At 16 the world is filled with possibilities. Every choice made closes some doors as it opens others. At 16, most doors are still there, waiting. At 16 my bedroom was filled with mailings from colleges; as a high school junior I had just taken exams and was starting to decide what I wanted to do.
Each brochure was a window into a possible future. I studied each one, wondering, what if; what if I went to this small college in a far away state; what if I decided to go to school in a large city. My potential choices were in the best of all realms, that of pure fantasy. I didn’t need to worry, yet, about things like how much the college would cost or whether I’d be accepted; it was just my personal fantasies of the amazingly adult, interesting person I’d be.
I didn’t have a clue what I’d do with my life or what I’d be in five years, let alone the 40 plus years that have happened since I was 16. I knew, with absolute certainty, that I hated the Chicago suburbs where I lived and that I didn’t want to stay there a minute more than was necessary. I had somehow stumbled onto Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities and was enthralled with her vision of a community instead of a subdivision.
It was clear to me that my life would be exciting, dramatic, meaningful. Just exactly how that would happen, I didn’t have a clue.
Fast forward to now. More than 40 years later. I did escape the suburbs, and I still remain grateful for that. I stumbled onto what turned out to be a career. I’ve been able to support myself. I’ve been married twice; one ended in divorce, one in death. I’ve spend most of my adult life single, which was not what I expected, but I’ve done so successfully.
As I approach the end of my 50s I realize that I have as little insight into what my future will be as that 16 year old. What I do know more about, however, is who I am. Just like that girl, I still believe that most people are good, and that change is always possible. I’m much better at detecting whom to trust and when a situation is one I should back slowly away from.
My life is not much like what I thought it would be at, and that’s good. I can’t think of any curse worse than having your life be what you thought it would be at 16.
That young girl knew so little about people. She didn’t realize how important friends would be, mainly because at 16 it was so easy to find new friends. She had no idea that true friends, the ones you keep for a lifetime, the ones that celebrate the good and support you during the bad, are rare and precious. She was clueless about careers and work. So many new jobs have come about since then, and she’s spent most of her life working in fields that didn’t even exist then.
Most important, that 16 year old lacked confidence in her ability to create a good and meaningful life. She looked to other people to do that for her. She worried a lot about what other people thought about how she was dressed, what she was saying, what she was doing, even how she looked dancing. I’m past that now. I’ve grown up. My life hasn’t been as exciting and dramatic as I wanted at 16, but one big life lesson learned is that excitement and drama are a lot more enjoyable from the outside than when it is your life experience. I’ve learned that I can do a damn fine job taking care of things. I’ve figured out who I am, and I mostly like it, and if other people don’t that’s their problem, not mine. I am so much more of a person than I was at 16, and so much more than I ever could have managed becoming.