I had another birthday last week. They seem to show up more quickly every year now. When I look in the mirror, I still see a 30-year-old man — but I wonder what others see.
For at least 10 years now — maybe 20 — I’ve had a list of things I need to change to make my life what I want it to be. I’ve made a lot of excuses about why I haven’t made those changes. Some of the excuses are pretty decent — even reasonable — but others are just self-indulgent whining.
I’m not yet where I want to be. I’m not yet who I want to be. And there’s a part of me which keeps telling me the lie that I still have forever to make those changes.
As I drove home from dinner Saturday night, I was almost hit by a speeding car which was running from a police car that was right behind it. I was on a four-lane highway which has a turn lane in the middle. I was stopped in the turn lane and was moments from darting to the left through an opening in traffic.
As I was about to accelerate into my left turn, I saw blue lights in my rear-view mirror — and then I realized the police car was chasing someone who was speeding directly toward me. I realized in horror that there was no way either of the cars could possibly stop.
They were about to hit me — and I thought I was about to die.
The driver who was fleeing from police swung into the lane to my left — barely missing the left side of my car and barely missing a head-on collision with a car in the oncoming lane. The police car came flying by at the same insane speeds.
All the other traffic around me had come to a complete stop. For a long pause, it was silent except for the sirens of two police cars, as another one joined the chase. In that brief silence — which felt longer than it was — I had the strong sense that I had just escaped death.
I pulled off the highway into a parking lot where I’d been headed and I turned off the car. I’ve been in a few accidents in the past — including hitting a deer late at night on a country road — but I felt more scared after this incident than I’ve ever felt after an actual accident. I was surprised at the thoughts that flooded my head.
It wasn’t a rational, coherent narrative. It was a series of fleeting images and disconnected thoughts.
I felt disappointed in myself in that moment, because I suddenly had the irrational thought that I would be horribly disappointed in myself if I’d died right then and hadn’t done more with my life. It wasn’t a regret over not becoming rich and famous as a businessman or empire-builder — things which once would have been my dying regrets — but it was about not having the life I needed.
Those fleeting thoughts were about missing love. Missing connection. Unfulfilled desires to create more and do more. The images were about things missing. I saw a woman’s face. I even had fleeting thoughts of children I’ve never really met. There were places I’d never been. Words I’d never written and images I’d never created.
As the chaotic mixture of thoughts finally subsided, I realized that some of this might have been influenced by a conversation I had had with a friend at dinner.
She and I had been talking about someone we both knew who almost died recently. (It seems as though I’ve had a lot of friends who’ve had brushes with death lately.) As we were lamenting what had happened to our mutual friend, I brought up the fact that we both know he’s unhappy with his life and hasn’t been wiling to fix the problems that make him unhappy.
I told my her that his brush with death should be a wake-up call to him to make changes while he still has the chance.
And as I sat in that parking lot — making the connection between my own situation and what I had said about my friend just minutes before — I realized that I was talking about myself as well. Why don’t we make the changes in our lives that we know we need to make? Why do we allow ourselves to feel so miserable and off-course, but do so little to fix what’s wrong?
I think we wrongly believe we still have plenty of time. I still look at myself and think there’s plenty of time to find the love and connection I need. There’s still plenty of time to have a loving family. There’s still plenty of time to serve the world around me by creating art and teaching the messages I feel called to share.
I think we’re also afraid of failure and the judgment of others. I might not like the life I have, but at least I know how to live that life. Nobody has to look at me sadly and criticize me for chasing “impossible dreams.” I might be unhappy with my life, but it’s a life that those around me can understand. I’m not going to be criticized for it.
The truth is that we don’t have forever. We might not even have tomorrow. All we have is today. And waiting around for some time in the future — when others might approve of the things we might need to do — is a great way to waste our lives.
It frustrates me that I keep learning this lesson and then forgetting it. After the fear of dying today has passed, the fear of others’ judgment returns. The fear of failure returns. The fear of embarrassing myself returns. And I go back to making excuses — the excuses that keep me from making the changes I know I need to make.
My life has been on hold for awhile. I keep realizing that and trying to force myself into action, but I keep finding new excuses — really good ones, no doubt — to keep myself from taking chances.
I’d like to think I’ve learned my lesson. I’d like to think I’ll begin tomorrow on making all the changes I’ve been putting off. But if I keep making excuses for myself, I’ll let another birthday pass next year — and the year after that — when I look in the mirror and say, “Hey, I still have plenty of time to change.”
And following that path is exactly what causes most people to go to their graves full of bitter regrets.