There’s a memory I have from high school, of my best friend and I staying up late one night conversing. It must have been one or two in the morning, and we were sitting on the floor of my cramped little bedroom, talking about the future, and our plans for it. We spoke in hushed tones because it was late and the walls were very thin, but even so, if my parents had been awake they would have been able to hear the excitement in our voices. Everything was so clear; we knew in the way that only 17-year-olds can that we were going to change the world.
If you were to look around the room and see the science fiction novels lining the walls, then my plans to build space ships and take mankind to the stars might not be so surprising. Too, I’d recently been accepted to a prestigious engineering school. My friend, on the other hand, was deep in the throes of a spiritual awakening at that point, his head full of Eastern philosophy, life energies, and Earth connections. He was going to save humanity’s souls.
I can still remember quite clearly the elation we both felt that night. My friend was so excited that at one point he put a hand out to touch the wall, the world being such a wonderful place just then that he needed a physical connection to it. Upon realizing what he was doing, he immediately laughed at himself. It seemed like nothing would ever wear the shine off of our lives.
I think about that night from time to time and smile, but sometimes it occurs to me to wonder whether, if my 17-year-old self were to meet my 30-year-old self, would he like me? And if I’m being honest to myself, I have to admit that the answer is, “No.”
Oh, I suppose I might seem a good guy to my young self. I remember telling my friend something like, “You can be proud of any job as long as you do it well” when we encountered a man in his 60s working at our Carl’s Jr. The young me who said things like that might be forgiving of my current life. On the other hand, I also remember once when a summer boss of mine asked why I wasn’t excited that he and I would be in the local paper, I casually declared, “I don’t want to be in the newspaper; I want to be in the textbooks.”
The thing is, I’m pretty content with my life. I make a decent living, and I’m fairly well-respected by my peers and co-workers. I have good friends, and I love my family. I manage to find time for creative outlets in the evenings and on the weekend — writing, taking photographs, and working on my web site. It’s exactly the kind of life that once made me accuse my mom (and, by extension, her whole generation) of being a sell-out. And how much worse would it sting for the young me to see that it would happen to him, too?
What’s interesting to me is how little I care about having left those dreams by the wayside. I switched my engineering focus from aerospace to electronics as soon as I realized that I was neither good at nor interested in the kinds of math involved with things like air flows and tensile strengths. I moved away from the big company promotion track when I realized that I didn’t like either the company I worked for or the city I lived in. At every step, moving away from my teenage plans has been the right choice, and it’s led me closer to a life that I actually enjoy.
It sometimes seems like there ought to be more of a feeling of sadness or regret at abandoning my youthful plans, but there really isn’t. Growing up is in large part about learning what’s really important. For me, now, it’s taking care of the people around me and finding happiness in the details. Heck, even just figuring out my lunch is more important to me now than space travel.
What about you, though? Which of your childhood goals have you accomplished, which are you still working toward, and which have you forgotten? How would your younger self feel about that, and how do you feel about it now?
“Launch of Apollo 15” Wikimedia Commons