I went to the Cal library today to get some books for a class I’m teaching. Along the way, for the first time, ever I think, I really felt like a professor. (Which is a little weird since I’ve been teaching now for almost two years.) I’m thinking it had something to do with the students. I kept thinking about how much separated me from them, and how that rift is growing, steadily, by the day.
It’s a gulf defined in years, obviously. I’m turning thirty-five next month which means that most of these students are fourteen to seventeen years younger than me. But it’s not just the years. It’s all the ineffable things the extra fifteen years of experience and the accompanying maturity; the trade off between acting like I know who I am and actually knowing who I am; the quantity and quality of knowledge I’ve accumulated this past decade-and-a-half.
Later, at home, I started thinking about those questions “old-guys” like me are often asked would you give up what you have now for what you had then; what would you do differently, if you could go back, knowing then what you know now? Those sorts of things.
Nope. No no no. Wouldn’t change a thing.
It occurred to me that when I was eighteen or nineteen or even twenty-two or -three, I had what must have looked like confidence. It must’ve looked like confidence because I would rush headlong into things without any thought to the consequences. And not just things or events the stupid tattoo I got, the drugs I did, that sort of thing but ideas and relationships and fashion trends and styles, too. Flirting with punk and metal and being a hippie and swearing off pop and then embracing it depending on who I was hanging out with that month. Diving into existentialism, literary criticism, Taoism, cognitive science, whatever, and acting like an expert on each after reading but one article. I know that I spent a lot of time back then acting like I knew what the hell I was talking about when sitting around with my friends talking about philosophy and religion and politics and music.
I didn’t know shit. Let’s be honest.
I think that, as a young man, whatever I rushed headlong into I rushed into out of a mixture of naivetÃ© and fear. I didn’t know any better. I was totally unable to appreciate the consequences of my actions, or, worse, didn’t even think about the consequences; and I was desperately afraid of embarrassing myself in front of my friends and so I would change ideas, clothes, musical tastes, whatever, depending on which way the wind was blowing in my social circles that week.
Getting older, I find myself more thoughtful. I find myself thinking of the consequences of my actions more. I find myself weighing options and listening to other people. And I find myself more secure in my choices and tastes saying, hey, you might think I look like a tool in a tie, but I’m wearing one anyway. You might think it’s weird to go from Stevie Wonder to Sufjan Stevens in one playlist, but I don’t. Suck it up.
And I sure as hell don’t regret all of those stupid, fearful and naive things I did as a kid because, well, it’s what helped me become the more confident, informed, intelligent, rational person I am. And I know my limits. I know there’s things I don’t know, but I’m okay with that. I’ll learn them, or other things, over time.
I look at these kids, eighteen, nineteen years old, still fumbling around in the dark, trying to find themselves, figure out who they are, who their real friends are. And I have hope that they’ll figure it out. They’ve got time, after all, time to try on different identities to find the one that fits. Like I did. Like I think most of us do. We grow up, we get a little more mature, we feel comfortable in our skins. We become grown ups.
But maybe that’s just me.