My favorite Psychology professor once posed a seemingly simple question to a small group of seniors. “If you knew at the beginning of a long and challenging journey just how hard it would become, would you still take the first step?”
I think about this question often, with some similar variations:
If you knew on the first date how painful the miscommunications would prove to be years later, would you still put yourself out there?
If you knew when you gave that first pitch for your business idea how much effort, time, and potential failure it would take to eventually arrive at a place in your career that you’re truly proud of, would you still pay those dues?
A week ago, while visiting my family in Colorado, I spent several hours in my parents’ garage sorting through bin after bin of photos, memorabilia, and random saved objects from my young life. It became apparent as I sifted through three decades of captured moments that during each period of my life I’d found someone, or something, to feel inspired, challenged, and deeply motivated by. I pursued and fell hard for the women I loved. I set goals in other areas of my life and went unapologetically after them. Despite my best efforts, I often missed or fell short.
I rummaged through memories that many of us have buried somewhere: photos from childhood vacations, prom bow ties, scholarships, clippings from the school or town newspaper, trinkets that have no perceived value or relevance to anyone else. My family owned a photography business for three generations, so it’s likely that I have more photos than most. It’s a gift and a curse.
Of the objects that had been saved, one group of hand-written notes stood out the most. Throughout my young life, my mom would send notes along with me in my backpack or lunch, buried in my college care package, or in my suitcase to NYC. Each one reminding me that she was there for me no matter what.
She dated each note, making it possible to cross reference which phase of my life I was navigating when they were sent. I can still put myself in those moments when I first read them. They’re like little bookmarks now, and I’m grateful for them, and for her.
Standing in my parents’ garage at 1am on my 33rd birthday, I was floored by the unconditional and persistent love my mom had shown me, deliberately and regularly, throughout my entire life. She didn’t for a single second let me wonder if she supported me. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that I wasn’t alone on this journey, and that I was one of the most important people in her life. Throughout childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, I would read each new note, smile, and put it in a drawer. Decades later, as I pare down the things that I keep as an adult, I’m amazed by the fact that I somehow knew to keep them. I don’t usually keep cards from anyone, but I kept dozens from her.
I will admit, I fully expected to be most affected by the reminders of lost loves or the missed potential of parallel life paths that I had chosen not to follow, the myriad directions that my life could have gone that would have somehow been better. Over 33 years, it seems one can’t help but accumulate a fair share of what-ifs.
While there were hundreds of smile-inducing memories in these dusty bins, there were challenging flashbacks as well. Funeral programs for family members who helped shape, guide, and teach me, or a few remaining custom guitar picks from my own wedding invitations. There were notes from girls who loved me then, from directors and professors who believed in me, and from old friendships that, without intention or malice, ended unceremoniously (much like Richard Parker in Life of Pi). Reminders, all, of how briefly we are able to share proximity, experience, love, and meaningful moments of our lives.
These challenging memories, the ones that trigger a wave of nostalgia, reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If I was able to erase these tough memories, would I? Without hesitation, I absolutely would not.
Retroactively removing difficult memories would be far worse than keeping them, because as long as you have them, you can learn from them. “Without the bitter, the sweet ain’t as sweet.”
At a wedding recently, my friend Charlie’s father made an excellent toast, and the closing phrase has been on my mind ever since. He raised his glass and said with a wise, challenging confidence, “Tomorrow is promised to no one.”
Tomorrow really is promised to no one, and the past is just a story we tell ourselves. The goal then, I suppose, is to take what we’ve learned from the journey so far and use it to make the next chapter one that we’re truly proud of, regardless of the outcome.