life—capital L—in general. The way of the world. How things are. You know: Life.
I suppose it is fitting that I guessed wrong about the wisdom and maturity of adults, because I also have been surprised, as I have aged, to learn how “young” a person feels inside (the spirit, the mind, etc.) when she gets old. I remember decades ago, my Grandma Jeanne once telling me how she still felt like a kid and had felt that way all of her life long (and she seemed so old to me then). I didn’t get it at all and assumed she was the lone exception. My 75-year-old mother talks the same way now, and I can feel that in her. Heck, I still feel my young self inside my nearly half-century-old shell, despite all these extra scars and wrinkles from a full life lived. I’m still silly. I still want to play sports and have adventures and eat candy. I think my spirit might even feel more free now than then.
When I was young, adults always seemed old; I didn’t think I could relate to them. Now I am that age, AND I work with a lot of kids, and I can tell that they are thinking the same thing about me. I want to have real conversations with them—feeling myself near to their age and in touch with what they are going through—and they are not the least bit interested. I am often reminded of my old teachers and coaches; they must have felt as frustrated and disappointed as I do now. We feel like it was just yesterday when we were that age and so of course we can relate to them, but they feel like we are not just a generation apart but rather eons. It is one giant missed opportunity in our culture (I tend to think that other cultures navigate this divide much better than we do).
That surprise about how young a person feels when she is old connects with my next surprise about Life: how astonishingly fast it moves. I did not see that coming at all when I was growing up! Along the same lines, I did not have any sense when I was young that Time goes faster the older you get, which, from my experience, it plainly does. I remember as a kid, when my parents said we had to wait two months until school was out or the next family trip or hockey season or whatever, it was like they were talking about some distant era when cars might be flying. That was so far in the future! The wait seemed unbearable. Similarly, when they talked about doing something when they were in high school, I could only picture that in black-and-white. Their life may as well have been with the dinosaurs. It was completely unrelatable to anything in my life. Meanwhile, even as a high schooler, ten years into the future seemed unimaginably far. Now I look at my kids and realize I have been a father for a dozen years and have had both of them for at least a decade. Where did that time go??? I feel for my parents, who are now wondering where the 50+ years went since they started having kids. I can already tell I will be pleading with Time to slow down for the rest of my life, begging for more of it as I approach my end. It just goes by so fast.
And even though I know that about Time intellectually, I still haven’t internalized it yet. I don’t think I am alone, either. We all seem shocked whenever we are confronted with another reminder from the calendar: when we turn another decade older, when our kids hit double digits, when we receive a graduation or wedding announcement in the mail from a “kid” we knew as an infant. This lesson about Time flying is one that seems to be an ongoing, until-the-day-you-die kind of surprise.
A whole new category of Life surprise for me has surrounded the stories our society grooms us on. I have been shocked to learn as an adult—often through my own research and critical thinking rather than anything suggested by the powers that be in media or government or even education—that almost all of these foundational stories are half-truths or outright falsehoods, and often quite fairy tale-ish in nature. As a kid who very much appreciated being thought of as on the winning team and one of the good guys, I totally ate up all of the wonderful, heroic things that American society tells its children not just about American history but also about Christianity (and religion in general). I find myself as an adult so often saying to myself things like, “Wow, we really have been a terrible people!” or, “How come I never learned that in school?” or, “How could any rational, clear-minded person truly believe that?”
I guess I hoped we were better than we have proven to be (in just about every way). It has surprised me how lowly-evolved we are. Human beings in groups are, on the whole, really horrible to each other and so very far from “enlightenment” in any aspect of our development. Given how lofty my beliefs were about us as a child, that has been a most unpleasant surprise. We are just not very good at any of it.
In examining all of these aspects of Life that have surprised me as I have aged, I notice that each of them is a disappointment, in varying degrees. That all by itself is pretty sad. Is that inevitable for a natural-born optimist like me? Are those of us who expect the best from people and from the world destined for disappointment? Maybe that is only for those of us who attempt to push past the superficiality of the stories we are told and look for the Truth in all matters. It may be more pleasant to believe only what suits us, but I think I will keep going for the Truth, even if it tends to rattle my foundation. I can evolve.
How about you? What has surprised you most about Life as you have aged? Open up your journal and take a deep dive into Existence and how you once imagined it to be. To begin with, how did you look at the world and the way things seemed to work when you were a kid? How did you view the adults in your world? How did you see authority figures? Did religion play a major role in how you understood the events of the world and your place in it? What role did your formal education play in your worldview? How did your heroes shape the way you saw your future? Did you believe that the way you grew up and the people around you were “normal” and basically the way things were everywhere else? What was your impression of people in general? Did you believe that most people were happy and living the way they desired to be? Did you feel that adults, even senior citizens, were relatable? How much trouble was out there in the world? What was your sense of Time and how quickly Life passed? Was your outlook on humanity and the world and the future generally a rosy one, or were you more pessimistic? Based on all of those aggregated impressions, what has surprised you most about Life? Has its speed surprised you? Does Time fly faster the older you get the way it does for me? When did you first get a sense of that? Will that keep surprising you until the end of your life? How about people? How do they surprise you? Are they generally better or worse than what you thought as a kid? Were you aware of all the addiction and mental illness in ordinary people all around you? How about your foundational beliefs about your country’s goodness or the righteousness of your religion? Have you come to doubt those stories that you were told? If so, is it more that you have learned the actual facts or is it just a general feeling that you have or a reasoned doubt? Are you more or less of a true believer now? Which direction do you see that heading in the years to come? Do you imagine that there are even more surprises in store for you beyond the ones you have already experienced, perhaps about relationships or priorities or views of death as it draws nearer? What has been your most pleasant surprise so far? How about your most disappointing? On the whole, have your surprises been more pleasant or unpleasant? Do you think that is due to how optimistic or pessimistic you were in the first place (i.e. optimists being more likely to be disappointed and vice versa)? Which one aspect of Life continually surprises you? Leave me a reply and let me know: What has surprised you most about Life?
P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it. Let’s grow our worlds together!
P.P.S. If this way of fleshing out your story appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.