Once upon a time, I was a young man.
No, really. It’s true.
We were all young once. And youth is great. One of the best things about being young is that it seems everything is still in front of you. When you see this most is when you talk to high school kids, kids that are old enough now to have a sense of what they are going to want to do, want to be in the future, but as yet no sense of mortality. They have no sense of, as CS Lewis says, how soon the tether begins to pull, how fast one begins to say “I just won’t get to that.” They think they can do anything.
And they can. But they cannot do everything. Ay, says Hamlet, there’s the rub. The young are all potential, with every branch of the tree still above them. It does not occur to them that choosing one branch means that there are whole sides of the tree they will never climb.
I have a high school kid in my house right now, and he’s a great kid. He has essentially unlimited potential. He gets (get this) straight A’s. Whatever is possible to humans is possible to him.
I remember that very well. I remember an endless string of “student has enormous potential” on my report cards. The “you are a royal and chosen generation” speeches. The valedictory addresses where we heard “we are the future”. I remember all that so very clearly. I also remember choosing politics right out of school. What I do NOT remember is someone saying to me “this means you are not going to be a lawyer, and you need to understand that.” I remember deciding that I didn’t have time to lift weights every day. I do NOT remember anyone saying to me “you will now never dunk a basketball in this life.” I married Jeanette, and I therefore did not marry anyone else.
Every one of those positive choices carries with it a negative choice as well, or more accurately, thousands of negative choices. By negative, I do not mean to imply “bad”. I do not think I would like legal work, so I am, in retrospect, glad that I chose to work for Dixie Thompson’s campaign instead, even though she lost (a pattern often repeated). I married Jeanette because I wanted to, and I’ve not regretted that decision for one second. By negative I rather mean that for everything I decided to do, there were thousands of things I then decided not to do. Some of those things I wouldn’t have liked much. Some of them I would have loved.
This occurs to me most powerfully whenever I perform on stage. I am a good singer and a decent actor, good enough for community theater or even light professional theater in certain character roles. I love theater. Something happens on stage that is more magical than words can describe. And although I am decent, I could have been quite good. Could have. At the very least there are dozens of productions I could be involved in anyway. If I chose. But I made different choices.
I chose to have a job – actually, I chose to own a company. I chose to have a family. A large family. I chose to remain a devout, hymn-singing religious fanatic in a church that would demand that I serve in it several hours a week. I chose the Chamber of Commerce (mostly for my job) and the Rotary Club (mostly for Steve Roll, but that’s another post). I chose to remain active in politics and to go to my kids’ concerts and recitals and to spend time with my wife. These are not bad choices. But they are choices. They have meant that some things that I dearly love I cannot do.
Nobody tells you this when you’re young. I wake up one day and realize that my “potential” period is over. There are some heights I won’t reach, even on the branch I chose to climb. We have seven children, but we will not have ten. I will not be President of the United States, or even Senator. I will not be on the cover of Fortune magazine, and we will not be in the Fortune 500 here at the Group. I will not even be in Utah Business Magazine’s “Forty Under 40″ feature edition. This is not meant to be a litany of disaster, but it is sad. For me, it is sad. What happened to all that “unlimited potential”?
When I was 22, I won the BYU one-on-one basketball intramural championship. Last basketball season, when our church team’s starting point guard fouled out in the championship game, I was the one that needed to take over and get the team into the offense to give us a chance to win. And I couldn’t do it. I was too slow, didn’t have a good enough handle, just wasn’t physically able to do what the team needed me to do. The worst part is I know that once, I could have.
Physical limitations we are familiar with and we discuss on a fairly regular basis. We see them in front of us in professional sports as the stars rise and fall. To an extent, then, we have “priced that in” to our experience. It feels terrible, but inevitable. But there are other things that we don’t price in and don’t discuss – things like the middle manager that realizes he’s being passed by younger men on their way up the ladder, and that he will never rise to the top. Remember Bob Paar (Mr. Incredible), sitting in that cubicle at the insurance company, knowing that this is all there is for him. One of the reasons I love that film is that I can understand that feeling.
For Bob, though, he still is Mr. Incredible and with a little work, he really can throw huge robots down the financial district. That’s what makes that movie so great – Bob does what I want to do, what so, so many of my friends wish they could do. See, we used to be Mr. Incredible, too, only for us, once we got into the cube farm, we lost a lot of our super powers. Bob Paar is just pretending to be like everyone else, when he’s really still a superhero. But we’re not pretending to be normal. Not anymore.
Now, we really are.
This post started to be about why I have trouble blogging regularly, but the simple explanation is not for me, obviously. Thank goodness I have a training class today where I don’t have anything serious to learn, and I can do this. I love blogging. I love writing. Oh, that I could do it more often. I wonder often if I became a better person, more organized, more disciplined, if that would allow me to fit everything in. But I hear a voice, way in the back, reminding me that this level of activity once was impossible, too. There are always branches that can’t be reached. There always will be. I will never be able to do everything.
I started to write that I wish someone had told me this when I was younger, but then I knew. I wouldn’t have believed them.
P.S. I re-read this and see that it is fairly relentlessly depressing. I am not depressed. Really. I can’t ignore that there are heights I won’t reach and dreams I won’t see realized, no matter what I do, but I am also very cognizant of the fact that I am already on top of mountains I hardly dared to believe I could climb. I’m not sad about the choices I made, and I wouldn’t change them. That doesn’t mean a certain amount of “what if” doesn’t occur to me every day. Doesn’t it to you?