You only get to do this once
“… one of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.” — The Interpretation of Cultures, by Clifford Geertz
How do we get from here to there, from youthful idealism, optimism and boundless energy where the whole world is your oyster to a rewarding life? Some people know right from the start where they want to go and what they want to be, but for lot of others, me included, it was a process, a step forward and one backward, but always moving. Do you adventure or buckle down, go back to school or learn life lessons? Stay in a relationship or move on?
I was very good at math as a kid, scoring much better on that section of the SAT than I did on the verbal. My ninth-grade algebra teacher, Mr. Fulton, told me in private that I was a natural at solving equations and to be prepared to be called out in class. I felt empowered. In college at Appalachian State, I started off taking physics for my science and planned to plow through all three levels of calculus while in Boone before transferring to N.C. State to become an engineer.
But it wasn’t to be. During my sophomore year, an English teacher pulled me aside. I had written a paper on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and she was profuse in her praise. She bragged about the English Department and primed my ego by talking to me as if I, a 20-year-old, understood Hemingway. She arranged a meeting with the department chair, and within a few days I was sold: after two difficult years of calculus and physics, I switched to English. Never really thought again about being an engineer.
I was thinking back on all this after talking to my son, Liam, last night. He’s excited, on cloud nine, because he’s graduating from UNC Charlotte. And he took a college path somewhat similar to mine. He originally went into economics and it didn’t click. After taking a general education class in philosophy, he chose that major. I’ve watched as his writing skills have sharpened and improved as he dove deep into the esoteric, complicated treatises of some of the world’s great thinkers.
So where to now for a young man in these strange and interesting times? And not just Liam, but all three of our children are young adults, all in their 20s, all carving out their place in this world. One truth is that it all can turn 180 degrees in one unsuspecting moment. Trust me, I know.
After earning that English degree, I traveled and worked for a year. After saving some money I decided to go back to ASU for, yes, a math degree. It was the early 1980s, a recession, and there were few jobs. My not-so-well-thought-out plan was to add a second degree to the English and perhaps go into some corporate training program, become an executive.
Then I was wandering through the student union and spotted a beauty from a Spanish class I took a couple years earlier, a girl I had become infatuated with whenever I saw her around campus and when she showed up at the pub where I once worked. I mustered up the nerve to talk to her, ask her where she’d been — Spain for a semester abroad — which led to a conversation, which led to … a wonderful life together. If Lori or I had taken a different route that day or been delayed 60 seconds, who knows? After that semester, I dropped the idea of a second degree and followed Lori after she graduated instead of taking a chance on a long-distance romance.
So the best laid plans can change quickly, and for reasons you may not have considered. I ’ve always liked the metaphor of a table set for a feast with every food and dessert and drink one might imagine to symbolize the endless possibilities available to the young and the young at heart. It’s all there and you can try to have it all, but it’s not likely to work out. How do you choose?
I certainly won’t pretend to know, but as a father I’m confident Liam will find his path, and as parents we look forward to sharing his adventures. Congrats to you, son, and all the 2020 graduates.