Welcome to 2020, the beginning of a new decade. I have started this year (and decade) with a rather persistent cold, but one that has not been unable to prevent me from doing my work and spending time with my family while we are mostly all home. What follows is a meditation on the idea of “owning your life” and the implications of doing so.
What frightens people the most is the idea that their life is their own, and that they are responsible for every part of it.
We, humans, are born early because our heads are too large to allow a longer gestation period. We’re also born completely helpless, with zero ability to take care of ourselves until we mature, sometime between, say, thirteen and fifty-three years old. When you are born, the humans that thrust you into this life without your consent, and maybe without knowing they were doing so, are responsible for your life.
As you develop, you are infected by your parents with their beliefs, their habits, and their values. The researchers who spend time working on how our subconscious mind works believe it is formed by the time you are six or seven years old and that it controls all but five percent of your actions. Around that time, you go to school, where you are further programmed to ensure you conform to your cultural and societal norms, including what others expect of you.
You parents are responsible for raising you, making you their dependent. Your teachers are responsible for educating you, making you their student. Once you start working, your manager is responsible for directing your work, making you their employee. The head of your faith tradition is responsible for guidance as it comes to your soul. Your ideas about what you are supposed to do with a life is deeply embedded in you, without your knowledge or consent.
Your Future Regrets
“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” – Henry David Thoreau
Because this is true, your idea of a good life isn’t likely your own, which isn’t to say it’s all bad, only that it may have limited your choices. When people have a midlife crisis, in large part, it is because they wake up to the fact that they are living a single and relatively short life that is not of their choosing. No matter your age, recognizing that your life is your own can be a shattering realization—and a call to action.
When the great polemicist, Christopher Hitchens, was dying of esophageal cancer, he wrote about his mortality in monthly columns in Vanity Fair. In one column, he wrote about the idea of choosing one’s “future regrets,” a concept with stunning implications. There isn’t a reason to live a life of quiet desperation when you can do otherwise. Choosing to do otherwise, however, means being fully accountable for your own life, something that starts with deciding what you want your life to be, what you want it to mean, and how you want it to look. Living a life at odds with what you want is a recipe for future regrets.
“Why join the Navy when you can be a pirate.” – Steve Jobs
Whenever I read this quote, I think of the accountant sitting at their desk in New Jersey, dreaming of owning a biker bar in Idaho. In his heart, he’s a pirate. He is not the protagonist in the story he is living. He is an extra in someone else’s story.
Any perceived gap between the life you want and the life you are living belongs to you and you alone. You are responsible for closing that gap, should that be your desire. While there is no requirement that one is selfish, caring only about what they want, there is also no reason to be selfless, giving up what you want to please others or conform to expectations installed by others.
It’s simpler to accept your programming, setting aside what you want for the much easier path of conformity and the lower expectations that accompany that path. The easy way allows you to avoid confronting the gap, excusing you from acting on your behalf. It’s more challenging to take a steely-eyed look at your life, accepting full accountability for whatever it is or isn’t, blaming no one, and making no excuses. Doing so is the path to transformation, becoming, and living a life of your choosing—and your design.
“This brother is free. I’ll be what I want to be.” – Steely Dan (from Deacon Blues)
There isn’t a better place from which to start the New Year and the New Decade than deciding what you want from your time here. I don’t pretend the idea is easy, and I write these words knowing they are lost on many but will ring true for the few who receive them as a call to action.
You never have to ask for or wait for permission to live the life you want. You have the power to choose your future regrets, and you should choose them wisely. There is no reason for you to be the person most disappointed with your life.