Life decisions vs. expectations
As a salute to hubris, I’ve affixed a sticker to my car window that announces that I am a member of Phi Beta Kappa. While I am and should be proud of that accomplishment, it bears little importance in day-to-day life. What does it say about me? I did well in college. What about after that? How about an evaluation of how I did as a parent, a neighbor, a sibling, a wife, a friend. Did my performance as an employee say anything? Was I an engaged member of my community? Did I care? There are no stickers for any of those things.
There is this friend, a man whose hands are marked with callouses, callouses that herald his success as a master carpenter. But those hallmarks, those “stickers” only tell part of the story. He is more than his expertise in joinery.
I asked him, when he was last at our house, if I could interview him for this column. At the time he was up on a ladder, replacing one of those can lights that are way beyond my spouse and I’s abilities to fix. He stopped working, stepped down off the ladder, wiped his hands and asked, “Why would you want to interview me?”
From my perspective, that of someone who has known him for more than 40 years, the answer was clear. His dramatic perfectionism and skills are rare, in very short supply.
“How did you acquire your abilities to …” and I pointed to the front of the fireplace that is held together without a nail “do that? Did you learn it in school?”
The word school elicited a physical reaction. “School did nothing for me. A waste of time. I learned by doing.”
Prompting him, I recalled chats I had with his mother, who I also counted as a friend.
“Your mom was so proud of the house you built for her. I remember that we were both worried about you getting health insurance?”
For a minute I thought that he would respond. And he did … sort of. He began to describe what his life’s plans were early on, but before I could explain a bit more, he continued, “I learned from every job I’ve ever done.” He paused and headed back up the ladder. “My life is nothing to write about. I’ve made so many bad decisions.”
I thought again about his evaluation of his life by counting what he described as bad decisions. We all make them. I have a laundry list of them – some I made on purpose, some were accidental and some were foisted upon me.
There was this fabulous job at a fabulous salary with a fancy office, a secretary and all that kind of stuff that I turned down. I did that because the man who would have been my boss told me that I would be working at least 60 hours a week. It wasn’t the 60 hours as much as the fact that I had two children that needed a mother. My youngest was only three years old at the time. Those hours with my kids were not negotiable. So I turned down a job that would have paid four times my then-current salary. Did that mean that was a bad decision? How would my ability to live comfortably been different had I taken that job? Boy, would it have. What would I have missed and what would my children have missed? Did I have mixed thoughts about that decision? You bet.
I certainly wouldn’t have been able to take another job at a much lower salary where I was able to create a lot of good things for some very needy people. If I had been a single mother would my decision been different? Probably.
What about the decision, made with great deliberation, to have my right hip replaced? All of the information that I had at the time said that this was a good move. It was not. Not since Feb. 22, 2018, have I been able to walk without considerable pain or a limp. Good or bad decision? I decided on the surgery so that I could more easily participate in vacations with my family, go on hikes with my grandchildren. Now, walking to my car is an effort. The cost has been physical and monetarily great.
Any hope of being a ballerina has been dashed and my ice skating career is basically over. I’ve had to adopt a less mobile approach to living. I now use something called an “all terrain upright walker with a seat” to attend my grandsons’ soccer games.
For either of these examples, I’ve supported or adjusted my goals or the paths I’ve used to reach my goals. Regret for a seemingly bad decision has to be tempered by all of the results.
Thinking about my 40-year friend, he has faced some daunting challenges in his life. Whether they were the result of his bad decisions or not, he has weathered whatever storms they created well. His skills are only exceeded by his kindnesses. The people with whom and for whom he has worked have only praise to add to his name. Sometimes, when you reach your 60s, you start to look at the present in terms of your past expectations and previous aspirations and this can leave you dissatisfied, unhappy with who you are and what you’ve accomplished. Then is not now. The world has changed, and so have you.
I guess the evaluation of a decision is decided by what yardstick you use to measure it. In life, plans change and goals that were affected by what one considers a bad decision might have not been good goals at all. That bad decision just may have opened up opportunities for something that, if not better, is equally satisfying. And then, when the results of a bad decision are permanent, you have to work on reorganizing who you are with what you have, where you are. (Thank you to Theodore Roosevelt).
“Sticker-wise,” here are two that apply:
“It seemed like a good idea at the time” and “when one door closes, others open.”
In teaching, there is this mantra …when things aren’t going as planned, “monitor and adjust.”
Maybe we should have a sticker that says, “life is a work in progress.”