Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Life on the Off Ramp

When I was a grad student at Syracuse University, I took a course in media criticism. It was taught by a visiting lecturer who flew up from Washington DC once a week to fill in for the full time professor who had suddenly vacated his post. I believe our instructor was a past president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or some similar entity which would have been suitably impressive to the hopeful future broadcasters in the class.

One day, apropos of nothing I could discern, he drew a timeline on the marker board representing the various stages of human development. At about the twenty year point he drew a tick mark and labeled it “relationships.” Apparently we humans are supposed to begin mastering the ability to form committed, long term relationships with significant others at that age. He marked various other stages along the line culminating with self actualization – that point where you become a very successful human in all dimensions.

Then he said something which froze me in my seat. He said that you must master each skill in sequence and that if you become stuck at any point, you can not progress to the next. I was staring hard at the relationship tick mark and I knew at that moment that my life was destined to fail.

Even in my twenties, I had already fallen behind in the march along the human development line. I couldn’t recall any successful relationships to that point, not even with my own parents. They were the caretakers who ignored me most of the time except for those occasions when they chose to actively thwart any aspirations I might show.

As a boy, the neighborhood kids would torment me. I got picked on, beaten up, and had stones thrown at me any time I ventured outside. To this day I don’t know why I elicited so much negative attention, but the fear I developed remains with me. I am afraid of the world that exists beyond my apartment door. It is a hostile place.

Yet I remained unrealistically optimistic. Ever since I first began to contemplate my own life and compare it to others, I have felt that I can overcome everything and still live the life I fantasize. There was always tomorrow. Such ungrounded optimism must be something that is hard wired into me. There is no basis for it in reality.

Now that I am in my sixties, I realize that the direction of my life is unlikely to change much. There is no precedent for suddenly popping back to that twenty year tick mark and hitting the play button. Aside from all the psychological baggage, there is the physical reality of aging that hinders making up for forty lost years.

Sometimes I think about the boy I once was. He was quiet and gentle, a fair skinned red head with freckles, and a sunny disposition. I want to protect him. I don’t want him to become cynical and bitter. I want to teach him the lessons I have learned through all the years and tears of my life. I want him to live his life fully and not wait for a better day to come. But I can not do anything for that boy. It is too late.

I believe that the visiting professor left something off his diagram. I think that there are alternate branches for those of us who live a compromised life. Instead of progressing in a straight line towards self-actualization, there are paths to other destinations. One of those destinations is self-acceptance. That is the point where one realizes that he will never achieve the happy and successful life he has so desperately chased for most of his life, but he can settle for the comfortable realization that he did the best he could with what he had to work with.

No comments:

Post a Comment