As a former colleague of mine used to say—and I mean this in the kindest way to every recent graduate reading this column—”Listen to me very carefully.” What you don’t know about life, the workplace, relationships and love is a lot. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying you should. Despite the omnipresent news cycle that has supplied the backdrop of your life, the immediacy and attainability of almost everyone and everything everywhere on the planet that has shaped almost every aspect of your existence, and the fact that you have never once had to wait for reruns to see a favorite episode of a television show, you have much to learn. It takes real life, away from school and textbooks and smartboards and seminars, to teach you. And almost 40 years past my own high school graduation, I’m no expert. But that’s the real lesson here, the real truth that no one seems to ever tell you: No one is.
Be warned: What follows may well be your life in the years ahead. You wake up, kill a stinkbug that looks completely at ease perched on the bathroom faucet, rouse your children, tell them again to hang up their sodden towels, then remind them to put the cereal and milk away and comb their hair before leaving the house. Then you start a load of laundry, go to work or go about your day, concentrate as much as possible on the responsibilities for which you earn your wages or that go into managing your home, and then prepare a dinner that may or may not include all the food groups or all the family members. Then it’s time to run around in or out of the house completing the next set of agenda items, then fall asleep during the show you DVR-ed last week.
Enthralling, right? Fascinating, I know. Again, listen to me very carefully. This doesn’t sound all that exhilarating, but that’s my point. Unless you’re counting on world renown of one kind or another, with some minor adjustments, you’ll live some version of this life. My husband and I have for the past 30 years. So has everyone we know—and our friends and family cover a broad spectrum of ages, household incomes, and lifestyles. Regardless of the things that surround us or what degrees we hold, we are all living that unglamorous life you never see depicted on Bravo or read about on Twitter.
It’s fabulous and it’s good and not so good and then great and then pretty hard and then really hard and then funny and then relentless, and then it’s okay and then it makes you crazy. Jobs come and go. They can be a source of enormous accomplishment or a source of enormous stress—sometimes simultaneously. Maybe you’ll fall in love a bunch of times. Or maybe just once, and you’ll try to imagine living through the next couple of decades with that person. You may even do it. But you’ll also find that people move in and out of your life for reasons you may never fully understand. Children arrive and turn a couple into parents overnight. Families and friends appear and start a new chapter for you; but they disappear, too, and you’ll figure out how to manage the loss and the sadness because things will never really be the same. Life disappoints you; life delights you. You make mistakes. You learn from them. Or you don’t.
What I hope you’ll take away from this is that life is not one unending upward trajectory toward awesome.
Through it all, it’s unlikely you’ll remember the speeches you heard at graduation. You’ll be busy creating a life, a home, maybe a family. I hope you’ll live in a place that brings you comfort and a bit of sanctuary. You’ll pay your bills and walk the dog and plant some flowers and match up the socks that come out of the dryer and hug your kids and put away groceries and take out the recycling. You’ll wonder if marriage is supposed to be this hard or this fantastic—sometimes in the same week, sometimes in the same day. Once in a while you’ll read an outstanding book or see a memorable movie or play. You’ll find yourself at a Mumford and Sons concert in 2035 and remember every detail of how you discovered their music when you were 15. You’ll laugh and cry with friends or family. You’ll forgive and ask forgiveness. You’ll raise your children and, if you’re fortunate, one day you realize that you’d like them even if they weren’t your kids. You may find some time to give back to your community, and share your own unique gifts with others.
The days will become the weeks that become the years that become your life. Soon enough—and I know this sounds crazy—you’ll be 40 years past your own graduation.
One more time, listen to me very carefully. Please don’t spend the next 20 or 30 years thinking or saying things like this: Once we buy a house, or a bigger house, everything will be better. Once I drive the latest model, it will be better. Once I get a raise, it will be better. Once we take that trip to Europe, it will be better. I just need the 1,000-thread-count cotton duvet/the spa vacation/the projection home theater and it will be better.
It won’t be. That will never happen, so don’t waste time waiting for life to get better because of an event or a thing or an activity. Not one of those things will really make a difference to your happiness—not one. “It” will get better because of you and what you say, what you do, what you are to yourself and those around you.
Anyway, I’m pretty sure that’s all true. I’m still figuring it out, too.
Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations’: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. Her blog, It’s Not Me, It’s You, addresses topics that mystify her on a regular basis.