As I have gotten older, I’ve realized just how much it means that we as human beings have choices in our lives. I believe God put us all here on this earth for a certain number of years for a reason, and he gave us the gift of choice. He allows us to do what we want to do, and we get to learn from what we decide to do and be.
In saying that, I think much gets made of that part of the equation: hey, we have free choice! Whee! We can do what we please! It sounds so exciting, so liberating. And it is. But the flip side of that “free” coin is this: once we make a decision, we are faced with the consequences of that decision, be they “good,” “bad,” or “neutral” consequences. And part of those consequences is that once we open a door and go through it, we can’t go back through it the other way. Life is constantly moving forward. Once the door opens, it closes behind us, and here’s the kicker … if we’re standing looking at choosing among ten different doors, or just two, we can only pick one. And we can’t go back and pick one of the other doors once we’ve gone through the one we chose.
Let me try to explain and qualify: yes, we may face many doors during our lives that are pretty much the same ones we had to choose among previously, but they’re not exactly the same doors; time is always moving forward, and things change in small and big ways. We’ll never choose again, at age 18, 3 months and 5 days, which college to attend. We may decide a year later, at age 19, 3 months and 10 days, to switch to a different college, but it’s not the exact same choice. We’re not the same people, and we don’t have the exact same options as before.
I think of life as this path along which I walk. The path is constantly branching off, and there are forks always. Some are big, with large roads to choose among, and some are just little footpaths with grass tamped down by a few travelers. But we’re always at some kind of crossroads. And at each of those decision points lies a door we pass through, which closes behind us.
There are infinite numbers of paths the younger we are, from my experience. And as we choose paths and corresponding doors, we tend to have fewer big paths to choose among, and doors tend to shut more permanently the older we get. Sure, we hear “success” stories about people becoming athletes at decidedly older ages than usual, or becoming famous painters at 80, or some such thing, but those are well-known stories precisely because they are rare and unusual. (News means something out of the ordinary, and that’s what stories like this are: news.) For most of us, once we choose at 20 to pursue a career in business as opposed to chasing a dream of becoming a pro baseball player, the sports door is shut tightly behind us, and we won’t see it ahead again.
I think back on all the things I did as a young person. I acted in plays, sang, played piano, played French horn in band, went to various competitions for different academic pursuits, took all kinds of classes, dabbled in drawing, wrote, read like crazy, and baked and decorated cakes. I went to college as a chemistry major. I stood on the threshold of university life full of hope and excitement and the thrill of embarking on a grand adventure, a dream.
But once I was out of college, I had shut many doors behind me. Acting, playing French horn, academic competitions, drawing, even chemistry were all behind me. I still baked, I still read and wrote. I just changed my mind about being a chemistry major and focused on journalism. As life progressed and I made decisions to major in journalism, my other minor interests had to be sacrificed as I took more and more classes in my major. Then when I graduated, I worked 40 hours a week as a copy editor, further narrowing my journalistic interests, at least for the time, on editing rather than writing. As an adult and a college graduate, I had work to do. I had less time to explore and be general. Of a necessity, some interests had to be sacrificed.
My life further was changed when I decided to marry and when I decided to have each of my four daughters. Each of those choices opened up gorgeous paths with all kinds of interesting and beautiful plants along the road (not to mention some thorns and hills, let me add). But when I chose those doors, many others closed behind me. There were just certain things I would never do.
As a mother with children all at home, some teens, one just about to start school, and one in the middle, I have a road full of carriages to push along or to supervise. I can’t leave this path and try another one. When they’re all grown, I’ll have some different paths open up to me, some different doors to try out. But they won’t be the exact ones I might have tried before I went down those paths at ages 18, 23 and 26, for instance.
Sometimes I feel the loss of those paths never taken, considered but left behind. I admit I do envy others on different roads, on occasion, when my choices and their choices have put us past very different doors. Some have what I might consider “exciting” or “glamorous” lives. No, I am not talking about celebrities or anything like that. But I might have really enjoyed going into the foreign service as one friend did. I love to be in different places and get to know them, as well as the people populating them. I love languages and find different cultures fascinating. I would have loved to be a book editor at a big publishing house in New York. But either of those options would have been very difficult either with children or with the lifestyle I have decided is the way I’d like to raise my children, and where and how. (Yes, there are diplomats with kids or editors with kids, but I don’t see myself doing either of those jobs the way I’d like to do them at the same time as raising my children the way I’d like to do it. It’s as simple as that.)
I know there are still some interesting doors ahead of me, and I look forward to them. But I am now trying to really come to terms with the fact that the doors coming up are not going to be as plentiful or the same options as the doors I had ahead of me 20 years ago. I think that’s much of what aging and maturing and growing up really means. We come to grips with the naked truth that we are not who we were when we were young. Life is not an endless stream of possibilities anymore. We’ve already chosen many of those possibilities, and they are no longer dreams ahead of us but memories behind us. Our bodies are not the same as they were, our faces and hair not the same, our hearts and minds are not the same. On the first count, our society today, unfortunately, doesn’t allow us to gracefully accept that our bodies and faces are going to age and not look “fresh and young” anymore. In fact, society is urging us to do all we can to fight that fact. But all we can do is postpone it for a bit, not ignore it or stave it off entirely. On the count of our hearts and minds, however, I would like to think that despite missing some of those fun things I dabbled in as a young person, and just having the entire panorama of possibilities still ahead, that now I can be mostly satisfied with the paths I’ve chosen and where I am now. I got a good education, I’ve done some interesting work, I’ve traveled and lived in a variety of places and met many wonderful people, I’ve raised (so far) some amazing daughters. I’ve loved and been loved. I’ve experienced life, and I’ve been happy.
Now, I see all the doors standing open to my daughters and feel pangs of memory of how it feels to be in their shoes. But I am excited for them and all that lies ahead in their young lives. I’m doing what I can not just to make interesting choices among the options available for me, but to support my girls as they make their own choices. What a gift that is.