When I was in college, I had a job in the student accounts office. Every afternoon, it was my responsibility to reconcile the day’s receipts – to make sure that the total of cash and checks in stacks on my desk matched the ledger of payments made. It was meticulous and systematized work. And it had to happen every day. It was inexorable: I knew that every afternoon I would clock in precisely at 3:00 and spend the next two hours with my pencil, adding machine, and a stack of account ledgers.
One spring afternoon, late in my junior year, a friend convinced me to skip work in favor of a trip to the park. This was completely against my sense of responsibility. It took a lot of cajoling and needling on my friend’s part to convince me to be truant. Once I agreed, however, I felt something akin to the spring sap in the trees coursing through my own blood stream and I was lost to the glee of the moment. I had no excuse, so I didn’t call my boss to tell her I wouldn’t be in. I just didn’t show up.
We had a great time at the park – I felt a bit guilty at first, but that soon gave way to the exhilaration of playing with abandon. In that world before cell phones, no one knew where we were, no one could reach us with sober responsibilities: we were free!
Returning to campus later, everyone I saw asked where I had been. “Mrs. Peacock was looking for you. She was worried when you didn’t show up for work.” It seemed that every student on campus had reason to stop by the student accounts office that afternoon, only to be questioned by a concerned Mrs. Peacock about whether they had seen me.
I spent the next day with my stomach roiling from a soupy mess of anxiety, dread, and regret. I had no idea what would happen when I arrived at work that afternoon, but I felt certain that I deserved whatever consequences Mrs. Peacock served up. A tiny part of me resented that this awful feeling was the price of one carefree afternoon. I felt remorse about causing concern and extra work for my boss, along with a generalized shameful flush of self-loathing: I was a bad person for shirking responsibility – people of character don’t just skip work to have fun.
All these years later, it doesn’t really matter what happened when I was finally face-to-face with Mrs. Peacock. Obviously, I survived.
This could be a story about learning to accept responsibility, about showing up when you’re counted on, or about facing the consequences of your choices. OR, it could be a story about throwing off the shackles, making the best choices for yourself regardless of censure from others, choosing to live life fully in the face of pressure to conform to rigid social norms.
It could be a story about one perfect, pure afternoon of sunlight and laughter at Flora Park: a last gasp of childhood before fully facing the realities of the adult world.
It might be none of those.
That is the gift that time bestows on our choices: we can reflect upon them and see them from a variety of perspectives. Many of life’s stories can be crafted with multiple meanings, constructed as metaphors for a wide range of life lessons.
It is infinitely harder to construe meaning, much less multiple possible lessons, from the choices we are living with right now. We make choices and we live with those choices. Often, we must live with those choices regardless of how stressful or difficult or unfulfilling they turn out to be. In a world rife with inspirational quotes and “blame yourself” memes (“Everything you do is based on the choices you make. It’s not your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age that is to blame. You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make. Period.” – Wayne Dyer) we learn that it isn’t ok to be unhappy with the consequences of our choices. Suck it up, buttercup – or make a different choice.
But what if it isn’t that simple? Just yesterday a friend commented, “…things are more stressful than I would like. And I see no way to change the choices we’ve made.” What if the choice is right, but the consequences, what we live with right now, are painful? What if, regardless of whether we chose rightly or wrongly, choosing differently now is out of reach financially, or prohibitively impactful in the lives of others who depend on us (children, elderly parents, etc.)?
Sometimes, the resources required to change the choice you’ve made are not simply inner resources – they are real resources you don’t have – like money, time, or knowledge. Lack of those resources might be insurmountable in this moment. What now?
These are the places where we get stuck, and there are no easy solutions for getting unstuck. Since there are no easy solutions, perhaps it would be best if we merely tried to withhold judgment – of ourselves or of others. From the outside, life might look static, like we are simply living inside the painful choice we’ve made. But on the inside, what if it could feel like we’re proactively holding space for what will emerge? If we replace self-loathing (the roiling stomach of anxiety, dread, and regret) with self-loving-kindness, with compassion, for the flawed, human person who made these choices?
Eventually, someone will emerge from the painful choice-cocoon we’ve constructed for ourselves. There will be time, then, to craft meaning and construct metaphors and life lessons; to articulate how our choices helped define the someone who emerged. Clarity tends to come upon reflection rather than in the immediacy of now. And because the attribution of meaning is one of – if not THE – great gifts of time, we have to wait for it. It can’t be rushed.